(Encounter Books, New York: 2016) Reviewed by Lee Duigon
We call our Chalcedon print magazine Faith for All of Life; but if there are wide, important swathes of life to which the Christian faith is entirely irrelevant, maybe we should be calling it “Faith for Some Minor Bits of Life.”
F.H. Buckley, a law professor at George Mason School of Law, says he wants to “restore the promise of economic mobility and equality by pursuing socialist ends through capitalist means” (cover blurb). His model for this is “a much-derided children’s novel by Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick” (p. 4).
Let me quote from his concluding chapter:
All this helps to explain why America is much more [economically and socially] immobile than other countries. The bequest motive, the desire to see one’s children on top, is as strong in other countries, and we would therefore have expected to see the same degree of income immobility in the rest of the First World. If we don’t, it’s because of the differences in the systems of government [emphasis added]. America is too big, and it’s also too hard to undo bad laws and assemble a coalition behind national interests. This has left us with an inferior education system, problematic immigration policies, and a weakened rule of law. (pp. 286–287)
This is a book chock-full of charts and statistics, scientific findings and scientific speculations, political and societal observations, and short-term prognostications that seem to have missed some very big boats. But the real business at hand, here, is an attempt to find purely secular, purely this-worldly solutions to a major problem that the author defines in purely secular, purely this-worldly terms.
The thrust of his argument is that America is owned and governed and manipulated, for their own benefit, by a locked-in, very wealthy New Class, politically liberal, insulated by their wealth from the consequences of their actions.
Nothing is said in regard to the whole question of whether a war on “income inequality” is a legitimate purpose of the government.
Some Gaping Holes
For all his focus on the present, and his efforts to predict the near future, Prof. Buckley displays some rather large blind spots.
He has much praise for Western Europe, but he makes no mention at all of Europe’s mounting difficulties with Muslim immigration and failure to assimilate—to say nothing of what seems to be such a want of faith as to render Europe unwilling or unable to defend itself. How could he have left that out of his analysis? And by leaving it out, he opens himself to being blind-sided by some major developments on the world scene.
True, anyone who writes on current events unavoidably risks being overtaken by events. Just in the interval between finishing the writing of a book and getting it into print, the things you have written about can change, sometimes drastically. That’s the nature of the enterprise, and can’t be helped.
But what else did Prof. Buckley miss?
The “Brexit” vote last summer caught most of the pundits by surprise. Buckley’s book might have been out of his hands by the time the vote was taken, but he certainly shows no sign of having seen it coming. Britain choosing to leave the European Union was no trivial occasion.
Resentment of high-handed decrees by unelected Eurocrats in Brussels, which had been simmering in Britain for quite some time, fear that continental Europe’s hordes of obstreperous, unassimilating, and sometimes violent Muslim “asylum seekers” might spill over into Britain—of these trends, Prof. Buckley makes no mention.
Nor do we find Donald Trump’s name anywhere in Buckley’s book. Reading makes it obvious that the Republican and Democrat primaries were far from being decided when Buckley handed in his manuscript: although they were in progress, as we can see by Buckley’s mention of Rick Perry’s fleeting candidacy (pp. 128–129).
Donald Trump, a man with no experience in politics or public office, mowed down sixteen Republican rivals and went on to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Is it unfair to fault Buckley for not foreseeing this?
Well, if you want your analysis to be taken seriously, you really ought not to appear deaf and blind to the populist groundswell that swept Trump into office, broke Britain’s tie to the European Union, and seems likely, very soon, to lead to dramatic regime change in France, Germany, and Italy. Prof. Buckley cannot defend any decision he might have made to leave it out of his analysis. He can even less defend being unaware of it, or simply deciding that it wasn’t that important.
By their fruits you shall know them, Jesus said. These gaping holes in Buckley’s analysis of the worldwide political scene are, I think, more than enough to sink his presentation.
So What Should Government Do?
It’s not God’s Word that’s irrelevant, but Prof. Buckley’s.
To foster increased economic and social mobility, to break the New Class’s iron grip on America, Buckley would like to see us make major changes in our system of government—to make it more like what they have in Canada and Western Europe. What he’s talking about is really smart people tinkering with the Constitutional machinery. After spending several chapters analyzing legislative and administrative fixes that didn’t work, and even, in some cases, made the problem worse, his remedy is … more legislative and administrative tinkering. Eventually they’ll get it right.
Sorry, professor, but I don’t believe you. Not so long ago, Europe was waging world wars to sort out its disputes. Wisely abandoning the resort to cataclysmic war, the governments of Western Europe sought peace and prosperity in a union tied together with red tape. But this union has begun to crack, and the fall of it is coming. It does not look like these countries will be able to cope with the stress of massive Muslim immigration coupled with rising discontent among the EU’s various member nations.
But this doesn’t yet address the question of whether it is a legitimate or even desirable purpose of government to try—let me emphasize “try,” because governmental attempts to override human nature with all sorts of schemes to redistribute wealth have little record of success—to make changes intended to promote “equality.” And even Prof. Buckley knows that any kind of absolute equality among vast numbers of unique individuals simply does not exist. I would add: not even among small bands of Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert.
What does the Bible tell us is the legitimate role of government?
To restrain and punish evildoers, so that the people can live in peace and security.
To make the laws widely known, so that each person in the state can know what he can or can’t do.
To ensure enough stability so that families, the church, communities, voluntary associations, and even businesses can take care of those individuals that need care. Nowhere in the Bible is this function allotted to the state.
You would think all that would be enough work for any government to do: it’s not as easy as it sounds. But no modern state has ever shown itself to be contented with the role ordained for it by God. And so we have been compelled to live with endless tinkering by all three branches of our own government in America, legislative, executive, and judicial—not to mention the incessant spate of regulations shooting down from a multitude of bureaucrats. The subject is too vast to be covered by a mere book review. See, for instance, R.J. Rushdoony’s book, Our Threatened Freedom, for a lively survey of what happens when government oversteps its bounds.
Ronald Reagan wisely observed that government is not the answer to the problem: government is the problem. But we turn to the Bible for deeper wisdom: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1).
Once government goes beyond its legitimate role, no amount of tinkering will put it right. The answer, which no one has seriously yet tried to implement, is to prune back government and let families, churches, communities, businesses, and charities do what they do best—to build the house according to the Lord’s blueprint, and not our own—all the while knowing and admitting that in a fallen world inhabited by sinners, no system we can devise will ever solve everybody’s problems, and be perfect.
But some systems of government are observably less imperfect than others, and ours is one of them.