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Friday, February 29, 2008

Conservative Ideals, R.I.P.


William F. Buckley (1926-2008)
If a man is not a liberal at 20 he has no heart; if he is not a conservative at 40 he has no brain.

This quote, or some variation of it, has been misattributed to Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, among others. Most people have heard it and too many have repeated it. The popularity of this quote far exceeds its cleverness. It implies that a conservative viewpoint is one based on the wisdom that comes with age and that liberal ideals are held only by those who are either young, stupid, or perhaps both. I certainly am not in agreement with any of this, not even when I first heard it at age 19 or so. I was a liberal then and have remained so over the course of my entire life. I have no plans to change my political views and have felt that the things I believed in when I was 20 still hold true today. I also think that I wouldn’t trust someone who has completely switched sides in the whole conservative/liberal argument. Either you were wrong before or you are wrong now. Perhaps you have always been wrong. I think this is the case for the American conservative movement over the past 50 years, a movement often spearheaded by the brilliant William F. Buckley (1926-2008).

Buckley wrote more books than many people read in their lives. I read my fair share of his works and I was especially fond of his sailing memoirs. I remember reading an interview in which he talked about how fast he was able to write. Back when I was in college I found this to be the most amazing human feat imaginable. I also was fond of the story he told about how a waiter approached him one day and said that he enjoyed his writing but that Buckley should stop using so many big words. The waiter constantly had to look things up in the dictionary (sesquipedalian seems to have been coined to describe Buckley). A couple years later the waiter approached Buckley again and thanked him for taking his earlier advice. I’m sure my vocabulary was greatly improved by reading his books in my youth. He actually died while sitting at his desk writing something or other.

As much as I may have disagreed with nearly every political idea put forth by Mr. Buckley, I always admired his writing style, his energy, and his intellect. In these times of churlish political debate, it is hard not to look back almost fondly on the mostly civil discourse he conducted with his ideological rivals. It is ironic that the conservatives became more truculent and less accommodating when the far right Christians were adopted into the Republican Party. I somehow think that Buckley saw these oafs as the new brown shirts of the conservatives. I doubt that he was proud to have them on board. It’s kind of like the joke about the man whose son thinks that he is a chicken. Someone asks him why he doesn’t take his son to see a doctor and the man replies, “I would but I need the eggs.” Buckley was probably embarrassed to share his political party with the Jesus freaks but he needed their votes.

I also happen to think that Buckley was completely wrong. I think that core conservative values are mistaken, if not completely counterfeit. One of the tenets of the American conservative movement is that private industry is more efficient than government and therefore most of the services of a society should be left to the private sector. Health care is a shining example of the fallacy of this position. We are quickly realizing that our private health care system is a huge failure, at least for the vast majority of Americans who either have no health insurance or have inadequate insurance coverage. Every other industrialized nation has a state-run health care system. By most indicators their systems work better than ours. If we are to change our system now we are in the unenviable position of having to remove the shackles of the powerful insurance companies, companies who don’t provide a bit of health care. Canada was able to make their transition years ago before the big insurance companies completely dominated the industry. Buckley demonized “socialized medicine” as a communist invention and one America should avoid like…well, like communism. Most Americans now agree that we should have a government-controlled single payer system like they have in most European countries.

Buckley greatly admired the economist Milton Freidman (1912-2006). They both advocated minimizing the role of government so that the free market could work to solve societal problems. Their “rising tide raises all ships” model of social welfare was called the “trickle down theory” by Ronald Reagan. I believe their policies have proven to be almost complete failures for everyone but America’s richest citizens. Freidman actually used to hold up the charity donated by Britain’s rich during the early years of the industrial revolution as an example of how the private sector would care for the poor in his brave new world of markets completely unhindered by government interference. Unfortunately for Buckley, Freidman, Reagan, and the rest of America’s conservative movement, the facts have had an annoying way of destroying their arguments. You only need to look at those societies in the west that have chosen to pursue more liberal policies to see the failure of America’s experiment in conservative politics.

When you compare the living standards in America to most of the social democracies in Western Europe it is difficult to see why anyone would copy our example in the United States. The societies created there are not economic or political theories; they are functioning nations which have done a much better job than America of distributing wealth and providing necessary services for all citizens. Tax rates are much higher in Europe than in America but people expect their governments there to do a lot more for them than we do in America.

I write this while living in Spain where I have been able to see first-hand the benefits of socialism, the dirtiest of dirty words in America. Even the Spanish conservative parties would be considered very liberal in America. It’s not as if Spain is without problems but they seem intent on bringing everyone along to a better future, not just the wealthiest few. There seems to be a spirit of cooperation in Europe that is lacking in America and its winner-take-all brand of free-market capitalism.

At least this is the way I see it in the year 2008. Things could change and history could prove me to be dead wrong. I doubt this will come about and it certainly won’t be any time soon. I have held the political and economic views I have now since I was a teenager. As I have gained a bit of wisdom over the years it has only served to reinforce my politics. If the quote I mocked is valid then I have had both a heart and a brain, or neither, my entire life.

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