All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1971

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1971/2

William f. Buckley, JR. has a genius for provocative titles. The label on the cover of his anthology of American conservative thought in the twentieth century, Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? (Bobbs-Merrill, $8.50), comes from a half-forgotten popular song. For me, the Buckley choice is absolutely delicious, for I recall from some thirty years ago that the Chicago political scientist, Charles Merriam, used the same rhetorical query from the same song to introduce a profile of the old curmudgeon of New Deal days, Harold Ickes, whose political thought Bill Buckley would surely describe as a nightmare.

Buckley’s answer to the ritual­istic “liberalism” which has, in the course of forty years, seeped out of the intellectual weeklies to become the conventional wisdom of our mass magazines is a highly personal one, even though it is here expressed through the choice of twenty-three separate contribu­tors. The point to be made about the Buckley anthology is that it represents for the most part the flowering of a tradition, with most of the essays coming from the nineteen fifties and the nineteen sixties. Albert Jay Nock and Henry Hazlitt are among the few older hands. Because this book is a flowering, it has a mellowness, a suavity of articulation, an ur­banity, and a tolerance for eclec­ticism within a general scheme that would have been broken if the editor had ranged backwards in time to the earlier years of the century, when much of our con­servatism—or libertarianism—had a desperate tone. Bill Buck­ley’s conservatism is enormously civilized, which means that it de­mands certain standards of de­bate, certain stylistic qualities, a rejection of the type of polemicist that Emerson must have had in mind when he asked, “Why so hot, little man?”

The Buckley taste for polem­icism that is good literature is almost flawless. The first figure to walk in his dream-become-actual is Garry Wills, who has the lead­ing position in the section called “The Historical and Intellectual Background.” Mr. Wills here ex­hibits a nineteenth century Whig­gish—or maybe it is mild Tory—view of the state, which is to say that he is determinedly nonideo­logical but generally in favor of less government action rather than more. It is not the business of the state to provide ideal justice, says Mr. Wills, for that would require marshaling too much force in the hands of fallible men. Nor should the state try to compensate men for their failings. Equity and order come before abstract equal­ity and abstract justice, with “con­venience” playing the mediating role. Men, in general, must have scope to exercise their wills.

One would have predicted from his tone in “The Convenient State” that Garry Wills would have been happy to accept the sort of give at-the-edges interventionism that marks the Richard Nixon concep­tion of the state. The Nixon view, which reminds one of Disraeli, is at least an improvement over the harsher will to ideal justice that dictated the leveling efforts of the Great Society and really “polar­ized” our society. But no, the present-day Garry Wills has taken to assailing with an unholy passion the Nixon-type “convenience” which accepts the free market with minor reservations. Could it be that if Garry Wills had been a little more rigorous in “The Con­venient State,” he would have avoided becoming something of a doctrinaire antilibertarian? Mr. Buckley does not say. But it could have been with a tacit urge toward balance that the second section called “The Limitations of the State” includes sterner libertari­ans Henry Hazlitt, Milton Fried­man, Max Eastman—and even Albert Jay Nock, who is admitted for brilliance of style despite a “merry anarchism” that Mr. Buckley rejects for himself.

Mr. Buckley despairs of giving any exact definition to “conserva­tism”; he prefers to make what he calls an “empirical probe.” His empiricism accepts people who think of conservatism variously as a position and an attitude, with religion sometimes entering the equation and sometimes not.

Whittaker Chamber’s “The Di­rect Glance” pleads for a funda­mentally religious opposition to communism; the Max Eastman of “Freedom and the Planned Econ­omy” would settle for some simple common sense about keeping eco­nomic power diffused.

Willmoore Kendall, though he was a religious man at bottom, leaves other-worldly considerations out of his politics; he accepts the Madisonian balance as a basis for what he calls “The Two Majori­ties”—meaning the concurrent majority that sets Congress up as a watchdog on the President, and vice versa.

