Politics

Second Thoughts on WFB

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Reading through a recent issue of the magazine he founded, National Review, on the day of his death, I was reminded that, though there are certainly things to admire from a libertarian perspective about William F. Buckley, many of which you've read here on this site this week, it takes a fair amount of "defining bad conservatism down" to praise the late Mr. Buckley unreservedly as one of the good 'uns.

The article that got me thinking this was a review by NR Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru of the new book by fellow National Review contributor David Frum, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. The book's prescriptions (I have not read the book–I am going from Ponnuru's review, and my understanding of Frum from his short-form journalism) sound simply dreadful–and in many ways perfectly Buckleyan.

One of the characteristic aspects of Buckleyan conservatism was that it must stay moored within the bounds of widely acceptable and achievable political goals, an approach that he and his colleagues felt made them more serious, more engaged, more realistic, than their libertarian semi-comrades. This approach was drilled into him by early mentors like James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers. You see this attitude in Ponnuru on Frum:

Had [Bush] governed more conservatively, he would be even more unpopular than he is now. Conservative journalists and policy experts complain that Bush added an expensive prescription-drug benefit to the already-unaffordable Medicare program. "But," writes Frum, "public support for the benefit ranged between 80 percent and 90 percent through the first Bush term. .

Blithely going along with a program that will cost staggeringly unimaginable amounts of money in a nation already buried in debt is the sober, serious stance, then; while those who might object to indebting ourselves to the nth generation to satisfy short-term political and business constituencies are head-in-the-clouds losers.

There's more to Frum's realistic advice:

it is conservative themes, not just conservative policies, that need to be updated [thinks Frum]. "[H]ow many Americans in these opening years of the 21st century feel too little liberty to do what they want to do?" We have more liberty, and less order, than we used to have, and popular anxieties have shifted in response.

That's exactly the problem most Americans face: too much liberty. What does this man who sells himself as political advisor to an adrift political tendency offer to save conservatism (and America) from too much liberty?

He wants stiff carbon taxes, to combat both global warming and our geopolitically harmful dependence on oil. He thinks conservatives should regard obesity as an issue of public concern. Some conservatives have championed the reform of prisons, for example to reduce the horrifying incidence of rape within their walls; Frum believes such reform should be a much higher priority…….he asserts that conservatives need to stand for "universal health insurance." ……He has no strategy on education, just the hope that the No Child Left Behind Act, by requiring schools to report their test scores, will open people's eyes to the public system's failure and thus make them more receptive to conservative ideas such as vouchers.

Now, that particular philosophically confused set of policies might not match those WFB would endorse exactly. Here at Hit and Run we've praised Buckley for being right on two important issues where most of his fellow conservatives are wrong–pot legalization and the Iraq War.

But I fear that his being right was more a matter of his magisterial whim than of a firmly developed and trustworthy set of beliefs, either strategic or philosophical. This same "conservatism is what I think government needs to do to satisfy either the people or my particular concerns" principle animates Frum.

It has been often quoted, especially by libertarians, but so often because it is a succinct and representative explanation of the distinction between conservatives and libertarians in the day when Buckley and the early National Review was helping create and enforce a gap between libertarians and conservatives. See again this disturbing thought from Buckley in Commonweal magazine in 1952: "We have to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged…except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores." He thus championed "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy," and of course the "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."

From those early Cold War thoughts to segregation through his more recent missteps on matters like national service and smoking, Buckley seemed to believe steadfastly in this timeless political principle: that government should be restricted quite firmly to…those things that Buckley thought it important for government to do. (See, for example, in his 1983 reason interview the distinction he makes between pot legalization, which he's for, and heroin legalization, which he is not.)

Thus both Buckley and Frum represent the weaknesses of conservatism: slavishly dedicated to the politically possible to some degree, whimsically unmoored from settled principles about what government ought to be doing to a large degree, unreliable bulwarks of peace and liberty to a dangerous degree.

