William F. Buckley, Jr. died in Connecticut on February 27. Most Western newspapers and news media have bid adieu to the intellectual major-domo of American conservatism with glowing, admiring salutations.
And every one of those salutations has missed the point: That Buckley was a vile man who rescued the Republican Party from the self-destruction of irrelevancy and a just demise. Because of him, the Party was saved the task of rethinking or at least remembering the meaning of its name, republican, that is, of the Party which in the late 18th and early 19th centuries struggled to preserve a government charged with protecting and upholding individual rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness.
The New York Times, in its February 28 article on Buckley’s death, “William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies; Sesquipedalian Spark of Right,” noted that
“Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism – not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas – respectable in liberal postwar America.”
The Times does not say what ideas comprised that system. Further on it notes that
“The liberal primacy Mr. Buckley challenged had begun with the New Deal and so accelerated in the next generation that Lionel Trilling, one of America’s leading intellectuals, wrote in 1950: ‘In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.'”
The article is wrong that the liberalism Buckley opposed had begun with the New Deal; it began long before that, long before World War I. But Trilling, at least, was partly right; the dominant political ideas after World War II were liberal collectivist ones. Opposing them were “conservative” ideas, with the Republicans especially becoming vaguer and vaguer about what it was that they wished to “conserve.” Their vision of a limited government republic was growing dimmer and hazier, and in light of their tepid opposition to (and in many instances, of their endorsement of) statist policies, their occasional harking back to the days of freedom, liberty and free enterprise was growing more and more hollow. They had no compelling answers to the liberal ideas.
Buckley saved their necks and provided them with a “system” of ideas they could feel at home with. He persuaded a spent and ideologically rudderless conservative movement to base its political philosophy on religion, altruism, and self-sacrifice as an alternative to the “atheistic” liberal welfare state of society, altruism and self-sacrifice. Individual rights were nothing to him if not “God-given.” He was as much an enemy of freedom – and of freedom of speech – as any holy-roller Democrat. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the policies advocated by “atheistic” or secular collectivists and “religious” ones. Buckley never seriously challenged the “status quo” of controls, deficit spending, or the regulation of business and industry. He was one of the original advocates of volunteerism or mandatory public service.
The Daily Telegraph (London) of February 28 best summarized Buckley’s influence on American politics:
“Buckley’s aim was to turn the Right-wing movement in America into a recognizable, politically definable and powerful force, and to cleanse it of what some of its critics saw as leanings toward anti-Semitism and Fascism….Buckley was often credited with being the originator of the conservative thrust of the post-war years, which he saw as the antidote to the liberal philosophy which he believed had been dominant since the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt….[His] greatest moment, arguably, came when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980. The fall of Communism vindicated much of what he fought for for decades.”
It was Reagan’s tenure in the White House that legitimatised the religious character of Republican conservatism and gave it impetus, the results of which we are seeing today not only in President Bush’s faith-based initiative and in his war policy, but also in a religious revival in America that straddles left and right.
Learned, glibly articulate with a penchant for obscure words and noted for a complex, obfuscating verbosity nearly as convoluted as Immanuel Kant’s, a master of sardonic humor, often self-deprecatory, Buckley was the Ellsworth Toohey of the Right.
In the 1950’s the country was ripe for a revolution in ideas against the collectivist and altruist ideas that were steering it by default in the direction of statism. William F. Buckley proposed that ideas were not necessary. Faith and tradition were enough to save the country.
But, we should let Ayn Rand, whom Buckley in his National Review and in various columns slandered and answered with snide, sophomoric, cowardly attacks (or allowed other writers to attack her in a similar style), never daring to tackle her positions with any kind of intellectual honesty, have the last word on Buckley and his conservatism. In answer to a question in the Playboy interview of March 1964 about why she considered National Review “the worst and most dangerous magazine in America,” she explained that
“…[I]t ties capitalism to religion. The ideological position of National Review amounts, in effect, to the following: In order to accept freedom and capitalism, one has to believe in God or some form of religion, some form of supernatural mysticism. Which means that there are no rational grounds on which one can defend capitalism. Which amounts to an admission that reason is on the side of capitalism’s enemies, that a slave society or a dictatorship is a rational system, and that only on the ground of mystic faith can one believe in freedom. Nothing more derogatory to capitalism could ever be alleged, and the exact opposite is true. Capitalism is the only system that can be defended and validated by reason.”
In commentary in the New York Daily News of March 11, 1982, shortly after Rand’s death, Buckley revealed a petulance that cloaked his malice for her and for reason:
“She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that, but no. She had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest was good and noble.”
In short, his animus for Rand was based essentially on her refusing to relegate reason in the role of handmaiden of theology, on her divorcing reality from mysticism, on her “anti-statist” integrating of an “eternal vigilance” against any tyranny over the mind of man as well as over his body. Let no one doubt that Buckley understood Rand’s philosophy to the core, that he feared it, and chose as his weapon against it the Toohey-esqe tactic of snickering laughter. For that reason alone, he should be damned and no respectful esteem granted him.
Earlier in that article, he remarked that the “philosophy she sought to launch” is dead.
He was wrong about that philosophy. Objectivism, or a philosophy of reason, is making progress in the culture. It is alive and well, as William F. Buckley is not.