Saturday, March 01, 2008

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy he sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn.

If that first paragraph sounds like a rather graceless and gloating way to talk about the recently deceased, I'm paraphrasing Buckley's column on the death of Ayn Rand:

"Ayn Rand is dead," wrote conservative author William F. Buckley in an obituary in 1982 about the best-selling novelist-philosopher. "So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn."

Objectivism was not dead in 1982, nor is it dead now. It thrives and grows more influential every year. It was ignored, however, in 1982, and there were misconceptions about it due to dishonesty and smears such as Whittaker Chambers's vile review of Atlas Shrugged in National Review that likened the philosophy of the book to Hitler's genocide of the Jews.

Unlike Objectivism, conservatism is dead, and Buckley lived long enough to see its death, if he was still paying attention. We now have a Republican party that has made its peace with the New Deal and is a big government, welfare state party. Buckley deserves some of the blame, even though his stated goal was limited government.

But Buckley himself was not as consistent about free market economics as many conservatives even back in the 1960's. He always had pragmatist streak:

All this adds up to a conservatism premised on firm principle and opportune adjustment alike, a dialectic impressed upon Buckley by two of his early mentors, James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, both ex-Communists with well-developed aversions to strict party lines. When conservatism emerged from the wilderness in the 1960s, it was Buckley who insisted its elected tribunes be given room to operate outside the strictures of "the movement." In 1967, he defended the right's brightest star, Ronald Reagan, who, as governor of California, had enlarged, rather than slashed, the state's budget. Buckley calmly spelled out the reasons and concluded his case by quoting Chambers: "A conservatism that cannot find room in its folds for the actualities is a conservatism that is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy."

So from the beginning he defended Republicans acting like Democrats in order to get elected.

Buckley's disastrous mission was to integrate religion and capitalism. It doesn't work. As Robert Tracinski writes:

Fusionism is unstable because its basic premise--that the moral foundation of free markets and Americanism can be left to the religious traditionalists--is false. For five decades, under Buckley's influence, conservatives have ceded to the religious right the job of providing the moral fire to sustain their movement. But they are discovering that the religionists do not have a strong moral commitment to free markets. In fact, the religious right seems to be working on its own version of "fusion"--with the religious left.

Wednesday's Washington Post provided the latest example: a column by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson on the shift to the left among evangelical Christians, who "respond to a message of social justice and community values, not only to a message of rugged individualism and unrestricted markets." Gerson insists that "Christianity indicts oppressive government--but also the soul-destroying excesses that sometimes come in free markets and consumerism." So much for traditional religious values serving as the basis for advocacy of capitalism.

The reason for this shift toward the religious left is that religion cannot support the real basis for capitalism and a strong American national defense: a morality of rational self-interest. Christianity is too deeply committed to a philosophy of self-abnegation, a destructive morality that urges men to renounce any interest in worldly goods and to turn the other check in the face of aggression. The early Christian saints, for example, abandoned all material comforts and lived in caves--which is to say that their closest contemporary disciples are the radical environmentalists. As for foreign policy, St. Augustine spent a fair bit of his massive apologia for Christianity, The City of God, explaining to the Romans that being sacked by barbarians was good for them because it taught them the virtue of humility and cured them of their attachment to material wealth.

Ayn Rand wrote about National Review in a letter to Barry Goldwater in 1960:

"This leads me to the subject of the National Review. I am profoundly opposed to it--not because it is a religious magazine, but because it pretends that it is not. There are religious magazines which one can respect, even while disagreeing with their views. But the fact that the National Review poses as a secular political magazine, while following a strictly religious "party line," can have but one purpose: to slip religious goals by stealth on those who would not accept them openly, to "bore from within," to tie Conservatism to religion, and thus to take over the American Conservatives. This attempt comes from a pressure group wider than the National Review, but the National Review is one of its manifestations. . . .

"The attempt to use religion as a moral justification of Conservatism began after World War II. Observe the growing apathy, lifelessness, ineffectuality and general feebleness of the so-called Conservative side, ever since. You are, at present, a rising exception in the Republican ranks. I do not believe that that pressure group could succeed in making you its tool. But a philosophical pressure group is very hard to detect, particularly at first. That is why I want to warn you against them now, and help you to identify the nature of their influence.

"I am not certain that you understood my relationship to the National Review, when I spoke to you here. I thought that you knew the facts, but perhaps you do not. In brief, they printed a review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, which I have not read, on principle; those who have read it, told me that this former Communist spy claimed that my book advocates dictatorship. Thereafter, the National Review printed two articles about me (which I did read), one of them allegedly friendly, both of them misrepresenting my position in a manner I have not seen outside The Daily Worker or The Nation. What was significant was their second article: it denounced me for advocating capitalism."

