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Looking Backward

This tension between ideological opposition to state action and concern for those who will suffer without it runs through Buckley’s reforms; and the most serious objection to them is that, when the going gets tough, Buckley falls back on his principles and haughtily ignores the consequences. His excuse for so doing is that his reforms are “entirely procedural in character,” designed merely to “free up constricting molds and to flush out accretions of government, so as to induce greater freedom of movement.”

So Buckley tells us, for instance, that he is not concerned to solve the welfare problem, but merely to “set the stage” for solving it. But the formal nature of his proposals does not absolve him from the responsibilities of considering their consequences. To assume that because a procedural reform satisfies some apparently logical doctrine of sound government it will necessarily have good consequences is to fall victim to the very kind of ideological rationalism that a conservative who knows his Burke and his Oakeshott could be expected to avoid.

Thus on welfare Buckley’s reform involves abolishing the present system of allotting federal welfare funds to each state proportionate to the amount the state itself is prepared to spend. This system, Buckley says, gives Californians (for example) the impression that by voting for more welfare they can draw federal funds from an inexhaustible fountain, at no cost to themselves. In reality, if each state votes along these lines they are, collectively, voting to be taxed more heavily by the federal government. An obvious irrationality. So why not give federal welfare money only to the poorer states, and let those states with above average per capita incomes get on with the job of deciding for themselves how much welfare they want to provide?

This reform, Buckley thinks, has obvious advantages. It will make it clear to the voters that all welfare programs must be paid for, and it will allow the states greater freedom in running their won programs without federal interference. But it will also have an obvious disadvantage that Buckley does not notice (or perhaps he does not think it a disadvantage): the thirty-three states which on present statistics are not poor will most likely reduce their welfare programs sharply—and although these states are not, on average, poor, they do, of course, contain many very poor people.

The present system, in spite of the irrationality which Buckley claims to find in it, operates so as to provide an incentive for each state to spend money on welfare—otherwise the state will find that it is being taxed to pay for other states’ welfare programs. If we think adequately financed welfare programs a good thing—and in spite of the much-publicized abuses they surely are a major source of the relief of simple human misery—then we will reject Buckley’s reform. Rejecting the reform does not imply, of course, that we regard the present system as ideal. The proposed “negative income tax” which would give everyone a guaranteed minimum income might be a better way of eliminating some defects that concern Buckley, and it would have the major advantage of not requiring low income families to go and ask for welfare handouts from officials who must, because of the nature of their task, eye many requests skeptically.

Buckley might reply that to argue as I have done is to take decisions away from the smaller political entities and place them in the hands of a remote government out of touch with local affairs. If a state will not pay for its own welfare scheme, how can it be consistent with democratic principles to induce it to do so, under penalty of losing revenue to other states?

The point must be accepted, as far as it goes. As democrats, we should prefer the smaller political unit. As utilitarians, however 9and we are nearly all utilitarians at least to the minimal extent that we value the reduction of misery), we must, in this instance, prefer the larger unit. To refuse to balance the reduction of misery against the democratic preference for smallscale decision making is to reveal, once again, a doctrinaire approach to social questions.

There are good reasons why within one country some decisions may be better left to the whole nation. These reasons emerge clearly when Buckley argues for another of his pet projects, the elimination of the progressive federal income tax, and the substitution of a uniform 15 percent federal tax on all income (no deductions or exemptions). Buckley objects to progressive taxation as a kind of injustice. He sees it as a penalty that treats a person who earns a lot of money as if he were a criminal. This attitude assumes that most rich people deserve their incomes, a claim that would be hard to make out in many cases, and it also overlooks the fact that a progressive tax is needed if the man earning $100,000 is going to feel the tax burden as much as the man earning $8,000. Still, Buckley is prepared to leave the states free to levy their own progressive taxes if they want to. The reason he considers progressive state taxation less obnoxious than progressive federal taxation is that the wealthy citizen can leave a state with steeply progressive taxation in order to avoid paying the tax. Buckley seems to admire tax dodgers who establish residence in a foreign country, but doesn’t like the idea that they have to go all the way to, say, the Caribbean. How much better it would be if your typical New York tycoon could escape to Connecticut!

Certainly this procedural reform would lead to “greater freedom of movement”; but it would also lead to those states with highly progressive tax scales losing part of their tax base, and whether this is a good thing is by no means a matter of procedure; it is a substantive question the answer to which depends on one’s attitude to redistribution of wealth. If one favors redistribution, there is no alternative to taking the decision at the federal level.

Of Buckley’s other two reforms, that on education also suffers from respect of form and neglect of content. Buckley would prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or color in public schools, but he would do so in a way that would stop integration through busing as effectively as it would stop a simple color bar; and he would allow any legislature, state or federal, to provide aid for nonpublic schools without interference from the Constitution. Again, simply a procedure for reducing restrictions, isn’t it?

Well, not exactly. One result would be the survival of the currently endangered, mainly Roman Catholic, private school system (a cause which Buckley keenly champions). Another consequence, quite possibly, would be a revival of segregation in those states sympathetic to it, whose legislatures may foster the growth of a private, white school system, supported by tax relief measures, alongside a public school system that would become predominantly black. Buckley’s constitutional provision against a color bar applies only to public schools. When discussing tax reform, Buckley had insisted that tax relief for one means an extra burden for another: when discussing education he supports not only sectarian but even racist tax relief!

