Buckley’s Observations on Libertarianism Sound Awfully Familiar

I recently acquired a copy of The Jeweler’s Eye, an old collection of essays by the late, great William F. Buckley, and found the following passage especially worth sharing, since it describes an unhealthy and counterproductive subset of the Right that is still active today:
In 1957, Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged, the novel by Miss Ayn Rand, wherein she explicates the philosophy of “Objectivism,” which is what she has chosen to call her creed. Man of the right, or conservative, or whatever you wish to call him, Chambers did in fact read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement. He did so by pointing out that her philosophy is in fact another kind of materialism – not the dialectical materialism of Marx, but the materialism of technocracy, of the relentless self-server, who lives for himself and for absolutely no one else, whose concern for others is explainable merely as an intellectualized recognition of the relationship between helping others and helping oneself. Religion is the first enemy of the Objectivist, and after religion, the state – respectively, the “mysticism of the mind,” and “the mysticism of the muscle.” “Randian Man,” wrote Chambers, “like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.”

Her exclusion from the conservative community was, I am sure, in part the result of her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral; but also there is the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg, or Savonarola, or Ayn Rand. Chambers knew that specific ideologies come and go, but that rhetorical totalism is always in the air, searching for the ideologue-on-the-make; and so he said things about Miss Rand’s tone of voice which, I would hazard the guess, if they were true of anyone else’s voice, would tend to make it eo ipso unacceptable for the conservative. “…the book’s [Atlas Shrugged’s] dictatorial tone…,” Chambers wrote, “is its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal…resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber – go!’ The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too, in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture….At first we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house.”

As if according to a script, Miss Rand’s followers jumped National Review and Chambers in language that crossed the i‘s and dotted the t‘s of Mr. Chambers’ point. (It is not fair to hold the leader responsible for the excesses of the disciples, but this reaction from Miss Rand’s followers, never repudiated by Miss Rand, suggested that her own intolerance is easily communicable to other Objectivists.) One correspondent, denouncing him, referred to “Mr. Chambers’s ‘break’ with Communism”; a lady confessed that on reading his review she thought she had “mistakenly picked up the Daily Worker“; another accused him of “lies, smears, and cowardly misrepresentations”; still another saw in him the “mind-blanking, life-hating, unreasoning, less-than-human being which Miss Rand proves undeniably is the cause of the tragic situation the world now faces….”; and summing up, one Objectivist wrote that “Chambers the Christian communist is far more dangerous than Chambers the Russian spy.”

What the experience proved, it seems to me, beyond the unacceptability of Miss Rand’s ideas and rhetoric, is that no conservative cosmology whose every star and planet are given in a master book of coordinates is very likely to sweep American conservatives off their feet. They are enough conservative and anti-ideological to resist totally closed systems, those systems that do not provide for deep and continuing mysteries. They may be pro-ideology and unconservative enough to resist such asseverations as that conservatism is merely “an attitude of mind.” But I predict on the basis of a long association with American conservatives that there isn’t anybody around scribbling into his sacred book a series of all-fulfilling formulas whcih will serve the conservatives as an Apostles’ Creed. Miss Rand tried it, and because she tried it, she compounded the failure of her ideas. She will have to go down as an Objectivist; my guess is she will go down as an entertaining novelist.

The conservative’s distrust of the state, so richly earned by it, raises inevitably the question: How far can one go? This side, the answer is, of anarchism – that should be obvious enough. But one man’s anarchism is another man’s statism. National Review, while fully intending to save the nation, probably will never define to the majority’s satisfaction what are the tolerable limits of the state’s activity; and we never expected to do so. But we got into the problem, as so often is the case, not by going forward to meet it, but by backing up against it.

There exists a small breed of men whose passionate distrust for the state has developed into a theology of sorts, or at least into a demonology, to which they adhere as any religious fanatic ever attempted to adhere to the will of the Lord. I do not feel contempt for the endeavor of either type. It is intellectually stimulating to discuss alternatives to municipalized streets, as it is to speculate on whether God’s wishes would be best served if we ordered fried or scrambled eggs for breakfast on this particular morning. But conservatives must concern themselves not only with ideals, but with matters of public policy, and I mean by that something more than the commonplace that one must maneuver within the limits of conceivable action. We can read and take pleasure in the recluse’s tortured deliberations on what will benefit his soul. Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest was not only a masterpiece; it was also a best seller. And we can read with more than mere amusement Dr. Murray Rothbard’s suggestion that lighthouses be sold to private tenants who will chase down the beam in speedboats and collect a dollar from the storm-tossed ship whose path it illuminates. Chesterton reminds us that many dogmas are liberating because, however much damage they do when abused, it cannot compare with the damage that might have been done had whole people not felt their inhibiting influence. If our society seriously wondered whether or not to denationalize the lighthouses, it would not wonder at all whether to nationalize the medical profession.

