Originally published: 1959
176 pages
Chapter 17


William F. Buckley, Jr.

What all conservatives in this country fear is the loss of freedom by attrition.

This is the starting point for William F. Buckley, Jr.'s observations and commentary on the state of activist conservatism in the late 1950s. What makes this volume so valuable today is how accurately Buckley sees the future from his then-youthful vantage point. Moreover, he does not fear to submit his views to public inspection. Observing Buckley's success, which was far from assured when he began his quest, we see a quintessential example of why not to be reticent about expressing one's opinions no matter how far afield our views may seem when judged in the light of "common knowledge" or "accepted wisdom." Buckley demonstrates by exposing his own ideas to public scrutiny how flimsy the wisdom of entrenched ideas often becomes.
     The global view of both politics and culture has changed dramatically in the half century since Buckley took center stage in an attempt to reorder not just American politics, but American society. To reduce the myriad changes he suggests to a single concept is relatively easy: most of what has been transformed or accomplished in the last fifty years revolves around the notion of responsibility. Most of what has been removed or refigured revolves about the notion of entitlement.
     Buckley intends to have us look at our responsibilities if for no other reason than at the time this book was written we as a nation and a society of individuals were beginning not to do so. Conversely, then (as now) almost everyone was happy to talk about their rights. That


political rhetoric and policy had been turned upside down since the turn of the twentieth century was apparent. These changes found their genesis in the economic disaster of the Great Depression. Up From Liberalism doesn't address everything that it might in these arenas, but its incisive delineation of how to move forward in a specific manner-what to challenge-is a starting point. The results of Buckley's conservative political efforts, of course, speak for themselves. But it is still very important to recall how it all began.
     Buckley's title is a play on Booker T. Washington's (1856-1915) autobiography, Up From Slavery, published in 1901. Washington's life story is one of sheer determination and fortitude. As he was born into slavery just before the Civil War began, his achievements were attained in an era when society sought to hold him and his race down as a matter of principle. When his work was done Washington had accomplished more than his contemporaries would have imagined (he forged the Tuskegee Institute into the great university it became) but less than he might have had his race not been used against him. It appears, from the title reference in Buckley's case, that the progress and achievement evidenced by the manner of Washington's life was something Buckley wished to instill in the conservative cadre, who were contending with a different form of slavery-an economic
slavery defined in Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (Chapter 13). By means of pure resolve and conviction, neither Washington nor Buckley would be smothered by prejudice or intimidation.
     At the outset, Buckley sets himself up as an arbiter of language-out of necessity and unapologetically. To advance their contentions liberals choose to use not just words but emotionally crafted specters of social disasters or their remedial opposite, brilliant equalitarian fiscal options. In explaining why he dissects these flights of fancy in rather blunt fashion Buckley feels constrained to make one of his fundamental points:

               The compulsion to soften (words and meaning) can be seen elbowing out
               the desire to make oneself clear. . . . The modulated approach threatens
               to overwhelm reality and truth. The human impulse to be tactful evolutionizes  
               into a tendency to refuse to recognize facts.

As John Adams noted two hundred years ago "facts are stubborn things," and Buckley is equally stubborn in recalling them when faced with self-righteous, impractical, or utopian schemes to make the world over.


     While evincing much frustration with liberals who deny reality Buckley continues to argue with them in an attempt to make sense of things that exist only as a mirror image of truth. By way of example, he describes-fifty years ago-what today is known as political correctness. Being politically correct involves more than using emotionally neutral wording, which often obfuscates personal responsibility; it also entails the effort to camouflage behind such phrasing partisan political goals that invariably revolve around full-scale government intervention aimed at equalitarianism. This was something Buckley could not, throughout his life, let pass unnoticed.
     Another example of Buckley's foresight is his discussion of "entitlements," a word that did not appear in Up From Liberalism but the substance of which and its inexorable infliction on our society he clearly envisions. The concept of "entitlements" and their social effect was seen earlier in Frederic Bastiat's The Law (Chapter 7) and will appear later in Bertrand de Jouvenel's The Ethics of Redistribution (Chapter 28). Buckley takes the fears and consternation of these authors through the course in logic now well-defined by modern American political confrontations; in stating his philosophical opposition to this brand of welfarism he preaches the law of unintended consequences-of aid thoughtlessly given without consideration of its whole effect. Although some may not care to give Buckley credit for being a prophet, he pursues to their reasonable ends liberal tendencies in evidence at the time he wrote and in so doing comes to what now look like inescapable conclusions.
     Buckley launches his investigation into social welfarism (a main thrust of this book) on a foundational level. He observes that at the base of a liberal's beliefs are assumptions that human beings are perfectible, that social progress is predictable, and that equality is attainable-all through the action of the state. The modern liberal still claims that reason alone will lead us to successfully effect these goals. This reflects a rebirth of the failed theorizing of France's eighteenth-century Enlightenment. In his perennial fashion, Buckley demonstrates that reason does precisely the opposite of what the liberals claim. Actually, a blind faith in reason incongruously combined with gushing sentimentality-unguided and unrestrained by intelligent thought, rationality, or principle-is what causes liberals to feel so strongly and yet be so wrong at the same time. Emotions and arrogance often drive liberals to think they know the answers and can implement them through the state-despite fact and experience.