While some means of freeing education from the hold of a huge centralized bureaucracy is desirable, tax relief for private education is not the best way to do it. So long as we still have progressive taxation, tax relief will help the rich more than the poor, and private education will be a means of passing on the advantages of wealth to one’s children. A voucher system, providing federal funds for attendance at private schools, might be preferable if suitable standards were set and maintained for the education provided. This scheme has been proposed by those with whom Buckley has some sympathy (Milton Friedman, for example) as well as more radical critics of the state educational system. Since it neatly removes education from state control, it is surprising that Buckley does not discuss it.

There are, however, strong objections to the voucher system too, for it threatens to turn education into a business run on profit-making lines. It is potentially divisive, and it would be difficult to ensure that the children of those least able to assess educational standards for themselves would not receive a still worse education than they now receive. It may be better to loosen the hold of the bureaucrats on education from within the public school system rather than outside it. There is no reason to suppose that a state educational system has to eliminate progressive ideas and experimental methods. Experience elsewhere—Britain for instance—suggests that individual schools and school districts can benefit from greater autonomy within the public school framework

On the question of de facto neighborhood segregation, which Buckley would allow, he may be right, or partly right, in his claim that busing is unpopular and has not been proven effective in raising the level of black education. In any case, he is on strong ground when he argues that a court is not the appropriate place for deciding this issue. Nevertheless it seems irresponsible to revert to segregated schools until we have some provisions for ensuring that those schools will provide as good an education for minority pupils as they provide for middle-class white children; and Buckley has no proposals for achieving this.

Of the four reforms, only the last, on crime, appears directed primarily at results, rather than the curtailment of federal government activities. Buckley wants to repeal the Fifth Amendment, as currently interpreted, and substitute court procedures that would make it easier to convict the guilty, without, he hopes, significantly reducing the odds against convicting the innocent. The object of this reform is not an abstract increase of freedom, but a weighing of the interests of society and potential victims of crime against the rights of the accused.

Buckley has a case here, although it would be a mistake to think that this reform could do much to reduce, say, street crime, where the problem is more the apprehension of the criminal than his conviction. And even if a conviction is obtained, do our jails effectively reduce crime, or do they foster hardened criminals? In the light of these much larger problems, to expend the energy necessary to amend the Constitution in order to obtain a few more convictions may simply not be worth it. Buckley does not establish the essential connection between the Fifth Amendment and crime prevention; if this connection could be established—but only then—we might find force in his argument that the rights or values protected by the Amendment, as currently interpreted, do not outweigh the safety of the ordinary citizen.

Clecak’s survey of the left concludes without indicating any path that the left can follow with much enthusiasm. Buckley, at least, knows where he is going. The left might do well to copy his approach, though not his direction. None of the four thinkers Clecak discusses is much interested in practical measures of reform that fall short of revolutionary change—there is even a tendency to oppose piecemeal reforms as mere props to the capitalist system. But if it is true that the prospects for a socialist revolution are negligible anyway, we can hardly be doing much damage to those prospects by advocating reforms, and we might in the meantime be doing some good. In America the left has usually been so isolated that it has let practical policy-making go by default to liberals and conservatives, or else to people outside the usual spectrum of electoral politics, like Ralph Nader.

Here there is a marked contrast with the British left and the European left generally, which have been prepared to work for the politically possible, and have achieved a great deal in so doing. Where, for example, is there in this country an organized political campaign for a National Health Service, in place of the expensive mess that our medical services are in? Since we lack organized political groups working for change, the misleading propaganda of the American Medical Association goes without effective challenge. Yet this is an instance of a reform that would be desirable in itself, capable of gaining popular support, and at the same time a step toward a society in which essential goods and services are allocated on the basis of need rather than of ability to pay—in other words, a step toward the kind of community that the left aims to bring about.

If the left is to put its energy behind practical reforms of this kind it will need to redirect its thinking, away from grand schemes based on the premise that capitalism is about to collapse, and toward detailed factfinding and rigorous argument on particular issues.

All this may sound as if the pendulum is swinging back to that characteristically Fifties idea of “the end of ideology.” That would be a mistake. Now that the prospect of a continued unlimited increase in material wealth has faded, we need, more than ever, a worked-out conception of the good society if we are to discuss policies intelligently. Ideology helps to shape the direction of reforms; it can point toward a distant goal without losing touch with concrete changes. I have already mentioned health care as an example of this. A more rational transport system deserves similar attention. Increasing participation by workers in the running of their factories is still another step that has been shown to produce immediate benefits while being in accord with long-range left-wing aspirations.

Ideology is certainly essential when we discuss the questions Buckley raises: is it really unjust to seek to redistribute income by progressive taxation, as Buckley claims? To answer this we need both a theory of justice and a theory of the causes of inequality of income. What should we try to achieve through our schools? This too has no ideologically neutral answer.

Ideology cannot and should not be avoided. What can and should be avoided is the kind of ideological position that makes thought rigid. We do not have to fall back into the complacency of the Fifties in order to think about piecemeal reforms once again. We merely have to remind ourselves that our dream of remodeling the entire structure of American society in one glorious upheaval is precisely that—a dream.


Still Powerless? November 28, 1974

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