The post-war movement to defend capitalism with religious morality will prove to be the most damaging thing ever to happen to American liberty. The leader of that movement was Buckley.


Dismuke said...

That accent of his - that was an affectation, right? I mean, nobody talks like that. It sounded like he was trying to convince everyone he was a cross between some sort of British Lord and Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island.

I remember some years ago seeing a column by Buckley in a newspaper - and what he wrote absolutely floored me. He advocated "voluntary" national service for young people in their late teens and early twenties. They would be able to serve in the armed forces, or on do-gooder missions of various sorts. After all, young people owe such servitude to their country on account of the fact that they were born here. Of course, since this is a free country, the servitude would be strictly voluntary. HOWEVER, those ungrateful, selfish little snots who refuse to volunteer - well, they would not be allowed to get a drivers' license or a Social Security card.

You see, according to Buckley, a drivers' license is a PRIVILEGE. And so is a Social Security card. So according to his argument, why should such privileges be bestowed on ungrateful brats who refuse to serve?

Of course, one cannot legally hold a job in this country without a Social Security card and, as a practical matter, it is very difficult to have a job in most parts of the country if one does not have a car. But that is the problem of the ungrateful little snots. If they really cared about having a drivers' license and a job - well, all they have to do is "volunteer" to fritter away crucial years of their early lives for the State.

That column told me that this was not just some well meaning country bumpkin with a fake accent who was utterly clueless as to what freedom is and is not. This was a man who was HOSTILE to freedom but, for whatever reason, felt it was necessary to give lip service to it.

Myrhaf said...

I too was shocked by that column. What was the point of being such an ardent anti-communist all his life if he was going to end up advocating a system of slavery for the young to state? Oh, yeah -- communism was atheistic.

Anonymous said...

I read your commentary on Buckley and loved it. Then I thought "what would Auster say about Buckley's death?" Well here it is:

Auster's take: Buckley betrayed conservatism by not being more opposed to immigration and by not being religious enough.

True, consistent conservatives are a scary bunch.

John Kim

Brian N. said...

Boiled into a sentence...

The trouble with conservatism is that it's pointless; it's pure reaction and negation without actual positive counterpoint.

It follows that hit-pieces larded over with lies and disinformation would emerge from such a 'philosophy'...

Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

Buckleys' parents were members of the America First Committee, and they, as did he, believed that America should remain neutral until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Of course once that happened, only a fool with a death wish would take that position. So the AFC died a deserving death.

As a child of privilege, he was raised on within the Gold Coast of Mexico until his father was chased off his business and the oil fields during one of many Mexican revolutions. It's alleged that Buckley's first language was Spanish and that his speech pattern resulted from learning English later and spending a lot of time in Spain and London as well as Mexico.

You are right, of course about Buckley and religion. He was Catholic and tried to fuse the religious Christians (Catholics in particular) with the fiscal and defense conservatives in order to undo left leaning liberal secularists. Liberty was not his concern - his concern was keeping his Catholic faith alive and intertwined throughout American culture and government.

His strong suit was the evil called pragmatism. He would eventually move from advocating beliefs that reflected his Catholicism to accepting anything Christian. Without the religious element, people such as Objectivists in general and Ayn Rand in particular were not considered acceptable or conservative by Buckley.

This election is proving that his three legged stool of conservatism is a joke and that it lacks the power to sustain momentum beyond that brought by Gingrich and Regan. In fact, with a growing religious left who are willing to be equally as pragmatic about abortion in order to foster the concentration of the faithful on poverty, wealth redistribution, individual sacrifice for the collective, social justice for the poor and the "problems" of homelessness and lack of health care, it appears the key element of his "stool" has been abandoning him for some time now. Religionist on the left are about 20% more in number than just 8 years ago and their is no sign of the trend stalling or reversing.

Capitalism and liberty are essential to each other. Religion is anti-capitalistic and anti-liberty. Liberty signifies advancing individual rights; communism and to and equal extent, religion, signifies advancing collective rights at the expense of the individual. Liberty celebrates and enhances the individual; collectivism of any sort buries the individual on the ash heap of self-immolation. Religion and the left are actually more suited for each other than religion and the right.

Buckley's gone. His brand of conservatism is dead and it is my hope that the vacuum created by its departure will help to reestablish a party of liberty as imagined by our founding fathers. It is my hope that the importance of property rights and the right to SELF-determination will finally be understood and appreciated.

Anonymous said...

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If you don’t believe me, then copy this entry and run it by any professor of economics or socio-economics. Then tell a friend. Call the local radio station. Re-post this entry or put it in your own words. Be one of the first to predict the worst economic and cultural crisis of all time and explain its cause. WE ARE IN BIG TROUBLE.