Conservatism’s Loss of Candor

BuckleyIn a 1952 polemic on the future of the Republican Party, the conservative essayist Bill Buckley begins by favorably quoting the iconic libertarian thinkers Herbert Spencer, Albert J. Nock, and H.L. Mencken, agreeing with them that the state was the “common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious, and decent men.” The young Buckley considered the GOP’s most important problem at the time to be that it failed to offer “a significant alternative to statism.”

Given this opening, nothing could be more distressing than Buckley’s abrupt about-face on foreign policy. He writes:

“The thus-far invisible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union… means that we have got to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores… [conservatives] will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war-production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington.”

My point here is not to excoriate a long-deceased man for launching a “fusion” between individualism and anti-Communism that he knew was phony and strictly rhetorical—Mr. Rothbard has already written this point better than I can. This passage represents everything that most libertarians hate about Buckley—namely, his duplicity about personal liberty—but for me, it’s everything that I like about Buckley. What interests me in this passage is not that a conservative would endorse national security statism, but that few conservatives would have the intellectual courage to follow him in such an explicit admission

Consider the right’s only intellectual leader of comparable caliber today, Mr. William Kristol of The Weekly Standard (now that the National Review has largely fallen to base anti-intellectual and nativist urges). In his 2008 New York Times article in which he, like Buckley before him, laid out what he saw the GOP’s agenda under the next president, there was a Buckley-esque turn toward national defense, but in that essay, the military industrial complex was not “a totalitarian bureaucracy” compelled by the necessity of national survival. It was “the most unambiguous public good,” and any deal with the new president “directing [stimulus] dollars to much-needed and underfunded defense” was a good one, small government ideals be damned–or at very least, ignored.

Other examples could be summoned from the other most important holdovers of Buckley’s conservative years (Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, et al). For these thinkers, “big government” has nothing to do with the national security state. Indeed, the big takeaway from Sowell’s most recent Town Hall column seems to be that America’s foreign policy has failed due to big government, which he appears equate with “politicians sounding off in Congress about pulling out, and trying to micromanage from thousands of miles away.” If we had doubled down, like in post-war Germany, Afghanistan would’ve been “winnable.”

This is the intellectual equivalent of the confused Tea Partier who yelled “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Keep your big meddling government off my big government foreign adventures! It’s not that Krauthammer, Kristol, Sowell, and co. wouldn’t admit, if pressed, that the NSA, CIA, DHS, and all the wars are “big” government programs—it’s that they do not impress or acknowledge this reality to their readers in Buckley fashion. Euphemisms are employed–rhetoric about “strength” and “national greatness.”

Even though on many matters I find Buckley repugnant, he was almost always forthright. When he wanted to abandon conservative principles, he said as much. When he wanted to shred the 5th Amendment, he advocated for its repeal. When Buckley addressed the Iraq War, he called it “anything but conservative,” because it had “an unrealistic frank,” which denied regime change would be “terribly arduous.” He said that this did not make the war wrong necessarily, but if conservatives were to support it, they must be honest about what kind of war it was.

If Buckley was alive today, I’m not certain what he would think about, for example, NSA bulk meta-data collection, as he often had nuanced and unpredictable views (see, marijuana legalization). But I am certain that if he did favor bulk collection, he would have the intellectual courage to say directly that conservatives need to explicitly abandon the ideals of the 4th Amendment, rather than sneaking around it, as the neoconservatives have, while inventing ad-hoc arguments to justify what they have already decided.

What I lament about the loss of Buckley is not that conservatism has lost a consistent and ethical thinker, but that it has lost his directness and candor, which looked unflinchingly at what he thought was necessary (even if that was repulsive). Conservatism must again find the courage to face its basic inconsistency before it can hope to regain the intellectual respectability that Buckley’s brand once had.

*updated for clarity