Conservatism

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.

NEXT: Some Thoughts on WFB

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Rest in Peace, my good man.

  2. He helped make the Libertarian movement what it is? You should have told me this while he was living so I could have complained to him.

  3. “He kicked out the racists and conspiracy-mongers from conservatism”

    Don’t worry — Ron Paul brought them back.

  4. I didn’t see William F. Buckley standing out on the street corner in FUCKING ten degrees below zero weather collecting signatures for a libertarian dog catcher candidate in 1983. I didn’t see him creating the Republican Liberty Caucus in his fucking LIVING ROOM! How dare he call himself a libertarian when he’s busy coddling Islamofascists.

  5. WFB may well have been the single most influential man of the last sixty years.

    He gave voice to a nearly unheard and unknown nascent conservative movement in this country, slowing and then, for a time, at least temporarily almost stopping a half-century long uninterrupted expansion of federal power.

    Without William F. Buckley’s outlets for conservative thought it is unlikely that there would ever have been a Reagan presidency, with the subsequent collapse of the USSR, and a quarter century of near-uninterrupted economic growth in the US and the rest of the free world.

    He was a brilliant, wonderfully eclectic, kind, and utterly irreplacable individual.

  6. His greatest accomplishment was to imbue the conservative-libertarian movement with a spirit of fun, charm,lively debate and good cheer. Thank you Mr. Buckley for a life well-lived. We will miss you.

  7. “the Buckley who helped make the libertarian movement what it is.”

    If you mean “obscure,” then fuck him.

  8. Just kidding, he’s cool. RIP.

  9. Just want to point out Firing Line didn’t start out on PBS, or on its predecessor NET. It was a commercial program, sponsored by National Review, appearing on WPIX (channel 11) here in New York City.

  10. I began reading National Review in 1964, when I was 13, because it was the only magazine with a positive attitude about Barry Goldwater.

    In National Review I read Milton Friedman,Henry Hazlett, Frank Chodorov, Frank Meyer and John Chamberlain – the most libertarian commentators at the time. I even first discovered the word ‘libertarian’ in a Henry Hazlett column in NR.

    Buckley did support a strong military, and interventionism in the name of fighting Communism. But he opposed conscription, and even suggested that only volunteers be sent to Vietnam during the war there.

    And of course when Buckley came out for legalizing drugs, it made it a much more respectable position.

    In recent years, he has even stated that the Iraq War was a mistake, and that President Bush clearly exaggerated the threat from Hussein to drum up his war. Buckley had a willingness to look at facts that many current conservatives have dumped in the name of loyalty to the Republican Party.

    R.I.P. W.F.B.

  11. Over at LGF some of them are raising a shit-storm over the negative comments for Buckley over at KOS and the Huffington Post. I wonder how they’re going to react the day Noam Chomsky kicks the bucket.

  12. If Buckley was libertarian, could someone please explain this gem?

    “We have got to accept Big Government for the duration-for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. ? And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington-even with Truman at the reins of it all.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_F_Buckley#First_books

  13. Another nice obit.

    And: Heinlein? If I haven’t read and enjoyed a book of his, it’s because I couldn’t find it — but how does the author of Double Star and Starship Troopers (hell, Space Cadet) inspire libertarianism? His books, where they don’t advocate statism or berate little girls for saying ‘politics’ with a sneer, have a generally friendly if pragmatic view of the state. Why, he even shilled for fiat currency in The Door Into Summer. The best I can say is say is that some of his later books were sexually free, and some of his characters were benevolently lawless, and the issue plain didn’t come up in some of his other books (e.g. the world at the end of Farnham’s Freehold probably didn’t have a President.) Even if the Lunar representatives (negotiating Luna’s in-no-sense-free-trade economic relations) near the end of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were not heads of state — I forget if they were — their city-annihilating foreign policy does not strike me as libertarian.

