The Buckley Legacy

Tim Noah suggests that William F. Buckley's politics were defined by support for segregation on the one hand and a desire to roll back the New Deal on the other, that he failed on both counts, and that we should thus be glad that "he outlived his brand of conservatism."

Well. There’s no question that Buckley’s mid-century moral blindness about race and civil rights – a blindness shared by most if not all conservatives at the time – is a significant stain on his record. I tend to think that treating this blindness as the defining aspect of his long career is a serious mistake – akin to using Churchill’s death as an occasion to harangue one’s readers about his views on British India, for instance, or suggesting that we should remember FDR primarily as the architect of Manzanar. Particularly since moral obtuseness where the grave evils of the twentieth century were concerned is by no means an exclusive province of conservatives, and since progressives and conservatives alike were deeply complicit, over the years, in the immense crime that was Jim Crow. But this is a matter for individual judgment. If Noah thinks we should remember Buckley primarily for what he wrote about the civil rights movement in 1963, he’s certainly entitled to his opinion.

Noah’s argument about Buckley being a failure because the modern GOP didn’t undo the New Deal, however, is just plain silliness. Around the time that Buckley founded National Review, the federal government’s share of GDP had been rising steadily for more than thirty years, from 3 percent in 1925 to 18.8 percent in 1962. In the Sixties and early Seventies, it seemed extremely plausible that the United States was a glide path to European-style social democracy. Then came the conservative ascendancy - and thirty years later, in 2001, government’s share of GDP stood at … 18.4 percent of GDP. (It’s inched up somewhat, of course, under George W. Bush.) Now obviously there are a variety of reasons why the size of government stopped rising after the Seventies, but far from least among them is the influence that Buckley-style small-government conservatism has wielded over public policy lo these many years. (And remember that he promised to stop history, not to roll it back.)

Meanwhile, in nearly every other arena of economic life – taxation, regulation, trade – the United States is a vastly more libertarian country today than it was in the years of Eisenhower, LBJ and Nixon. (Wage and price controls, anyone? Anyone?) If this is failure, we should all aspire to fail.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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