On William Buckley’s “Agenda for the Nineties”

Thomas L Wayburn


I find it expedient to criticize William Buckley’s “Agenda for the Nineties” [1] in order to discredit the best of American conservatism.  Thus, I attack William Buckley not because I do not respect him but because I do.  [Note in proof:  Is this still true?]  (This is not to be construed as approval of elitism – or “valuism”.  I do not recognize his right to a disproportionate share of the media.)   Conservative political philosophy is obsolete.  Every aspect of it has been superseded.  We should be concerned with the underlying defects in society rather than the superficial symptoms dealt with by Mr. Buckley’s agenda.

The means of production should be owned by the workers equally but in a generalized sense of private property – more akin to custodianship – just as a carpenter is expected to own his tools, which, if cared for properly, can be passed on to his successors.  Management should cease to exist in a form that gives some people control over others.  Government should be small and organized so as to prevent the rise of “natural leaders”.  Amazingly, the institution of money should be abolished to prevent competition for wealth and hoarding of wealth with all of their attendant evils, particularly poverty, and to replace coercion with volition, in keeping with modern psychological experiments in intrinsic motivation.  (We can prove that people are capable of being motivated by the intrinsic value of the task rather than by greed or fear.)  We must approach a (quasi-)steady-state world as quickly as possible.  (Competition for wealth and the domination of some by others is a barrier to this goal.)  The following paragraphs are devoted to Buckley’s points, some of which make sense if we were willing to accept the world as it is.  The headings are Mr. Buckley’s section headings.  In each section, I state Buckley’s view, as I understand it, and, then, I say what I think of it.

Nuclear Polycentrism

Buckley wants to prevent nuclear proliferation by force if necessary.  We defend the right of every nation to have whatever weapons the best-armed nations have for the same reason that we defend the right of every citizen to bear arms, namely, so that the weak can deter aggression from the strong.  Remember that a gun used to be called an equalizer, especially by so-called gangsters who faced overwhelming odds in conflicts with government, whose leaders are the real gangsters.  Also, Buckley thinks we should develop defenses against nuclear attack and other superweapons.  Superdefenses will be succeeded by superweapons designed to penetrate superdefenses.  This an escalation of the arms race at a new level of abstraction.

The answer is to eliminate the major causes of war, which are, in no particular order: (i) imperialism and colonialism, the exploitation of one nation by another, which might entail only trade, since, with trade, it is never clear who is exploiting whom; (ii) differences in wealth, which are usually caused by unequal sharing of natural resources including agricultural soil or by imperialism and colonialism again.  (Differences in wealth due to cultural differences in acquisitiveness or ambition are less likely to lead to conflict so long as the less ambitious people are left alone.)  And (iii) religion (barring fundamentalism, i.e., attempting to absolutize the relative [2], I don’t believe religious differences would be fatal if the world were decentralized economically, which is what is required anyway to minimize energy expenditures).

Freedom’s Friend

Buckley’s views toward supporting freedom and preventing human rights abuses are not significantly different from my own, but I disagree totally with his initial premise that freedom and human rights are protected in the United State s.  If and when freedom comes to America, we should allow refugees from tyranny to develop, on U.S. soil, strategies to overthrow tyranny by nonviolent means if at all possible, but, for the nonce, interference with sovereign states is out.  (Clearly, we would (should) not permit refugees from tyranny to devote themselves to ordinary pursuits and to neglect tyranny.)  We (the people) should have no “foreign interests”.

Mr. Buckley, no doubt, will be able to construct a scenario that is so horrifying that I shall be tempted to say, “Oh, in that case, we must rush into battle.”  I like his suggestion that this be done by private U.S. citizens if they feel so motivated.  I do not advocate a national militia, but rather an armed citizenry aided and abetted in national defense by high-tech collectives of a generalized private nature.

A Modest Environmentalism

Buckley recognizes that we should not depend on oil from the Middle East, but for the wrong reasons.  He neglects to mention that no equitable and reasonable plan for the distribution of world natural resources is in place.  By “equitable” I mean a plan that recognizes natural resources as the legacy of the entire human race without regard to the accidental settling of one nation or another over one part or another of the reserves.  By “reasonable” I mean a plan that reduces the rate of consumption until a steady state in reserves is achieved in a reasonably short time.  Also, he neglects to mention that carrying oil over the ocean in large tankers is inherently unsafe at the present time.

