Full Interview With Robert George

Below is the transcript of the interview conducted by Ugonna Eze ’16 before Robert George spoke at our 2/3 event

U: Thank you Prof. George for agreeing to do this interview.

RG: It’s my pleasure!

U: One of the things I want to do in this interview is to pick your brain on what’s going on right now, especially with all of your experience addressing these issues. There’s been a significant change in how conservatism is approached and presented over the past few decades. With the Goldwater-Reagan revolution, we had a strong reaction to the growth of government and the rise of socialism in the West. Contrast that with conservatism today; on issues of immigration and life, the conservative agenda is more proactive than reactive. Is this a change worth noting and how do you see conservatism evolving going forward?

RG: One of the problems with discussing conservatism is that the term has no standard meaning. Nor does liberalism, for that matter, or socialism or even libertarianism. Someone who, under a certain set of cultural circumstances — let’s say a 19th Century or even 20th Century conservative in Europe would be quite a different critter from an American conservative, then and now. American conservatives, by and large, are what I’d sometimes call old-fashion liberals (though even here, there are different schools of conservatism). That is to say, Madisonian, Tocquevillian liberals — believers in limited government and rule of law. They’re republicans in Lincoln’s sense —- government of the people, which all government is; for the people, which all good government is; but by the people as well. Old-fashioned liberals, or what we today call conservatives, believe in the importance of the mediating structures of civil society, beginning with the marriage-based family. They believe in the institutions of religion, which play a critical role in assisting the family in its critical health, education and welfare functions and the transmission of virtue to new generations. They believe in civic associations, self-help groups and so forth and so on. 

Conservatives, or old-fashioned liberals, believe in all of those things and one of our problems with big government is that it tends to undermine the authority and impede the good functioning of the institutions of civil society. Often it commandeers that in the service of its own agenda. We, of course, think that’s a bad thing — not because of some abstract principles, but because those institutions, when functioning well, are crucial for human wellbeing and flourishing. When government undermines their autonomy and authority, it hurts human beings. Without a flourishing culture of marriage and the institution of the family, and the underlying civil society that supports it, we cannot flourish. 

So we American conservatives, on the whole, are not conservatives in the old, European sense, the throne and altar conservatives. On the contrary, we’re the old-fashioned liberals. We do believe in republican government, not in monarchies. We do believe in the separation of the institution of the church from the institution of the state. Why? Well not because we have an issue with religion. On the contrary, we believe that religion is not only good in itself but is central to the good functioning of civil society. After all, religion is a mediating institution. Rather, we think we need to protect religion against the state. We don’t want religion to play the role that it so often plays in places like Russia — both before communism, during communism and after communism — when it becomes a servant of political powers, whether Czars, or communist premiers, or whatever Putin is today. 

So, there are these different sorts of conservatism. There’s a kind of Burkean element of European conservatism that I think has been usefully integrated into American conservatism. When I think about it, I don’t think it’s an accident that Burke was not, in his own day, considered a conservative but rather a Whig.  I have my friend Yuval Levin to thank for this insight in his recent book on Burke and Paine. Burkeans, rightly I think, remind us that we shouldn’t just jump after whatever seems to be the next good idea. There may be problems, even injustices, with inherited institutions. Where there are injustices, they need to be addressed — but where something is not obviously an injustice, where there  are reasons and arguments to be adduced in its favor, then we should go about the process of reform in a careful, thoughtful and deliberate way. If institutions have served human wellbeing pretty well, you on’t want to just throw them away for a “good sounding theory”. Practice, in a way, probably has more going for it in terms of reliability than theories, no matter how plausible they may sound. So I think that element of European, or should I say British, conservatism has been usefully integrated into the old-fashioned liberalism that we American conservatives today represent. 

There are all sorts of interesting issues arising from the relationship between conservatism and other schools of thought, such as libertarianism. Today, libertarians often do business under the label of conservatism. Sometimes libertarians themselves embrace that, sometimes they resist that, but very often, people who are referring to libertarianism, whether they are themselves conservatives or critics of libertarianism in conservatism, will call libertarianism conservatism. Yet in the academy, when we’re counting up the handful of conservatives that we find in law schools and arts and sciences faculties, often people will count as conservatives, the libertarians. But there is a relationship there. Libertarianism, I think, is distinct from conservatism; both in the old-fashioned throne and altar European sense and in the American sense, we old-fashioned liberals (though libertarians themselves claim, with some justice, to be old-fashioned liberals). Libertarians put the focus more firmly on the individual, and his interest and rights, than on the mediating structures, the institutions of civil society and a fortiori, the inherited understandings, norms, traditions and so forth. 

