Thursday, 28 February 2008

Bill Buckley's dead

The father of modern American Conservatism William F. Buckley is dead, and since his own obituary of Ayn Rand pulled no punches, neither will this brief note.

The man was an insufferable prig -- the prime mover in destroying America's honourable small-government  Old Right and replacing it with the holy-rolling, big-government, state-worshipping conservatism still in evidence today.  "Let us be clear as to Buckley’s impact," says one of the better brief obituaries I've seen around the traps so far:

 First, it was he who gave voice to a bevy of “ex-communists” through his publication National Review. Many of them swapped communism for Catholicism but never really converted to supporting classical liberalism. They often remained statists to the end, simply preferring the pabulum of Jesus to the Marxist snake oil...

But Buckley’s leanings toward a Wilsonian foreign policy helped push the bipartisan policy that exists today. Both major parties are still the war parties... Nor should we forget that Buckley tried to justify a free society on the basis of religion. Everything he did was driven by his Catholicism. By justifying capitalism on the basis of religion Buckley was a recruiter for the Religious Right.

In the end Buckley did much to encourage the two most destructive forces within the Republican Party and the conservative movement -- [so called 'compassionate conservatism' and 'neo-conservatism'].

Ayn Rand gave Buckley's Conservatism an Obituary in 1960

There are three interrelated arguments used by today's "conservatives" to justify capitalism, which can best be designated as: the argument from faith—the argument from tradition—the argument from depravity.  [None are valid defences of capitalism, and the last requires freedom's defence to begin by spitting in one's own face.] Today's "conservatives" are futile, impotent and, culturally, dead. They have nothing to offer and can achieve nothing. They can only help to destroy intellectual standards, to disintegrate thought, to discredit capitalism, and to accelerate this country's uncontested collapse into despair and dictatorship.

Buckley returned the favour twenty-two years later when Rand died, declaring "Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn." Hardly true. However, now Bill Buckley too is dead, and so too is the mongrel grab bag of notions that flew under the banner he called conservatism dead; killed by the contradictions of its own creaky foundations, and well buried by Brad Thompson in a superb dissection called: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM, summarised in six parts here at NOT PC last year.  You can see an index for the whole series at the foot of this post.

And just to give Buckley his due, he was at least feisty.  Here's him on YouTube promising to sock Gore Vidal in the goddamn face [hat tip Hilton]:


: Bloomberg has the more mainstream obituary of the man.

UPDATE 2:  If it's objected, as a few emailers have, that Buckley intellectually transformed and re-energised the intellectual movement for freedom, I have just one reply: Bullshit.

His fusion of capitalism and religion is not merely wrong, it's fatal -- the reason for his violent antipathy to Rand was that she pointed that out.  After their only meeting she described Buckley as

Clever, but an intellectual light-weight. An opportunist. Very 'social'; not genuinely interested in ideas. And potentially dangerous, if he acquires an influence -- because he tells people that the foundation of capitalism is religious faith, which implies that reason and science are on the side of the collectivists.

There is no greater point that a defender of capitalism could concede, and Buckley's religio-conservatives handed it to their opponents as a free gift.

And in truth, opposing communism was the only thing that held Buckley's conservatives together -- indeed, as Robert Bidinotto describes, the disparate wings of the conservative political movement he fused together managed to remain together "only so long as it had a common enemy—the Soviet empire. But with the collapse of that enemy in 1989, the movement fell into disarray, sundered by a host of philosophical divisions that are regularly lamented even within the pages of his own National Review."

The divisions are given above in Rand's description, and their rending apart described in Thompson's piece, which is linked above.


  1. I think it is rather sad that WFB has died. He formed the modern 'libertarian' movement in America, very much on his own in the early days, and set the scene for Goldwater, Reagan and others.

    Unlike the multitudes of "those who never were", who continuously attacked Buckley from under their rocks...he got stuck in and achieved something credible and lasting.

    A great man.

  2. Elijah

    By that standard, Stalin was a great man.

    Buckley was a statist. He was dishonest with his readers. He was dishonest with himself. He is someone who should have known better than to behave as he did.

    A great man? Certainly not. He was an excuse- a mental weakling.


  3. "He formed the modern 'libertarian' movement in America, very much on his own in the early days..."

