Friday, September 6, 2013

UP FROM LIBERALISM (1959) - by William F. Buckley, Jr. (book review)

- Originally published at Redemptio Sehnsucht on May 2, 2011 - ___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Times are changing. William F. Buckley left us on February 27, 2008. On March 4, 2008, John McCain won the Republican ticket for the Presidential election. On September 3, he was nominated at the Republican National Convention. His loss to Obama on November 4th was easily foreseeable to anyone who understood the destruction McCain wrecked upon his own campaign the moment he decided to support the TARP bailout of October, 2008. McCain's support of the bailout represented a fundamental misunderstanding of economics, an understanding diametrically opposed to that of conservatism. How many conservative votes McCain lost as a result of this failure is impossible to estimate, but representative of this blunder was Buckley's own son, Christopher, announcing that he was voting for Obama bascially as a protest vote against McCain's version of his father's conservatism. Christopher Buckley wrote -

“John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, ‘We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.' This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget ‘by the end of my first term.' Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?"

Ah yes, the Sarah Palin nomination ... on August 29, 2008, McCain announced that Palin was his choice for his Vice-Presidential running mate. The only reason he chose her was to try and rally support from conservatives that he was already losing. Unfortunately, even though Palin is a nice lady, and even though she was more conservative than McCain, her ability to actually articulate the conservative position was, to put it nicely, somewhat inadequate. While she could handle questions lobbed at her by Sean Hannity, having her principles challenged by Katie Couric on CBS News turned ugly. The entire interview glumly foreshadowed many future Palin speeches. When asked about the bailout, she replied -

“That's why I say, I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the tax payers looking to bail out, but ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping tho— it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as— competitive— scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.”

Inability to articulate yourself. This is a historical problem that some conservatives have struggled with in the past, as explained in the book I was just privileged to finish reading entitled Up From Liberalism by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley was a literary master, and his intellectual defense of basic American principles will be treasured for generations to come. But, what is striking about Up From Liberalism is his critique of the failure of conservatives to articulate themselves back in the 1950s. Anyone following the tradition of Edmund Burke would do well to heed Buckley's warnings against rhetorical incompetence. It is highly refreshing to read the prose of any writer who can order the English language towards lucid thought. It is not a coincidence that the celebrated novelist, John Dos Passos, was delighted to write the Foreword for the book. Passos writes -

“THE FIRST DUTY OF a man trying to plot a course for clear thinking is to produce words that really apply to the situations he is trying to describe. I don't mean a fresh set of neologisms devised, like thieves' cant or doubletalk, to hold the uninitiated at arm's length. We have seen enough of that in the jargon of the academic sociologists which seems to have been invented to prove that nobody but a Ph.D. can understand human behavior. Plain English will do quite well enough, but the good old words have to be brought back to life by being used in their original sense for a change."

In his 1959 Preface, Buckley writes -

“As to the conservative movement, our troubles are legion. Those who charge that there is no conservative position have an easy time of it rhetorically. There is no commonly-acknowledged conservative position today, and any claim to the contrary is easy to make sport of. Yet there is to be found in contemporary conservative literature both a total critique of liberalism, and compelling proposals for the reorientation of our thought. Conservatism must, however, be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it, and repels so many of those who approach it inquiringly."

It is this point of Buckley's I want to focus on in this column. For the first one hundred and forty pages of the book, Buckley takes a satirical look at liberalism, and lambasts the ideas of the New Deal, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Crosby, Keynesian economics, the then current administrations of Yale and Harvard, the Paul H. Hughes fiasco, the political compromises of Dwight Eisenhower, anti-McCarthyism, and the taxation policies of the state of New York. If you don't know who all these people or events are, it would be worth your while to educate yourself on them by reading Buckley's book.

Here's a few enjoyable examples:  For instance on page 30, Buckley makes fun of the liberal's absolute fanatical commitment to the cause of labor unions, a commitment that demands personal attacks upon anyone at all who disagrees with them -

“In the fall of 1958, Miss Irene Dunne, then a member of the United States delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations, made a statement to the effect that in her opinion the right to work is a human right. The National Council for Industrial Peace did not lose a minute. It released a statement by Mrs. Roosevelt impugning the motives of all right-to-work proponents. As for Miss Dunne, said Mrs. Roosevelt, she had perhaps unwittingly' (That is, quite possibly Miss Dunne intended to deceive) allied herself with ‘those who seek to enslave the American worker. The truth [as distinguished from that which one hears from such as Irene Dunne] is that the so-called right-to-work proposal does not concern itself ... with human rights or the right to work ... It's sole purpose is to enact into law a compulsory open shop that would destroy ... a democratic right.' In a word, anyone backing right-to-work is deceitful, totalitarian and anti-democratic, or in any case prepared to further the efforts of those who are."

