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.”
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 -
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 -
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 -
“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-"
“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.
“... 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."
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."
pg. 143 -
“Who says government cannot look after the health of the people ‘better' than they can themselves? Conservatives say so, liberals tend to disagree. Shouldn’t the two forces advance theoretical directives that reflect the divergence?"
pg. 146 -
“... our position, adequately defined, is not materialistic, and is not ‘hard to defend,' and is not burdened by a primary appeal to the ‘selfish in man' ..."
Buckley repeatedly insists that how you choose to make your argument matters.
pgs. 155-156 -
“A libertarian theorist has no difficulty in clinching his theoretical case against the social security laws - he has merely to state simply that the program has the effect of abridging a freedom unnecessarily. But the flesh-and-blood dissident has earthier problems ... The oppressed minority, if it is asking for relief by the majority, must find a way of stating its case compellingly. Otherwise, the majority is not likely to inconvenience itself."
We don't need to goof around trying to call selfishness good, or trying to explain how libertarian utopia would be better, instead we can make a simpler argument from political philosophy 101.
pg. 156 -
“Conservatives have failed to alert the community to the interconnection between economic freedom and - freedom. No government would dare be so abusive as ours is of our economic freedoms if we were alive to the relationship. It is a part of the conservative intuition that economic freedom is the most precious temporal freedom, for the reason that it alone gives to each one of us, in our comings and goings in our complex society, sovereignty - and over that part of existence in which by far the most choices have in fact to be made, and in which it is possible to make choices, involving oneself, without damage to other people. And for the further reason that without economic freedom, political and other freedoms are likely to be taken from us."
pgs 157-158 -
“Let the individual keep his dollar - however few he is able to save - and he can indulge his taste (and never mind who had a role in shaping it) in houses, in doctors, in education, in groceries, in entertainment, in culture, in religion; give him the right of free speech or the right to go to the polling booth, and at best he contributes to a collective determination, contributes as a general rule an exiguous voice. Give me the right to spend my dollars as I see fit - to devote them, as I see fit, to travel, to food, to learning, to taking pleasure, to polemicizing, and, if I must make the choice, I will surrender you my political franchise in trade, confident that by the transaction, assuming the terms of the contract are that no political decision affecting my sovereignty over my dollar can be made, I shall have augmented my dominance over my own affairs.
“That is the demonstration, surely, that the conservatives need to make, before we are overwhelmed; but how pitiful have been our efforts, how tragic our failure. How vulnerable our desire for economic freedom to the devastating indictment of materialism. It is widely felt that the right of property is a rich-man’s concern, that the Cadillac he hungers after is the fullest expression of that freedom. How widely it is assumed that societies can, without damage to the metaphysical base of freedom, do away with Cadillacs. Thus have they framed the argument: you have nothing to lose, by our depredations on economic freedom, but a few Cadillacs."
This is an argument we can make without “crying wolf."
“Until the objection to involuntary participation in social security reifies in the public mind as something more than a ritualistic exercise in libertarian crankiness, we are not going to set the nation marching to our rescue."
The conservative position is essentially a philosophical one. We oppose single government encroachments upon American freedom out of a matter of principle.
pg. 160 -
“What all conservatives in this country fear, and have plenty of reason to fear, is the loss of freedom by attrition. It is therefore for the most realistic reasons, as well as those of principle, that we must resist every accretion of power by the state, even while guarding our rhetoric against such exaggerations as equating social security with slavery."
pg. 160-161 -
“The failure of the conservative demonstration in political affairs rests primarily on our failure to convince that the establishment of the welfare state entails the surrender, bit by bit, of minor freedoms which, added together, can alter the very shape of our existence.
“The tendencies of liberalism are every day more visibly coercive, as the social planners seek more and more brazenly to impose their preferences upon us. Here, I believe, is a practical distinction at which conservatives should hammer hard - the distinction between the kind of welfarism that turns dollars over to people, and that which turns services over to them ...In the first instance, the recipient of the money is free to allocate it according to his own lights, to satisfy his own needs and pleasures according to his own estimate of their priority. There are the obvious perils, that he will stress whiskey rather than milk, television over education; but these are the perils of liberty, with which conservatives are prepared to live ... I judge this to be significant, because as long as one is free to spend the money with reference to one's desires, the government's control is at least once removed."
Remember, economically, our country can afford quite a bit of socialism. Enacting into law socialist misunderstandings of economics hurts us, and detracts from economic growth, but the argument to make is not that we can't afford it. The argument to make is that it's both unwise and wrong. Gradual accumulation of power by the federal government is not the direction in which any American should want to keep traveling. And what if some Americans argue they feel freer because of the “security" provided to them by a welfare state?
pg. 162 -
“The problem having been pondered over in the context of economic realities, the wise man will conclude that the best way to make medicine widely available is to make wealth widely available, and in turn the best way to do that is to liberate the economic system from statist impositions.
“I think the conservative has the best of the argument when he maintains that security does not equal freedom, even though he admits that freedom is also for the eccentric. Objective standards of freedom must not be lost sight of, in our indulgence of the eccentric. If a man feels free in prison, we must simultaneously acknowledge his right to feel free, and declare that he is not free. If the people announce that they feel freer by virtue of the securities extended by the welfare state, we must be prepared to concede what they authoritatively tell us about their state of mind - yet insist, doggedly, that we strive after an objectively free society."
pg. 163 -
“As far as state welfare is concerned, there is a long enough historical record of it to establish that relatively affluent societies given to a measure of state welfarism can extend their economic lives over an impressive period of time without collapsing from exhaustion ... It is quite possibly true that through such measures as federal social security we sow seeds that could lead to economic destruction; but then it is also true that being born with Original Sin is a poor way to start out in life. Social security will not necessarily bring economic collapse - it is merely a step in the wrong direction; a departure from sound principles of government. To insist doctrinally that it will bring disaster is to weaken the case for conservatism, and make difficult the conservative demonstration."
