William F. Buckley Jr.’s death yesterday marks the passing of a champion of liberty. By founding his magazine "The National Review," Buckley was able to provide the country’s first widely read platform for articles promoting free-market economic ideas, love of freedom and opposition to big government solutions.
Buckley, along with Michigan author Russell Kirk, rose to prominence in the hazy moment of history following Lionel Trilling’s 1950 pronouncement:
"In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation…. [The] conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."
In the wake of Trilling’s statement, government began to grow exponentially. New programs funded by taxpayer dollars were added on what seemed a daily basis. By the 1960s, the Johnson administration initiated the Great Society programs that put the big government New Deal programs of the Great Depression to shame. Those programs continued to expand under subsequent administrations, regardless of party affiliation.
Buckley was among the first to plead the case for smaller government. Armed with the philosophical ideas captured in Kirk’s "The Conservative Mind," Buckley defined conservatism as one who "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."
In the first issue of "The National Review," published in 1955, Buckley wrote:
"National Review" is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation. Instead of covetously consolidating its premises, the United States seems tormented by its tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic."
Henceforth, Buckley’s magazine became the go-to publication for readers parched for intellectual nourishment in the anabasis of failed ideas marching toward oblivion. In its pages, one could read Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell and, for its first 25 years, Kirk’s "From the Academy" column. The magazine also managed to embrace culture, featuring as it did for many years the sometimes truculent film criticism of John Simon. Miraculously, many of these views took hold. Buckley himself became a cultural institution, appearing on his "Firing Line" television program and even making appearances on "Laugh-In."
"He was the person who could make free-market ideas understandable," said Annette Kirk in a telephone interview yesterday afternoon from the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Mich.
Mrs. Kirk, a member of the Mackinac Center's Board of Scholars as was her late husband, also said Buckley was able to explain why free markets are important and why readers should care.
"He made the case for published writers who could make the case in his magazine," she said. "For Russell and Buckley, economic freedom is the hallmark of the conservative movement."
Mrs. Kirk added that Buckley "also shared with Russell the idea that a free market should always be bound up within a moral context. He was a tireless champion of ordered freedom."
To the last, Buckley was an independent thinker who would take gutsy stands or change his mind once he became convinced such stands were wrong, as he did with his eventual disavowal of the rationales given for the Iraq War. Whether one agreed with either his initial or eventual position, one can at least admire the principled manner by which he expressed himself in both instances.
Buckley died working at his desk yesterday morning, more than likely composing another highly literate piece that would send millions scrambling for their Webster’s. Mrs. Kirk remembers him as "not only personally kind, but as an enormous influence. All lovers of freedom and liberty should grieve his passing."
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.