All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1972

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1972/3


William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Cruising Speed: A Documentary (Putnam, $6.95) begins as a chronicle of a week in the life of America’s most engaging publicist. But time, with Bill Buckley, has a Proustian dimension, so the form becomes an excuse for unlocking years as well as days. A telephone call to Bill Buckley takes ‘us in one direction, a “Dear Sir, You cur” letter in quite another, an encounter with a friend or colleague in still a third, until after darting down a hundred avenues one has the illusion that one is peeling off one of those Chinese eggs which contain egg within egg, almost to the vanishing point. But then, one reflects, the Chinese egg image won’t do at all, for the average Buckley egg is so bursting with its own meat that it could contain nothing else.

Since the form is immaterial, it scarcely matters that the documented Buckley week began at Bill’s Stamford, Connecticut, seaside home at ten o’clock on a Monday morning after a newspaper column had been written and some routine correspondence handled. The important thing is that one thing provokes another even as Bill is riding into Manhattan to tape-record a couple of TV shows.

Memories crowd until the book becomes as complex as the Buckley character, which deceives many who come upon it merely one aspect at a time. Yes, Bill Buckley can be offensive to modern-day liberals, as when he sets down in his list of accomplishments in Who’s Who in America the fact that he founded the National Committee to Horsewhip Drew Pearson in 1967. Like any man of wit, Buckley outrages those who have no wit at all. But witty outrage, with Buckley, proceeds from a gorgeous sense of unmelodious fun.

As Critics See Him

Unlike a few polemicists whom I could mention, Buckley stays in the kitchen not only because he likes to cook but also because he can stand the heat. His sense of editorial honor does not permit him to hide anything, so he prints a long diatribe about his character written by one Hank Levine, the chairman of the Party of the Left of the Yale Political Union. Mr. Levine sees Buckley in terms of a “kind of silent leer wince,” which, whatever this may say about the Levine eyesight, indicates that Leftist undergraduates at Yale can be as tone-deaf as a mummy.

What seems to Mr. Levine to be a superiority complex is, in a way, Mr. Buckley’s way of overcoming his environment. He grew up with “liberals” to the left of him, to say nothing of those who kicked him from behind and gouged him from in front. (I recall defending Bill Buckley years ago against a charge, made by an editor of a well-known “liberal” monthly, that Buckley’s National Review lacked humor, which is about as idiotic a criticism as could be made.) Bill had to rehabilitate wit among the witless, to reestablish elegance and finish in the arena of controversy, to bring tone and savor and cutting edge to our polemics. He could not have done this without having had some theatrical sense. Underneath the showmanship is the overmastering urge to instruct.

A Becoming Modesty

It may seem strange to Hank Levine, but Bill Buckley actually comes through in Cruising Speed as a person of most becoming modesty. He can kid J. Kenneth Galbraith, who is his friend, but when Galbraith tries, on the way to the ski slope at the Rinderberg in Switzerland, to persuade Bill to focus his energies on books, the bantering tone disappears from the Buckleyian text. Give it up, says Galbraith, give up the whole thing, National Review, journalism, television, radio, lecturing. I did it, says Galbraith, I left Fortune and went to Harvard. Come to the academy and write books. It is only books that count in giving theoretical depth to ideological positions.

Now, if Bill Buckley were truly arrogant, he would have turned on Galbraith and said something to the effect that books can mislead as well as lead. Instead of indulging in a flip retort, however, Bill was provoked only to some dispassionate self-appraisal. He told himself that others had already provided the theoretical depth for conservatism. Wasn’t it his mission, therefore, to advertise the profundity of the foundations already provided by others? How, he asked, could he hope to “do better against positivism than Voegelin has done?” How could he improve on “Oakeshott’s analysis of rationalism?” How could he “rediscover orthodoxy more engrossingly than Chesterton?”

What of the Reserves?

To feel satisfied, so Bill Buckley told himself while musing on Galbraith’s challenge, one must have a sense of social usefulness. But what, he asked himself, were his reserves? What would he have to satisfy those who listened to him tomorrow?

Turning back to “cruising speed,” which involved getting to Washington in Frank Stanton’s Columbia Broadcasting System jet plane and writing next day’s column, Bill inevitably had to let the question of his reserves drop. But he needn’t worry; the reserves will be there.

Since Bill himself has tossed the name of Chesterton, a superlative journalist, into the discussion, it should be said that journalism itself often has a theoretical depth that is missing in books. Galbraith’s view of the superiority of the academy is all too simple. H. L. Mencken, no academician, wrote journalistic essays and criticism that have stood the transplanting between book covers. But who remembers W. C. Brownell, or Henry Beers, or other academic critics of Mencken’s heyday? Who knows, Buckley’s “journalism” may prove more enduring than, let us say, Galbraith’s The New Industrial State? (Not wishing to be invidious, I hasten to add that I grant a permanent literary value to Galbraith’s Affluent Society; its phrasing is always first-rate, even when the logic leaves something to be desired.)

