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I N T E R V I E W
Interview with the Godfather
William F. Buckley, Jr., on drugs, universities, and the future 
March 2001

Yale Free Press: In 1961, in the New Individualist Review, you wrote of "the conservative, who is a libertarian but other things, too." What other things? 

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Someone who pays attention to tradition, and also relies on perspectives that are not entirely illuminated by libertarian philosophy. For example, Ayn Rand came out very explicitly against altruism; she said that altruism has nothing to do with libertarianism—if it happens that it pleases you, do something good. It's good because it pleases you, not because it's good. I think people ought to spend a lot of time doing things that displease them. I don't think it's any fun at all visiting people in the hospital, but I think that one should. The big amalgamation in National Review goes by the name of Fusionism, which is uniting tradition and libertarianism. 

YFP: To what extent is Fusionism a coalition-building political strategy and to what extent is it a philosophically defensible position? 

WFB: I think it's mostly the latter, because Frank Meyer, who was really its spiritual godfather, wasn't all that interested in coalition-building. He grew up in the Communist Party and was born to be surrounded by the enemy. Frank Meyer converted to the Catholic Church two days before he died. I was with him at the time, and he was having trouble making the final commitment because he thought that the communion of the saints and the Apostles' Creed had a little bit of a collectivist sound. Both of them were seeking, and so were we, to participate in a philosophically satisfactory meld, rather than merely, "How do we come up with something that interests the University of Chicago?" 

YFP: George Nash concluded that Fusionism is not philosophically defensible, but that advocates of liberty came to the silent conclusion that it was bad to have so much infighting. 

WFB: George Nash's criticism is appealing if you insist on a reductionist model: if you say, look, libertarianism means g-ddamnit libertarianism, and nothing can stand in the way of it—it is incompatible even with stoplights, at a certain level. But I think he's wrong in dismissing it as philosophically and politically incompatible. Russell Kirk, for instance, thought it entirely possible to have libertarian tenets, especially in respect to economics. The whole doctrine of subsidiarity is, I think, a marvelous practical example of successful fusionism. Don't undertake any enterprise in the public sector that can be undertaken in the private sector, and never move to a higher echelon [of government] if there is an available lower echelon. 

YFP: To what political philosophers do you think Fusionism looks for inspiration?

WFB: Well, I think of Adam Smith. He was a very stout libertarian, but very much a traditionalist. He wrote a couple of books having to do with ethics unrelated to strict market analysis. Then you get to the whole utilitarian school, which tends to be more libertarian. John Stuart Mill I would think of as primarily a libertarian, but he was also a nihilist. In any event, I've got no trouble with Adam Smith as a godfather in anticipation of Fusionism. 

YFP: One of the central Fusionist questions is the role virtue should play in government action. People like [Brent] Bozell said that part of the story of the decline of the West is the idea that personal freedom should be elevated above almost every other political consideration. 

WFB: The Founders were certainly united on the notion that virtue has to be an intentional objective of civil society. 

YFP: How do you think Americans should view the Founders today? Should we try to live out their vision for proper government? 

WFB: No, I think it's incorrect to regard the Founders or their Constitution with a kind of a Biblical allegiance. It is full of insights and a magnificent flowering of accommodations that seemed awfully adroit, and I think were very adroit at the end of the eighteenth century. But the kind of exegetical attention that's often paid to individual phrases in the Constitution strikes me as almost blasphemous. I'm all for strict construction, but I'm for that primarily as a conservative, rather than as an exegete. It doesn't really matter all that much whether the people who wrote the Constitution meant exactly this, or something a little bit in that direction. Originalism is a good rule of thumb, but to invest in it a sacramental allegiance is wrong. To do so is to endow the Constitution with a kind of uniqueness that's appropriate say, to the Ten Commandments, but not for the Constitution.

Modern-Day Prohibition

YFP: A couple of questions about the drug war, which is something you're famous for. What do you think are the core principles that separate you from people like James Q. Wilson and William Bennett, who are very adamantly in favor of the drug war? 

WFB: Well, it's a utilitarian question. It's not a philosophic question. James Q. Wilson wrote a very, very long piece on the Drug War, and I remember how upset Milton Friedman was when we talked about it. When I came out in favor of drugs, I made it very, very clear that I was making a purely utilitarian point—that if, as I think I then put it, I had a lever that I could pull and make all the drugs disappear from the face of the earth (with the partial exception of some good wine from France), I'd pull it. Milton is propelled primarily by, if you want to do it, that's your right. I'm moved by the fact that if you want to do it, I'm going to let you do it, because in my judgment fewer people are hurt than if I try to prevent you. 

