PROVO — George Will felt old Tuesday as he prepared to speak to students at BYU about limited government, financial responsibility and family disintegration.
The renowned columnist and familiar television face felt old because he'd been to BYU before, but no one could remember when exactly he was here, not him, not his office, not BYU officials.
"It was the late '70s or early '80s," he said as students arrived for Tuesday's speech. "I may have talked to their parents."
But feeling old doesn't bother the fit, vibrant 72-year-old. "I like being in my 70s. There's a kind of calm that descends. You're not as excited by every ripple in the pond in Washington."
Even ripples as large as the recent government shutdown and the showdown over the government debt ceiling. Considered national crises by many Americans, neither event changed the trajectory of what is happening in the nation's capital, Will said.
Will applied his age-related calm, his 40 years as a nationally syndicated columnist and the broad context of history to make the argument that Washington is not broken but engaged in a major debate about the role of government in the lives of Americans.
"For all the talk about the discord in Washington," he said, " … the temperatures are high because the stakes are high. For all the argument about that, America's biggest problem today is a consensus that is as broad as the Republic and as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the consensus is we should have a large, generous, omnipresent, omniprovident welfare state and not pay for it. Everyone's agreed on this. The costs should be fobbed off on future generations."
Speaking for 43 minutes from notes on a few cards to an audience of 2,245, the Fox news contributor argued for limited government, the opposite of the current Washington trajectory he said will lead to financial and moral problems.
"What we are practicing today is a kind of decadent democracy," he said. "We used to run deficits to borrow for the future. We borrowed to win wars for the future, build roads, highways and airports for future generations. Today we borrow from the future, to finance our own current consumption. This is a fundamental immorality, if you will, burdening the unconsenting and unpresent future generations with the costs of our appetites. The problem is that we are 'wealing' a network of dependency, making Americans more and more dependent, in more and more ways, on government we really are not paying for."
Walking back and forth across the stage on the floor of the Marriott Center, Will used baseball stories, quotes and data — 49 percent of Americans receiving a government benefit — to make his points.
"The problem is the government is putting in front of the American people an increasingly rich menu of temptations," he said, "de-stigmatizing dependence on the state in an attempt to change first social norms and then our national character."
For example, he pointed to what he called the two largest financial decisions the average American parent makes — to get a mortgage and to get a tuition loan to send children to college — and pointed out that "these are now transactions with the federal government."
He said the United States is nearing a tipping point "at which a majority of Americans are related to the government either as the government's employees or the government's clients," and at which the private sector is suffocated.
Will said government needs to rein in health costs, fix Social Security by indexing it to life expectancy and simplify the tax code so tax returns can fit on a postcard.
He also talked about income inequality and tied it to the disintegration of the family.
"We know what the real problem is," he said, referring to a 1965 report called the "Crisis of the Negro Family," in which the crisis was that 23.6 percent of African-Americans were born out of wedlock.
"Today, the figure for all Americans, all races and ethnicities is 34 percent. … We know what this means. This means a constantly renewed cohort of somewhat tenuously parented adolescent males. We know what that means. That means disorderly cities, schools that can't teach. No one wants to talk about this because we don’t know what caused it, and we don't know how to cure it. But these are some of the problems that drive inequality. It can't be cured by the government redistributing income willy-nilly."
During the question-and-answer session, a student challenged Will on the idea that the cause for family breakdown is unknown.
"We've seen family disintegration inflicted by disease, famine, war," Will said. "This (time it) has happened during domestic tranquility in the United States. I can't explain it."
"We have no more urgent domestic problem," he added.
In a one-on-one interview with the Deseret News, Will said American religious leaders who increasingly share concerns about what they see as a broad attack on religious liberty are right to worry. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, visited BYU a day before Will and said he believes Mormons and evangelicals will "to suffer the coercive power of the secular state together."
"They will," Will said.
Will had lunch with Rick Santorum on Sunday. He said Santorum thinks "the new theory is going to be that religion practiced in your private space is fine, but outside your private space the government owns you, as demonstrated by the Affordable Care Act requiring employers, no matter what their personal convictions, to provide contraception. Rick Santorum thinks that's a harbinger of the future, where outside of your churches and your temples, the state can control your behavior, no matter what consequence you feel that might have on the free exercise of religion supposedly protected by the First Amendment."
Will said he shares Santorum's concern, though he personally is not a person of faith.
"I certainly think this anxiety is well-founded. A properly engaged judiciary might rescue us from this, still, because as you know there are a number of suits in federal courts raising the free exercise opposition to the Affordable Care Act, one of many lawsuits pertaining to the Affordable Care Act which is by no means yet on firm legal ground."
Will also argued that Americans should take heart over the disagreements in Washington. They are, he said, evidence that what James Madison and the other Founding Fathers created, a system of checks and balances, is working.
"You wonder why people are angry in Washington?" he asked. "We're arguing about important things. People, say, yeah, doesn't this lead to gridlock? Gridlock is not an American problem, it is an American achievement."
Will's limited-government perspective includes the belief that 95 percent of what government does is wrong, should be stopped and is. "We're good at that," he said.
While he understands why people see Madison's concoction working and feel pessimistic, he expressed optimism about America's future.
"Things are going to get better," Will said. "We are not Bangladesh. We are a rich, educated industrious, continental nation. We can get better by choosing to get better, choosing better policies and thereby better policymakers."