Buckley does not recognize the necessity to reduce our consumption of energy to achieve steady-state reserves and atmospheric conditions and to reduce motion pollution as discussed in Chapter 7.  He correctly recognizes that nuclear power is safe when used correctly, but he neglects the problem of storage of nuclear wastes, which may be solved by costly dynamic storage or by the development of fusion.  By “dynamic storage” I mean storage facilities that are monitored and “operated” like an active chemical process with constant testing, checking, etc.  Also, Buckley, like practically all conservatives, neglects the fateful fact that all businessmen will cheat if they are desperate enough or even if they can secure an advantage for themselves; so, we cannot entrust the production of nuclear energy to businessmen.  Since we don’t trust the government with anything, we are directed naturally toward a noncompetitive economic system with the means of production in the hands of the producers.  Buckley neglects one additional difficulty with nuclear energy; namely, it may not be economically feasible, but more analysis is needed on that question.  Even if unlimited reserves of energy were available, we must use them conservatively to avoid motion pollution and thermal pollution (from waste heat, cf., The Second Law.  Conceivably, additional heat generation would be balanced by additional infra-red radiation – barring a “greenhouse effect”.)

Buckley concludes his recommendations for the environment by cautioning against allowing environmental “extremists” to go too far.  As examples of going too far, he cites two unfortunate cases, namely, wearing animal furs and driving gas-powered cars.  It is easy to see that wearing furs makes an indefensible statement whether the animal would or would not have been born with or without the fur industry.  I have made a case against automobiles in Chapter 7.

Protectionist Heresy

Buckley correctly advises against identifying the factors that led to America’s economic success with a “Divine warrant granting the United States perpetual economic ascendancy”.  According to Buckley, the factors responsible for America’s economic success are (1) abundant natural resources, (2) free-market economics, and (3) the work ethic (embraced by the majority according to Buckley).  The first factor is indisputable, but Buckley neglects to mention the abuse of this blessing, for example by cutting down every stick of virgin timber in the Adirondacks.  We can’t look forward to much help from resources that were devoured mercilessly to make the fortunes of predators, but why should we allow the scions of those fortunes to retain their wealth?  When a bank robber is caught, the first thing the cops do is take back the money.

The second factor, a free-market economy, is doubtful for a number of reasons: (1) a free-market economy has never been achieved in America or elsewhere, (2) the modest measure of wealth achieved by the average American can be explained more reasonably on the basis of trickle-down effects from our massive imperialistic foreign policy that plundered the raw materials, including agricultural soils (and whenever I mention raw materials I always mean to include agricultural soil) and human labor, (3) the middle-class American has benefited from the cheap labor of the working class.  I like to think of the charming story of “Meet Me in Saint Louis”, which portrayed the very best of what conservatives think of as old-fashioned American middle-class values.  It is noteworthy that the father in that delightful family produced nothing of value that can be used for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, living convenience, or even luxury.  And (4) America has been playing a sort of pyramid game with immigrants for centuries wherein the later arrivals are permitted to be exploited by earlier arrivals in various ways, for example by benefiting from their cheap labor.  This is a game that clearly cannot go on forever without diminishing the quality of life substantially and driving hundreds of species of plants and animals into extinction.

I have discussed the work ethic in detail in “On the Work Ethic”.  Suffice it to say for now that it is doubtful that the majority of Americans bought into the corrupt and degrading superstition known as the work ethic.  Most people hate their jobs.  They work because they have no choice.  America is a plutocracy and those without political or economic power are as likely to be wage slaves as not.  America has built a great deal of its prosperity on the backs of exploited workers, some of whom, it must be admitted, got some crumbs from the table.  Some have benefited from the struggle of organized labor, vigorously opposed by conservatives.  But nearly all workers have obtained their livelihoods at a terrific sacrifice of nature and human dignity.  (A job is prostitution if you like your work, slavery if you don’t.)

So, I, for one, am not buying the simple-minded assumptions tossed off in a word by Buckley, but I have not yet reached the gist of this section, namely, that protectionism is wrong, according to Buckley, for three reasons. (1) It results in rich nations with poor inhabitants, cf., Japan.  (2) It causes attrition of the dollar (assuming that money continues to exist).  This conclusion is based on the statement that net economic satisfaction depends on the value of the dollar in competition with other currencies, i.e., the relative value of the dollar.  (3) Protectionism is immoral because it is harmful to people in developing countries who are trying to sell us their goods in order to raise their standard of living.

