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Freedom at Risk: Reflections on Politics, Liberty, and the State

by James L. Buckley
Reviewed by Stephen Kaye

James L. Buckley

This book, purchased at a Sharon Library book festival, sat on my shelf partially read. Before clearing it out for a library book sale, I picked it up and here jot down insights from one of America’s most prominent conservatives. 

Chapter Two, In Sum, A Political Credo contains the heart of conservatism:

For too may years, the ideologues in Washington have been in the driver’s seat.  They don’t believe that free men and women can be trusted to govern themselves, and so they insist that the truly important decisions be moved as far away as from the people as possible.     

He goes on:

I believe that the free enterprise system, operating in freedom and without the shackles of over-regulation from Washington, can do what it has done: create more jobs and prosperity and comfort and individual happiness than any other economic system in the world.  

On the international front, he says:

I believe we cannot afford to spend one penny less for defense than the amount required to maintain our unquestioned ability to protect our legitimate interests wherever they are challenged.

…in a free society, the role of government is to serve, not to rule.

In a political science 101 class, these simple statements could serve as the takeoff points for a semester of interesting discussion and serious reading. 

What does it mean to be free and what is the nature of freedom?  What is the real and legitimate purpose of government?  What is the nature of our constitutional government? What are the restraints on our federal government and what are the proper spheres of its power?  What are our legitimate interests in foreign policy and how should those interests be advanced?  What is the proper role of our military?  None of these questions can be answered in sound bites or in a short book, and Buckley’s book is refreshingly short.  He gets right to the point, which is not philosophy, but practical politics.

His first principal announces antipathy to the “ideologues” who were in power.  That is not, of course, a philosophical position since Republicans could just as well be in power and they are no less ideological than any other brand of political party. 

He makes valuable insights gained from his years in the Senate: “Most of the problems with the Senate is the enormous expansion of federal activities in recent years … the workload of members of Congress had doubled every five years since 1935…. Congress is trying to handle more business than it can manage….The sheer size of the federal establishment defies coherent oversight.”      

He makes a cogent case for getting the federal government out of education.  It’s role, he says, should be to establish a level of equality amongst the states by funding those states who do not have the income themselves to offer their students a level of education that the richer states can offer. 

He has no kind words for OSHA, long seen as a tyranny that has outlived its usefulness. On the other hand, Buckley was a strong supporter of the EPA and the Clean Air Act and other acts protecting the environment.  In a chapter headed “Economics and the Environment: the problems of co-existence” he comes out for the environment.  He reasons that economic forces can adjust; nature can’t.   

In one of his longest chapters, Buckley, a Catholic, describes his support of a constitutional amendment that would protect human life at every stage of development.  

The tone of this book is friendly, chatty and charming.  Buckley served as a senator from New York, as a federal judge, and in the executive office under President Reagan.  His insights into the federal government are, therefore, informed by wide experience in all three branches.  He does suggest that the federal government tries to do too much and does it badly.  Not exactly news, but something worth repeating as we contemplate Homeland Security, the intelligence agencies, the military and the medical bureaucracy.