Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

Our Republic: Can We Keep It?

Freedom at Risk: Reflections on Politics, Liberty, and the State, by James L. Buckley (Encounter, 312 pp., $25.95)

James Buckley never wanted to be a public figure. Unlike his younger brother Bill, who made great waves at Yale before bursting onto the national scene with his first book at age 25, Jim was content to study and enjoy life at Yale, take his law degree, and spend a few years with a New Haven law firm before, as he puts it in the engaging introduction to Freedom at Risk, going off “to pursue the tranquil life of a country lawyer.”

His father was the first to intervene in these plans, persuading him to come to work for his group of oil-exploration companies. Then, in 1965, the New York Conservative party suggested that Bill run for mayor of New York City. Jim served as Bill’s campaign manager — his first direct exposure to the political arena. Three years later, the Conservative party asked Jim himself to run for the Senate — basically a sacrificial-lamb campaign against the entrenched incumbent, the hyper-liberal Republican Jacob Javits.

Then came the Senate race of 1970, and James Buckley’s life changed forever. The Conservative party again asked him to run, but this time, instead of a well-connected old bull, his Republican opponent was Charles Goodell, appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller just two years before to fill the vacancy left by the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The Democrat, Richard Ottinger, had served three not terribly distinguished terms in the House. And Buckley proved to be a strong speaker and an appealing campaigner. With Vice President Spiro Agnew telling ordinary citizens — including the blue-collar Democrats who had given Bill Buckley their votes in 1965 — that they didn’t have to quietly accept the country’s move left, Jim Buckley won the three-way election with 40 percent of the vote.

Senator Buckley served only one term before being defeated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, hugely popular for his take-no-prisoners performance as U.N. ambassador. (NR had even named Moynihan Man of the Year in 1975.) After his defeat, Buckley returned to the private sector, but his articulate dedication to principle during his one Senate term had been enough to bring him to the attention of conservatives nationwide. When Ronald Reagan came to the White House, he tapped James Buckley as under secretary of state for security assistance. And in 1985, Reagan nominated him for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he served until his retirement in 2000.

Thus the would-be country lawyer became a very rare (perhaps unique) public servant: one who has occupied high positions in all three branches of our federal government. And, as this book attests, he emerged from that crucible with his principles — and his wry sense of humor — intact.

Freedom at Risk is a collection of speeches, essays, and radio talks stretching back over 40 years, with freshly written introductions and addenda putting each piece in context. There is also a new introductory essay, “On Liberty and the State,” which starkly identifies the turning point America faces: Will we remain a free people capable of self-government, or will we slip “irretrievably into the suffocating embrace of an all-caring state, with all that that implies”?

#page#Perhaps the most striking thing about the pieces collected here is how up to date they are. The specific controversy being discussed 35 (or 25, or 13) years ago may have faded (how New York City’s 1976 fiscal crisis should have been solved; the problem of energy shortages owing to the Arab oil boycott; the defects in the Equal Rights Amendment), but the lessons drawn remain true, and the warnings have been more than borne out in the intervening years.

In no area is this more apparent than in the burgeoning of federal laws and regulations, which has, Buckley writes, transformed our constitutional republic into “an administrative state overseen by a fourth, extra-constitutional branch of government in which unelected officials write rules that reach into every corner of American life.”

To see what this has meant, we can look at the numbers:

Federal statutory law is to be found in the United States Code. In 1935, at the outset of the New Deal, the Code consisted of a single volume containing 2,275 pages of statutes. This was the work product of Congress since it first met in 1789. Today, the Code consists of thirty volumes of statutory law. But . . . that is just the tip of the iceberg. Those . . . federal statutes are administered by bureaus and agencies that in turn issue streams of marching orders that have the force of law. By 2010, the Code of Federal Regulations consisted of 225 volumes containing 35,367 pages of detailed, fine-print regulations.

Or we can examine one particularly egregious case — OSHA. Buckley cites a constituent of his who had been fined for violating an OSHA standard for guard rails. His offense? He had exceeded the OSHA standard and made the guard rail too strong.