YFP: So are you saying that the Wilson-Bennett people are motivated by a more abstract moral belief—that people should be prohibited from drug-taking because it teaches them the virtue of sobriety and self-restraint? 

WFB: Their argument is that taking drugs does damage, and the notion that it doesn't matter if you damage yourself is a kind of abstraction that simply doesn't work in a society in which there is so much inter-involvement. You can't really just hurt yourself. Correlative damage is done and under the circumstances it becomes a social right to discourage certain kinds of activity, and [they believe drug use] qualifies under that proscription. 

YFP: People like Bennett are motivated by a desire to prevent any image from the government that the government is not involved in the wholesale condemnation of drug use. 

WFB: I think if he were here he would deny it; however, I think it's true. I've had a hundred experiences on the road in which palpably that's what people hear. If you permit it, that means you okay it; you are not in favor of adultery because you permit it, or of sodomy because you permit it—but I think that political mix is so fixed in the public psychology, it's almost impossible to combat. That brave governor of New Mexico [Gary Johnson] is making some effort. 

YFP: Unfortunately that brave governor isn't running for reelection. 

WFB: I know, I know, and the guy who wants to run for governor is on the other side. 

YFP: Conservatives make the argument that marijuana should be outlawed because of the culture associated with its use. Irving Kristol wrote, "What counts is the meaning and moral status of the action, not its physiological dimensions; today drug taking has become a mass habit—among our young masses especially—whose purpose is to secede from our society and our civilization; and such a declaration requires a moral answer, not a medicinal one." 

WFB: I'd reject it, but I think it's persuasive. James Burnham said, "Look, alcohol is our cultural drug, and under the circumstances it has historically been excluded from the general proscriptive approach to drugs—we don't want a second drug." Kristol's making the point that when defiance is intended, it should be accepted as such. A lot of people during the 60s were taking drugs because they wanted to drop out, and that kind of a solipsism generates counter-pressure of a kind Kristol's talking about. 

YFP: If prohibition is premised on the idea that drugs that are used by people who are interested in separating themselves from society should be prohibited, it would stand to reason that once the drug is no longer being used, or the ethics surrounding the drug are no longer countercultural, the prohibition should be removed. 

WFB: I think that's totally persuasive. The idea of marijuana as a gateway drug I don't think is borne out by statistics. That's like saying that everybody who is guilty of rape once masturbated. There's no etiology that links marijuana with heroin. Probably nobody who's used heroin has not used marijuana. The post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy applies there.

YFP: Do you think an argument like Kristol's would lead necessarily to the breakdown in the rule of law? If the government can, on an ad hoc basis, ban anything that it believes at the moment is involved in a countercultural or subversive movement, then the government has full reign to make millions of formerly law-abiding people outlaws at the stroke of a pen. 

WFB: There are constitutional limitations, and those constitutional limitations I think should be observed, though a fanatical application of them is incorrect. Society has a sovereign right to protect itself. This is a point made by Lincoln, that the constitution always poses the question: Are people to be allowed to the point where the defense of freedom becomes impossible, or is there a point ahead of that? Now, he was rather grandiose in his exemption, repealing habeas corpus, for instance. But still, I think the point is philosophically good.

YFP: One final question in regard to drugs, if you don't mind my asking. Have you ever done any drugs that are banned in America?

WFB: Yes, I have. That question was asked of me—I was on the Johnny Carson show, and David Suskind asked me that. Where I had it was on my boat, outside of American jurisdiction. He said, well, how'd you get it on your boat? And I said, "parthenogenesis." Carson thought that was so funny. I was off Nassau and it was a bad trip because the other two guys on my boat—we all took it jointly—and they just laughed, everything they thought was just hilarious. I just got sleepy. Maybe you have to get more used to it. My son's used it a lot, in days gone by.

The Utopian Temptation

YFP: In the New York Times Magazine, in 1967, you wrote: "That which is anarchic in me (which is very strong) tunes in strongly on the idea of a society in which people decide for themselves what taxes to pay, what rules to obey, when to cooperate and when not to with the civil authorities. But that which is reasonable within me, which I am glad to say I most often obey, most often prevails." Can you explain that comment? 

WFB: Yes, the answer is that people recognize within themselves certain impulses, and they recognize simultaneously, or they should, the need to govern those impulses. If you are impelled to sleep with a beautiful girl, it's a good idea to be able to summon the reasons not to do so, let alone to have a child by her. This isn't to say that the impulses aren't there. One has to assume that all those monks have erotic impulses, because it's impossible to subjugate them—well, it's possible to subjugate them, but it's not possible to ban them from mind. 

YFP: What does that mean for politics? 