But Dr. Rothbard and his merry anarchists wish to live their fanatical antistatism, and the result is a collision between the basic policies they urge and those urged by conservatives who recognize that the state sometimes is, and is today as never before, the necessary instrument of our proximate deliverance. The defensive war in which we are engaged cannot be prosecuted by voluntary associations of soldiers and scientists and diplomats and strategists, and when this obtrusive fact enters into the reckonings of our state haters, the majority, sighing, yield to reality, whereas the small minority, obsessed by their antagonism to the state, would refuse to give it even the powers necessary to safeguard the community. Dr. Rothbard and a few others have spoken harshly of National Review’s complacency before the twentieth-century state in all matters that have to do with anti-Communism, reading their litanies about the necessity for refusing at any cost to countenance the growth of the state. Thus, for instance, Ronald Hamowy of the University of Chicago complained about National Review in 1961: “…the Conservative movement has been straying far under National Review guidance…leading true believers in freedom and individual liberty down a disastrous path…and that in so doing they are causing the Right increasingly to betray its own traditions and principles.”

And Henry Hazlitt, reviewing Dr. Rothbard’s magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, enthusiastically for National Review, paused to comment, sadly, on the author’s “extreme apriorism,” citing for instance, Dr. Rothbard’s opinion that libel and slander ought not to be illegalized and that even blackmail, “‘would not be illegal in the free society. For blackmail is the receipt of money in exchangef or the service of not publicizing certain information about the other person. No violence or threat of violence to person or property is involved.’…when Rothbard wanders out of the strictly economic realm, in which his scholarship is so rich and his reasoning so rigorous, he is misled by his epistemological doctrine of ‘extreme apriorism’ into trying to substitute his own instant jurisprudence for the common law principles built up through generations of human experience.”

“Extreme apriorism” – a generic bull’s-eye. If National Review’s experience is central to the growth of contemporary conservatism, extreme apriorists will find it difficult to work with conservatives except as occasional volunteers helping to storm specific objectives. They will not be part of the standing army, rejecting as they do the burden of reality in the name of a virginal antistatism. I repeat I do not deplore their influence intellectually, and tactically, I worry not at all. The succubi of Communism are quite numerous enough and eloquent enough to be counted upon to put their ghastly presences forward in effective protest against the marriage of any but the most incurable solipsist to a set of abstractionist doctrines the acceptance of which would mean the end of any human liberty. The virgins have wriggled themselves outside the mainstream of American conservatism. Mr. Hamowy, offering himself up grandly as a symbol of the undefiled conservative, has joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

We ran into the John Birch Society – or more precisely, into Robert Welch. Mr. Welch’s position is very well known, Scrubbed down, it is that one may reliably infer subjective motivation from objective result – e.g., if the West loses as much ground as demonstrably it has lost during the past twenty years to the enemy, it can only be because those who made policy for the West were the enemy’s agents. The ultima ratio of this position was the public disclosure – any 300-page document sent to hundreds of people can only be called an act of public disclosure – that Dwight Eisenhower is a Communist. (To which the most perfect retort – was it Russell Kirk’s? – was not so much analytical as artistic: “Eisenhower isn’t a Communist – he is a golfer.”)
In criticising Mr. Welch, we did not move into a hard philosophical front, as for instance we did in our criticism of Miss Rand or of the neoanarchists. Rather, we moved into an organizational axiom, the conservative equivalent of the leftists’ pas d’ennemi a gauche. The position has not, however, been rigorously explicated or applied. Mr. Welch makes his own exclusions; for instance, Gerald L. K. Smith, who, although it is a fact that he favors a number of reforms in domestic and foreign policy which coincide with those favored by Mr. Welch (and by National Review), is dismissed as a man with an idee fixe, namely, the role of Perfidious Jew in modern society. Many right-wingers (and many liberals, and all Communists) believe in a deus ex machina. Only introduce the single tax, and our problems will wither away, say the followers of Henry George….Only expose the Jew, and the international conspiracy will be broken, say others….Only abolish the income tax, and all will be well….Forget everything else, but restore the gold standard….Abolish compulsory taxation, and we all shall be free….They are called nostrum peddlers by some; certainly they are obsessed. Because whatever virtue there is in what they call for – and some of their proposals strike me as highly desirable, others as mischievous – no one of them can begin to do the whole job, which continues to wait on the successful completion of the objectives of the Committee to Abolish Original Sin. Many such persons, because inadequate emphasis is give to their pandemic insight, the linchpin of social reconstruction, are dissatisfied with National Review. Others react more vehemently; our failure to highlight their solution has the effect of distracting from its unique relevance and so works positively against the day when the great illumination will show us the only road forward. Accordingly, National Review is, in their eyes, worse than merely useless.
The defenders of Mr. Welch who are also severe critics of National Review are not by any means all of them addicts of the conspiracy school. They do belong, however inconsistently, to the school that says that we all must work together – as a general proposition, sound advice. Lenin distinguished between the sin of sectarianism, from which suffer all those who refuse to cooperate with anyone who does not share their entire position, right down to the dependent clauses, and the sin of opportunism, the weakness of those who are completely indiscriminate about their political associates.
Advertisements