Brent Bozell, who in his later career has been moving toward theocracy, is presented here in an earlier guise. Not quite a strict constructionist, Bozell thinks it proper for judges to push the Constitution in an “unwritten di­rection” if a big consensus favors it. He does not, however, think the Supreme Court should “make law” by its decisions at a time when the nation is still unable to decide between two possible in­terpretations of Constitutional language. If the Court moves faster than public opinion, as it did on the integration issue, it produces a chaotic period in society.

Sometimes the Buckley apercus, which are plentiful as blackberries in the separate introductions which he contributes to the vari­ous sections of his anthology, are more piercing than the essays that follow. Thus, in the section that is titled “The Relevance of Social Science,” which contains selections from Leo Strauss, Jeffrey Hart, Eric Voegelin, and Christopher Dawson (one of two Englishmen in an American anthology), the Buckley remarks on the “limits of empiricism” come through with sharpness and clarity where Strauss and Voegelin, though worthy scholars and able teachers, spin things out. Strauss muffles his originality with a sing-song tone, and Voegelin uses an abso­lutely barbarous academic lan­guage, “immanentizing the echelon” all over the lot. Jeffrey Hart, whose style is clean and brisk in his essay on Edmund Burke, could tell Voegelin that you do not make converts to a point of view by writing for Divinity Ph.D.’s who already agree with you.

There isn’t room in this space to deal adequately with Mortimer Smith on schools, or Jane Jacobs on city renewal, or Harry Jaffa on the ticklish subject of giving free speech to communists, or Ernest van Den Haag on the claims and rights of race, or Russell Kirk on the need for rewards, or Frederick Wilhelmsen on the origins of Christmas, or Hugh Kenner on the “new scholarship,” or Michael Oakeshott on the rise of the masses, or Frank Meyer and James Burnham, both of whom I have reviewed in these pages before. Besides, I wish to lament Mr. Buckley’s failure to include some older, admittedly less urbane lib­ertarians to his gallery who had a lot to do with preparing the ground for the flowering that is presented in the anthology. I miss such things as Isabel Paterson’s sharp analysis of the totalitarian potential of a public school system, and Peter Drucker’s description of the Founding Fathers as “con­servative counter revolutionists,” and Garet Garrett on the econom­ics of the first Henry Ford, and Rose Wilder Lane on the rebirth of freedom. Frank Chodorov should be here to join his master, Albert Jay Nock, and we could have welcomed something from John Dos Passos’s explorations in early American history. Moreover, Ludwig von Mises has lived in America for a long time, and Hayek was at the University of Chicago for a number of years. They were part of the dream that began to walk here in the nineteen forties.

However, all anthologies are necessarily personal, and Mr. Buckley is entitled to his own. He is himself a most valiant part of the flowering of the mid-century which he has so discerningly pre­sented.

THE CONSERVATIVE TRA­DITION IN EUROPEAN THOUGHT, Selected and edited by Robert Schuettinger (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970) 385 pp. $6.95.

Reviewed by Edmund A. Opitz

The philosophy of conservatism stems mainly from Edmund Burke, and it is fitting, therefore, that the opening sections of this fine anthology should be drawn from his works. The classical world is represented by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero; Hegel tries to tell us what he understands by the state as “the realized sub­stantive will”; and the judicious

Richard Hooker expounds the idea of the natural law. Tocqueville warns us of the despotic tenden­cies that come masked in demo­cratic forms, and Disraeli outlines the answer of Tory Democracy to this danger. The case for mon­archy is presented by the Arch­duke Otto. On more congenial ground, so far as modern readers are concerned, there is Roepke, Jewkes, Oakeshott, and Hayek.

The rich diversity of views in this anthology serve to make con­servatism’s major point; men are various, and their manifest indi­viduality must be reflected in social arrangements aimed at max­imizing freedom. The believer in liberty, label him as you please, is one who respects human differ­ences as somehow part of the cosmic scheme; he does not feel called upon to correct God or Na­ture by uniformitarian politics imposed on unwilling subjects. He works toward a better society—meaning one that is freer and more just—but he knows that a perfect society is a chimera and the effort to achieve one leads to new excuses for tyranny. He is against social engineering because he wants each person to work out his own social destiny.

The book has an enlightening Introduction by Professor Schuet­tinger, and ample suggestions for further reading.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.