John Dickinson, one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, puts it succinctly in 1787 when he describes some of the less-than-benign structures for national government that were being considered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia:

               Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.

As well, this sentiment was noted centuries before by Julius Caesar:

                                Experience is the teacher of all things.

Denying faith in reason seems almost blasphemous, but that is not what Dickinson and Caesar are suggesting. What they offer is that man can intellectually reason his way to seemingly rational answers that human beings cannot willingly embrace. Man's reluctance to live only for his fellow man is not based on selfishness-obviously a negative concept-but on self-preservation. This latter reality is grounded on the idea that we are responsible for ourselves and if each of us attends to that personal obligation (recalling always the equal rights of others) we will achieve a greater good. Thus reason is as beneficially applied in understanding human nature and psychology as it is in imagining utopian possibilities. In recalling that reason can take us to more than one answer Dickinson and Caesar are standing firm in reality. In the modern era it is the fiction of idealism that Buckley desires to address.
     At mid-century Buckley saw the liberal political leadership-for political gain-offering everyone everything that they might need or could want. Moreover, if someone was not imaginative enough to envision what he "needed," liberals would not hesitate to proffer what they thought he should have. All of this was to be at the expense of the government as though the government was some Midas-like entity separate from the citizenry. It must be continually remembered that we taxpayers are the government. Buckley argues that the continuing liberal largesse is a crime of unbridled proportions. It is a crime against the recipients as much as against those who are taxed to fund the irrational, but pseudo-emotionally satisfying giveaways. Buckley's answer to such nonsense is to note that

               there will not be a robust political life until people become convinced
               that it matters what they think.


Then they must put their thoughts into action. The difference in the views of conservatives and liberals can be found in the idea of how to encourage a rational society. While each understands the value of the rule of law there are different views of what those laws are intended to accomplish; that same difference reflects the underlying philosophies of how our governing is to be effected. Conservatives see law in its larger context, as something that has to be applied to human circumstances-to what is. Liberals see law as a tool, a lever, to force conformity to reasoned (in their view) behavior-to what should be. For the liberal, if we lose our sense of morality, rules will suffice. The human condition says otherwise.
     In the second half of his book Buckley dissects liberalism in its economic misapprehensions. He offers that the planned economy was fostered by demagogic politicians and supported by an academic aristocracy that derided any who were so bold as to disagree. This derision occurs either through personal attacks or intellectual condescension (as noted by George Gilder in Wealth and Poverty [Chapter 27]). Fewer dollars should be spent by the people themselves the liberal says, while more tax dollars should be spent on their behalf because the good of the people is not to be decided by them but by the political and academic cognoscenti. This centrally planned arrogance is easy to debunk and yet it was and is so widely accepted in the liberal political world and
mainstream media that it frustrates common intelligence (and all of this takes place irrespective of the enormous success free markets attained after World War II [see The Commanding Heights, Chapter 29]). That so many people could be so misguided by their own hubris is simply the human condition in its most ineffective guise. It is human reason gone down a self-destructive path.
     From his 1950s perch Buckley sees the centralization of government as the looming problem of the twentieth century. He intones that the more concentrated government becomes the more mechanical our response is because government is too big and too far away to do anything about. Apropos of this, he notes that the easiest way for liberals to circumvent political obstacles-any hindrance that common sense moves people on a local level to put in the liberal's path-is to create the greatest possible distance between where a tax dollar is collected and where it is spent. Liberals in Washington cunningly disburse ever-growing tax receipts (or, worse, deficits) to localities where the question is not "Is this a good program?" but "How can we obtain maximum federal funding?" (Someone else is


