March 25, 2004
[The following chapter appeared in " The March of Freedom: Modern Classics in Conservative Thought," a publication of The Heritage Foundation featuring essays from 15 writers, scholars, and statesmen whose thoughts and deeds gave conservatism its contemporary form. An introductory commentary from Heritage President Edwin J. Feulner Jr. is followed by an essay from the late William F. Buckley Jr.]
By Edwin J. Feulner Jr. (1994)
Founder of National Review, host of Firing Line, writer of spy novels, sailor in all weather, player of the harpsichord, lover of the Latin Mass, and definitive authority on God and man at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr. is quite simply the most famous conservative of his generation. When he broke upon the intellectual scene in 1955, with the publication of God and Man at Yale, Ronald Reagan was still a card-carrying Democrat, and conservatism as we know it today was barely a glimmer in Russell Kirk's eye. In the four decades that have followed, Bill Buckley has been the leader of America's conservative insurrection--a revolution hatched in the cramped offices of National Review and fed on Pat Buckley's chicken salad sandwiches. The long march up from liberalism has led through the wilderness of Goldwater's defeat, to the promised land of Reagan's victory, and over the corpse of communism. At every stage of the journey, Bill Buckley has confidently called the cadence. And all the while, he has conducted a running seminar on the art of writing and the art of living.
If, as George Orwell insisted, "political chaos is connected with the decay of language," then the reordering of American politics is inseparable from Bill Buckley's resurrection of rhetoric. He is an orator in an age of mutterers. A rhetorical pyro-technician for whom every day is the Fourth of July. A polemicist with the power to convince or enrage but never to disappoint. An elegant eulogist who expands our empathy into places we never expected. An essayist with no patience for the shapeless, the careless, the colorless. A verbal craftsman with an unfailing ear for the rhythm of words. A philosopher who adds the fuel of ideas to the fire of political debate.
It is difficult now to remember how isolated the conservative remnant seemed in the 1940s and early 1950s, meeting by torchlight in its catacombs. In August of 1945, Churchill was defeated and a newly elected Labor majority in England walked into Parliament singing the "Red Flag," a leftist battle hymn unsung since the Spanish Civil War. At home, the Republican Party adopted a program that was little more, in Buckley's words, than "measured socialism." Historian Morton Smith stated that conservatism "is all but dead in our present world."
It was not true, but it felt like it was true. Ronald Reagan joked that he had received his first issue of National Review "in a plain, brown wrapper." "The few spasmodic victories conservatives are winning," Buckley wrote in 1954, "are aimless, uncoordinated and inconclusive. This is so ... because many years have gone by since the philosophy of freedom has been expounded systematically, brilliantly and resourcefully."
But midway through the 1950s, the philosophy of freedom found its voice--systematic, brilliant, resourceful--and it belonged to a freshly minted graduate of Yale. In a swirl of passionate public controversy (with Vidal, Mailer, Kempton, Galbraith, Baldwin), the young Buckley introduced liberals to humility and inspired conservatives to confidence. His arguments were illuminated by the lightning of wit and suffused with scholarship. They made right reason seem plausible, then inevitable. It soon became clear that Buckley was not just developing a following, but a movement.
William F. Buckley Jr., with his drawled "Waal ..." and suits that seem to come pre-rumpled from the cleaners, is one of the most recognizable men in America. But to those who know him, he is most easily recognized for acts of personal kindness and unexpected generosity. It is unprecedented that a life of such intense argument should yield so many friends. Friends in trouble who have discovered bills mysteriously paid. Friends who have found the private Buckley unfailingly tolerant of the failings of others. When Bill was running for Mayor of New York City against John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, New York Times columnist Murray Kempton observed, "The only one in the group I would dare call collect long distance for a loan is William F. Buckley."
The public style is playfully self-confident ("I don't stoop to conquer. I merely conquer.") But his polemic always has a purpose; his erudition always serves an ideal. He is impatient, for example, with the tart skepticism of H.L. Mencken ("He debunked for the sake of debunking," Buckley has observed). His own approach he describes as knowing "about the quality of reverence and feeling it strongly and feeling that the holy things should be treated venerably." In this category he counts his Church, his nation, and his alma mater. When he has been critical of these things, it is always evidence of loyalty and love, never disdain.