  14. Julian,
    Heinlein is responsible for the libertarian in me, too. Lazarus Long in particular, but the whole theme of ‘Stranger’ is to question authority, but do it intelligently.
    (Small point, and I’m hesitant after yesterday’s ‘felix’ foofaraw, Luna’s policy in ‘Moon’ was explicitly not city-annihilating.)

  15. I think Heinlein is a gateway drug for some libertarians, similar to Rand. He didn’t influence me in that way, because I tend to read him as having a wide streak of authoritarianism in his writings. Still, he definitely had his libertarian moments and was usually pretty into the cult of the individual.

  16. That would the be the city-annihilating policy that involved dumping rocks from orbit into the middle of deserts and oceans, and deliberately offsetting from the targetting grid to miss any populated area? Let’s coin a new acronym, shall we – RTFB.

  17. That would the be the city-annihilating policy that involved dumping rocks from orbit into the middle of deserts and oceans

    Initially. You remember the dramatically suicidal Earthlings and forget the murderous elevation– China surrendered in time for Luna to (somehow) redirect its rocks, already fired, into the ocean rather than onto Chinese cities.

  18. Poole’s piece illustrates why Reason has never been a thoroughly principled libertarian publication.

  19. “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.”

    I agree Mr. Poole. Wouldn’t it be nice if the postings here attempted to rise to the same level?

  20. “He kicked out the… conspiracy-mongers from conservatism

    Of course he did, that old Skull and Bonesman!

    Just kidding. Rest in peace, Mr. Buckley.

  21. All that Robert Poole has said about William Buckley
    is true.
    Were it not for WFB Jr … all of our lives
    today would be much more miserable.
    What a good and useful life he lived !

    Much of what he said about Buckley, however,
    also might be said of Robert Poole !
    Founded the flagship magazine of a great freedom movement
    (as a mimeo ‘zine in college, no less).
    Maintains a suave and heady good humor both among those who think his thoughts …
    and among philistines.
    And many other similarities.
    We’re fortunate to have him, too.

  22. Why compare Buckley and Chomsky? Does the statist Left not have a more ethical standard-bearer?

    Whoo. So glad I’m on the Right…

  23. Comment on the article: I don’t understand why being catholic and anti-abortion conflicts with being a libertarian unless being a libertarian means not believing in a God.

  24. Buckley is a far better icon for the right than that “cruel and stupid lizard” Ronald Reagan. RIP

  25. I don’t understand why being catholic and anti-abortion conflicts with being a libertarian.

    I considered myself strongly pro-choice all the way up to listening to Walter Block’s extractionist analysis (mp3, 1:37:47) — it might not have been this particular mp3 — which I immediately adopted. It’s a real winner.

    Briefly, the pro-life/pro-choice debate centers on the term ‘abortion’ which is logically divisible into two actions: 1) remove the proto-human, 2) kill the proto-human. Pro-lifers deny both of these by denying ‘abortion’; pro-choicers permit both of these by permitting ‘abortion’. Walter Block stakes out ‘extractionism’ as permitting the first and denying the second. It’s a technological and historical accident that the two actions are conflated into ‘abortion’, and technological advance will make it easier and easier to separate them — and with this ease goes away a woman’s right to #2 (killing unwanted progeny) as a consequence of her natural right to #1 (ejecting unwanted resident).

    As for Catholicism, there are plenty of them represented at the Mises Institute. In the literature, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn — who also wrote for National Review; on the forums, a defense of Christian Anarchism; in the faculty, Lew Rockwell himself and someone I forget, who mentioned his own Catholicism in the context of an attack on the ‘Social Gospel’ movement, which e.g. said that Jesus wants us to have rent control.

    For my part, I have a perfect atheistic mechanism — an unassailable ‘flip-switch’ of thought that banishes theism from reality, permitting no evidence of it and entertaining no hypotheses relying on it — and reading Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine (pdf), incidentally off mises.org, had me finding Catholic resources online. At least I no longer regard religion with the dogmatic loathing that you can find among the ‘free minded’.