A lesson still NOT learned by Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Mike Gallagher, and Tucker Carlson, among others.
Buckley wants to direct conservatives towards a union over certain principles, even if those principles are not much more than reasonable objections to socialistic policy.
“At the political level, conservatives are bound together for the most part by negative response to liberalism; but altogether too much is made of that fact. Negative action is not necessarily of negative value. Political freedom's principal value is negative in character. The people are politically stirred principally by the necessity for negative affirmations. Cincinnatus was a farmer before he took up the sword, and went back to farming after wielding some highly negative strokes upon the pates of those who sought to make positive changes in his way of life."
Buckley then tells a story that serves as an example of the kind of thinking we are up against, starting on page 172 and going to 173 -
“The direction we must travel requires a broadmindedness that, in the modulated age, strikes us as antiquarian and callous. As I write there is mass suffering in Harlan County, Kentucky, where coal mining has become unprofitable, and a whole community is desolate. The liberal solution is: immediate and sustained federal subsidies. The conservative, breasting the emotional surf, will begin by saying that it was many years ago foreseeable that coal mining in Harlan County was becoming unprofitable, that the humane course would have been to face up to that realism by permitting the marketplace, through the exertion of economic pressures of mounting intensity, to require resettlement. That was not done for the coal miners (they were shielded from reality by a combination of state and union aid) ... But having made arrangements for relief, what then? Will the grandsons of the Harlan coal miners be mining coal, to be sold to the government at a pegged price, all this to spare today's coal miners the ordeal of looking for other occupations? ...
The Hoover Commission on government reorganization unearthed several years ago a little rope factory in Boston, Massachusetts, which had been established by the federal government during the Civil War to manufacture the textile specialities the Southern blockade had caused to be temporarily scarce. There it was, ninety years after Appomattox, grinding out the same specialties, which are bought by the government, and then sold at considerable loss. ‘Liquidate the plant,' the Hoover Commission was getting ready to recommend. Whereupon a most influential Massachusetts Senator, Mr. John F. Kennedy, interceded. ‘You cannot,' he informed a member of the Commission, ‘do so heinous a thing. The plant employs 136 persons, whose only skill is in making this specialty.' ‘Very well them' said the spokesman for the Commission, anxious to cooperate, ‘Suppose we recommend to the Government that the factory retain in employment every single present employee until he quits, retires, or dies - but on the understanding that none of them is to be replaced. That way we can at least look forward to the eventual liquidation of the plant. Otherwise, there will be 136 people making useless specialities generations hence; an unreasonably legacy of the Civil War.'
The relationship of forces being what it is, the factory continues to operate at full force.
To be sure, a great nation can indulge its little extravagances, as I have repeatedly stressed; but a long enough series of little extravagances, as I have also said, can add up to a stagnating if not a crippling economic overhead. What is disturbing about the Civil War factory incident is first the sheer stupidity of the thing, second the easy victory of liberal sentimentalism over reason."
pg. 173-174 -
“There is a sophisticated argument that has to do with the conceivable economic beneficences of pyramid building, and of hiring men to throw rocks out into the sea. But even these proposals, when advanced rhetorically by Lord Keynes, were meliorative and temporary in concept: the idea was to put the men to work until the regenerative juices of the economy had done their work. Now we wake to the fact that along the line we abandoned our agreement to abide, as a general rule, by the determinations of the marketplace. We once believed that useless textile workers and useless coal miners and useless farmers - and useless carriagemakers and pony expressmen - should search out other means of employment ...
“Centralize the political function, and you will lose touch with reality, for the reality is an intimate and individualized relationship between individuals and those among whom they live; and the abstractions of wide-screen social draftsmen will not substitute for it. Stifle the economic sovereignty of the individual by spending his dollars for him, and you stifle freedom. Socialize the individual's surplus and you socialize his spirit and creativeness; you cannot paint the Mona Lisa by assigning one dab each to a thousand painters."
Inefficiency is multiplied whenever the government takes control of more wealth. Government control of more of the nation's wealth seems to have been the first priority of the current Presidential administration from the beginning. As the results and consequences are only beginning, more and more Americans are capable of being persuaded over to the political philosophy of conservatism. This demands the mastery of the art of persuasion by the modern conservative, an art the majority seems to have misplaced somewhere on their way to work. We would all do well to heed the words and the rhetorical example given us by William F. Buckley. His ability to articulate these ideas is an ability every conservative ought to cultivate.
pg. 175 -
“Boston can surely find a way to employ gainfully its 136 textile specialists - and its way would be very different, predictably, from Kentucky's with the coal miners; and let them be different. Let the two localities experiment with different solutions, and let the natural desire of the individual for more goods, and better education, and more leisure, find satisfaction in individual encounters with the marketplace, in the growth of private schools, in the myriad economic and charitable activities which, because they took root in the individual imagination and impulse, take organic form. And then let us see whether we are better off than we would be living by decisions made between nine and five in Washington office rooms, where the oligarchs of the Affluent Society sit, allocating complaints and solutions to communities represented by pins on the map."
In summary, Up From Liberalism is a primer on arguments that today's conservatives have forgotten. It needs to be read and then re-read again.