Both (1) and (2) assume that foreign trade will continue despite tariffs and other trade barriers.  I have never heard a valid argument for free trade between nations.  The arguments against protectionism usually claim that protectionism can lead to trade wars and trade wars can lead to shooting wars, but they never consider the option to discontinue foreign trade altogether.  We were taught the principle of comparative advantage in elementary economics, but comparative advantage no longer exists or could be eliminated easily.  Anyone can make Swiss watches.  The difficulty of nonexistent material resources can be dealt with by substitutes and, more important, by recycling.  Only high-grade energy resources are unrecoverable.  All material that is not involved in nuclear reactions can be recovered at a cost.  Of course, if one litters foreign landscapes with expensive military hardware made with rare metals, ...  Apparently proponents of free trade hope that anything with the word “free” in it can stand on its name alone.

In his discussion of the third reason Buckley points out that tariffs are a form of economic warfare, which is immoral, presumably, if other forms of warfare are immoral, other things being equal.  I agree that trade war is war, but I go further and claim that international trade itself is war, cf., Japan.  I claim that trade is that form of exploitation of one party by another in which no one knows who is the exploiter and who is the exploitee.  This, of course, is an exaggeration, but I challenge anyone to point to an international (or even domestic) instance of trade that does not exploit one party or the other and sometimes both.  Shockingly, I am opposed to trade in any of its manifestations, therefore I no longer recognize the usefulness of money as an institution.  This is the heart of my economic philosophy, namely, that people ought to contribute to the economic well-being of all of humanity without regard to anything that will be received in return.  I think that this is what Jesus had in mind.  (Moreover I think that Jesus was, near the beginning of his career as an itinerant preacher, against all organized religion, but he may have had a change of heart when he began to succumb to the flattery of his disciples and to imagine himself something more than an ordinary man.  I am against organized religion and, in particular, the Christian religion because it supports the work ethic and, in turn, capitalism, and because it is absurd.  Moreover, I believe that Jesus would be opposed to Christianity if he were alive now.  His religion, which must have been fairly close to my own at least in the early part of his career, was certainly not Christianity – if he existed.)

I believe that people should have equal regard for all of humanity and, perhaps a lesser regard or, perhaps, a greater regard, for animals and, perhaps, even plants.  But, that doesn’t mean that I favor extensive international intercourse.  Because of energy considerations and for other equally compelling reasons, the best prospects for all of mankind lie in decentralization, which, if you don’t like it, you would probably refer to as isolationism.  I cannot imagine that the United States could do better at the present time than leave the rest of the world alone and I don’t think I would get too much argument from the rest of the world.

It is easy to see how financial aid of developing countries is a form of depredation.  We lend them money for industrial projects that require U.S. expertise to build, so the money is expended on U.S. living standards.  The project must be “modern” so the raw materials, even, may have to be imported.  Moreover, since the developing country must repay its loan, the product must be exportable.  In all likelihood, the people will not only not be able to afford the product, but they won’t even need or desire it.  The loan will be repaid in the standard of living of the developing country, which may have a disadvantage to an American standard of living that amounts to a factor of from 4 to 16 times; that is, they borrow a yearly subsistence wage for one American worker and they pay back as much as 16 years subsistence wages of the worker in the developing country.  Thus, Mr. Buckley’s charitable foreign-trade policy is another way to exploit foreigners, who would clearly be better off making things they can actually use themselves.  Ergo, decentralization.

Still Losing Ground

Buckley and I agree that the federalization of welfare has probably harmed those who received it more than it has helped them; i.e., they would have been better off without it.  My only quibble with Buckley is that he includes “obedience to the law” as a criterion for what is meant by “better off”, whereas I don’t understand what obedience to the law has to do with it, inasmuch as the best off people in society, namely, businessmen, don’t obey the law.  (If they aren’t doing something else, they are evading taxes.)