    That's an interesting claim. Could you provide some evidence for it?

    If it's because many of the founders of the US Libertarian Party left Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom in disgust in the late sixties to start something both more robust and more principled, then that would be akin to suggesting the ACT Party formed the Libertarianz, since Libz was founded largely by people who had left the ACT party in disgust. ;^)

  4. ... he tells people that the foundation of capitalism is religious faith, which implies that reason and science are on the side of the collectivists

    And that's his legacy - reason and science *are* on the side of the collectivists now. Which is why many otherwise intelligent people are drawn to the left, I think.

    Conservatives are dimmer than 20 watt bulbs - and look at their spokespeople - carnival barkers like Limbaugh and O'Reilly.

  5. WFB is dead, and as for his mistakes he probably sees them clearly now. But, despite the approbrium dished out by objectivists he was an achiever. His campaign for small, limited government and low tax was consistent. He had to admit that the external enemies of his day, the communist bloc, were a very real threat to western civilisation. The reality was it demanded a powerful deterent and that was not going to be achieved by everyone ignoring the problem and going about their own ways. To coin the old phrase 'come at them retail and they will slaughter you wholesale'. Collectivism--the Randian equivalent of the antichrist-was then a necessary evil.

    I recall an interview with him during the Gorbachov perestroika era. Was he pleased with Mikhail's steps towards freedom and changing the face of communism? 'Not at all' he replied, 'I want to see the Mr Gorbachov renounce communism totally. It is a failed and evil system.' Something Yeltsin later had the cojones to deal with.

    Some years back my pre paid subscription to the National Review went awry and despite the correspondence I was getting letters of a debt collector's tone. In final desperation I wrote to Buckley himself detailing the saga. He found the time to write a short note apologizing for 'my harrowing experience' and signed it 'Cordially, WFB' I never heard from the subscription department again. In my experience that summed him up.

    Cordial and effective.


  6. Well said, George...WFB was an achiever.

  7. The anonymous contributor has got it right. The conservative movement in the US abandoned reason and left it to the liberals/socialists/the left to claim.

    Let's see what WFB "achieved":

    a fractious US "conservative" movement reliant on spiritualism/superstition and demanding coercive collectivism for all the people. That's not something to be proud of by any means.


    George, there are those who reported that Stalin was such a nice man to meet and greet. Among that number there were even foreigners, like Americans. Their sentiment provides little of relevance towards understanding the substance of that man and what he achieved.

    Wasn't it so that the reason you followed Buckley was because he was a spiritualist?


  8. lgm: It depends how you define 'followed'.I was attracted to NR after reading a series on federalism written by a number of authors. Buckley edited NR. His religious faith was unknown to me originally. I can see how any spiritual conviction grates with you and it would lead to consigning any opinion held by any beleiver being consigned to the bin.

    If you really want a case of apoplexy, try reading Jacques Ellul's "Propaganda; The formation of men's attitudes."

    As to the pleasant manner of the likes of Stalin, I concur. It is the substance of a man that counts.
    Most libertarians I have met have been pleasant too.


  9. Agree LGM. When we look back we can see how prescient Rand was.

    Now we can see how prescient Leonard Peikoff has been over the past 8 years or so. Who has done the most damage to USA- a motley crew of Islamic fanatics or the Far Right that Buckley enabled?

    We have a huge disrespect for science, we have kids dying because of anti-vaccination religious luddites. Measles is rife in some states - we are going back to Victorian times.

    And Bush has destroyed the economy. Peikoff was right all along about the Right being more dangerous than Islam. I hope Perigo can see it now.

  10. George

    You wrote: "I can see how any spiritual conviction grates with you and it would lead to consigning any opinion held by any beleiver being consigned to the bin."

    ANY opinion held by ANY beliver? That's quite a conclusion you've made there. Had you considered that you are wrong?


  11. Anonymouse

    You've lost me. What is the significance of the reference to "Perigo"?


  12. Just an Objectivist thing LGM. Peikoff recommended voting Democrat cuz he thought the Religious Right and Bush were more of a threat to the US than Islam.

    Perigo disagreed and went on and on and on and on about it...PC kept uncharacteristically quiet ;-)

  13. LGM, yes it is quite a conclusion and I could be wrong. In the interests of casuistry, please prove that case with an example from one of your posts.



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