William Buckley's Permanent Thing

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William Buckley seemed to relish writing obituaries.

In fact, the death of a Milton Friedman or a Strom Thurmond or even of an obscure Manhattan socialite would provide a forum for Buckley to write about, well, himself — about how witty he once was in that person’s company, or how important he came to be in that person’s life.

So when news arrived today that Buckley himself had died, I wondered how he would like his own obituaries to be written. He’d no doubt take great pride in his death being noted on the front page of his beloved New York Times. He’d be glad that his death coincided with a Republican in the White House, practically guaranteeing an official statement from a sitting president.

For someone who reproduced his Who’s Who citation in one of his books, the validation that mattered came from the secular establishment.

But he’d surely know that some elements of the conservative movement would remember his life’s work with great regret. These would be the elements of the Old Right that (thanks to the Internet) animate much American political discourse today, characterized by conservatives and classical liberals and libertarians who believe that a free society demands that government be either severely limited or nonexistent.

These are the people who agreed with the social critic Albert Jay Nock that the enemy of civilization was the State itself. They knew that large, centralized governments — whether in the East or the West — can only nurture dependency and division, and that their very existence threatens an order defined by private institutions and property, voluntary interactions, mutual interdependencies, and social betterment. The Old Right knew that war was the health of the state, and that this reason alone justified opposition to Wilson’s and FDR’s wars as events worth avoiding because they would, in the end, grow the government and make us less free.

But after World War II, and during the height of President Truman’s unpopularity emanating from the U.S. government’s first undeclared war, there was serious concern among the State’s partisans that a freedom movement would reassert itself politically, squelching the justification for government growth that the nascent Cold War brought about. A trumped-up international confrontation with the Soviets may have provided meaning and jobs to many, but it also required dismantling constitutional constraints on power necessary for a free republic.

Indeed, it was such a threat to liberty that occasioned President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address.

It was a threat that Buckley defended by serving to pacify the Old Right movement so as to allow the State to grow. (Ronald Reagan served this role in 1980s, and talk radio does today.) The former CIA agent proclaimed himself the leading conservative spokesmen, urging conservatives to embrace totalitarianism as a necessary strategy to defeat the Soviets, demanding that they embrace "[b]ig government for the duration" of the Cold War. Curiously, he never called for a return to a constitutional republic once the Cold War ended.

Members of the Old Right — truly great thinkers like John T. Flynn and Murray Rothbard — who pointed out the absurdity of fighting totalitarianism by becoming totalitarian would be disparaged by Buckley, who was paid well for his efforts to drum these people and their classical liberal ideas out of the public square.

Thankfully, he wasn’t successful. One needs to observe Ron Paul’s fantastic presidential campaign today and the growing importance of Old Right publications such as The American Conservative compared to the sad state of Buckley’s own National Review (which is virtually unknown to anyone under 40). The rise of the Internet and its decentralizing effect on information disbursement has allowed Old Right ideas to break out again. Young people are reading Rothbard’s histories of economic thought and monetary treatises; they hardly know of Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, and much less of his sex novels.

Which is not to say that Buckley has not been influential. That voters are choosing presidential candidates promising more war and security is a testament to his defense of the Leviathan State. But the future belongs to the young, and the young, who are inheriting both tens of trillions of dollars of debt and dangerous blowback resulting from decades of bad foreign policy interventions, are rejecting Buckley-ism in favor of policies that promote peace and freedom.

Few obituaries written will note Buckley as someone who labored to make the nation-state among T.S. Elliot’s Permanent Things by standing athwart those who opposed it, its wars, and its redistribution. Still, one doesn’t relish writing that he died this week, alone, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. May he rest in peace.

February 28, 2008

Chris Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.

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