What Conservatism Tells Us About Gay Marriage, Part 3 (UPDATED)

Having established that defending marriage is an imperative for all who call themselves conservative, the only question left is how. It goes without saying that conservatives should pursue initiatives to define marriage as a monogamous man-woman union in their state constitutions, just as they should support the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which protects states from being forced to recognize marriages from other states.

Conservatives should also vigorously oppose judicial activism, by working to educate the American people on the original intent and plain meaning of the Constitution, fighting for candidates who will nominate and vote to confirm originalist judges, and applying intense pressure to politicians who even think about voting for judicial activists. Conservative presidents should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to condemn decisions that abuse or circumvent the Constitution.

But is there more that can be done to thwart judicial activism? In Men in Black, Dr. Mark Levin argues that there is. He notes that Article III of the Constitution gives Congress the power to place some limits on the jurisdiction of courts, and that Article II gives Congress the power to impeach “all civil officers of the United States.” While useful, Levin doubts that these tools will be sufficient to effect a lasting solution to the problem. Instead, he suggests amending the Constitution to limit judges to fixed terms of office:

[S]itting judges and justices could be renominated and subject to a new confirmation process. This way, outstanding jurists could remain on the bench for a lifetime, pending congressional approval. And clearly defined terms of office would limit the influence of any single Congress in controlling the ideological bent of the Court. These changes would add accountability to the federal bench.

Levin also suggests a second amendment:

The most meaningful step Congress could take would be a constitutional amendment limiting the Supreme Court’s judicial review power by establishing a legislative veto over Court decisions – perhaps a two-thirds vote of both houses. The rationale is the same one the framers used when creating the congressional override of a presidential veto as a check on the president’s power. The framers worried that a president might amass too much authority. Today, the problem is an oligarchical Court, not a presidential monarchy, supplanting the constitutional authority of the other branches.

Indeed, perhaps the only major error the authors of the Constitution made was, in their desire to set the judiciary apart from the more overtly political branches of government, not placing any major checks on the judiciary comparable to the checks on the other two branches. While there’s certainly room to debate the details of these amendments, it seems clear that conservatives should support constitutional reforms to more fully realize their vision of a limited, constitutional republic safeguarded by an evenly-balanced separation of powers.

Lastly, there’s the matter of amending the Constitution to directly address marriage. Such an amendment could take one of two forms: either specifically protecting the right of states to set marriage policy regardless of what courts or other states do (essentially making DOMA ironclad), or simply defining marriage as a monogamous man-woman union in all fifty states. Because the first simply protects states’ rights and curtails judicial activism, there shouldn’t be much controversy on the Right about whether or not it’s worth supporting.

The second, however, is more contentious, because it defines marriage for the states, allegedly undermining our commitment to federalism. While this concern is well-intentioned and springs from genuine conservative principles, it shouldn’t prevent conservatives from supporting this amendment. For one thing, the principle of federalism isn’t unlimited – Article I, Section 10 places quite a few restrictions on states:

No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.

No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection laws: and the net produce of all duties and imposts, laid by any state on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States; and all such laws shall be subject to the revision and control of the Congress.

No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.

Article IV, Section 3 forbids states from forming new states within their own borders, or combining with other states into new states, Section 4 says that every state must have “a republican form of government,” and Article VI forbids “any office or public trust under the United States” from requiring a religious test for eligibility. And of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution thus far, many place further restrictions on what states can and cannot do. As long as we do so lawfully (i.e., by amending the Constitution), there’s nothing preventing us from settling certain issues federally if they’re determined to be important enough.

