Activists for Passivity

GEORGE F. WILL

August 20, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Houston -- People who attend conventions of either party are people prone to forgetting ''how small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.'' Political activists -- it hardly matters what they are active about -- are alike in exaggerating the importance of their activity.

This is a human foible: Pickle makers probably think pickle-making makes the world go 'round. But this foible makes a convention of a conservative party somewhat peculiar.

A convention of conservatives is, supposedly, a gathering of people philosophically committed to believing in the merely marginal importance of something -- politics -- that obviously is at the center of their lives.

Now, these convention-going conservatives will, of course, insist that they are in politics to put politics in its proper place, which they say is off in a corner of life. But they say other things that contradict their conservatism.

For example, many surly conservatives here are most critical of President Bush because there was a recession ''on his watch,'' and because the recovery (there have been five consecutive quarters of growth) is anemic.

But by blaming Mr. Bush for this, these conservatives are implicitly subscribing to the notion that presidents can, and therefore should, control the economy's destiny, even to the point of preventing business cycles. There was a time when conservatives understood that presidents shouldn't even if they could, and they can't.

Furthermore, Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, correctly argues that conservatives who say the economy can be discombobulated by this or that action (or inaction, such as a failure to cut capital-gains taxation) are implicitly subscribing to the heresy that a capitalist economy is a fragile thing, requiring deft and detailed management by government. The spread of that falsehood profits only its natural adherents on the political left.

The same is true of the way some conservatives talk about ''values.'' What kind of conservative feels compassless unless a politician supplies him with a ''vision''? Some conservatives say America is great but its ''values'' will be in mortal danger if Republicans lose an election. If so, in what sense are they really rooted values?

Time was when conservatives were like Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. When he was asked if he would give the British a sense of ''purpose,'' he replied that people seeking a ''purpose'' should consult their bishops, not their politicians.

An English parson once began a sermon, ''As God said -- and quite rightly, in my opinion . . . .'' Some Republicans talk like that. Their sincerity is as obvious as their ideas are dubious, which is to say, immensely.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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