March 4, 2008

March 4, 2008 | Commentary on Political Thought

A Better World, Because of Buckley

In this vast universe, the powers of man are surprisingly limited. No one can command that the sun rise or set, that the winds blow or be still, or that the rain fall or stop falling.

And yet.

Using only the power of his pen, one man famously declared he would "stand athwart history and yell 'Stop!'" And with his words, the late William F. Buckley did indeed stop this nation's accelerating slide into socialism. Or, at least, he slowed it enough that the rest of us could join him in his mission to protect our country by preserving its conservative principles.

In 1955 Buckley launched National Review, which he helmed for the next 35 years. From the outset the magazine was a forum for the sort of clear thinking that had waned during FDR's long presidency. "There are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950. Buckley's brilliant prose single-handedly changed that, even if readers often had to keep a dictionary nearby.

At a time when many thought we could co-exist with communism, Buckley insisted we should aim to defeat it. That dream would be achieved by one of National Review's earliest subscribers, Ronald Reagan.

At a time when more and more Americans looked to government to "manage the economy," Buckley preached skepticism. He never wavered in his belief that the free market was the best economic system, a fact borne out by America's decades of growth during his lifetime.

Despite Buckley's achievements, it's easy for a 21st century conservative to despair. Our federal government has grown beyond imagination. Washington lawmakers seem addicted to pork projects. Entitlement programs are on autopilot, set to spend more and more until they bankrupt us.

Yet to understand what Buckley gave us, we must understand what he prevented from being taken away.

For one thing, we take it as a given that the United States boasts the mightiest military on the planet. But in the 1950s and '60s many of our allies went in a different direction. For example, in 1945, Canada had the third largest Navy in the world. Today it consists of a mere 30 surface ships and four submarines manned by 9,500 sailors. Britain, France and Germany also look to the U.S. to provide military leadership.

Meanwhile, even as American political candidates argue over how to "fix" our strained health care system, it's the socialist single-payer system that's truly broken. Patients in Britain's National Health Service face long waits for substandard care. Canadians who can afford to often cross the border to see a doctor in the U.S.

Too many of our Western allies have descended into a socialist dreamland. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains committed to the traditional liberal principles -- such as freedom, equality and opportunity -- championed by William F. Buckley.

Adhering to conservative (i.e., classical liberal) principles, Ronald Reagan's America won the Cold War while Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau hung back, claiming, "We have a great deal to learn from the Soviet Union." It's why the U.S. was able (finally) to overhaul our welfare system even as many Western nations became hopeless welfare states.
Conservatism thrives here because of the movement Buckley founded.

As The New York Times, no fan of right-wing principles, admitted in its obituary, Buckley made "conservatism -- not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas -- respectable in liberal post-World War II America." Simply put, he helped preserve our freedoms by repeatedly reminding people how important those freedoms are.

As the conservative movement marches forward, its leaders must acknowledge the debt they owe Buckley. Both death and taxes may be inevitable, but Americans today pay fewer taxes in large part because of Buckley's efforts. And death will never silence his clarion call. Godspeed, old friend. Thank you.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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