As a practical matter, most of the states want to protect traditional marriage and the amendment process asks for the approval of a supermajority of states anyway, so enacting a Federal Marriage Amendment would still respect the will of the people and give the states a voice in the decision. The burden placed on states would hardly be an onerous one – in forbidding states from granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it would still allow states to determine what requirements and benefits civil marriage entails within their borders. And given how important the Founders thought marriage was to the character of the entire nation, it’s certainly reasonable to deem the fundamentals of marriage important enough to enshrine in the Constitution.

Besides, as important as theory is, in reality these decisions are not made in a vacuum. We’re grappling with these questions in a world where judges are usurping the law to destroy marriage and make policy decisions for us. William F. Buckley certainly understood:

We are reaping a whirlwind, and direct intervention in the holy tabernacle of the United States Constitution is eminently justified. Either that, or we will simply be surrendering the evolution of the law into the hands of the judiciary. An interesting argument could be made to the effect that rule by justices might be an improvement on rule by congressmen and state legislators. Of course we are not attempting to make any such reassignment of power when we balk at a constitutional amendment, though in fact we are.

There is nothing in sight, given the decision of the Massachusetts court, and the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court last June overturning the Texas sodomy law, to curb the evolution of “marriage” to signify simply an affectionate relationship between two or more people, with cross commitments of one kind or another. The rules for entering into such a union — man-man, woman-woman, widowed sisters, father and son — might differ here and there, so long as those differences were not held to violate the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, or other of its provisions. In the absence of an amendment, the fight is simply abandoned, and Darwinian mutations are, if not exactly encouraged, nevertheless indulged.

To argue that a constitutional amendment is radical, while acquiescence in the anarchy of the Massachusetts court is less than that, staggers the mind. It has become easier to amend the Sermon on the Mount than the Constitution, and it is strange and awful that passivity is urged in a republic of free people.

When the alternative is marriage’s destruction and submission to the rule of judicial oligarchy, the choice is clear: conservatives shouldn’t hesitate to support either amendment.

UPDATE: Here are two great essays on the subject of federalism and gay marriage – one from Stanley Kurtz in National Review, and another from Edwin Meese & Matthew Spalding in the Wall Street Journal.

Around the Web

The man, the myth, the legend: Ron Paul.

The “first phase” of the so-called virtual fence
will be delayed “for at least three years.” Here’s a simple idea: 1.) Big wall, 2.) Men with guns on wall. Voila! (Hat tip: Ol’ Broad)

An argument for staying in Iraq from…
Angelina Jolie?!

John McCain’s
legally ineligible to be president? (Uh, no.) Boy, Maverick’s goodwill with the Times sure didn’t last.

Filthy British traitor George Galloway
is at it again.

Terrorist Solidarity Ribbons: and Hollywood wonders why we question their patriotism. (Hat tip: Conservative Grapevine)

Ann Coulter
pays tribute to William F. Buckley.

“Barack Obama is a U.S. Senator from Illinois
who enjoys nap time and finger painting. He is running for president.” Yeah, I really want this guy to defend the nation.

Use the Force…sort of.
New gaming technology reads signals directly from the player’s mind.

Goodbye to a Giant

From National Review:

Our revered founder, William F. Buckley Jr., died in his study this morning.
If ever an institution were the lengthened shadow of one man, this publication is his. So we hope it will not be thought immodest for us to say that Buckley has had more of an impact on the political life of this country—and a better one—than some of our presidents. He created modern conservatism as an intellectual and then a political movement. He kept it from drifting into the fever swamps. And he gave it a wit, style, and intelligence that earned the respect and friendship even of his adversaries. (To know Buckley was to be reminded that certain people have a talent for friendship.)
He inspired and incited three generations of conservatives, and counting. He retained his intellectual and literary vitality to the end; even in his final years he was capable of the arresting formulation, the unpredictable insight. He presided over NR even in his “retirement,” which was more active than most people’s careers. It has been said that great men are rarely good men. Even more rarely are they sweet and merry, as Buckley was.
When Buckley started National Review—in 1955, at the age of 29—it was not at all obvious that anti-Communists, traditionalists, constitutionalists, and enthusiasts for free markets would all be able to take shelter under the same tent. Nor was it obvious that all of these groups, even gathered together, would be able to prevail over what seemed at the time to be an inexorable collectivist tide. When Buckley wrote that the magazine would “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!” his point was to challenge the idea that history, with a capital H, pointed left. Mounting that challenge was the first step toward changing history’s direction. Which would come in due course.
Before he was a conservative, Buckley was devoted to his family and his Church. He is survived by his son Christopher. Our sadness for him, and for us, at his passing is leavened by the hope that he is now with his beloved wife, Patricia, who died last year.