February 27, 2008

Vi Veri Vniversum Vivus Vici

Today marks the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., the intellectual progenitor of the modern American conservative movement. Though I despise some of the social excess that movement has taken on in recent years, for the most part I remain convinced that conservatives have worked a net benefit for the country.

Buckley wrote and published God and Man at Yale, which revealed the then-surprising truth that the American Academy was hostile to traditional notions of religion and morality. This set off a debate about the proper role of higher education and the extent to which a person's views should be influenced by their intellectual superiors. Buckley founded and published National Review, the flagship publication of political conservatives. It commented, as it still does, with dry wit and thoughtfulness on the issues of the day. Buckley created and hosted the public-affairs show Firing Line, which proved that erudite, intelligent discussion of a wide variety of issues could find an audience and political disagreements could be simultaneously fierce and polite.

That's not to say Buckley was always right about things. Although always an opponent of anti-Semitism, Buckley was not so quick to see the injustice of racial segregation, and as Ilya Somin points out at Volokh Conspiracy, his later recanting of his states-rights stance on the civil rights movement only mitigated that position.

Nevertheless, Buckley also labored mightily to reconcile libertarian thinkers with social and economic conservatives. The marriage always worked better for the economically-minded than the social types, which of course is the very fracture seen today in the Republican party, which no one yet has been able to heal. A son of privilege and wealth, Buckley was not content to merely enjoy his money and felt motivated by noblesse oblige to make the world better not just for those like himself but to do what he genuinely thought would make the world better for everyone. Thus, he was willing to break ranks with other conservatives and advocate the legalization of drugs (a distasteful position but an unavoidable one from both his principle and policy positions) and was one of the first major conservative figures to openly criticize George W. Bush for his handling of the Iraq War.

He set out and accomplished ambitious goals for himself in life -- he resolved to stem the tide of liberalism in academia by creating an environment where conservative thinkers would be deemed worthy of respect; he resolved to set in motion a political movement that ultimately culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan; and he put a friendly, intellectually-satisfying face on politics during a time when the rest of the people filtering the events of the day to the public were reducing their quotes to sound bites filled with invective. He was also candid about admitting when he was wrong, which is a lot more than most political figures can do even after his example. The world is a less colorful place now without him.

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