We both agree that America has a persistent underclass.  The difference is that he assigns the blame to “state compassion” and to “moral liberalism”, as if black people give a damn about what liberals or conservatives think or write (perhaps he means the law is not authoritarian enough), whereas I claim that the blame lies with American-style quasi-free-market capitalism for all the reasons usually put forth and extensively documented in the book.  Capitalism requires a pool of unemployed people to take up the slack in boom times.  It requires conformity and cannot tolerate cultural diversity.  The capitalist bosses determine what the terms of employment will be and, if they don’t coincide with one’s lifestyle, too bad.  Capitalism spreads lies that are most harmful to the people who end up as losers and competition for wealth results in many losers.  [Actually, nearly every American expects to be a winner and ends up a loser, which is doubly disheartening.]  In fact, it requires the difference between poverty and subsistence, less than $10,000, for about 100 “losers” to make one millionaire: 100 x $10,000 = $1,000,000.  Buckley would disagree that the wealth of the rich is accumulated at the expense of the poor.  I have cited numerous examples elsewhere.  Let me cite here the wealth of the promoter of fads in clothing who gets rich by encouraging black youths to abandon clothing styles before the clothing, as cheaply as it is made, is yet worn out.

I agree with Buckley that the voucher system for schools is needed, but for different reasons.  (For one thing, it is a step toward the abandonment of money.  For another thing, it will accommodate disparate religious or nonreligious beliefs.  As soon as the voucher system is in place, I might attempt to open a school where my philosophy is taught and where my educational methods are applied, e.g., teaching languages beginning with music and including mathematics first, cf., The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister by Goethe.)  I disagree with Buckley when he asserts that religious teaching in the schools would restore the functionality of the family.  With Bertrand Russell [3], I believe that the family has been dysfunctional for a long time and continues to become more and more dysfunctional first, last, and always because of capitalism, which takes the husband and now the wife away from the family.  Buckley deplores the absence of public preachers of morality, duty, loyalty, and obligation.  Under the present circumstances one wonders what Buckley means by duty, loyalty, and obligation, but no conservative can be an acceptable proponent of morality because the heart and soul of capitalism is immorality.  Buckley confuses morality with prudery as do the organized churches of America, but I have covered that adequately in my essays on religion.

Buckley speaks against separation of church and state and this is the worst thing he could possibly do.  He places himself squarely in opposition to the best interests of mankind.  The church has always been in the vanguard of tyranny.  The Catholic Church, for example, is currently trying to coerce elected officials.  The organized churches have never preached the philosophy of Jesus or Mohammed or Confucius or any social philosopher worth listening to.  Presumably, the reason Buckley is pro-church is that the churches have traditionally supported the rights of some men to exploit others and the inclination of the exploited to endure it.  It is inconceivable to me that William Buckley does not know this.  I would be shocked to discover that he himself attends church regularly and I shall be pleased to receive information bearing on this point.  What I suspect is that Buckley feels that church is only for the ignorant masses who cannot decide for themselves what is right or what is good.  I’ll bet the average black man on welfare or in prison has a better idea of the difference between right and wrong than does the average white minister or, for that matter, Mr. Buckley, unless, of course, he is kidding us.

But, Buckley’s entire point is misplaced.  The blacks do poorly in white America because they are different – and America is unwilling to accommodate differences.  Black men, in particular, are most at odds with the prevailing culture.  What needs to be changed is not blacks but “culture”.  (Curiously, blacks have provided nearly everything that is original in American culture, i.e., culture in the sense of art.  It is a pity that they are not allowed to enjoy their own culture, in the sense of lifestyle.)

The Quality of Life

Buckley’s comments on the quality of life are restricted to abortion and euthanasia.  Buckley is solidly anti-abortion, at least in the later stages of pregnancy, as am I, but he remains uncommitted as to the means of preventing abortions.  He draws an unfair comparison to slavery.  The slave was an autonomous human being and the first moral principle is respect for the freedom of autonomous human beings.  (In my philosophy only fundamental moral principles and statements derived from them may become laws.)  The fetus lies entirely within the boundaries of an autonomous human being, a region where only individual sovereignty applies.  It is noteworthy that laws against abortion may not be enforced nor rights of the fetus exercised inside a woman’s body as she always has the option of destroying herself utterly.  Proper laws and rights do not suffer from such defects.

