FREEDOM AT RISK: REFLECTIONS ON POLITICS, LIBERTY, AND THE STATE
By James L. Buckley
Encounter, $25.95, 312 pages
Let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who took James L. Buckley’s U.S. Senate seat from him in 1976, was far from the worst thing that ever happened to the Senate or its delegation from the Empire State.
Still, what a waste of a first-rate, common-sensical and patriotic mind - Mr. Buckley’s, I mean. “The sainted senator,” as brother Bill was wont to refer to him in print, was for six years sort of the spokesman for right-thinking Americans wherever they lived. Then came Moynihan. Jim Buckley slipped from public view, re-emerging for a 15-year stint on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Thereafter came Charles E. Schumer, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Things around the New York senatorial delegation are, um, different than they were 35 years ago. How different? Consider this from “Freedom at Risk,” a collection of Jim Buckley’s essays and speeches:
“We won’t be able to bring our expanding administrative state under control and avoid national bankruptcy until the American people insist that we do so. This requires that our citizens rediscover that the price of cradle-to-grave security is the ultimate erosion of their freedoms.”
That’s for starters. We learn later on from the former senator that the Senate’s problems flow from “the enormous expansion of federal activities in recent years. Congress is simply trying to handle more business than it can manage.” Government in general, as Mr. Buckley saw it 35 years ago and sees it now, is way, way, too big.
What to do to straighten out the Congress that enacted Obamacare? Among other things, “narrow the scope of administrative discretion by sharpening the focus of congressional mandates and requiring that they be strictly interpreted.” Additionally, “require government agencies to be as accountable for their action as anyone else in our society.” If it all sounds a bit general, it nevertheless seems to fit the country’s post-election, post-Obamacare mood.
Oh, and what about the federal courts? In constitutional interpretation, “a reliance on original meaning” is the ticket - a formula that, however ridiculed at Harvard Law School, works well as a check on judicial abuse of power.
It keeps getting back to power. The federal government, by Mr. Buckley’s reckoning, has too much of the power and authority that more rightly belong to “the states and the people,” as the 10th Amendment succinctly phrases it.
During his six Senate years - he won as the Conservative Party candidate, defeating a liberal Democrat and a liberal Republican incumbent - Mr. Buckley served two Republican presidents but saw power continue to accumulate in Washington, thickly, gloppily. Nothing has changed materially since then.
Mr. Buckley isn’t afraid to fault President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program for piling more federal interventions atop an already large heap of federal interventions. “As bad as too many of our public schools are,” he says, “there is no reason to believe Washington can do a better job of managing the schools” than can the states. If Washington really, truly wanted to do something for the states, why not, in Mr. Buckley’s view, hold public schools accountable to parents? Why not stimulate competition among schools? How? By enacting a tuition-tax-credit bill co-sponsored - irony of ironies - by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The same gentility and good nature Mr. Buckley displayed in giving his political eviction agent due credit are on display throughout “Freedom at Risk.” He enjoyed the civility of the olden time and laments its flight from the treadmill of constant fundraising and the literally impossible task of mastering the minutiae of legislation. Yes, just how would one go about mastering legislation that weighs in “at wrist-snapping lengths of 500, 800, or even the 2,700 pages of Obamacare”?
The sainted ex-senator from New York hits all the conservative high Cs, but his voice has range and timbre that may surprise both liberals and conservatives. His passion for the environment in 1970s terms made him fairly green. He went so far - in National Review yet - as to plead the cause of the much-maligned snail darter. A friend of Wall Street and the supposed capitalist machine, he laments the “head-on collision between the traditional Judaeo-Christian ethic, with its reverence for human life, and a new ethic which permits the taking of human life for what are held to be the social, economic or psychological needs of others.”
Three-and-a-half decades after his ouster from the Senate, James L. Buckley’s moment may be dawning once more - a little late for fans to suck him back into practical politics but not a bit late for him to teach the essentials he knew way back when, only too few listened long and hard enough.
William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.