KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is the iPhone really a “commonplace miracle”?
KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON: Commonplace, certainly: One iPhone has been sold for every 22 people walking the Earth. But a miracle? Imagine trying to explain to Andrew Jackson that, a few generations down the way, thousands and thousands of people in different countries, speaking different languages, practicing different religions, with different and often antithetical economic interests, would be cooperating to build a system of devices to radically improve the world’s access to knowledge and our ability to communicate with one another, and that such a system would emerge with nobody in charge of it. If there can be a miracle of human making, the worldwide division of labor is it.
LOPEZ: So how conservative is your use of the word “end”? How final is this “end” you think is going to be “awesome”?
WILLIAMSON: “End” has two meanings: the conclusion of something, but also something we seek, as in “means and ends.” Social arrangements end all the time as we figure out better ways to do things. The tariff was until the day before yesterday the centerpiece of conservative economic policy, but it turned out to be a bad idea. If we can achieve a peaceable and orderly end to obstructive and counterproductive political projects, then that is a good thing, whether it is a conservative thing or not. But if conservatives are right about our principles — if our social and economic ideas really are preferable to their competitors — then we should expect them to thrive when put to the market test. And I am pretty confident about that across the board, not only as an economic issue. If you’ve ever noticed, well-off progressives may talk like Bill Ayers, but they live like Ward and June Cleaver. High-end consumers usually lead the market, and a great many of them seem to be in the market for traditional family arrangements. Young couples in Park Slope have to have that second kid to keep up with the quinoa addicts next door. That may sound flip, but conservatives of all people should appreciate that social convention, even unreasoned social convention (maybe even especially unreasoned social convention), is a very powerful force, often for the good.
LOPEZ: Once one opens the cover of your book, though, you do add an “if we get it right” to the title . So how can we get it right?
WILLIAMSON: The main thing to do is to end monopolies and make room for experimentation. For example, I am much more comfortable with having government funding education than I am with having government operate 90 percent of the educational institutions, for much the same reason I’d rather have a food-stamp program than a government-run system of collective farms and state stores for food. When you have a government-run monopoly, like we do with K-12 education, you get a single system and a standardized product. But in a complex and diverse society such as our own, we need hundreds or thousands of models of education, not one or two, and those need to emerge from the bottom up rather than be imposed from the top down. We have 900 kinds of shampoo on the shelves, but most parents have a choice of only two or three schools, if they have any choice at all. That seems backward to me.
LOPEZ: If we get it wrong, is it the end of America, as Mark Steyn might put it?
WILLIAMSON: There is no natural law that says the United States of America must exist. Peace and prosperity are not the natural human condition. We built that. And we can ruin it, too — it’s not like the Germans suddenly became savages in the 1930s or the Russians forgot they were civilized people when Lenin came to power. Countries with some of the greatest and most sophisticated cultures — China, India, Germany, Russia, Greece, Spain, Italy — have all within recent experience fallen into dysfunction, poverty, and dictatorship. There is no reason that could not happen to the United States. But I do not think that it will happen.
LOPEZ: “Our problem is not only how we govern, but how we live.” What does this sentence mean practically speaking — as both a policy matter and a personal one?
WILLIAMSON: T. S. Eliot warned that the error of politics was trying to design a system so perfect that nobody had to be good. There would be less support for a welfare state if we were more proactive in caring for the people who cannot care for themselves. There would be less reason for things like Social Security and Medicare if we were decent to our parents and grandparents. We conservatives and libertarians have a habit of saying, “the free market will take care of it, and, if not, then private charity will take care of it,” as though that were the real answer to a meaningful question. We have to be as much a social movement as a political movement. We can’t just say charity will take care of it — we have to be the ones who go out there and take care of it. And we do, disproportionately — consider the life of Mitt Romney against the life of Barack Obama. But there is much more for us to do. And if it weren’t for the churches, conservatives would hardly be doing more than the liberals.