Government’s Limited Role

Just how good Bill Buckley can be is proved by his little essay written in defense of the National Review position (see page 92, where he passes along his musings while driving to Bridgeport to debate with Dick Gregory.) “It was fourteen years after NR began,” says Bill, “that Peter Drucker would write in The Age of Discontinuity that the only thing government can do effectively is wage war and inflate the currency… individuation is what happens when the state ceases to be taken for granted as the necessary instrument for human progress. The conservative who spoke to little audiences fifteen years ago about the necessity for arresting the growth of government was saying then what the followers of Reich (author of The Greening of America) have come upon, except that they are now condemning America, while what they ought to be condemning is what I once called the special effronteries of the twentieth century….”

For fifteen years Bill Buckley has been trying to tell people that nobody can “lead happy or full lives by buying one share each of common stock in — The State.” This position was not new when Chesterton espoused it in England, nor when Albert Jay Nock taking off from the German Franz Oppenheimer, gave “theoretical depth” to it in Our Enemy, The State. Readers of The Freeman know better than most, however, that the theme was never in such need of refurbishing as now, when prices are being “controlled” in a time of peace. Bill Buckley’s refurbishing is elegant, precise, and engaging, whether it appears as journalism — or in a book.

 

LIBERTARIANISM: A POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY FOR TOMORROW by John Hospers (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Co., $10)

Reviewed by Allan Malz

This simply and lucidly written introduction to the free market philosophy summarizes the arguments of the finest libertarian literature.

In the first ten chapters, the author — a University of Southern California philosopher — discusses a broad range of topics. He defines the proper scope of government action, and analyzes the various types of State intervention whose disastrous results are so often blamed on capitalism. A persuasive justification of profit, on both moral and economic grounds, is presented. In an especially incisive chapter, Professor Hospers examines the welfare state, describing how, after each anti-poverty program, the poor somehow end up even poorer, and demonstrating that only a truly free market can effectively reduce poverty. This leads him into a discussion of taxation and its corrosive effects on enterprise.

The author’s most important arguments, however, are reserved for the final chapter, in which he presents the case against anarchism. The no-government philosophy speaks for itself through lengthy quotations from its partisans, after which Professor Hospers analyzes it from a limited government point of view. He shows that anarchy would mean open season on minority groups and nonconformists. In the absence of government, there could be no Rule of Law, and certainly not the “objective law” of which the anarchists claim to be the champions. Even an anarchist must admit that some services cannot be supplied by the market, the author concludes, and it is precisely these that is the task of government to provide. A society in which any man can call himself a “defense agency” and take the law into his own hands would surely be an unstable one in which peaceful cooperation could not last; a “no-government society is always trembling on the verge of chaos,” he observes. And there is no reason to believe that any government emerging out of chaos would be a limited one.

The weakest section is Hosper’s discussion of natural rights. Too much of what Bentham would have called “sentiment” is brought into the explication. The reader is given no firm reason to believe that natural rights really exist, and it is not explained why they are “inalienable.” Rousing prose about the beauty of liberty is sometimes substituted for reasoned explanation of its practical benefits. Fortunately, the flaws are limited to the opening chapters, and do not detract much from the value of the book.

All in all, a useful book, both as an introduction for the beginner and as a sort of memory-refresher for the advanced student.

 

THE REGULATED CONSUMER by Mary Bennett Peterson (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1971, 271 pp., $7.95)

Reviewed by Tommy W. Rogers

Consumerism has spawned a multitude of regulations and a host of federal agencies to enforce them, but has it helped the consumer? It is the author’s contention, well documented and illustrated, that consumerism is inherently uneconomic — and, ironically, anti-consumer; it adversely affects individual choice and diminishes efficiency in the use of our resources. Americans pay cartel prices for the coffee they drink and the sugar they eat, and in the process injure efficient international producers and world competition. Unions, as well as the government controlled farm sector, have the makings of giant cartels as government induced and protected monopolies. Government farm programs continue to widen the gap between rich agriculturalist businessmen and poor farmers, and compulsory unionism not only limits freedom but breeds corruption.

The author contends that “combinations and conspiracies against trade may appeal to the monopolistic mentality, but in practice, unless enforced by government, they tend to evaporate.” Regulatory agencies which supposedly “protect” the consumer become buffer agencies which act as accommodative bodies of the businesses they are supposed to regulate, at the expense of the public, as classically illustrated by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

A determined ICC seeking to give the image of zealously protecting the public interest has forced higher costs on the shipper, carrier, and, most important of all, the consumer. The activities of the Civil Aeronautics Board similarly illustrate that regulation can mean anything but security for those who are regulated, or economy for the consumers who are the supposed benefactors. The CAB, an opponent of competition between airlines, has constantly reflected a basic anti-consumer, pro-producer bias. Because of CAB regulation “commercial aviation has been treated as a giant subsidized public utility, managerial decision-making has been impeded, consumer sovereignty frustrated, economies of scale blunted, innovations and technological efficiency in airlines operations hampered.”

“Interventionistic regulation,” as Mrs. Peterson thoroughly demonstrates, leaves much to be desired. It is structured against the interests of the consumer whom its rhetoric claims it seeks to defend. Illustration after illustration is used to nail down the truism that quotas, minimum prices, subsidies, decrees, and regulations operate to the detriment of the Forgotten Man.

There is a remedy: an enlightened government and citizenry should progressively deregulate our regulated society and re-enthrone the consumer in the marketplace. Only so may we provide justice, preserve freedom. 


  • 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.