Buckley makes no comment about the quality of life between birth and death, which leaves much to be desired for those whose talents and interests do not incline toward the accumulation (or preservation) of wealth.  For one thing, they are bound to spend a lifetime worrying about money and, for that matter, arguing about money with a spouse, a boss, or a friend from time to time, unless they are blessed with an extraordinary spirituality, which may in fact be mere naiveté.  How do conservatives intend to prevent the suffering of the Van Goghs of today and tomorrow?  (Actually, Van Gogh was relatively well off compared to many artists who may have been greater artists than Van Gogh and about whom, because of their poverty, nothing will be remembered.  The point is that no one is qualified to judge.)  Today I read that leading corporate executives will play an advisory role to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).  I do not believe in state-supported art (no one is needed to support the arts in a society where everything is free), but I cannot imagine anyone less qualified to give advice on art than a businessman.  Making money destroys one’s sensibilities faster than nearly anything else.  Truly artistic people are not likely to have much luck with the NEA, but this, like everything else, is open to debate.

I do not understand how capitalism is supposed to exist without commercialism.  May I assume that Buckley supports commercialism?  Commercialism has degraded the arts and many other aspects of modern life to the point where working people, including the workers of the middle class, who do no more than count beads and shuffle paper, have no idea to what depths the quality of life has sunk.  Presumably Buckley himself must from time to time enter a supermarket or drugstore and endure the junk “music” piped over the public address system, interrupted periodically by jarring commercial messages.  Buckley appears on TV.  Has he ever watched it?  Has he not noticed the nauseating level of commercialism, hype, self-praise, and disgusting pandering to everything English on the public channel, not to mention the gross aberrations of taste that appear on the other channels – even pay channels?  [Note (6.12.2004).  Every commercial has one or more of the following features:  (i) dishonest and deceptive statements, (ii) abysmal taste, (iii) idiotic philosophy, (iv) unfair use of unannounced and unapproved junk “music”.]

It is noteworthy that capitalism does not seem to have a convenient way of diminishing harmful commercial pursuits.  The tobacco industry continues to flourish and to hold on for dear life, committing all sorts of violence to truth in the interest of survival.  In a noncompetitionistic setting, the workers in the tobacco industry would simply stop working and devote themselves to other pursuits, even hobbies if they could not find other activities for which they were qualified and in which they had interests.  They would not worry about earning a living because everything would be free.  The tobacco profiteers would not exist because no one could hoard wealth under these circumstances, where money and other financial instruments did not exist.  The beef industry may be getting into similar circumstances.  But no one could stop people who wanted to eat cows from raising them, provided only that they gave them the best possible life until they (the cows!) were slaughtered.  People might even continue to raise beef cattle for pets or let them roam free.  Everyone might someday abandon eating meat voluntarily, just as someday people may abandon smoking tobacco (but never marijuana one only hopes – although eating it might be preferable).

Buckley leaves us with the question of euthanasia.  He insists merely “that the only agents whose voices give guidance are those directly involved with the individual as an individual, rather than the individual as a state statistic”.  I don’t have any trouble excluding the state from this debate, but who could he be referring to as being involved directly with the individual as an individual other than the individual himself or his trusted spouse or children, who have been made acquainted aforehand with the individual’s will?  Surely, he doesn’t plan to let ethicists, clergymen, or physicians share in this decision.

Thinking About Drugs

Buckley is sympathetic toward drug legalization, but for the wrong reasons.  He is hostile toward drug use, which he probably thinks of as abuse if it is habitual, but drug use is an inherently neutral act, which depends on context to make it advisable or inadvisable.  He fails to recognize that the choice of which drugs to take may be a religious decision over which the state must not rule.  I have written extensively on drugs.

Big Government.

Buckley and I agree in our opposition to big government, but, if we are to eliminate big government with all of its regulatory and safety-net apparatus, we need to eliminate the incentive for one person or class of persons to exploit another person or class of persons.  This can be done best and most thoroughly by abandoning money as an institution as soon as everyone recognizes that money itself, rather than the love of money, is the root of all evil – or at least damn close to the root, rather than big government, say, which would not need to exist if money did not.  Both central and decentralized planning can be done adequately by private persons whose expertise lies in applied mathematics rather than applied politics.  For readers who have Buckley’s pamphlet in front of them, Buckley ends this section with a question that ends with “who questions that this ought to be the responsibility of American conservatives?”  The answer is – I do.

Tempting Justice.

