Bill Buckley's Basic Blunder

"Stop!" is not enough.

The National Review magazine has been known as the voice of American conservatism for decades.  William F. Buckley, its founder, used to say that his role was "Standing athwart history yelling STOP."  He and his fellow National Review authors were so clever and in many ways so correct that "Yelling STOP!" has become what conservatism is all about.

In that sense, Mr. Buckley, for all his wit and erudition, did conservatism a great disservice.  Conservatism is not, fundamentally, about yelling STOP, and never has been.  Yelling STOP gives the impression that conservatives are against anything new.

Are conservatives Luddites who fear modern progress?  Not in the least.  Modern technology, communications, transportation, and all the other panoply of invention are appreciated by conservatives as much as by anybody else - and these days, much more so, as leftist Greens try to send us back to the Stone Age.

When it comes to the rules of society, however, conservatism recognizes a fundamental truth ignored by the left: when it comes to human history, there are very few ideas that are genuinely new.

Nothing New Under The Sun

Socialism?  It was tried for a few decades from AD 50-90 and then died out because it can't work.  The only reason it appears over and over again is that liberals refuse to learn the lessons of history and insist on trying it again.

Statism?  It was tried by the Fascists in Italy and in Germany and by Communists in the Soviet Union and in China where it resulted in the deaths of many millions.  The Fascists and the Communists put slightly different spin on various aspects of statism, but the result was always the same - loss of freedom followed by mass deaths.

You can follow statism back through Louis XIV and Henry VIII all the way to Nebuchadnezzar and Rameses - and it never works out well for the common people.  Over the long haul, it doesn't even work out that great for the ruler, as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette discovered to their dismay.

Government control of everything and everybody is not new and it's certainly not the wave of the future - it's a reversal to a barbaric past which would have been cast aside as the abject failure and disaster that it is, were it not for the inherent lust for power of humankind.  Most people who promote statism assume that once government takes over something that was previously outside its control, they will have more power than before.

Many conservatives care just as much about social mores as they do about economics.  Your average grassroots conservative is just as incensed by teenage pregnancy, vile music lyrics, lawlessness, welfare, and rampant abortion as about high tax rates and an overweening federal government.  The moral rules which guided society for centuries and millennia have, over the past few decades, crumbled into dust; anger and worry over this change motivates many conservative activists and voters.

Resisting social changes may be what conservatism is about for a given person at a given point of time.  In principle, however, conservatism is NOT simply opposition to anything that is presented as new, in the social realm or in the economic.

Old-time liberals knew this; Eleanor Roosevelt said, "There is not one civilization, from the oldest to the very newest, from which we cannot learn."  Younger liberals know it, too: Hillary Clinton quoted Mrs. Roosevelt's statement on page 11 of It Takes a Village.  The difficulty is that liberals do not want to learn the lessons of history because history shows that their favorite programs not only have never worked, they cannot ever work!

Respect for Experience, Respect for History

Conservatism is not, like Muslim sharia law, a set of absolute detailed regulations that are supposed to apply in all circumstances, places, and times.  Rather, conservatism is based on certain principles derived from the recognition of a fundamental historical fact: longstanding traditions didn't appear by random chance - they evolve over thousands of years of trial and error, mostly error.

There have been countless civilizations and cultures over the six thousand years of recorded history, and who knows how many before that.  Almost every imaginable variant of how to organize societies, tribes, nations, businesses, politics, and families has been tried somewhere over all that time, but any serious student of history is startled more by the similarities between great and long-lived civilizations than by their differences.

This is for a good reason: natural selection works just as strongly with civilizations and cultures as it does upon biological organisms.  Civilizations that established rules, mores, laws, or policies that did not work died out or were conquered.  The civilizations we see today, and particularly the similarities between them, are by definition the ones that were successful over the long term.

The Western tradition is in place for good reason - it is the most successful set of societal memes that have been deduced by means of natural selection combined with the observations of wise scholars of the past.

This is not to say that Western civilization can't be improved.  Few if any conservatives believe that nothing should change beyond (say) 1950 or 1776; the Amish are the closest to this belief, and most of us would rather not join them.