Not that Buckley is reflexively anti-government, not at all. But, as he argues forcefully, where our federal government goes wrong, it is by departing from the Founding Fathers’ principles and their rationale. That young blogger who said a few weeks ago that the Constitution is irrelevant because it was written more than a hundred years ago will probably not read Freedom at Risk. If he did, he would be introduced to the bracing notion that although our modern industrial superpower is very different from the small agrarian nation of 224 years ago, nonetheless some things remain constant. As Buckley puts it, the Founders “were not ivory-tower theorists. Rather, they had scrutinized the historical record and knew that the one constant in human affairs is human nature itself, and that, left unchecked, its drives and weaknesses will inevitably undermine free institutions. They gave us a Constitution designed to contain those destructive impulses, a governmental structure that remains as applicable to today’s world as it was to theirs.”

But Freedom at Risk is not only about the structure of government. Buckley writes also of the nature of a people suited for self-government: It must possess “what was then referred to as ‘republican virtue’ — the subordination of personal advantage to the public good. Hence Benjamin Franklin’s answer to the woman who, at the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, asked him what form of government the American people were to have: ‘A republic, madam, if you can keep it.’ The ultimate responsibility for preserving the Republic would lie with the people.”

#page#But republican virtue has had a rough time of it for quite a while now. As Buckley points out, the Supreme Court started in the 1930s undermining “constitutional virtue” through its wild extensions of the Commerce Clause. And in recent decades, “we have witnessed an erosion of moral standards and self-discipline that has given us among the civilized world’s highest incidences of crime, abortion, pornography, drug abuse, and illegitimacy, as well as some corporate scandals of Olympian proportions.” A bleak picture — and yet, “fortunately (if that is the proper word!), the excesses of the Obama administration may have turned the heat up fast enough to ignite a public rebellion.” Freedom at Risk was completed before last fall’s elections, but the trend Buckley discerned in polls and Tea Party activity through the summer seems to be holding strong.

The first part of this book lays out the framework of how our polity is supposed to work. The balance of the pieces apply the Founders’ principles to a wide range of topics, from the immorality of state-sponsored gambling, to the damage we inflicted on ourselves and others by breaking faith with South Vietnam; from the wisdom of President Reagan’s approach to arms control (with an addendum about the short-sightedness of President Obama’s approach), to the benefits of introducing competition in delivery of first-class mail; from the importance the Founders assigned to the oath of office, to the counterproductive efforts to control the price of natural gas. We get the statement Buckley made on the Senate floor when he introduced the Human Life Amendment; besides careful parsing of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, this piece includes a long, lyrical quotation from a New Zealand doctor describing the life of the child in his mother’s womb.

And we get two pieces from James Buckley, environmentalist. One of these, “Three Cheers for the Snail Darter,” appeared as a cover story in National Review in 1979, and some of our colleagues bristled. These writers saw environmentalism as more anti-human than pro-animal; one of them enjoyed saying, “Pollution is good” — because it indicated thriving industry. But the first charge does not apply to Buckley, who writes, “I see no particular virtue in turning the American environmental clock back to the year 1491. I am among those who view man as part of nature, with natural imperatives of his own, which are not necessarily at odds with those of the rest of creation.” And as for the second point, Buckley argues persuasively that “our economic well-being ultimately depends on the health of our environment.” But he also argues — with some lyricism of his own — that economics is not the only issue: “What value . . . does one place on the Parthenon, whose façade is being eaten away by the pollutants generated in modern Greece? What value on a pristine Grand Canyon, given its hydroelectric potential? And in weighing the cost of protecting migratory birds, what value does one place on a wood thrush’s haunting song?”

Freedom at Risk is a deeply humane volume. We may be glad that James Buckley was pulled into the public arena so many years ago and forced to grapple with issues that country lawyers can be content to avoid. 

Linda BridgesLinda Bridges is an editor-at-large of National Review.

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