  26. Agree with Buckley’s religious views or not.

    Agree with Buckley’s views on foreign policy or not.

    Agree with Buckley’s legacy or not.

    Recognize that this country has lost one of the great thinkers of our times. A man who spoke his truth to power at a time when the idea of the individual was being trodden upon as a matter of course. His brand of “conservatism” may not fit your libertarian view but acknowledge that without Buckley and the National Review – Reason magazine might not have existed.

    The man was a titan. One that deserves all of our respect. He laid the groundwork for much of what this magazine stands for. The possibilities of individualism over collectivism. He was the catalyst for the popular movement that stopped the unbridaled spread of progressivist policies in the 50’s and 60’s. He was the first and the clearest voice of anti-statism in his time.

    Thank you Mr. Buckley.
    May you find the peace you so well deserve.
    William F. Buckley – a life well lived.

  27. Steve-
    I picked up on that little zinger also. Is it really that hard to put together a libertarian case for being against abortion and not have it based in religion?

    Sloppy thinking and an unwarranted shot across the bow if you ask me.

    R.I.P. WFB, a great mind and a great life.

  28. I can think of no person more culpable in changing the Conservative movement from a small-government, anti-war party into a leviathan apologist, subservient to AIPAC. For all her faults, Ayn Rand had his number: the Conservative movement as transmogrified by WFB is a cowardly capitulation to the enemies of freedom. Kindness for this man would not wish for a god of justice.

  29. Walter Block stakes out ‘extractionism’ as permitting the first and denying the second.

    So, after the little parasite is decanted post-extraction, is the mother still legally responsible for it?

    Because I get the feeling the motivation for most abortions isn’t the desire to evict a temporary trespasser, but the desire to not be responsible for raising a child.

  30. No obligation. If nobody in the world wants it, it dies.

    I just had a really, really long argument about this, with someone whose main objection was the same one you note. It’s not pretty, and I’m not as pleasant as Walter Block in that mp3, but it’s here.

  31. Mr. Poole, the “beltway libertarian,” is full of it. Buckley was a constant apologist for the welfare/warfare state, despite a few libertarian views and some nice rhetoric. Bill Buckley, R.I.H. (Rot In Hell)

  32. God bless you Mr Buckley.
    But then again he already did and he will again, this time in person.

  33. Buckley introduced people to Austrian Economics? That’s actually kind of funny considering that next Mises the second best Austrian economist of the twentieth century, Murray Rothbard, was one of those purged from NR for his anti-war stance as well as John T. Flynn, for the same reason. Buckley is, when you get right down to it, the reason why blatant leftists such as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney (whom NR endorsed despite the fact that he created socialized health care in Massachusetts), Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain can run as supposed conservatives. No one did more to introduce the logical paradox into conservatism of having small government at home and yet activist government abroad, and burying the legacies of Old Rigth Conservatives such as Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Isabel Paterson, Garet Garrett, and John T. Flynn (who are largely now getting rediscovered thanks to the Ron Paul candidacy) than that libertine neoconservative (not libertarian) known as William F. Buckley, Jr.

  34. If only Buckley’s brilliant mind could have smacked down the Domino Theory 50,000 Americans might not have died needlessly in Southeast Asia. The persistent echo of this wrong-headed threat analysis propels the McCain candidacy today.

  35. “I share about 90 percent of the views of most libertarians”

    Is there supposed to be a link to this interview in Tibors section? I dont see anything there.

  36. Bill Buckley and his ilk set the stage for the rise of Bush and the nomination of McCain. Good riddens, as far as I’m concerned.

  37. Read Buckley’s hatchet job obituaries on Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Robert Welch. He was
    dead wrong in his disputes with all three and
    wrong on everything from Lincoln worship to his
    recent endorsement of a hagiographic book on FDR by convicted felon Conrad Black. John McManus wrote a devastating intellectual biography of Buckley. I didn’t think it possible for my opinion of Poole Junior to
    get any lower but it has. “Anti-semitism” to
    Buckley meant criticism of the racist, fascist
    state of Israel and the very large played by Jews in the statist-collectivist movements.
    WFB is fawned over by braindead NPR type libs,
    neocon statist warmongers and useless “Beltway
    libertarians.” Good riddance to the “conservative movement” and its mentor.
    Oh by the way, WFB ENDORSED the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in 1966. But of course
    he lit up a few doobies so we can forget that
    …………..