Now again, we need to avoid drawing this difference too starkly; there are libertarians, I believe, the most astute and thoughtful libertarians (people like Prof. Epstein, the great legal scholar) who do understand the importance for liberty, for the individual, of healthy institutions of civil society that are intermediate between the central state and the individual. And, on the other side, conservatives like me who are not libertarians, still and should appreciate the insight that libertarianism gives us about the importance of protecting the individual and not treating him as a mere cog in the social wheel, someone who’s interest can be sacrificed in the name of the collectivity. It’s this that united – this principle that the individual should not be treated as a mere cog in the wheel — this idea is what united libertarians and conservatives against communism and unites us today against the various forms of socialism, which do, of course, tend to treat the individual as just another cog in the wheel. I appreciate that emphasis of libertarianism, for after all, as a conservative I must remember that the reason we care so much about the health and autonomy and integrity and authority of the institutions of civil society is that they serve the interests of persons and persons come as individuals.

Having said that, I would remind our libertarian friends that although that is true — persons are individuals (we can debate the status of corporations, which is interesting) — we have to remember that we human beings are constituted such that our overall flourishing includes participation and a realization of goods not only that we can achieve as individuals and by cooperating with each other instrumentally, but it also includes inherently valuable social goods. Goods such as friendship, the good of religion (if you regard religion as one, as I do), the good of sociability (as some philosophers call it), the good of the institution of marriage. These are inherently social. The idea here, if you believe, as I do, in the reality of these goods, is that we enter into these relationships, not because of what we as individuals can get out of them individualistically, but because they are inherently fulfilling to us as social beings. 

Look at friendship, for example. No friendship is a true friendship if it’s just two people using each other for mutual advantage — even if there’s no injustice to it, even if it’s rational to do so! True friendship exists only when each friend wills the good of the other for the sake of the other. In what becomes a dialectic, a going back and forth, such that I will your good as my friend for your own sake, for you because of my love for you and you will my good for my sake because of your love for me. Once that dialectic gets going, you as my friend come to honor and treasure your own wellbeing in part because I treasure it. The analysis that’s offered of this by Aristotle, in the Nicomechean Ethics in Book VIII, has never been surpassed. Sometimes thinkers get something right permanently and I think this is one of the places where Aristotle does so. It’s hard to improve on what he says. But the bottom line here is: for a friendship to be a friendship and for the true good friendship to be a genuine good that will be realized in our lives, one has to enter into a relationship for the sake of others. So I’d like to remind our libertarian friends, particularly those who have been influenced by Ayn Rand, or who are tempted to her way of thinking, that it’s probably good to read a bit of Aristotle on this and to understand that there are limits to individualism. We are not falling into collectivism with, all of its sins and potential horrors, when we recognize (as we should) that there are inherently social goods and if we recognize (as we should) that along with the institutions of civil society and their primary role, even government can have a secondary role in protecting our interests, the human good, the social good (though even government often forgets that its role is secondary). We are persons who goods include inherently social goods. 

So this is what prevents me from embracing the laissez-faire doctrines of strict libertarianism. Now on this, I don’t I am an orthodox conservative, at least by the standards of American conservatism. I believe that government should only intervene in the economy or in social life when it’s necessary; here I’m following the principle known as subsidiarity. But sometimes it is necessary when individuals cannot accomplish what needs to be accomplished on their own, or by way of private associations, or smaller groups or local associations, it is necessary for government to intervene to protect people against exploitation. Or to protect public health, safety and morals… Those are legitimate roles of government. The trouble, of course, is that so often government uses the legitimacy of those kinds of interventions as a pretext to performing interventions where they take over; they usurp the authority of the institutions of civil society and threaten the honorable and true liberties of the individual… That was a long answer…

U: That was a wonderful answer! A lot of Burkean conservatism and the conservatism that was inherited through Madison, especially with the threat that government poses to intermediary bodies, oftentimes presuppose an already existing way of life that needs to be preserved. So I just wanted to hear your thoughts on what responsibilities come along with new technologies and new social scientific methods that allow us to change that underlying already existing social life.

RG: That old principle that is applied in medicine, “First do no harm”, should probably have a broader application than merely medicine! It’s probably a good idea to first do no harm, proceed carefully. Where you have a grave injustice, and especially, most especially, where you have an obvious or fairly obvious grave injustice, well something’s got to be done. The rectification for injustice can’t wait; Martin Luther King made that point, and he was right to make it, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. But where we have debatable matters, where it is not clear whether we have an injustice here or not, we need to avoid falling into the trap of being led by an ideology into the error of identifying what is in fact just and good as what is unjust and bad. We also need to be very cautious, as we have been warned by so many figures from Huxley to Chesterton to Orwell to CS Lewis, we need to be very very careful, especially with the new technologies and most especially with the new biotechnologies, we need to be very careful to avoid the temptation to make ourselves into gods, believing we can remake the human being in the way that God made the human being in the story that we’re given in the book of Genesis. If there is a road to hell, paved with good intentions, that is it. That we can solve all our human problems, we can remake the human being… One of the greatest errors with communism is that it proposed to remake mankind, make a new human being, make a new human nature, by the application of economic and social techniques. Well we learned that that was a terribly bad idea. I hope we don’t have to relearn it now that the temptation does not come from communist ideologues but from people who are fascinated with biotechnology. Who imagine that we can cure what ails mankind by remaking the human being, by genetic manipulations and other biological interventions.

U: That’s incredible, thank you so much.