He has demonstrated that wit is possible without cynicism; that a pundit can also be a pilgrim. "I am not tortured by the problems that torture a great many other people," he writes, "because I do very sincerely and very simply believe in God and in the whole of the Christian experience. And there are enough resources in it to show me where to go." It is the key to understanding both his character and his politics. "I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world."
Liberalism's chief flaw, Buckley argues, is spiritual: its skepticism and relativism; its elevation of method over substance; its defense of freedom as an end in itself. It "has no eschatology; no vision, no fulfillment, no point of arrival." Freedom, while the highest goal of democracy, cannot be the highest goal of civilization. It is a road on which we travel, not a house for us to live in. Our true destination is defined by the creed we hold about the cosmos in which we live. Liberalism's epistemological relativism reduces everything, including politics, to unsignifying sound and fury. "It cannot care deeply, and so cannot be cared about deeply," he writes. "There is nothing there of ultimate meaning to care for, though there is much there to despise." It is a political faith crippled by moral apathy, unable to distinguish between noble and base, just and unjust, or to "call for the kind of passionate commitment that stirs the political blood."
William Buckley was born November 24, 1925, sixth of ten children--nine of whom would go on to write or work for National Review. His father was an oilman of imposing presence ("He worshipped three earthly things: learning, beauty, and his family"). His mother, a woman of gregarious, Southern grace ("She was wonderfully content making others happy by her vivacity, her delicate beauty, her habit of seeing the best in everyone"). Before his teens, Bill's cosmopolitan upbringing had made stops in Venezuela, France, and England. A precocious youth, he was fluent in French and Spanish before entering prep school, and already possessed of strong, early convictions. As a boy of six, he sent a letter to the King of England demanding that His Majesty repay his war debts to the United States. At age fifteen, he received a note from his father admonishing him "to be more moderate in the expression of your views and [to] try to express them in a way that would give as little offense as possible." "That must have been," wrote one biographer, "the most wasted piece of advice since the Prime Minister counseled Edward VIII against hanging out with divorcees."
At Yale, Bill proved a natural debater and rose to the chairmanship of the Yale Daily News. Invited to give the university's annual Alumni Address, his speech urged Yale to declare "active Christianity the first basis of enlightened thought and action" and "communism, socialism, collectivism ... inimical to the dignity of the individual." The Administration promptly censored it. God and Man at Yale, written a year after graduation, extended and developed this critique of anti-Christian and collectivist bias in higher education. It was praised in the Saturday Review as having "a clarity, a sobriety, and an intellectual honesty that would be noteworthy if it came from a college president." The book's criticisms clearly struck a nerve (McGeorge Bundy pronounced its author "a twisted and ignorant young man"). They also struck a chord. Buckley's bombshell became a best-seller, launching his career.
At this point, the narrative of Bill Buckley's life becomes a biography of the conservative movement. A few days short of his thirtieth birthday, he founded National Review. Forrest Davis, editor of The American Mercury, recalls his first meeting with Buckley, who was traveling to Washington to recruit writers for his new journal: "This positive kid came into the restaurant, with his tie half off, sat down, kicked off his shoes, and became the focus of the whole table's attention. By the time he left the restaurant, he had its staff almost fighting for the chance to serve him. I thought, 'Here's a man who's going somewhere.'" From the first issue, the new magazine invited strong reactions. Author Dwight Macdonald charged it with "brutality," "banality" and "vulgarity"--the work of "half-educated provincials." Even the faithful had some initial doubts. Russell Kirk wrote T.S. Eliot that the magazine evinced "too much Yale undergraduate spirit." But that spirit proved a weapon of enduring value, managing the difficult task of being literate about the illiterate, witty about the witless. It not only jousted with the Black Knight of liberalism and collectivism, but revealed it, on closer inspection, as a tattered, toothless scarecrow. After the Chernobyl meltdown: "The Soviet Union has finally contrived to give power to the people." On the CIA: "The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation. Everyone in the room was killed except Sukarno." On a suggested advertising campaign for the New York Times classified section: A smiling picture of Castro above the slogan, "I Got My Job Through the New York Times."