Buckley decries the role of the courts in the erosion of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, as do I, but Buckley does not go far enough in recognizing that the United States is no longer governed by valid laws at all.  The government interprets the Constitution according to who has the most money at stake.  The courts are no longer available to people who wish to have business and government obey the law.  That’s why efforts such as those made by Common Cause, say, to have laws passed are useless because no one in power is required to obey the laws, unless they, like the Keating Five, accidentally become scapegoats in a public display of phony zeal, which belongs in the category of circuses for the people.

An Overmighty Executive?

Buckley warns conservatives about being overly enthusiastic about executive power and privilege just because the current president and other recent presidents have been republicans.  He reminds them that they may be applauding enhanced presidential power that will be used against them if a democrat ever wins a presidential election.  I would go slightly further and reject completely the authority of anyone over anyone else.  I think that important national decisions should be made by a well-educated (not merely indoctrinated) people by public referendum, which soon (when everyone has a computer, a modem, and is connected to a phone line) may be able to be conducted virtually instantly.  [Recently (June 1992), Rob Lewis [4] has persuaded me that computerized referenda are neither safe nor fair (to anti-techies, say).]

But what about the tyranny of the majority, you say?  By the time the system proposed by me (and accepted by everyone, whether they think it is my idea or someone else’s idea or they thought it up themselves) is in place, the people will be educated beyond the danger of that occurring.  Amazingly, collective freedom is not precluded by individual freedom, nor is individual freedom precluded by collective freedom, provided only that the accumulation of individual wealth and power is abandoned and the principle according to which each person replaces only himself (or herself) with a new human being is accepted universally.  But this requires a proof.

It might be argued that society must be administered centrally.  This is related to what I call the myth of management.  Hopefully, I have discredited this myth sufficiently for most reasonable people in the discussion in Chapter 9, but we will not know if societies can function without administrative governments until it is tried.  It is not clear that small scale tests can be extrapolated to an entire nation, therefore the test will have to be administered in a sweeping social experiment of greater scope than the failed 200-year-old American experiment with democracy.  I suggest that the experiment be performed incrementally over a long time period – nothing like the 500-day “experiment” currently (December 1990) being conducted in the Soviet Union.

What we need, instead of leaders, are spokespersons or communicators who can communicate our national will to the people of other nations and who can do the same for various groups within a nation.  These people do not require any special qualifications beyond command over their native languages.  (Actually, Ronald Reagan was taken to be a great communicator, although I never heard him construct a sentence extemporaneously that was complete, well-formed, and true.)  At the heart of my political philosophy is the device of choosing such spokespeople at random or in order of their appearance on a random or chronological list (the exact method is open) and for short terms so as to discourage the rise of natural leaders as discussed by George Bernard Shaw [5].  (Shaw did not suggest a method for avoiding the nuisance of natural leaders.)

Merely Academic.

Buckley finds the academic world gripped by “nescience”.  If by nescience he means ignorance, I agree; if he means agnosticism, I do not agree.  Clearly, the academic world is very much in the grip of what many people facetiously term “politically correct” ideas about minorities, women, gays, the environment, etc., from which no dissension is permitted, but I have not heard market economies challenged by an academic in recent memory.  Most academics still believe economic growth (in a finite world!) is consistent with environmental improvement.  Strangely, Buckley finds academics too left-wing, while I find them so conservative that practically nothing true can be said in a college classroom – outside of the hard sciences.  [I recently spent four years as a professor in a small college town where practically everyone with whom I came in contact socially was a college professor.  I ought to know what I’m talking about.  A rather doubt that Buckley has had a similar experience.]

Recently, I attended a class at Rice University taught by a professor who had recently won an award for being the outstanding college teacher in America!  He was teaching the Book of Job, but he did not bring up the possibility that Job could not have been both a good man and a rich man, so that the reasoning in the Book of Job might be fallacious.  Also, he never mentioned, even as a possibility, that the Book of Job, may have been written to answer critics of a just God who permits evil to be done or that the authors of the book were mere propagandists for the ruling elite.  That is, he never considers the possibility that the entire religion is phony.  That sort of teaching does not strike me as too liberal.  To say what’s really wrong with colleges and universities (as opposed to what Mr. Buckley thinks is wrong) I find it expedient to reprint a section from my essay “On Honor in Science” [rejected for publication in The American Scientist, the very last journal that would have had the least incentive to publish it, and not submitted elsewhere].

