Buckley's blast

The most influential conservative of the last fifty years, the founder of National Review, and the intellectual inspiration of the Reagan Revolution, William F. Buckley Jr., threw a bomb the other day. A bomb delivered and detonated in the epicenter of the new conservative on—line world. Like a neutron bomb, it left everything standing. Time will tell how lethal it will prove to be. Conservatives seem to have given it scant attention. It is dispiriting to see the lack of reaction—but very telling, and not very surprising.

The bomb, a column in NR Online dated April 20th and entitled, Capitalism's Boil, was a response to the recurrent disgraces of corporate compensation as most recently revealed in the case of Viacom.

The SEC filing of the media giant revealed that as Viacom's total value dropped 18 percent, the top three executives of the company rewarded themselves with annual compensation packages, salary, bonus, and stock options, of over $50 million each.

As the conservative's conservative, Buckley' words carry tremendous importance. His piece should rightly be read and understood as the wisdom of a formidable lion in winter, as a voice crying in a new wilderness of economic madness, a wilderness he apparently takes no joy in having helped to create. In the piece he demolishes the pretense of capitalist justifications of legal theft in typical Buckley fashion, but with an anger usually held in reserve. 

Buckley always chooses his words with care, and uses them with precision. Pay attention especially to the adjectives:
Why does capitalism tolerate such institutional embarrassments?  ...extortions of that size tell us, really, that the market system is not working — in respect of executive remuneration. What is going on is phony. It is shoddy, it is contemptible, and it is philosophically blasphemous.'

He continues with a quick illumination of the difference in measuring the worth of someone like Thomas A. Edison and, to a lesser extent, Bill Gates, in justifiable if theoretical economic terms, with that of the ubiquitous mediocrities routinely fleecing stockholders and stealing from the public till both money ——and good will. But, unusual for a Buckley piece, the polemical punches are not pulled in polite awareness of his acute and devastating powers, but rather are delivered and land with lethal effect.

What dismays is the utter lack of class in such businesses and businessmen here parading their skills in distortion. Michael Eisner appears twice in the table of the 25 largest compensation packages paid in a single year. In 1993 he took home $203 million, in 1998, $575.6 million. 

Keep in mind that these are not the words of a liberal, of a preacher of the politics of envy. This is a man who took delight in the left's scorn of his supposed life of excess in his best—selling semi—autobiographical books, Cruising Speed, Overdrive, and several yacht sailing non—fiction adventures. On the contrary, to the derisive antagonism of aggressive pseudo—egalitarians, Buckley has always championed the cause of excellence and the embrace of quality, from the writings of Aquinas, Burke, and Muggeridge, to the appreciation of fine wine, to the music of Bach. Buckley is a man who knows himself, and who knows what he is talking about.

And of course Buckley has always been unabashed and enthusiastic in his promotion of capitalism as the best system for the attainment of a common good in an imperfect world. His recent disquiet, and his angry column, deserves more attention, especially from those who think of themselves as heirs to his legacy.

Alas, many popular modern conservatives (and neo—con fellow travelers), perhaps because of the abject failure of any thoughtful liberal opposition, have become simply reflexive in their approach and conservative 'with attitude' rather that with thought.  They have allowed liberal ideas in sheep's clothing to become policy and argued away transparent evils on the right in order to score points or maintain short—term political momentum.

They should heed the concern of a wise, clear—eyed, experienced man. 'The faults are not in the stars, they are in ourselves.' Buckley rightly points out that the danger to our present system is not to be found in a resurgent organic socialism, but rather in a reaction to the sins of the privileged. He recognizes we are not that far from a, 'let them eat cake' backlash scenario.

Buckley points us toward the solution to the problem when he decries the lack of class. The solution to the permissiveness of capitalism is shame, generated by civil society, not regulation by the oppressive hand of the state, determining who deserves what reward. Comments such as Buckley's should be amplified by others in the conservative movement. The sheer unseemly greed of people awarding themselves bonuses in the face of terrible performance can take hold in the hearts and minds of his intellectual heirs and awaken a righteous revival of conservative principle over expediency and vanity.

Fortified by public sentiment, perhaps shareholders will be emboldened to stand up and protect their own interests, as they should have in the first place. All too often, of course, the economic royalists at the top of corporations protect themselves through special voting rights for certain classes of stock held by themselves and their families. Vigorous public criticism of the structural lack of accountability inherent in such arrangements may serve to raise the awareness of current and potential shareholders of the hazards of purchasing and owning shares in such companies with their insulated rapacious managers.

Buckley understands all too well that Capitalism needs to fix itself, or as history teaches, it will be fixed by the tyranny of an omnipotent government supported by the frustrations of a betrayed public.

Andrew Sumereau is a frequent contributor.