WFB: Restraint. The utopian temptation in politics is exactly the same kind of thing. Are you against bad health? Well in that case, let's legislate good health. And that utopian temptation makes a very bad society. 

YFP: Would you consider the anarchist a utopian? 

WFB: Absolutely. I think anarchy is a form of derangement, I really do. Albert Jay Nock is a great poetic anarchist. However, by and large, even the most scrupulous anarchists actually don't really follow their own strictures. 

Who Are the Universities For? 

YFP: We wanted to talk a little bit about college students and the university. Do you think that most students are bored with their education?

WFB: Yes. The stimulus of learning doesn't seem to be as keen as it once was. That may be an aspect of the sort of explosive movement of students to things like television, drugs, sex. A quiet night with a book, which was thought a not unpleasant way to spend a night, is more difficult to do now. 

YFP: Do you think that's due to the fact that the university has failed to make a case for liberal education?

WFB: The answer is yes. However, I would respect the faculty member who says, look, this is something we can't ignite. Sure there are great teachers, who can even get ploddish students and say look, look at this gorgeous fruit in this paradise of the intellect. But mostly they would take the Ezra Pound position that education is for those who refuse to do without it. 

YFP: Maybe part of it is also the democratization of the university since World War II. 

WFB: And of course this was Nock's great point, that the world is divided between educable people and trainable people. Mortimer Adler takes the exact contrary position: give everybody a full glass of wine, right up to the top, and if they only sip it, because they can't get into Sophocles, okay, but make sure it's absolutely full. Nock said no. The thing to do is to find out real, real early, as they do in Germany, this fourteen-year-old wants education, this fourteen-year-old wants to be an electrician.

We play with a little bit of each, and as such there's an awful lot of education that's quote-unquote wasted. On the other hand, we run a greater chance of attracting the attention of someone who is latently curious. 

YFP: Is the university more an institution dedicated to the preservation of traditions, or for the rigorous questioning of those traditions? 

WFB: I think it's more for the former. The latter's adventitious. If in the course of ethical introspection or exposition you run into refinements which are useful—terrific. But if you don't, you should be satisfied with the inventory of existing ethical learning. 

YFP: Regarding this notion that the university is an institution dedicated to passing on traditions, it seems to me that the Western traditions are at odds with one another, that there is great conflict in the Western canon, and each of the authors to whom we look for edification and knowledge and wisdom, are stunningly different. 

WFB: Yes, I addressed that question awkwardly in my first book [God and Man at Yale]. The university is clearly geared up to encourage curiosity rather than to pass along "the canon." My problem, then and now, is the refusal, under an abstract understanding of academic freedom, to acknowledge that there is a mission. 

YFP: Doctrinal egalitarianism. 

WFB: Exactly, that's exactly right. All ideas should start equal in the race, was the metaphor. 

YFP: How do you think the left maintains its stranglehold on the university? 

WFB: Well, in the first place it's self-serving. Every scholar feels he is utterly and totally free to do anything he wants, and that's kind of fun. 

YFP: The criticism of the university has been one of the main tenets of the conservative movement. You wrote God and Man at Yale, there have been books by Dinesh D'Souza and Allan Bloom, yet there hasn't been much movement. How do conservatives go about changing that? 

WFB: The answer is that you can't do it by pressure, because there aren't enough people to generate that pressure. The only progress we can hope to make is by simply flashing our credentials and insisting that those credentials have a persuasive life of their own. [Harvard economist and close friend of WFB] Ken Galbraith can't get used to the idea that the free market would come up with as elegant a solution to human problems as he can come up with because he's a better thinker than the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory. 

YFP: Do you think you could explain what you mean by that? It's a great thought. 

WFB: Well, I mean that there is a better chance of a repository of the kind of wisdom I choose to be governed by among average people than among Ph.D's at Harvard, for the reasons that we've just been talking about. 

YFP: Perform the following thought experiment: National Review closed its doors, the Kristol family didn't exist—

WFB: You're getting serious now. 

YFP: And Rush Limbaugh got laryngitis—where would conservatives be as an intellectual presence? You would have a couple of think tanks, whereas liberals have almost every editorial board and almost complete hegemony over the universities.

WFB: If you think things are bleak now, you should have been around 50 years ago. You can pick a hundred critical people and say, if they were to die tomorrow, things would be rough, and you're correct. We like to think that the wellsprings that generated them are pretty active. At this thing I was at last night, the Brent Bozell Media Research business, there were tons of 25-30-year-olds there who were just animated by the need to keep conservatism alive and vibrant and bright and fun. 

—Interview conducted by Daniel Mindus and Noah Pollak 
 

   
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