Sunday, March 2, 2008

William F. Buckley: His Overlooked Legacy

As beautiful as water gushing from Buckingham Fountain, so have tributes gushed forth with praise for William F. Buckley's greatness.

But as John Donne said: "No man is an island unto himself." What Buckley did, he did not do alone.

First, others set the stage for Buckley's rise to greatness.

In 1944 Friedrich von Hayek's Road to Serfdom challenged the ideas of a state-managed economy. In 1948 Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences contended that liberalism would produce disastrous consequences for personal freedom and the social order. In 1949 Ludwig von Mises' Human Action created a case for the superiority of free-market economics, and Peter Viereck's Conservatism Revisited, which The Times of London praised, contained classical conservative principles, originally molded by British parliamentarian Edmund Burke.

Only then did Buckley and others come to the center stage of contemporary conservatism.

In 1951 Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale. In 1952 Eric Vogelin penned The New Science of Politics. In 1953 Russell Kirk produced his monumental work, The Conservative Mind, Leo Strauss wrote Natural Right and History, and Robert Nisbet authored his classic, The Quest for Community.

These and other books fore and aft of 1950 served as bookends, challenging the contention of Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination that in America "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative . . . ideas in general circulation."

Buckley and his conservative contemporaries foreshadowed today's far-reaching conservative critique of liberalism in America -- economically, educationally, politically, religiously, and socially.

So just as William F. Buckley was not an island unto himself, neither are today's conservatives, who depend upon the conservative foundation built by Buckley and his contemporaries.

Second, Buckley understood that the many facets of conservatism -- economic, political, religious, and social -- cannot succeed as islands unto themselves. He pictured conservatism as a big tent, under which conservatives of diverse persuasions could hammer out their differences and unify to face a common enemy. And that is precisely how Ronald Reagan succeeded.

Third, Buckley recognized that just as "no man is an island unto himself," so too no generation of mankind is an island unto itself. Buckley's conservative forerunners, contemporaries, and successors hold to the view that:
"Conservatism is the defense of inherited political, economic, religious, and social traditions from the forces of abrupt change, based upon the belief that to maintain continuity and stability in society, established customs, laws, and mores should guide change."
And thus Buckley would argue that change, today's political buzz word, should occur gradually and incrementally.

[For additional analysis, see: Charles W. Dunn, ed., The Future of Conservatism: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Era (ISI Books, 2007.]

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