There are some individuals destined to take on giants. Born in 1925, conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. became one of the most impressive American public intellectuals of the twentieth century. Founder of the conservative magazine the National Review, a prolific author of numerous books and articles, and the creator and host of the debate-style television show Firing Line, Buckley certainly left his mark. And he started young. At age 25, he tweaked the nose of the Yale University establishment.
A devout Roman Catholic, Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale (1951) soon after he graduated from Yale. He rocked academia and Yale elites with the “call for Yale alumni to withhold financial support until Yale ceased to undermine her students’ faith in Christianity and the free market” (xi). Liberal Protestants connected to the school were aghast by the criticisms of this young barbarian. Old-line Yale liberal Protestant families viewed Roman Catholicism, as they did Evangelical Protestantism, as a religion “publicly tolerated but privately derided” (xii). This young troublemaker had “found his way into the inner temple” (xiii).
One of Buckley’s important observations was that “pure academic freedom was a mirage” (xiv). Today, you might ask the thoughts of a male Republican with a Ph.D., who upholds traditional values, looking for a job in academia. Buckley argued that so-called academic freedom at Yale “has produced one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists” (lxv).
Another controversial statement in God and Man at Yale was as follows: “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world… [and] the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level” (xvi). Especially annoying to critics was Buckley’s linking of totalitarianism and the denial of God and his argument that a free society requires a public orthodoxy (Christianity) to be upheld.
Buckley’s message was thorny; those without a Christian orthodoxy were without morale resolve. Certainly, the 1960s did highlight the sad story of mediocre administrators failing to present a strong front against student radicals whose demands were more totalitarian than democratic. As for Yale in the 21st century, Austin W. Bramwell writes, it “has suffered a marked decline in prestige” (xvi). Once a Christian institution, Yale is one of a long list of universities with an identity lost in many ways to political correctness. There is ample evidence that traditional-thinking Christians face challenges in various classrooms at Yale and other universities where ideological-driven social theory trumps science.
Sixty-five years ago Buckley himself witnessed that no Yale department completely escaped “the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths” (23). On the opposite spectrum of sociology, economics as an academic field tends to have a decent representation of conservative-leaning thinkers. But there were worrisome signs even in Buckley’s day. The findings in God and Man at Yale indicated that Yale University’s economic faculty was roughly 80% for economic collectivism.
A large portion of Buckley’s book is an examination of the Department of Economics. He acknowledged that professors did not teach “the overthrow of capitalism, violently or otherwise.” But they did follow another approach envisaged by Karl Marx: “a slow increase of state power, through extended social services, taxation, and regulation, to a point where smooth transition could be effected from an individualist to a collectivist society.” Perhaps we should not be surprised of the enormous size of today’s federal government and a debt beyond $18,000,000,000,000.
Yale’s economic students read Paul A. Samuelson, Economics, An Introductory Analysis (1948) which claimed that “‘Cradle-to-grave’ has great popularity; if the private economy cannot supply it naturally, people will insist upon getting it artificially from governments” (46). Similarly, other required textbooks promoted “central planning” without any tribute to the free enterprise system that raised America’s standard of living to number one in the world. One textbook taught that “most Americans insist on” wealth redistribution by heavy taxation on higher income groups.
Taxation during World War II was as high as 94%; Ronald Reagan experienced firsthand clearing only 6 cents for every dollar he earned. But economic textbooks desired high taxation “to apply to the normal peacetime situation” (54).
In Theodore Morgan, Income and Employment (1947) college students learned that going into business for one’s self “is not a basic freedom” (57). There was little evidence of praise for private business creating employment. The government was to exercise its power to insure full employment. These economists looked to the teachings of British economist John Maynard Keynes who offered a blueprint for the government to plan full employment. However, there was a cost: a high national debt was inevitable. The American Keynesians disagreed. For one, the belief that internal debt would be passed on to future generations was “unmistakably false” (64). The overall argument was that there was no limit to government spending (62-67).
Buckley warned of a troubling claim: “All the society’s ills – the economic, the social, the ethical – can be ameliorated by Bigger and Bigger Government” (71). Among those economists who believed this also did “not consider private property or private enterprise essential to democracy or even to freedom” (74).
The example of Wilfrid E. Binkley, A Grammar of American Politics – The National Government (1949) is instructive: “It is of importance whether a Coolidge or a Roosevelt occupies the White House…. One man may be obsessed with an obstinate faith in an outmoded economic or social ideology while another is a crusader for the good life by increasing the social services of the government” (90). Ignored by Binkley and misunderstood by many today is the fact that after President Roosevelt introduced his New Deal in 1933 the unemployment rate remained higher than 14.0% for the remaining years of the decade. More government intervention prolonged the Great Depression.
Today there are many disappointing things occurring in American colleges in addition to hostility toward free enterprise. Whether one calls it cultural Marxism or political correctness, a destructive ideology has adversely affected the university in the 21st century. We recently learned that students at the University of California, Irvine voted to ban the American flag, ostensibly to make the institution a more “culturally inclusive” place.
Over 65 years ago Buckley argued that conservative students were “the new radicals” (95). They were the ones challenging liberal and secular humanism. They were the patriots who recognized and praised the benefits of democratic capitalism and the impressive achievements of America. If his timing was wrong, he was not wrong about a great transformation taking place. There is abundant evidence in today’s universities that conservatism and good commonsense are rare commodities.