William F. Buckley is the dude when it comes to modern American conservatism and fusionism. As I’ve become a more voracious reader of the National Review, I thought that it would be prudent to read up more on his writings and philosophy. After all, you owe it to your philosophy to know how to win. Winning, in this context, is having an ownership of my own political ideology. What follows is a sort of review and condensation of some of the best arguments Buckley’s Up from Liberalism.
The Central Arguments
Is the nature of man controllable? This is the central competing idea between conservatism and liberalism. If so, then it behooves governments and other controlling entities to guide man along the path of progress. If not, then it is immoral for governments and the like to exert any control over man through law or other, less political means. John Stuart Mill makes a similar argument in his book Utilitarianism; that “for man’s own good” is not a justifiable reason for government to exert political force over her citizens.
The conservative position continues thus: Man is not equal and cannot be made equal except before the law. This is the only form of true equality that democracy and Western capitalism can permit. All perversions otherwise would be contradictory. This idea is observable in the kind of economics taught in the Chicago school: Everyone is born with different aptitudes and abilities and can take them to the market. In the simplest of all possible examples, as long as person A can chop wood faster than person B, economic inequality will exist. It will be permanent as long as the differences in our genetic makeups are guaranteed to make us different from one another. Additional factors such as cultural norms and local market mobility only exacerbate the problem of inequality.
Thus, the only morally sound way for government to enforce equality is before the law as the protection of the rights to life, liberty, and property are _not _vested in people by documents like the Magna Carta and the Constitution, but because man is born with them by sheer virtue of being a thinking creature.
Academic Freedom and its Applications
Hoping of his work Man and God at Yale, Buckley sticks a skewer in the academics of his time. A reading of _Up from Liberalism _shows that his arguments are just as pertinent now as they were during the 50s and 60s.
There is a wide gap between the theory and application of academic freedom. On paper, colleges and universities should be a “marketplaces of ideas”: a heterodox center of learning where faculty are free to share ideas without explicitly endorsing them or encouraging their students to adopt them. This is obviously not the case in practice, as there are a number of colleges that have reputations for leaning right or left (e.g. Hillsdale and UC Berkley).
During the time Buckley wrote his book, the National Review endorsed a student-led inquiry into how their professors actually taught. For instance, did they teach just Keynesian economics, or did Hazlitt get his time on the chalkboard as well? Were they critical of right to work laws, or were they taught in balance with how closed union shops are actually ran? This study was met with backlash from academics, who called it “typical conservative snooping”. The reader is left to make their own conclusion (albeit with a wink and nod from Buckley) over why professors were so incensed at having their practice of academic freedom put under a lens.
Many proudly liberal and progressive instructors at colleges point to how students become more politically liberal over the course of their studies. Those who are brave enough to make the unspoken argument spoken point to this phenomenon and say “Ha! Liberals are the more educated voting bloc for a reason!” Buckley argues that this does not reflect an actual, meaningful change in the political proclivities of students, but rather that the subtle indoctrination of liberalism is powerful enough to turn staunch conservatives into liberals over time. Simply put, the more time a student spends under liberal professors at liberal institutions of learning, the more likely it is that they will be liberal on by virtue of time alone. It is not a true political awakening per se, but a purposeful weakening of the conservative spirit of college students over time.
This line of thought is picked up later in the book in the argument that we should judge the character of institutions of higher learning on what exactly is done with the exercise of all of this academic freedom. Is a student truly a graduate and a champion of the liberal arts when they picket and pamphlet for ideas that are explicitly against the tenets of Western culture?
The Heterodoxy in Practice
Buckley then takes the ideas of the academic heterodoxy and point to how they have applications in political culture.
The appeal of Communism makes it ripe for adoption by politically liberal graduates and the downtrodden American masses who are not satisfied with the nature of Western capitalism. I’ve alluded to this in another post, but the point bears repeating: Communism is a neatly packaged ideology that appeals to the whole person. Wayward intellectuals and the politically downtrodden can commit themselves entirely to Communism as it is a wholly redemptive creed. Communism, as it is sold, is a solution to all of the world’s woes of war, famine, and economic inequality. Democracy does not offer this kind of creed. Rather, by design, it exists only to institutionalize and protect liberty.
While a heterodoxy of ideas is appropriate for the academy, Buckley raises the question: Where was it first established that it is good that people of vastly different political ideologies to co-exist (geographically or otherwise)? (Note that Up from Liberalism and Buckley’s seminal Man and God at Yale were written during the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.)
The question is a timeless one. Why should defenders of Western liberalism and capitalism co-exist with socialists, communists, and other radical leftists? One group, primarily made up of communists, is resolute in their desire to destroy the foundations of the other’s society. Why should enemies of communism and defenders of traditional American values be expected to co-exist peacefully with such radicals? In a case like this, conservatives would argue that intolerance (something discouraged by practitioners of every form of liberalism, yet something to be expected of all political stripes) is permitted.
Something as stark as the difference in practices of Communists and American liberal capitalists is not something that can be attributed to a mere “difference of opinion”. A line must be drawn in the sand that clearly demarcates one as good and the other bad. Liberalism, Buckley argues, is not an adequate enough philosophy to make this distinction. As Liberalism is bound to its tenets of tolerance, moral relativism, and postmodernism, no truly tolerant liberal can be ideologically consistent and point to Communism for what it truly is: the chosen ideology of the biggest mass-murderers in the history of the modern world.
Political Freedom and its Applications
Buckley goes on to argue for universal suffrage as a good means by which to run a democracy, but not a good means by which to judge the effectiveness of one. Political freedom is only useful so long as it is decentralized. Anyone who has voted for a losing candidate in any election has felt that their vote did not matter. And at the level of federal elections, it likely didn’t!
Many conservatives, Buckley included, rightfully argue that the best means by which to affect politics is at the local level. This idea ties directly into the concept of little-r republicanism. Large, urban states cannot possibly know what is best for “flyover country”, so we should not expect their voting blocs to effectively write and endorse federal legislation that affects them. The same is true in the opposite direction.
As centrism and tendencies towards collectivism grow ever stronger, the power of the individual’s vote is weakened. With this in mind, it follows that man is not made free by universal suffrage. If a weakened vote is all that can be cast, then he has no means by which to free himself from his chains. To argue otherwise would be to argue that one is wise simply because one can read. It does not matter that one can, what matters is what one can do with it.
This argument ties a neat bow around the conservative argument that freedom is not won or lost all at once, but rather by attrition. It is easier for government to tell man that he is free the longer he has been living under the government’s thumb. Again, just because government protects the right to universal suffrage man is not made truly free. This method of chipping away at freedom continues into all other facets of the human exercise of freedom. Are we truly free to speak when government makes arbitrary and ad hoc determinations over what is and is not hate speech? Are we truly free to exercise religion when school districts of the 20th century (with the government’s blessing) forced students to pray at the beginning of every day?