The magazine found an immediate influence because it managed to bring together (and hold together) a group of brilliant, contentious, sometimes difficult men--James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, Willi Schlamm. The glue that maintained this united conservative front was Bill Buckley's personality. "Morale at NR," writes Garry Wills, "was kept up, in the early years, almost as an army's is. And the source of the unifying spirit was evident. Things lit or dimmed at NR with the coming or going of ... Bill's laugh."
Beyond this task, the magazine acted as the Buckley Writing Academy--cultivating talent like George Will, Garry Wills, Chilton Williamson, and Richard Brookhiser. It became, through the quality of its writing and the force of its personalities, the single place to talk directly to the entire conservative movement. The place Ronald Reagan chose to write, after the Goldwater defeat, that conservatism was not routed, just its "false image." The place Patrick Moynihan chose to announce the failure of his pet project, guaranteed income programs ("And so you turn out to be right," he congratulated Buckley).
In a life hectic with accomplishment, National Review is Bill Buckley's proudest achievement. Once, when asked by supporters to run for governor of New York, he replied, "I could not make the time to run for governor, given my obligations to National Review. My friends couldn't understand my priorities. But I was very content with them." The attention he lavished was rewarded: Many conservatives learned in its pages, for the first time, that they were not alone. Listen to two witnesses:
Peggy Noonan: "I started reading NR, and it sang to me. They saw it the way I was seeing it: America was essentially good, the war is being fought for serious and valid reasons, the answer to every social ill is not necessarily a social program, when you let a government get too big you threaten your own liberties--and God is real as a rock. I was moved, and more. It assuaged a kind of loneliness. Later I found that half the people in the Reagan administration had as their first conservative friend that little magazine."
Pat Buchanan: "It is difficult to exaggerate the debt conservatives of my generation owe National Review and Bill Buckley. Before I read NR, there was virtually nothing I read that supported or reinforced what I was coming to believe. We young conservatives were truly wandering around in a political wilderness, wondering if there was anyone of intelligence and wit, any men of words, who thought and felt and believed as we did.... For us, what National Review did was take the word conservatism, then a synonym for stuffy orthodoxy, Republican stand-pat-ism and economic self-interest, and convert it into the snapping pennant of a fighting faith."
In 1965, Bill Buckley raised that pennant in a run for Mayor of New York City, his only excursion into electoral politics. Though he refused to display what he called "the usual neurotic confidence of all political candidates," the race was not a lark. motives were didactic, not political." A showing of 13.4 percent for a conservative in Gotham was more than respectable, but Bill's head was never turned by politics. "As one gets older, one has to decide whether to be a critic or a statesman.... When Ronald Reagan offered me the ambassadorship to Afghanistan, I said, 'Yes, but only if you give me fifteen divisions of bodyguards.' I was offered the United Nations and I said no. It is an illusion that you need to be a formal member of government to have real power." He believes, with good reason, that his voice is better amplified by writing than running. In 1970 he was asked, "What would you feel about running for a seat in the House?" "God, no," he replied. "Not unless I can have all the seats simultaneously"
Recounting Bill Buckley's accomplishments becomes difficult, because his cruising speed is several gears higher than most. His life reveals not a minute that the locust has eaten. In 1960, he helped organize Young Americans for Freedom. In 1961, he was instrumental in founding the New York Conservative Party; Firing Line was started in 1966, quickly earning an Emmy. Given the breadth of his interests, it is not surprising that he has published books on everything from Joe McCarthy to celestial navigation, from national service to children's literature. His passion for sailing has carried him in the wake of Columbus across the Atlantic and then across the Pacific for good measure. At age fifty, he began a series of ten best-selling spy novels. The week he went into semi-retirement from National Review, he performed a harpsichord concerto with the North Carolina Symphony. "I get bored," he says, "winding my watch." But we who are privileged to watch him are never bored.
Two great contributions define Bill Buckley's place in the history of conservative thought. The first is his built-in, shockproof, ideological balance detector. Conservatism is notoriously difficult to define and any of its elements--freedom, order, tradition--can be taken to extremes that undermine the whole. There is a line beyond which an emphasis becomes a mania; and beyond which a political movement is disqualified from the task of governing. It has been Bill's role to grab the wheel and give it a sharp turn when conservative thought veered toward "crackpot alley."