Buckley was a witty man, a learned man, in most ways clearly a good man–dedicated, productive, humane. He was certainly vital to importing a general sense in American culture in the past half-century that government was not necessarily the solution to every problem. Was he a great writer? I've enjoyed some of his longer form work. As a newspaper columnist, especially in the later decades when I was reading him most regularly, I have to largely concur with Jesse Walker's wickedly entertaining take on his deficiencies.

Since he was himself an often rough-and-tumble public controversialist, I trust neither he nor anyone else would consider it untoward to deal with him critically, even on the week of his death. Buckley was, through his virtues, a representative–the representative–conservative of his time, with all the troublesome (for the libertarian) beliefs and strategies that implied.

Many of his successors in the business of defining and running the modern American right-wing are worse, to be sure; more partisan, more brutal, less rooted in any understanding of the necessary limits of state power. But even on his passing, it's worth remembering many of the problems with modern conservatism, problems that live on beyond Buckley, that can fairly be considered his children.

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28 responses to “Second Thoughts on WFB

  1. War production boards. Wow.

    It’s like we live on a different planet than America 50 years ago.

  2. Let me ask you a question — do you really want to get into a pissing match based on the premise that conservatives’ political beliefs only reflect their personal desires? That may or may not be true for some conservatives. But it sure as hell is true for many libertarians as well. Just spend a short time reading comments to these blogs, and you’ll see statements such as the following: 1) “I don’t care about high taxes, so long as porn and pot are available” i.e. I’m poor so taking money from the rich is fine, just let me get high 2) “abortion isn’t wrong, it’s a natural right” i.e. I’m sure glad abortion isn’t restricted so that my girlfriend could get one; 3) “the Iraq war is bad, all wars are bad” i.e. the outside world scares me, if we ignore/run away from it the bad men will leave us alone.

    Let’s be frank — there are a ton of people out there, liberal, conservative, libertarian who bend their political beliefs to their interests. And that tendency, to a certain extent, lives in each of us. But to simply point it out in a “gotcha” fashion is weak as an argument and as a rhetorical point. This Doherty post is, yet again, a waste of electronic space.

  3. just spend a short time reading comments to these blogs

    There is a difference between the commenters on blogs and the leading members of a movement.

    there are a ton of people out there, liberal, conservative, libertarian who bend their political beliefs to their interests

    Certainly, but one always hopes for more from the leading members of a movement.

    But to simply point it out in a “gotcha” fashion is weak as an argument and as a rhetorical point.

    It’s a relevant piece of information that certain influential people have no intellectual consistency beyond what immediately benefits them.

    This Doherty post is, yet again, a waste of electronic space.

    Considering you seem to have missed the entire point of his post, it’s not terribly surprising you feel that way.

  4. With you on this one Matt. Joe, you’d like war production board-style government, wouldn’t you?

  5. Matt:

    Straw libertarians are certainly the easiest to knock down.

  6. Conservatism, as practiced today, is the merger of state religion, militarism, and legislation designed to enhance corporate profit.

    Mr. Buckley – he dead.

  7. If one focuses on the consistency and “purity” of his adherence to libertarian ideals, certainly WFB falls short. But if one concentrates on what he did for the movement overall, he shines.

  8. If one focuses on the consistency and “purity” of his adherence to libertarian ideals, certainly WFB falls short. But if one concentrates on what he did for the movement overall, he shines.

    That depends on which movement you speak of.

    BTW, great post, Doherty!

  9. Mistah Kurtz,

    Normally, my literary references go unnoticed. It is fitting here though – considering the legion of unfit wannabees that Kurtz/Buckley left in his wake.

    Conservatives today are hollow men – deprived of sunlight and DNA.

  10. Excellent post, Mr Doherty.

    Though Matt seems to disagree, I don’t think there was anything pragmatic, practical or politically expedient in WFB embracing totalitarian central planning. He somehow came to the conclusion that Communist economic policy was superior to Capitalist policy, and did so within just a few years that the industries we built up between 1850 and 1940 managed to create a modern army within a matter of months. Frigates and destroyers were being pumped out within days and weeks, whereas the Soviet war machine was entirely dependent on our generosity.

