Second Thoughts on WFB


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.