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.