Never was this role more important than when the movement was still a kicking fetus. Conservatism in the 1950s was colorful, eccentric--and largely irrelevant. Some taught that theism was weakness and altruism a crime. Others accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist agent. In both cases, Bill Buckley shored up the ideological levies that defined the course of the conservative mainstream. The result was a movement prepared for Goldwater and respectability, and then for Reagan and power.
Buckley's second contribution has been to lend conservatism an intellectual style that challenges its designation by J.S. Mill as "the stupid party." ("As the intelligent are liberals," Maurice Baring once commented, "I am on the side of the idiots.") For the liberal establishment, Buckley's besetting sin was not his conservatism, but his intelligence and wit--the fact that he is both conservative and interesting. This was a threat like none it had ever seen--the prospect of defeat on its own turf and terms. During his run for Mayor of New York, Buckley was informed that "a senior editor of the New York Times confessed ... that he had taken to dispatching different reporters to Buckley's press conferences because 'everyone who came back after a couple of them said he was going to vote for [him].'" Even the liberal palace guard could no longer be trusted.
The select company of those represented in these essays is familiar company for Bill Buckley. Albert J. Nock was a friend of Bill's family during his youth, often lunching at their home in Connecticut. Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, and James Burnham were fellow-laborers in the vineyards of National Review. Michael Novak was a religion editor at the magazine. Whittaker Chambers and Bill developed a close, spiritual friendship which lasted until Chambers' death in 1961 (recorded in the moving volume Odyssey of a Friend). Bill Buckley, it seems, has always been the epicenter of rumbles on the right.
"The Conservative Framework and Modern Realities" is taken from Up From Liberalism, published in 1959. It is a meditation on the meaning of conservatism--a creed so easy to live for and so difficult to define. Buckley, elsewhere, admits the challenge: "I have never failed to dissatisfy an audience that asks the meaning of conservatism." Usually his mischievous response is to quote Richard Weaver: "A paradigm of essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation." Here his answer is more clearly developed. Conservatism, he argues, is not an ideology, but it does have discernable principles at its core. Such principles must respect political reality, yet there are limits to maneuver--issues, times, and places where conservatism can bend but must not break. The result is a balancing act, "a dance along a precipice." But the currency in which our success is counted is always human freedom, not as an end but a means--the power to "live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth."
Buckley commends a conservatism that is principled, but not dogmatic; that balances long-term goals with the politics of the present. The objective is not the consistency of simple minds--the clean, well-lit, padded room of a single idea. It is to skillfully adjust to current circumstances until all our fundamental commitments--freedom, order, community, justice--are aligned in the same conservative vision. This allows for vigorous disagreement on the right over policy without recourse to anathema and schism because our unity is found in broad themes, not specific measures. "It is not a single conservative's responsibility or right to draft a concrete program--merely to suggest the principles that should frame it." But those principles remain the best hope of every future we canimagine.
I first met William Buckley in the fall of 1964 at the organizing committee meeting for the Philadelphia Society, also attended by Don Lipsett, Frank Meyer, and Milton Friedman. According to the early records of the group, Bill Buckley loaned the Society its first one hundred for organizing expenses at that meeting. (Since I was an impecunious graduate student at the Wharton School, it was highly unlikely that I would be in the position to have start-up funds for such a risky venture.) Thirty years later, the Philadelphia Society continues to fill a vital role as a meeting place for American conservatives. Bill has a talent for encouraging the small beginnings of great things. He is a gardener who has seen redwoods grow to maturity.
His association with The Heritage Foundation is a long one. He was a featured speaker in 1980 at the dedication of the Noble and Coors Buildings, our first Heritage headquarters. He also spoke when we dedicated the Fertig Board Room in our current building. But off the public platform, the private Buckley has been a friend of mine and of Heritage. Bill's talent for hospitality and his unfailing good humor have steadied and unified the conservative movement. At his semi-annual dinners and discussions, all the disparate factions of conservatism are invited and reminded of the battle against a common enemy that is more important than the squabbles among natural allies.