Because it was originally conceived to be above the corruption of the everyday world, academia, as an institution, deserves our deepest contempt.  Far from being interested mainly in the education of our youth, which, according to Bloom [6], it is no longer able to attend to, the university is interested in two things: money and prestige, which turn out to be different aspects of the same thing.  (You can turn money into prestige and prestige into money, but not on quite the same basis.)  In its lust for tuition it permits cheating, even encourages it, and tolerates all sorts of bad behavior (drunkenness, vandalism, disturbing the peace, rape).  The reader may find it interesting to analyze student cheating from the viewpoint of economic efficiency, a viewpoint encouraged by the modern university, within which all activity has economic implications. 

Research universities put undue pressure on professors to obtain funding, of which they take an inordinate share as overhead in proportions totally unrelated to the cost to itself of having research done.  This leads to dishonesty in research because the research effort is viewed as an economic contribution to the university and the university rewards those most who contribute most to its fiscal well-being.  The university still forces scholars to “publish or perish”, which leads to a large volume of inferior work, the counting of scholarly pieces like pairs of shoes, and some very unhappy scholars.  Unfair employment practices, including part-time and temporary work without benefits and vast disparities between disciplines, are the rule rather than the exception, not to mention the medieval institution of tenure, which is used as a whip for scholars who are not tenured and a ball and chain for the undistinguished scholar who is tenured and is afraid to give up the security. 

There are a number of other corrupt practices that should be noted.  Some professors have used the university as a springboard for private enterprise.  In many cases they have taken advantage of publicly supported research to which they have exclusive access.  In most cases the work, which might have included the writing of computer software, was done by graduate students.  Some professors have solicited private funding by creating paper institutes and centers (consisting of no more than stationery with a letterhead), of which they are the directors, creating the impression of an on-going research program and imaginary prestige for themselves.  Some professors send proposals to the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies to do research that is already complete.  Naturally they have a high success factor for such research, but is it ethical to ask for money to do something that has already been done?  Some universities indulge in shameless porkbarreling as described above [but not included in this excerpt].

Perhaps the worst aspect of employment as a professor in a university is the attempt by the administration to convert every professor into a clone of the professor who gets the most funding, writes the most papers, gets the most graduate students, and enjoys the most prestige.  Every university has someone like that and the big research universities have several candidates for the brightest “star”.  The difficulty is that not everyone is built the same.  Some researchers would do better if they prepared for a year or two before they began a research project.  Some could write a great paper every five years, but writing a paper every three months is an impediment to doing good work.  The university is unwilling to accommodate all types.  Instead, it enforces a rigid code of conformity.  Academic freedom is a joke.

This is just the beginning of the indictment against academia.  I choose not to discuss fraudulent recruiting practices, the star system, college sports, campus politics, unnecessarily high tuitions, unfair teaching evaluations, and the low esteem in which teaching is held.  But all of these as well as the important points in the previous paragraphs are not even discussed by Bennett [7] and Bloom and, as far as I know, by Adler [8].  Colleges and universities are failing because they are morally bankrupt.

I wish to comment on a dishonorable practice that is just making its way onto university campuses.  A number of medical schools are printing health newsletters, presumably to make money.  They hire high-pressure marketing outfits who conduct aggressive direct-mail campaigns to plug these publications.  Usually one is offered a free sample issue if one affixes to the order form an adhesive stamp with the word “maybe” on it.  I have done this on two occasions.  When the invoice came, no mention was made of the “deal” whereby I could write “cancel” on the invoice and owe nothing.  On the contrary, I was strongly urged to pay immediately the full amount and, in one case, I was dunned repeatedly, even after I had returned the canceled invoice.  Now, ethics is, in part, at least, furtherance of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so, clearly, the above is an unethical practice.  When I called the publication director at one medical school, she, a graduate of an Ivy League university, was unable to recognize that this was an unethical act for which the entire university must assume responsibility.  It was perfectly ethical, in her estimation, because “everybody does it”!

Note in proof:  At this writing Buckley’s magazine, The National Review, is doing it!  Thus, the National Review and, by close association, Buckley himself are guilty of violations of ethics or negligence, depending on whether or not “they knew” (about this practice).

