Tuesday, May 31, 2011

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.

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