Over the years, Bill Buckley has baffled opponents with his insistent, infectious cheerfulness--the attitude of a man continually surprised by joy. This has strengthened the conservative cause, but its source is deeper than the ideology it enriches. Even Bill Buckley's spirited conservatism reveals an underlying and unsettling realism. "It is undoubtedly necessary," Buckley writes, "every now and then, to bare one's teeth; and we do so, preferably, in the course of smiling. But the smiles have a way of freezing, as sadness rolls in. The joys of warmaking [for conservative causes] presuppose the eventual stillness of victory: and that, so far as I can see, is beyond our reach. Perhaps it was meant to be so." But there is more to say--infinitely more. When asked by one interviewer whether "most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, do not crumble sooner or later," he replied, "Most, but not all." How, the interviewer persisted, could he be so sure? Because, Buckley affirmed, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."
With G.K. Chesterton, William F. Buckley asserts that "the men signed of the Cross of Christ go gaily in the dark." And the darkness itself is lifted as men and women follow his example.
The Conservative Framework and Modern Realities
By William F. Buckley Jr.
"... an essay such as this is far more important for what it destroys--or to speak more accurately for the destruction which it crystallizes, since the ultimate enemy of myth is circumstance--than for what it creates. This is sharply at odds with the conventional wisdom. The latter sets great store by what it calls constructive criticism. And it reserves its scorn for what it is likely to term a purely destructive or negative position. In this, as so often, it manifests a sound instinct for self-preservation." -- J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society
Up where from liberalism? There is no conservative political manifesto which, as we make our faltering way, we can consult, confident that it will point a sure finger in the direction of the good society. Indeed, sometimes the conservative needle appears to be jumping about as on a disoriented compass. My professional life is lived in an office battered by every pressure of contemporary conservatism. Some of the importunities upon a decent American conservatism are outrageous, or appear so to me, at any rate. ("We should have high tariffs because the farmers have high subsidies, and they shouldn't, by the way.") Some are pathological ("Alaska is being prepared as a mammoth concentration camp for pro-McCarthyites.") Some are deeply mystical ("The state can do no good." My answer: It can arrest Communists, can't it?); some ambitiously spiritual ("Conservatism has no extrinsic significance except in relation to religion.") Some urge the schematization of conservatism ("What passes for conservatism these days is nothing more than sentimentality and nostalgia. Let us give it structure ..."); or the opposite ("Beware the ideologization of conservatism.")
Still, for all the confusion and contradiction, I venture to say it is possible to talk about "the conservative position" and mean something by it. 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 his 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.
The weakness of American conservatives does not reduce neatly to the fact that some want tariffs, others not. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer was much taken during the 1950s by what goes by the name of "complementarity," a notion having to do with revised relationships in the far reaches of philosophical thought, where "opposites" come under a single compass, and fuse into workable philosophical and physical unities. No doubt Physicist Oppenheimer was sticking an irreverent finger in the higher chemistry of metaphysics: but his theory, like the Hegelian synthesis, served to remind us that there is almost always conceivable the vantage point from which the seemingly incongruous, the apparently contradictory, can be viewed in harmony. A navigator for whom two lighthouses can mark extreme points of danger relative to his present position, knows that by going back and making a wholly different approach, the two lighthouses will fuse together to form a single object to the vision, confirming the safety of his position. They are then said to be "in range."
There is a point from which opposition to the social security laws and a devout belief in social stability are in range; as also a determined resistance to the spread of world Communism--and a belief in political noninterventionism; a disgust with the results of modern education--and sympathy for the individual educational requirements of the individual child; a sympathetic understanding of the spiritual essence of human existence--and a desire to delimit religious influence in political affairs; a patriotic concern for the nation and its culture--and a genuine respect for the integrity and differences of other peoples' culture; a militant concern for the Negro--and a belief in decentralized political power even though, on account of it, the Negro is sometimes victimized; a respect for the omnicompetence of the free marketplace--and the knowledge of the necessity for occupational interposition. There is a position from which these views are "in range"; and that is the position, generally speaking, where conservatives now find themselves on the political chart. Our most serious challenge is to restore principles--the right principles; the principles liberalism has abused, forsaken, and replaced with "principles" that have merely a methodological content--our challenge is to restore principles to public affairs.