Or, on page 88, Buckley cherishes the few people who still don't mince their words -

“There is something to be said for breaking away from modulation's trance; for straight thought, and straight talk, even of the kind which, on account of its directness, is capable of lifting people right out of their chairs; the kind of talk that will risk for the talker the reputation of being impolitic and ungenteel. At a crowded reception at the Kremlin in the early 1930s, Lady Astor turned to Stalin and asked, ‘When are you going to stop killing people?' Bishop Sheen once called up Heywood Broun, whom he had never met but whose nihilistic columns he read every day, and told him he wanted to see him. ‘What about?' asked Broun gruffly. ‘About your soul,' said Bishop Sheen."

But while Buckley admires bluntness, and makes use of it on occasion, he also understands the use of crafting one's words in order to be persuasive in the public square. It is this part of Up From Liberalism that I found to be the most compelling.

On pages 139-140 -
“... conservatives have cheapened the vocabulary of caution - by defying the rhetorical maxim that one does not cry ‘Wolf!' every day, and expect the community to heed one’s cries the day the wolf actually materializes ... Conservatives, as a minority, must learn to agonize more meticulously.

... if we permit ourselves to go on saying the same things about the imminence of catastrophe - if we become identified with the point of view that the social security laws toll the knell of our departed freedoms, or that national bankruptcy will take place the month after next - we will, like the Seventh Day adventists who close down the curtain of the world every season or so, lose our credit at the bar of public opinion ..."

One is reminded of talking heads like Sean Hannity, who claim to speak for conservatism today, interviewing the likes of Michele Bachmann, who was supposed to be a front-runner Republican candidate for president -

Bachmann: “We are headed down the lane of economic Marxism, more quickly, Sean, than anyone could have possibly imagined. It's difficult for us to even keep up with it day to day ... At this point the American people - it's like Thomas Jefferson said, a revolution every now and then is a good thing. We are at the point, Sean, of revolution. And by that, what I mean, an orderly revolution -- where the people of this country wake up, get up and make a decision that this is not going to happen on their watch ...

“Economics works equally in any country. Where freedom is tried, the people rejoice. But where tyranny is enforced upon the people, as Barack Obama is doing, the people suffer and mourn ... Right now I'm a member of Congress. And I believe that my job here is to be a foreign correspondent, reporting from enemy lines. And people need to understand, this isn't a game. this isn't just a political talk show that's happening right now. This is our very freedom, and we have 230 years, a continuous link of freedom that every generation has ceded to the next generation. This may be the time when that link breaks. ... Do we get into an inner tube and float 90 miles to some free country? There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now. The founders gave everything they had to give us this freedom. Now it's up to us to give everything we can to make sure that our kids are free, too. It's that serious. I hate to be dramatic, but-"

Hannity: “It's not - you are not overstating this case, Congresswoman, and you don't need to apologize for it. And as a matter of fact, it's refreshing. And I can tell you, all around this country, on 535 of the best radio stations in this country, people are saying ‘Amen!' ‘Hallelujah!' ‘where have you been?'"

One would satirically imagine Hannity playing R.E.M's “It's the End of the World as We Know It" in the background if one weren't afraid that he, in reality, might actually have done so. Buckley frowns upon the tendency of alarmists on our side to decry liberal or socialist programs as the end of the world.

pg. 158
“Conservatives have not ‘proved' to the satisfaction ... of the public ... that the moderate welfare state has paralyzing economic or political consequences for the affluent society. Our insistence that the economic comeuppance is just around the corner (not this corner, that one. No, not that one, that one over there ...) has lost to conservatism public confidence in its economic expertise."

As an example, Buckley looks at the conservative failure to argue against Social Security laws.

pgs. 151-152
“... if it can be shown that the economic consequences of a single federal social service are negligible, then it follows that the economic consequences of a second social service can be negligible; and perhaps a third, and so on. In a word, I am arguing that to a far greater extent than where philosophical values are the point at issue, the economic meaning of a social security measure is quantitatively measurable. A hundred billion dollar economy with federal social security running a deficit of, say, ten million, can be argued to have become able to ‘afford' a further social service with the same contemplated operating deficit (say federal medical insurance) when its earnings are up to two hundred billion, a federal housing program might become ‘feasible' - with economic dislocations no greater, proportionately, than they were back in the days when it was only social security."

