Happy 80th

This month marks the 80th birthday for Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. Of Buckley, it can probably be persuasively argued, that if there were no Buckley, there would have been a much attenuated Conservative movement and probably no Ronald Reagan presidency.  With no Reagan presidency, perhaps the collapse of the “Evil Empire” would have taken longer.

Before there was a Fox News, before there was a Weekly Standard, when Commentary Magazine tilted to the Left, there was William Buckley. Buckley’s public career exploded into prominence when as a newly minted Yale graduate he wrote God and Man and Yale. . Yale’s public goal was to produce individuals educated in a Christian environment, but nonetheless managed instead to graduate, under the tutelage of Leftist professors, agnostic collectivists.  In 1955, he founded the National Review where he served as editor-in-chief. The animating conviction of the National Review is that it is the “job of conservatives was to stand athwart history, yelling, stop.”

If by history you mean the rise of the Conservative movement, then surely Buckley would have been happy to let history barrel along unimpeded. However, at the time National Review was founded the direction of history was down a Socialist and collectivist path and the keyword here is “down.”  The elite in academe and the government believed that the economy could be better run under the heavy supervision of the federal government. Confiscatory inheritance taxes, socialized medicine, nationalization of key industries, and high marginal income tax rates were all common convictions of Liberal leadership. During the entire decade of the 1950s, top marginal tax rates were over 90%. It would be presumptuous but pleasant to pretend that the drop in the top rate to its current 35% is directly attributable to Buckley’s influence.  It should be noted here, that despite these lower rates, the top 1% of the country’s income earners, earn 17% of the income and pay 34% of the federal income taxes. Similarly, the bottom 50% of income earner, pay 3% of the federal income taxes.

On the occasion of Buckley’s milestone there will be many who write of him from first hand knowledge and can provide far more depth as to how the rivers of his influence have inundated the Conservative movement. But in one very important way, Buckley’s influence has been very personal.

It was the summer of my junior year in high school when I struggled with two books: Up From Liberalism by Buckley and The Affluent Society by one of Buckley’s Liberal adversaries, economist John Kenneth Galbraith. My young, but less informed mind did not fully grasp the arguments of either titan, but the general pictures they painted were clear even to the inexperienced eye.   Buckley believed in the nobility of the individual and the deference the state should pay to the individual’s capacity and inherent freedom to decide for himself. Galbraith saw individuals as vulnerable unless properly supervised by a government populated with intelligent and educated people who shared Galbraith’s values. I did not know which vision was empirically correct, but Buckley’s vision called me to independence where Galbraith tried to persuade me of the advantage of collective dependence. I wanted to believe in Buckley’s world because it empowered me. Buckley won.

Ironically, Buckley’s argument had less to do with economic efficiency and more to do with the moral necessity to respect individual freedom. Galbraith talked less of individual freedom but of efficiency and avoiding the waste of competition. The only freedom Galbraith was concerned about is freedom from economic uncertainty. If the last half of the last century taught the open-minded anything, it was that central command economies are less efficient.  Free economies not only respect the individual, but generate more wealth.

What made Buckley’s influence so important is that there are thousands of stories like this.  These are stories of people who learned to take Conservatism seriously, to embrace the individual, because Buckley articulated a compelling Conservative position with wit, humor, and passion. As Buckley mark’s his 80th birthday, I can celebrate 34 years as a Conservative born of Buckley. Thank you Mr. Buckley.

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