  38. Holy crap Reason is a shithole now.

  39. Peter Klein writes:

    “Bob Poole’s fawning eulogy helps illustrate the split between libertarians who think that libertarianism has something to do with, oh, I don’t know, THE STATE, and those who see it as a kind of hip and fashionable lifestyle movement. Poole is happy that Buckley “kicked out the racists and conspiracy-mongers from conservatism” and that Buckley was “far more cosmopolitan and sophisticated about sex, drinking, dining, and other human pleasures than his fellow-travelers among today’s religious right.” He praises Buckley’s “open-mindedness and tolerance.” But not one word about foreign policy! Buckley’s embrace of the perpetual warfare state must have been a minor deviation.”

  40. “I can think of no person more culpable in changing the Conservative movement from a small-government, anti-war party into a leviathan apologist, subservient to AIPAC. For all her faults, Ayn Rand had his number: the Conservative movement as transmogrified by WFB is a cowardly capitulation to the enemies of freedom.”

    kinda ironic that the ‘heirs’ of Rand degenerated into crazy zionists and hegemonists isn’t it?

  41. “WFB ENDORSED the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in 1966″….kinda like Obama and Hillary are against violations of civil liberties but voted for the patriot acts.

    can’t Reason agree with this simple litmus test…if you were for the Rockefeller drug laws…then you are a statist jackbooted thug, deserving of piss on grave?

  42. So, according to Bob Poole, Buckley is a hero to libertarians because he was “cosmopolitan and sophisticated about sex, drinking, dining, and other human pleasures?”

    I guess that means I can’t call myself a “libertarian” since I am a teetotaler who is so intolerant that I actually disapprove of adultery (even though I am a hard-core “anarcho-capitalist”).

    Thanks, Bob, for letting us know what the word “libertarian” really means. “Libertarian” = “cosmotarian,” right?

    I’ve checked out the quote given by darjen in which Buckley advocated a “totalitarian bureaucracy”: I went over to the local university and dug out the 1952 volume of Commonweal and read Buckley’s article for myself.

    To merely call Buckley a viciously intolerant, murderous totalitarian would be a gross understatement.

    Thank God he never achieved elective office!

    Good riddance, WFB! May you rot in Hell and be reincarnated as a head louse.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  43. The number of people here who look through the smoke screen and see the progenitor of neoconservatism give me hope that Reason might one day actually become a libertarian publication.

    I learn much more from the comments than I do from the dreck that passes for content.

    I’ll bet Eric Donderoooooooo loved WFB.

  44. This article is so loaded with contradictions it’s disturbing. I’m sorry, but William F. Buckley was to Libertarians what Barrack Obama is to Liberals. He loved to wear the badge but he relished status and acceptance even more. We’re talking *extreme* cognitive dissonance here.

    Stating that he somehow improved the libertarian lot by getting rid of the “conspiracy mongers,” is a nice way of polishing over the fact that much about him existed in total contradiction to his libertarian views. I think that praising him for the supposed feat of running off the racists and conspiracy mongers and then talking about how he brought in social conservatives also totally ignores the fact that this latter group tends to be dogmatic and very unfriendly towards other groups (particularly Muslims and homosexuals). Frankly, tolerance isnt something which merits heaps of praise, it is something which should be *expected*.

    The house which Mr. Buckley built was not a temple of libertarianism, it was a temple of neocons. If anything, he served to co-opt part of the libertarian movement in order to defuse it.