For the skeptical reader, who sees nothing wrong with this practice let’s examine a hypothetical case:  A sixty-five-year-old man retires on a fixed income and, imagining he will have enough free time, decides to subscribe to five magazines.  He orders three of them with no conditions; but, in the case of the remaining two, he affixes the “maybe” sticker to four candidates.  He figures he will decide on which two to keep after he examines the first issues.  He throws away the original offers and, because of his advanced age, say, he forgets which are “definite”s and which are “maybe”s.  Also, he’s never used a one-issue-free offer before, so he doesn’t know that the terms of the offer will not be reiterated with the invoice.  Perhaps, like most of the general public, he simply doesn’t consider the issue.  When the invoices come, he has no idea what to do; so, under hard-sell influence, he pays them all, thus contracting expenses he cannot afford.  I, personally, would not do that to an old man.  I would remind him that he may write ”cancel” on the invoice and owe nothing.  The marketer does not do as I would do because he hopes the man will forget and it matters not to the marketer whether paying for this subscription is in the man’s best interest or not.  He compounds his failure to tell all he knows by following up with a second letter even after he has received a first letter with cancel written on it.  He is incorrigible – as any fair-minded person will agree.  If you need more explanation than this, you probably will never know the difference between right and wrong.]

Buckley, instead, is concerned about liberal professors on campus.  He suggests that alumni ”infuse jolts of sanity and reality into campuses in which academic and social mores appear to be uninformed by deliberate thought.”  Let’s see if we can get this straight.  Rich alumni, that is, businessmen, are going to do the thinking for academics.  (We have just discussed the thinking of businessmen in the magazine publishing business.)  Moreover, they are going to influence academic affairs by threatening to withhold financial support.  Isn’t this a form of extortion?

Finally, Buckley asks society to make a commitment to ”meritocratic priorities”.  I can’t believe my eyes – a conservative who believes in meritocracy.  In school we are judged essentially on merit.  In the business community and in politics we are judged according to what someone thinks of us.  Thus, Buckley renounces American electoral politics, the American business community, and, indeed, the corporate ladder itself!  Liberals sometimes behave as though they believe in meritocracies, but conservatives ... ?  I would accept rewards and promotions based on merit as an improvement but not as a philosophically correct permanent state of affairs.

E Pluribus Unum.

In the interest of community, Buckley wishes to explore the idea of national service – something like a draft only different.  He insists that this be voluntary and a creation of the individual states, but I fail to see why it would not be socialistic.  Buckley finishes his agenda by making a plea for loyalty, national pride, and duty.  These pleas in the past have been the means of suckering young men into laying down their lives for the imperialistic policies of the ruling class, although on a number of occasions they have been useful to everyone.  Normally, though, patriotism does for nations what egotism does for individuals.  People might show a slight preference for those nearer to themselves than those farther away because of normal affections, but this has nothing to do with loyalty to a state or government or flag – usually.

Buckley claims, though, that the republic guarantees our liberty, but Buckley doesn’t believe in ”free liberty”.  One wonders what sort of liberty Buckley has in mind that requires payment to the state and is protected by a state that doesn’t permit one to take the drug of one’s choice, forces one to pay taxes without recourse, does not allow itself to be sued, and conscripts soldiers whenever it feels inclined to.  ”But there I must leave it.”

Houston, Texas

December 17, 1990


1.       Buckley, William F., ”An Agenda for the Nineties”, National Review, 42, No.3 (1990).

2.       Wahba, Mourad, ”The Fundamentalist Absolute and Secularization in the Middle East,” Free Inquiry, 10, No.4 (1990).

3.       Russell, Bertrand, ”The new Generation” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, Paul Edwards, Editor, Simon and Schuster, New York (1957)

4.       Lewis, Rob, "Pursuing Democracy", SA: An Opinionated Journal of Opinionated Essays, 1, No.1, (1991).

5.       Shaw, George Bernard, Preface to The Millionairess, Penguin Books, Baltimore (1961).

6.       Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon and Schuster, New York (1987).

7.       Bennett, William, “Why Western Civilization”, National Forum (published by The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, Box 16000, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70893), Summer 1989.

8.       Adler, Mortimer J., Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, Macmillan, New York (1988).

9.       Etzioni, Amatai, The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics, The Free Press, New York (1988).