    I always got the feeling that the practical, pragmatic, doable market was never grandiose enough for the political crusades that WFB wanted to take part, and the same can be said of his heirs like Frum. So, they are dismissive of its value and its transformative power.

  11. Joe, you’d like war production board-style government, wouldn’t you?

    No, economist, not even close.

    It is a bad idea to think you understand a political movement because you have read the commentary of its opponents. Forty years ago

    Production boards? You actually think liberals in the 21st century want production boards?

  12. Matt:

    1. I can’t recall having ever seen that sentiment expressed here by a self-described libertarian. There are certainly those who care about one set of freedoms more than the others. (There are also those who would care only about one set though I doubt those would call themselves libertarian; liberal or conservative seems a more correct adjective.) Further, the motive you mention certainly doesn’t seem to match that of the libertarians who care more about the drug war or the porn crusade versus taxation. From what I’ve seen, the reason the former are sometimes taken more seriously is that they do more severe and obvious damage to the lives of those whom they hurt. Though the loss of a notable portion of a person’s income through taxation is very troubling to me, it’s nothing compared to the loss of twenty years of one’s life in prison for possession of marijuana.

    2. The abortion debate is one in which, though many Libertarians come down on the pro-choice side, reasonable people can disagree – a comment which I have seen made here many times. In fact, the decision one comes to on abortion generally depends more on the decision one comes to on the status of the fetus than the political philosophy which one espouses. When one believes that the fetus is not a person (not a sentient being or otherwise not the kind of being that has rights), it is perfectly reasonable to view abortion as a non-crime or a right, just as it is reasonable to view it as a crime when one believes that a fetus after point X does attain the status necessary to confer rights.

    3. The reason many libertarians are anti-war is simply because war-making is one of the quicker ways for government to take more power and often an especially damaging kind of power. Traditionally those suspicious of government power are especially suspicious of war-making power and so want it limited to those wars of a clearly defensive nature. In the case of Iraq, there is certainly reason to expect the war was not defensive.

    In summary, none of the positions that you mention are inconsistent with a libertarian mistrust of government power. This is except for position 1, which as I said, I haven’t heard self-described libertarians espousing, though they may certainly view one or the other of the War on Drugs or taxation as worse.

  13. Perhaps I should say:

    …for possession “with intent to sell” marijuana.

    Scare quotes intentional.

  14. Since he was himself an often rough-and-tumble public controversialist,

    How about “Since he was himself an evil sonofabitch on the occasion of an opportunity to write an obituary,”? Mocking Rothbard’s manner of death; sneering at Hazlitt, ostensibly a friend of his.

  15. Frum may have been right about prescription drugs. Sometimes you have to give some ground to regain your feet. I’m not sure whether the drug benefit is one of those cases, but it sure seems like it might’ve been. Pressure has been building for decades for socializ’n of medicine, to the point where at times all it seems we can do is allow some expansion to reduce the pressure, lest it blow and simultaneously give us totalitarian medicine and a lasting reputation of evil loser to those who opposed it.

    Sometimes you gotta hand over some loot to the looters to keep them from just plain killing you and taking everything anyway. It really can be a matter of “losing as slowly as possible” until the tide turns, as eventually it always will.

  16. I once owned a copy of NR, and issue from 1976 IIRC, in which an article was published which ‘proved’ that Libertarians were communist.

    Thanks for the intellectual space, NR.

  17. 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 taking 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!

  18. BTW, what is so conservative about Frum? He is not even one in the American traditionalist sense (I know, he is Canadian but that is no excuse if his soapbox resides on this side of the border). I get the feeling that in medialand parlance, Conservative is just another word for ‘public scold.’

    Oddly, he and Brooks blame some phantom libertarian streak in the Republican party for its decline. Even criticizing that favorite straw man, ‘individualism’ to describe the character of the Republican party that has caused it to be out of touch with the people.

