The neocon revival

Neocons put values at the center of their governing philosophy, but their social policy was neither morally laissez-faire like the libertarians nor explicitly religious like some social conservatives. Neocons mostly sought policies that would encourage self-discipline. “In almost every area of public concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and public officials,” James Q. Wilson wrote.

How would they know if programs induced virtue? Empirically. “Neoconservatives, accordingly, place a lot of stock in applied social science research, especially the sort that evaluates old programs and tests new ones,” Wilson added.

Nobody would call George F. Will a neocon, but, in 1983, he published a superb book called “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” It championed the sort of governing conservatism that was common then and is impermissible now. “It is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot, legislate morality. But, in fact, it does so, frequently; it should do so more often,” Will wrote.

He was not calling for a theocracy. He was calling for “strong government conservatism,” for a limited but energetic government that could cultivate the best in persons by educating the passions. “American conservatives are caught in the web of their careless antigovernment rhetoric,” he concluded.