William F. Buckley, Jr., RIP

Farewell to the man who created intellectual space for the libertarian movement


I received the news of Bill Buckley's death with a great sense of loss. No, he was not a major intellectual influence on my becoming a libertarian. I have to credit Robert Heinlein and Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand for that. But since for most of us libertarianism as an intellectual and political movement has been an offshoot of conservatism, Buckley in truth was a great enabler.

By creating National Review in 1955 as a serious, intellectually respectable conservative voice (challenging the New Deal consensus among thinking people), Buckley created space for the development of our movement. He kicked out the racists and conspiracy-mongers from conservatism and embraced Chicago and Austrian economists, introducing a new generation to Hayek, Mises, and Friedman. And thanks to the efforts of NR's Frank Meyer to promote a "fusion" between economic (free-market) conservatives and social conservatives, Buckley and National Review fostered the growth of a large enough conservative movement to nominate Goldwater for president and ultimately to elect Ronald Reagan.

I only heard Buckley in person a few times. The first was when he spoke at MIT, as part of an ongoing lecture series, probably in 1963. As a National Review subscriber (what else was there for a budding libertarian?), of course I went. I was not overwhelmed, being puzzled at why he devoted time to criticizing some fellow I'd never heard of (Norman Mailer). But there was no question of his wide-ranging knowledge and command of the language.

I was far more impressed years later, as Buckley held court every week on his long-running PBS series Firing Line. Charming and witty, he engaged his guests in intellectual colloquy or combat, as the case might warrant. Those programs were a feast for the mind, the likes of which hasn't graced the airwaves since Firing Line's demise.

Some commentators dubbed Buckley a "libertarian conservative," and in the broadest sense, I guess that was true. Though he seldom let National Review deviate from his own Catholic social issues positions (especially on banning abortion), Buckley courageously took a stance against drug prohibition, making common cause on that issue with Friedman and other libertarians. And that enlightened view seemed to survive Buckley's retirement as the magazine's editor in chief (as one hopes it will survive his demise).

And despite those Catholic social views, Buckley was always far more cosmopolitan and sophisticated about sex, drinking, dining, and other human pleasures than his fellow-travelers among today's religious right. That helped make Buckley-style intellectual conservatism more acceptable in salons, boardrooms, and the corridors of power. And the fact that William Buckley could maintain genuine friendships with people such as socialist John Kenneth Galbraith and gay anti-communist activist Marvin Liebman says a lot about his open-mindedness and tolerance.

Good-bye, Bill Buckley—and thank you.

Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation and a former editor of reason.