Anyone with an understanding of history realizes that we should make fundamental changes to our society only with the greatest of care and caution, however.  Instead of being careful, our elected leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are tearing down the fundamental principles of our culture with both hands.  Not for nothing have the last two decades been called the "culture wars."

Mad Destruction

On the one side, we have conservatives who believe that our mores, customs, and basic laws have served us fairly well on the whole; on the other side, we have liberals who insist that reviving ancient ideas which are known not to work will save us from perceived injustices.

It was once accepted as a truism that traditional families were the foundation of society, as they have been for every successful society over all of human history; now modern liberalism seeks to replace families with paternalistic government, honoring and supporting whatever temporary liaisons may happen to light your fires at any given moment.  As a result, we find feral children utterly uncivilized because of the lack of effective, permanent, biological parents.

America was founded on the belief that all men are greedy and that society is best served by arranging things such that the greed, through capitalism, is harnessed for the betterment of all.  This system brought about the greatest increase in widespread individual wealth in all of history, and has done so everywhere it's been applied.

Modern liberalism is abandoning the system which has brought us modern comforts, replacing it with a devotion to the all-wise benevolence of a state bureaucracy.  How'd that work out for the common man of the Soviet Union?  How many millions starved to death when the government took over management of agriculture?  How many cars were available when the government ran the auto business?

Christianity - and before that, Judaism - is founded on the belief that there are a few fundamental actions which are always wrong.  It is always wrong to commit personal murder.  It is always wrong to steal something from someone else.  It is always wrong to commit adultery.

These rules, though not always enforced by governmental power, served to keep society stable and predictable; our Founders recognized this, and though they certainly did not agree on all of the subtler doctrinal points, they made appeal to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."  Today's modern liberalism believes in "situational ethics" - there are no absolutes, and any action including murder may be appropriate depending on the situation.

As a result, our students are trained to cheat when they think they can get away with it; cheating is only a problem if you're caught.  We find ourselves led by leaders who not only have no concept of truth, they lie without a moment's care or concern for who might be harmed by the lie.

How can a democracy function if nobody tells the truth because nobody believes there even is any such thing?  Nancy Pelosi is the perfect living example of one of Lewis Carroll's fantastical characters:

"Words mean what I say they do," Humpty Dumpty declared. "No more, and no less."

Traditional cultures, Christian or otherwise, recognized that it's not possible to operate any sort of organization when nothing anybody says can be counted on.  Modern scholarship is beginning to recognize the importance of trust in a modern economy's very existence; our current financial problems can in large part be traced to a failure of belief.

Change, Chaos, Collapse, and Reform

Barack Obama rode to the presidency on a wave of "Hope and Change."  We've reported extensively on how many of his proposed Changes are stupid at best and disastrous at worst.  Does this mean we are simply shouting STOP?  The media likes to call Republicans the "Party of No" as they oppose most of Mr. Obama's plans, and as Rush Limbaugh famously said, hope for him to fail in his efforts to destroy our market-based economy.

At the moment, with the entire strength of government, media, and culture barreling ahead in a desperately destructive direction, we certainly ought to be out there yelling STOP.  More than that, though, we also need to be ready, the moment there is the slightest chance of correction, to put forward a conservative plan - not for what we should not do, but for what we should do.

Newt Gingrich's Contract with America was a magnificent example of how successful this approach can be; nobody would ever accuse Newt of saying nothing but STOP.

When Mr. Obama's statist Democrat policies eventually crash and burn - as, history plainly teaches, they inevitably will - the Right needs to stand ready to pick up the pieces and chart a new course.  Let's get ready for the opportunity to guide History saying "Come back this way.  You'll be glad you did - and here's why."

Mr. Buckley shouldn't have satisfied himself with yelling "Stop!" as pithy and memorable as that statement was.  What he should have yelled was, "Been there, done that, didn't like it, you won't either" and explained why.

Alas, that doesn't fit into a soundbite - but the wisdom of centuries never will.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments
I believe this article makes a common fallacy in reasoning called hasty generalization. Each person is unique. If what you believe in is going after whatever social debacle pops up as time goes by, you believe in nothing. The one principle that gives conviction to a movement is a simple belief in the sanctity of property rights.
July 12, 2009 6:44 PM
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