I mentioned in the opening pages of this book that what was once a healthy American pragmatism has deteriorated into a wayward relativism. It is one thing to make the allowances to reality that reality imposes, to take advantage of the current when the current moves in your direction, while riding at anchor at ebb tide. But it is something else to run before political or historical impulses merely because fractious winds begin to blow, and to dismiss resistance as foolish, or perverse idealism. And it is supremely wrong, intellectually and morally, to abandon the norms by which it becomes possible, viewing a trend, to pass judgment upon it; without which judgment we cannot know whether to yield, or to fight.
Are we to fight the machine? Can conservatism assimilate it? Whittaker Chambers once wrote me that "the rockcore of the Conservative Position can be held realistically only if Conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses--needs and hopes which like the masses themselves, are the product of machines."
It is true that the masses have asserted themselves, all over the world; have revolted, Ortega said, perceiving the revolutionary quality of the cultural convulsion. The question: how can conservatism accommodate revolution? Can the revolutionary essence be extravasated and be made to diffuse harmlessly in the network of capillaries that rushes forward to accommodate its explosive force? Will the revolt of the masses moderate when the lower class is risen, when science has extirpated misery, and the machine has abolished poverty? Not if the machines themselves are irreconcilable, as Mr. Chambers seemed to suggest when he wrote that "... of course, our fight is with machines," adding: "A conservatism that cannot face the facts of the machine and mass production, and its consequences in government and politics, is foredoomed to futility and petulance. A conservatism that allows for them has an eleventh-hour chance of rallying what is sound in the West."
What forms must this accommodation take? The welfare state! is the non-Communist answer one mostly hears. It is necessary, we are told, to comprehend the interdependence of life in an industrial society, and the social consequences of any action by a single part of it, on other parts. Let the steel workers go on strike, and sparkplug salesmen will in due course be out of work. There must be laws to mitigate the helplessness of the individual link in the industrial chain that the machine has built.
What can conservatism do? Must it come to terms with these realities? "To live is to maneuver [Mr. Chambers continued]. The choices of maneuver are now visibly narrow. In the matter of social security, for example, the masses of Americans, like the Russian peasants in 1918, are signing the peace with their feet. I worked the hay load last night against the coming rain--by headlights, long after dark. I know the farmer's case for the machine and for the factory. And I know, like the cut of haybale cords in my hands, that a conservatism that cannot find room in its folds for these actualities is a conservatism that is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy."
Indeed. The machine must be accepted, and conservatives must not live by programs that were written as though the machine did not exist or could be made to go away; that is the proper kind of realism. The big question is whether the essential planks of conservatism were anachronized by the machine; the big answer is that they were not. "Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms [said Mr. Chambers]. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all; how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles. And, of course, that results in a dance along a precipice. Many will drop over, and, always, the cliff-dancers will hear the screaming curses of those who fall, or be numbed by the sullen silence of those, nobler souls perhaps, who will not join in the dance." We cliff-dancers, resolved not to withdraw into a petulant solitude, or let ourselves fall over the cliff into liberalism, must do what maneuvering we can, and come up with a conservative program that speaks to our time.
It is the chronic failure of liberalism that it obliges circumstance--because it has an inadequate discriminatory apparatus which might cause it to take any other course. There are unemployed in Harlan County? Rush them aid. New Yorkers do not want to pay the cost of subways? Get someone else to pay it. Farmers do not want to leave the land? Let them till it, buy and destroy the produce. Labor unions demand the closed shop? It is theirs. Inflation goes forward in all industrial societies? We will have continued inflation. Communism is in control behind the Iron Curtain? Coexist with it. The tidal wave of industrialism will sweep in the welfare state? Pull down the sea walls.
