Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party
by F.H. Buckley
Encounter Books, 2022; 254 pp.
Frank Buckley is always a thoughtful and provocative author, but I disagree with what he has to say in Progressive Conservatism more than with other books of his I’ve reviewed, such as his outstanding American Secession and Curiosity (see my review here).
In the present book, he defends a “national conservatism” and is critical of laissez-faire capitalism, though he does not dismiss it entirely. Whether he is correct that the program he favors is the “winning strategy” for the Republican Party I do not presume to say: he knows far more about such things than I do. Despite his rejection of the complete free market, his concrete proposals often manifest great economic insight and his criticisms of the contemporary Left are forceful and effective. I propose to begin, though, by asking why it is that Buckley differs from the Rothbardian position I deem correct.
The answer, it seems to me, is that Buckley reposes much less confidence in philosophical reasoning when applied to politics and economics than do Rothbardians, who endeavor to derive a legal code based on natural law. Buckley is unsympathetic to natural law and says of it,
There are several difficulties with natural law theories, however, beginning with the leap from what is to what ought to be the case. If we have natural preferences, that doesn’t tell us that they’re the ones we ought to have. By nature, we can be greedy and selfish, so calling something natural doesn’t tell us it’s a good instinct. And if all you meant by saying something is natural is that it’s a good thing to do, labels like “natural” and “unnatural” are wheels that turn nothing…. More recent thinkers, such as John Finnis, try to sidestep the is-ought problem by identifying natural law with rational egoism and the idea that our practical reason will direct us to choose those goods that are best for us. This has come to be called New Natural Law…. But NNL fails to explain why we should sacrifice ourselves for others when there is no personal gain from doing so. (p. 180; on p. 242n15, Buckley cites David Hume on the “is-ought” gap)
Suffice it to say that Buckley does not address the endeavor of standard natural law theorists to bridge the is-ought gap (for some, though certainly not all, judgments) by appeal to the notion of the human essence; and though he cites Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness (p. 3), he appears unacquainted with its distinctive line of approach to the issues he discusses. Further, it is not correct that John Finnis’s NNL is a version of rational egoism; in claiming this, Buckley has not considered what Finnis has to say about “the requirements of practicable reasonableness.” (For further discussion of the traditional natural law view, see my review of Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl’s The Realist Turn in the Philosophical Quarterly, October 2021)
Buckley makes explicit his antitheoretical stance in this passage:
But wait, says the right-wing intellectual. You want to promote the common good. Fine, but where’s your theory? Ah, you noticed that, did you, answers the progressive conservative. You’re right. I don’t have a theory. I think they’re baloney. They offer a false security and not the nuanced and adaptable answers needed for the multitude of problems life throws at you. “It is illogical to guillotine a prince and replace him with a principle,” said Ortega. (p. 182)
I should prefer to say, with Immanuel Kant, that if your theory does not work in practice you have the wrong theory.
That said, Buckley offers insightful comments on many current problems. He wants the Republican Party to return to the tradition of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, who supported nationalist policies designed to aid American workers and rejected the unhampered free market; but the polices Buckley favors at the present juncture are often quite in line with what Austrians would prescribe.
He says, for example,
While the legislator can’t enact cultural changes, there are nevertheless things he can do to help restore traditional family structures…. We could also make it easier to get married and have children through more generous tax credits for children in married households. The tax credit at present is $3,600 per child, and progressive conservatives should give some thought to increasing this. (p. 187)
Like Buckley, Rothbardians support the traditional family; and the more tax credits, the better.
On higher education, he says that the “government-backed loans increased the financial burden on students, and it also corrupted higher education. They freed universities from the discipline of private markets and led them to admit students who had no business in university. If the ill-educated students couldn’t get jobs after graduation, too bad for them” (p. 189). Well said, indeed!
Again, Buckley explains with exemplary clarity a key principle of political economy:
Mancur Olson described minoritarian misbehavior as a collective action problem in The Rise and Decline of Nations. We’d all be better off if we could band together and prevent interest groups from wastefully directing public spending their way. But when the benefits of combining together are dispersed across all American citizens, it’s easy to free ride and do nothing. The interest group doesn’t have the same problem because its numbers are far fewer. A classic example is government protection of the sugar industry, where tariff barriers raise sugar prices 64 to 92 percent above the world average. (p. 132)
I venture to suggest that this provides excellent reason not to trust the federal government to administer the welfare state measures Buckley favors to aid the poor, but rather to reduce the size and scope of the government to the greatest extent possible.
One can only applaud when Buckley calls for a radical reduction of government regulations. “Could the commission cut back regulations by 70 percent as Trump proposed? Yes, and more so, if it corrects the biases of the deep state’s rulemaking and abandons the regulator’s conceit that every little error deserves to be corrected by a rule” (p. 199).
Perhaps the best point in the book is Buckley’s mordant comment on the contemporary Left:
What especially annoyed Republicans was how Democrats tried to pass themselves off as the party of law and order. They told us there was nothing to see when cities burned and stores were looted, and when Antifa injured 140 federal officers in Portland, the blamed the cops…. For Democrats, the police were the villains and the thugs were social justice heroes, which explains the degradation and crime we’re now seeing in Democrat-run cities, the homeless encampments and the looting, dangerous driving, and carjackings. (p. 23)
The fundamental difference between Buckley’s position and that of consistent supporters of the free market emerges most clearly in this passage:
I’ll concede, the progressive conservative tells the libertarian, that you have some great thinkers on your side. However, they don’t supply me with the kind of answers I’m looking for. If I want to know what percentage of the federal budget to spend on welfare, the Robert Nozick of Anarchy, State, and Utopia will say zero. If I asked Ludwig von Mises what kind of tariffs to erect, he’d say get rid of all of them. If I asked Milton Friedman what to do about infrastructure, he’d say “privatize, privatize, privatize.” They’re wonderful savants, but I have a different set of teachers and a Republican Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, not of philosophes. (pp. 173–74)
Though I would choose differently from Buckley, I would agree with him entirely that Eisenhower was no philosophe.