The Debate Between Liberty-Minded and Common-Good Conservatives Is Nothing New

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
It’s been raging since Milton Friedman and Bill Buckley duked it out on Firing Line three decades ago.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE B etween Sohrab Ahmari’s denunciations of “David Frenchism,” Adrian Vermeule’s murkily authoritarian “common-good constitutionalism,” and Patrick Deneen’s book-long broadside against the liberal tradition, much ink has been spilled about the emergent ideological fissures within American conservatism. But such debates are hardly new. In fact, they’ve been going on for at least three decades.

Back in 1990, William F. Buckley Jr. published a little book called Gratitude. Subtitled “Reflections On What We Owe To Our Country,” the book was Buckley’s attempt to propose a Switzerland-style national-service program for America’s youth, born out of his concern that the younger generation lacked responsibility and patriotism. No doubt fully aware of the controversy that his proposal would ignite among many of his fellow travelers on the political right, Buckley wrote:

The conviction of some conservatives that the state can’t have a genuine, non-predatory interest in the cultivation of virtue strikes me as an anarchical accretion in modern conservative thought, something that grew from too humorless a reading of such spirited individualists as Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken. . . . National service, if transformed merely into a state bureaucracy with huge powers of intimidation, is not only to be avoided, but to be fought. But we can open our minds to something other than a statist program, or one that lodges in the state the kind of power conservatives have been taught, at great historical expense, to husband for social uses.

So conscious was Buckley of the ire that his argument would provoke from the libertarian faction of the conservative coalition, he wrote an entire chapter entitled “Anticipating the Libertarian Argument.” Despite his support for free markets, he begrudgingly acknowledged the limitations of economic liberty. “The deep wellsprings of patriotism are fed by other forces, and these do not leave fingerprints in the market,” he wrote. “They must be investigated by the use of entirely different instruments.”

This is similar to a view that many of the more market-skeptical Burkean traditionalists have expressed in contemporary intra-conservative debates: the idea that the state has a vested interest in protecting and even proactively nurturing our civic institutions, placing some aspects of our cultural inheritance beyond the reach of the creative destruction that is inherent to any dynamic liberal society. It’s a view that stems from a particular concern for what Buckley called “connections between the individual and the community beyond those that relate either to the state or to the marketplace.”

As Buckley expected, many prominent libertarians remained unconvinced by his ambitious case for a national-service program. Milton Friedman, the great padrino of classical liberalism and an old friend of Buckley’s, was particularly upset by the proposal. In a now-famous Firing Line debate between the two, Friedman thundered: “I am absolutely astounded that you, of all people, use the English language the way that you use it. There’s nothing ‘voluntary’ about your program. . . . My God, what’s happened to you?”

Though it only lasted for about 25 minutes, the Buckley–Friedman debate crystallized the tug of war between common-good and liberty-minded conservatives that continues to this day. Friedman was the strident individualist, deeply suspicious of central planning and instinctually indignant at the prospect of expanding coercive state power. He denounced Buckley’s “organismic, collectivist philosophy,” and, striking a characteristically Lockean tone, argued that “our society is a collection of individuals who join together to achieve their common purposes, and the state is simply a mechanism through which they achieve their common purposes.” Buckley, by contrast, argued that a decline in the collective virtue and patriotic duty of a people was a serious problem that could not be solved by private action alone. He shot back at Friedman that society is not “a meaningless term,” but rather “a vehicle which will continue to protect your sons and mine, and that we have therefore an interest in the shape of.”

This should all sound familiar to students of the contemporary right’s internecine wars. Buckley’s proposal of a national-service program that would act as a government-run promoter of good character was anathema to Friedman, who argued that “the whole system of private enterprise” itself functions as “voluntary national service, using the terms correctly.” A similar debate is occurring in our current moment: Some contemporary conservative thinkers have argued that, in our increasingly atomized and individualistic culture, the state must be more aggressive in promoting virtue, order, and the “common good.” Others, echoing Friedman, counter that liberty is the common good, at least insofar as the role of government is concerned.

For conservatives in both 1990 and today, the fundamental question remains the same: In a free society, how far should the state go in exercising its coercive powers to ensure positive outcomes for society? “I object to it strenuously,” Friedman said of such state action. “I think it’s one of the typical cases of some people who think they know what’s good for other people.” Buckley, meanwhile, argued that some state action is justified by “the necessity for virtuous citizenry.”

It is worth noting, of course, that the two men agreed on the vast majority of political issues. Both understood themselves as advocating for freedom, republican democracy, a flourishing civil society, and a virtuous, self-governing people. The fiery nature of their debate was largely borne out of the fact that they understood themselves as being on the same side, and were thus upset at what they saw as the other’s betrayal of a shared vision.

Now more than ever, conservatives must take care to keep sight of what we share, however many contentious feuds may erupt over what we don’t. Buckley and Friedman remain a great model of how to maintain a persistently deep friendship despite vehement disagreements. In the closing seconds of their storied 1990 debate, the two intellectual giants even flashed sheepish grins at each other. When the fight was over, there was a palpable exhalation throughout the television studio — though they had been energetic rivals mere minutes before, the two men were companions once again. The lights began to dim, and the Firing Line music signaled the end of another episode.

“Okay,” Buckley smiled at Friedman. “I’ll see you in Alta, Milton.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally misidentified the year of Gratitude‘s publication and the subsequent Buckley–Friedman debate. It has been amended to include the correct year.

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