Conservatism must insist that while the will of man is limited in what it can do, it can do enough to make over the face of the world, and that the question that must always be before us is, what shape should the world take, given modern realities? How can technology hope to invalidate conservatism? Freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life--can these verities be transmuted by the advent of tractors and adding machines? These have had a smashing social effect upon us, to be sure. They have created a vortex into which we are being drawn as though irresistibly; but that, surely, is because the principles by which we might have made anchor have not been used, not because of their insufficiency or proven inadaptability. "Technology has succeeded in extracting just about the last bit of taste from a loaf of bread," columnist Murray Kempton once told me spiritedly. "And when we get peacetime use of atomic energy, we'll succeed in getting all the taste out!"
How can one put the problem more plainly? I assume by now Mrs. Kempton has gone to the archives, dusted off an ancient volume, and learned how to bake homemade bread. And Lo! the bread turns out to be as easy to make as before, tastes as good as before, and the machine age did not need to be roasted at an auto-da-fé to make it all possible. A conservative solution to that problem. But when the atom does to politics what it threatens to bread, what then is the solution? Can one make homemade freedom, under the eyes of an omnipotent state that has no notion of or tolerance for, the flavor of freedom?
Freedom and order and community and justice in an age of technology: that is the contemporary challenge of political conservatism. How to do it, how to live with mechanical harvesters and without socialized agriculture. 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)--any more than it is now being done for marginal farmers; so that we are face-to-face with an acute emergency for which there is admittedly no thinkable alternative to immediate relief--if necessary (though it is not) by the federal government; otherwise, by the surrounding communities, or the state of Kentucky. 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 specialties 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 then," 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 specialties generations hence; an unreasonable legacy of the Civil War."
The Senator was unappeased. What a commotion the proposal would cause in the textile-specialty enclave in Boston! The solution, he warned the Commission, was intolerable, and he would resist it with all his prodigious political might.
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. Subsidies are the form that modern circuses tend to take, and, as ever, the people are unaware that it is they who pay for the circuses.
But closing down the useless factories--a general war on featherbedding--is the correct thing to do, if it is correct to cherish the flavor of freedom and economic sanity. 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 carriage-makers and pony expressmen--should search out other means of employment.
It is the dawning realization that under the economics of illusion, pyramid building is becoming a major economic enterprise in America, that has set advanced liberals to finding more persuasive ways to dispose of the time of the textile specialty workers. And their solution--vide Galbraith--is great social enterprises, roads, schools, slum clearance, national parks. The thesis of the Affluent Society is that simple. We have (1) an earned surplus, (2) unemployment, (3) "social imbalance" (i.e., too many cars, not enough roads; too much carbon monoxide, not enough air purification; too many children, not enough classrooms.) So let the government (1) take over the extra money, (2) use it to hire the unemployed, and (3) set them to restoring the social balance, i.e., to building parks, schools, roads.
The program prescribed by Mr. Galbraith is unacceptable, conservatives would agree. Deal highhandedly as he would have us do with the mechanisms of the marketplace, and the mechanisms will bind. Preempt the surplus of the people, and surpluses will dwindle. Direct politically the economic activity of a nation, and the economy will lose its capacity for that infinite responsiveness to individual tastes that gives concrete expression to the individual will in material matters. Centralize the political function, and you will lose touch with reality, for the reality is an intimate and individual relationship between individuals and those among whom they live; and the abstractions of widescreen social draftsmen will not substitute for it. Stifle the economic sovereignty of the individual by spending his dollars for him, and you stifle his 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.
Conservatives do not deny that technology poses enormous problems; they insist only that the answers of liberalism create worse problems than those they set out to solve. Conservatives cannot be blind, or give the appearance of being blind, to the dismaying spectacle of unemployment, or any other kind of suffering. But conservatives can insist that the statist solution to the problem is inadmissible. It is not the single conservative's responsibility or right to draft a concrete program--merely to suggest the principles that should frame it.
What then is the indicated course of action? It is to maintain and wherever possible enhance the freedom of the individual to acquire property and dispose of that property in ways that he decides on. To deal with unemployment by eliminating monopoly unionism, featherbedding, and inflexibilities in the labor market, and be prepared, where residual unemployment persists, to cope with it locally, placing the political and humanitarian responsibility on the lowest feasible political unit. 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.
Is that a program? Call it a No-Program, if you will, but adopt it for your very own. I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not?
It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free.