    I don’t think it is even necessary to point out the ten ton elephant in the room whose dung the GOP is stuck in for the foreseeable future. I’m sure Frum has no trouble seeing it, and I’m sure he actually understands on some level that it is the cause of the party’s deserved misfortune in ’06, he doesn’t strike me as an idiot.

    But, here is the thing. No one has ever lost their rank in society, no matter how incompetent in action and illogical in thought they may be, by supporting the status quo. It makes you wonder, if the center of power in Washington was libertarian, the visceral hatred these guys have for libertarian ideas and persons would instead be aimed at kicking the social cons to the curb instead of us.

  19. joe,
    I was pointing out that many of your recommendations on these boards is based on the same ideas as government production boards, i.e., if the market doesn’t allocate resources where you think they should go, or bad things happen to people, the government should become involved.

  20. Karsten,
    While I agree that in many cases, such as Vietnam, the anti-communist containment foreign policy went too far, I would say that a generally anti-communist foreign policy was appropriate. This is mostly based on the fact that communism was/is an internationalist political movement dedicated to spreading into every country and completely remaking its political and economic institutions in the Marxist image. Therefore, I would say that we acted in self-defense against international communism.

  21. Conservatism, as practiced today, is the merger of state religion, militarism, and legislation designed to enhance corporate profit.

    Would that be the worship of the state? Or is there now an official state religion of which I am unaware?

  22. joe,
    I was pointing out that many of your recommendations on these boards is based on the same ideas as government production boards, i.e., if the market doesn’t allocate resources where you think they should go, or bad things happen to people, the government should become involved.

    Well, economist, since your understanding of liberal ideas like mine led you to believe that I’d support production boards, when in fact I support nothing of the sort, maybe you’re making some unwarranted assumptions and leaps of logic.

    I understand that, to you, many of my recommendations look like they are are of a piece with war production boards. And yet, they’re not.

    I think the problem is in that last phrase you use: the government should become involved. By lumping so much under such a broad rubric, and then assuming that it is therefore all of a piece, you are ignoring a great many important concepts and distinctions without realizing it.

  23. I would say that a generally anti-communist foreign policy was appropriate. This is mostly based on the fact that communism was/is an internationalist political movement dedicated to spreading into every country and completely remaking its political and economic institutions in the Marxist image. Therefore, I would say that we acted in self-defense against international communism.

    Maybe so, but the case against Buckley was that Natiional Review pumped for war every chance it got. I invite you to read the columns by James Burnham as case in point. Buckley purged the OLd Right, brought in the neocon New Right, and the result has been not just Vietnam, but a host of tragedies on a smaller scale.

    BTW-good post, Brian!

  24. Good piece by Jesse. Reading that after watching the Chomsky debate, I understand why Buckley looked so hollow compared to Chomsky.

  25. Conservatism, as practiced today, is the merger of state religion, militarism, and legislation designed to enhance corporate profit.

    Would that be the worship of the state? Or is there now an official state religion of which I am unaware?

    I’m guessing they’re talking about the people that were bemoaning the removal of the 10 Commandments from a courthouse praying to it like a false idol and arming up for the war on Christmas. There are plenty of conservatives that would happily implement a state religion. Watch Jesus Camp, for example.

  26. I actually think neocons had their uses in the 80s, when they first entered the “conservative” camp. Communism was actually a threat back then (as opposed to something practiced only by third-world holdouts where people are brainwashed to hail “the great leader”). However, the problem is they can’t stand not to have a war to fight, so they support every bullshit intervention, from Gulf War I through Gulf War II (excepting, partially, Afghanistan, which wasn’t complete bullshit ie, the people we fought were actually a threat to us.)

  27. The 1952 article by Buckley was at the time of the beginning of the Cold War. Many people on the Right thought there was a temporary need for government to exist as it did. Ludwig Von Mises advocated conscription in “Human Action”. (page 282).Milton Friedman once remark that ending the draft was a defining libertarian act yet Von Mises was on the other side on that issue. If Buckley is neo-con because of his temporary support for war production boards, what does that make Von Mises with his advocacy of conscription??

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