A strong economy will not be immediately destroyed by socialist programs. So by predicting the collapse of the United States, conservatives belittle their own economic arguments and underestimate the strength of the American economy, as well as the longevity of an originally free market run society if put under gradual socialist encroachment. The arguments we ought to be making are not that President Obama is the equivalent to Vladimir Lenin, nor that it is impossible to live under socialist government (many Europeans have been doing so for decades without turning into third world countries). Buckley here was using social security as one example of a welfare state encroachment. The bad conservative arguments made back in the 1950s against social security are the same bad arguments being made against Obamacare today.

- still on page 152 -
“The social security program has been criticized, among other things, as certain to induce national insolvency. It will not, as presently projected; and it is not likely ever to cause it. It may cause other things ... but not that; and one must distinguish."

Lamentably, such reasonable distinctions are no longer the habit of current voices who claim to be speaking for the conservative position.  For example -

Glenn Beck -
“I called in all of the producers. I called in all the heads of my company, and we sat in a room and we listened to Americans describe how they were going to take down a major U.S. bank in May and how they were going to collapse the stock market and bring on a second economic collapse, how this could not appear to be coordinated and could not appear to be coordinated or union‑backed, how the unions were dead and the only way to really restart the unions is to collapse the system ... You must alert all of your friends. Whenever you hear someone say there’s plenty of money, it’s just in the wrong hands or it’s just in the hands of these greedy bankers, you know they’re part of this strategy. Have you heard anyone say we have plenty of money? ...

“I’d rather be laughed at, called a conspiracy freak, et cetera, et cetera and save the country ... You can call it a conspiracy theory, but ... wait until you see how they are going to use the state and county and local labor unions to do exactly what they did to the housing market. It’s the same tactic, gang. The same tactic. And it ends with the destruction of the economic system of the United States of America. They are bringing it on through chaos and bringing down of Wall Street and the stock market."

It's probably unfair to compare Glenn Beck's rhetoric to William F. Buckley's. After all, Beck has his roots in the John Birch Society. But, his polarizing, doom-prediction mode of argument is not different from that of a large number of modern excuses for conservatives.

But let's take this a step further. Now that the Tea Party is embracing the teachings of Ayn Rand, how does the conservative position look? The oldest critique of capitalism for its selfish materialism was by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and their criticisms did not go unnoticed. Immanuel Wallerstein argued that capitalism creates what is essentially slave labor. It was Che Guevara, held up as a hero today, who declared that capitalism was “a contest among wolves. One can win only at the cost of the failure of others." Modern influential economists like Paul Krugman write of what they call “market failure" when the pursuit of self-interest of one individual results in hurting society as a whole (e.g., Enron). Noam Chomsky wrote that selfishness in the marketplace simply “privatizes tyranny." Simply as a matter of rhetorical awareness, why on earth wouldn't conservatives avoid gruff philosophers, like Rand, who come along insisting upon declaring how virtuous it is to be selfish?

pg. 141 -
“The conservative demonstration, at the hands of the old guard, has not been made successfully, in part because conservatism was made to sound by its enemies, frequently with the aid of its friends, like a crassly materialist position, unconcerned except with the world of getting and spending ... The conservative movement in America has got to put its theoretical house in order. A day-to-day conservatism of expediency will only carry us from day to day, hazardously, at best."

We don't need the likes of Ayn Rand and her “Virtue of Selfishness", or the John Birch Society with its conspiracy theories, or Murray Rothbard advocating that privatization ought to be extended even to the military, or Ron Paul opposing Paul Ryan's “Path to Prosperity" proposal on the grounds that it doesn't correctly follow the principles of Murray Rothbard. If some of these sorts are endearing, they also get in the way and obstruct our ability to make reasoned arguments to the public. We don't need these obstructions as allies because we have other things, like oh say, history, on our side.

pg. 142 -
“Not only have the old guard conservatives failed in making the demonstration successfully, the Moderns also have failed. Not only by failing to come up with useful definitions, but by failing to take advantage of their strategic opportunity, while occupying the center of the stage, to direct the attention of the nation to the solid advantages to be got from turning back the clock, as it was turned back, so profitably, by Abraham Lincoln when he freed the slaves, by England when she repudiated socialism after seven years of it, by West Germany when, in 1948, she decided to get out of the way of the marketplace."