  45. This is the kind of thing that made me decide to NOT renew my subscription! Neo-conservative does NOT equal libertarian! A foreign policy of non-intervention is such a fundemental part of REAL libertarianism, that someone who cheerleads an agressive warfare state that goes around the world building an empire, killing thousands of people needlessly, and takes away our constitutional rights here at home, CANNOT be considered “90%” a libertarian. Try 0%, idiots!

    Warmongers are the GREATEST enemies to the REAL freedom movement!

  46. Anyone who wants a more fair and balanced, and fact-filled and informative, eulogy of Buckley should check out Peter Brimelow’s essay ( http://www.vdare.com/pb/080228_buckley.htm ).

    As Brimelow intimates, anyone who considered Buckley to be intellectual, erudite, sophisticated witty, etc. betrayed his or her own intellectual insecurity. Buckley had taught himself a few obscure, polysyllabic vocabulary items and had acquired a pseudo-English accent and a charmingly nasty smirk and was hence able to intimidate ignorant, uneducated, and insecure people.

    I’ve never met a confident, successful, self-assured, independent, intelligent person who admired WFB.

    Buckley was simply a social-climbing offshoot of what we used to call a “white-trash” family who knew how to suck up to the American power elite to achieve his tiny morsel of fame.

    I myself have followed Buckley’s career for nearly four decades. I find it a compelling fact that all of the fawning eulogies cannot name a single important idea, a single ground-breaking essay, a single must-read book that came from Buckley.

    All Buckley did was give pathetic, red-neck, know-nothing, uneducated, provincially insecure right-wingers a false sense that they were really “sophisticated” if they subscribed to NR, watched Firing Line, or admired WFB.

    And poor old Bob Poole has just unwittingly admitted that he is one of them!

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  47. A revealing video of Buckley is this Firing Line episode with Noam Chomsky
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYlMEVTa-PI

  48. Thanks to several recent writers above for nailing the fraud that was Buckley as well
    as the conservatarians like Junior Poole.
    I remember the embarrassing hagiographic
    Bore Machan interview with Master Booeyfuckley
    and decline to reread it after a quarter of a
    century. The neoobjectivists and the neolibertarians have joined the neocons as
    well as the Israel Uber Alles at ARI and they
    can all go to blazes. Who needs them ?

  49. So a man who advocated curtailing freedom at home because of a supposed existential threat that was Godless Atheistic Communism, which has morphed into government legislation supposedly meant to protect us from Too Godish Islamofascism that we have now has suddenly become the post mortem darling of libertarians? Buckley might have agreed with 90% of libertarian positions, but sometimes the 10% outweighs the 90%. His eloquence, charm, and wit don’t change the fact that he played a large role in creating a conservative movement that marginalized libertarian strains of conservatism, unless of course you consider intellectual schizoids like Dennis Miller, Neal Boortz, or Eric Dondero to be actual libertarians

  50. Peter Brimelow had a great article on William F Buckley, Jr. I don’t agree with all of his positions in the article, however.

    http://www.vdare.com/pb/080228_buckley.htm

    A lot of this article is based on his personal experience:

    “I do consider his character to have been among the most contemptible I have encountered in public life….”

    “Buckley was deeply insecure….”

    “People I respect tell me that Bill Buckley was capable of great kindness. I never saw that side of him….”

    “For the plain fact, politely unmentioned in most Buckley obituaries, is that Buckley and National Review have been complicit in leading the conservative movement, the Republican Party and the country into utter disaster. Conservatives have essentially nothing to show for their moment in power except two completely unexpected colonial wars in the Middle East. And this year’s elections are widely expected to be a generational catastrophe….”

    “He was not, at least in the thirty years I knew him, particularly interested in ideas at all, and certainly not capable of the focused
    effort to required to master new ones.”

    “What really motivated Buckley was ego and vanity.”

    Brimelow also touches on shady financial dealings in the family and the possiblity that Buckley was a drunk. I have heard from one employee as well that he was a drunk.

  51. Well, now that we’ve got the 15 minute hate out of the way…

  52. Some commentators dubbed Buckley

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.