paying for it, right?) This changes the first question that should be asked on the local level: is it proper that we participate in this program at all, and if so, how do we attain locally set goals reflecting local conditions?
     The second and broader local query is whether these tax dollars should go to Washington in the first place. Do we get revenue and other advantages back in equal measure to what we are taxed and what we truly need-even if considered in the broadest sense of the national public interest? By sending its money off to Washington the electorate suffers a loss from friction (the surcharge Beltway bureaucrats inevitably must levy as a handling fee before sending local dollars back, reduced in size and covered with regulatory gobbledygook) while being concomitantly subjected to the vicissitudes of politics that misdirects tax dollars based on political whims-or political power. The latter results in the "earmark" scandals that are central to twenty-first-century congressional corruption. (Earmarks are the application of Congressionally-appropriated funds to specific districts or states at the behest of individual senators or congresspersons.)
     Liberal income redistribution schemes foisted on an unsuspecting and often naive public are a target for Buckley's sharp pen and incisive logic. Everyone loves a gift, and when it comes from the government it is not only thought of as free it is actually touted as such. Buckley marvels, as should we, that people can so consistently and completely act as though the government actually has something other than what it takes from us. There is no government money; there is only our money. How it is used should guide our every public impulse.
     In this vein, while he reviews the Social Security program Buckley explodes all the myths of what it isn't and he exposes it for what it actually is-income redistribution. The system will ultimately fail because its interior financial logic is that of a pyramid scheme, where the benefits for existing beneficiaries are taken from current workers-with the hope by these contributors that there will be new workers to support them as they retire. Social Security is an unfunded liability of the government. When those workers fail to materialize the program will suffer catastrophic financial collapse. It is a system that does social damage by fostering irresponsible financial security expectations. That fact has come home to roost in the twenty-first century as the U.S. Social Security program faces near-term insolvency.
     Buckley's considerations, as a group, call for the reduction of federal centralization and aggrandizement, for elimination of the idea


that one-size-fits-all government is possible, and for the retention of tax dollars locally whenever possible so that those who are affected see to the proper application of these funds. Citizens must be able to watch government as it watches them and this can only be done on a local level.
     What riles Buckley most, as noted in the opening paragraph of this synopsis, is his fear of a liberalism that becomes more coercive and more direct with each passing year as "the social planners seek more and more brazenly to impose their preferences on us." The taking of a dollar for taxes reduces the taxpayer's freedom incrementally just as every other reduction of property rights does. (For a comprehensive exploration of the equation that defines the incremental loss of liberty as taxation rises, consult Property and Freedom [Chapter 11], and Capitalism and Freedom [Chapter 25].) In the end, Buckley asks how much we are willing to give in before we simply give up. It is not an idle question. In 1835 in Democracy in America (Chapter 8), after he details the long list of things government tends to do for us if left unchecked, Alexis de Tocqueville asks,

               [W]hat remains [for the people] but to spare them all the care of
               thinking and all the trouble of living?

Reading Buckley's now half-century-old reflections provides some cogent and thought-provoking answers to what happens to us when we surrender responsibilities for ourselves and allow our lives to be remolded in the liberal image.

About the Author
William F. Buckley, Jr. was born in New York City in 1925 and raised in Connecticut. He attended Yale University and sparred with American liberals continually from his undergraduate days until his death in 2008. In 1955, he established and for the next thirty-five years served as editor of National Review, one of America's preeminent conservative publications. He was one of the founders of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), formed in response to the liberal agenda of the 1960s. From 1966 to 1999 he hosted Firing Line, a program devoted to intellectual give-and-take that was television's longest-running show. He authored more than forty books of political commentary, autobiography, fiction, and philosophy. His thousands of speeches and less formal talks


promoted his aim of getting people to think, then act. From 1962 until his death he wrote a column titled On the Right, syndicated in more than three hundred newspapers, where he attempted to make sense of the political and economic life of this country and of the world. Wrote the New York Times, "His most inimitable pieces are those that skewer the people he doesn't like, of whom there is no shortage."

Available from most online booksellers as a used book only, not currently in print


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