Review of F.H. Buckley’s The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America

Published May 6, 2016

The United States has lapsed into aristocracy, the New Class — the politically connected “enemies of promise” — standing in the way of the free market reforms that could make America the home of social mobility once again. This is among the central theses of a thought-provoking and inspiring new book from George Mason University law professor F.H. Buckley, whose The Way Back challenges us, perhaps audaciously, to pursue socialist ends through capitalist means. Buckley roundly repudiates the narrative, so common among free market types, that wealth and income inequality simply don’t matter, that there is no place for such concerns in a free society with a market economy. The fly in the ointment, of course, is the awkward fact that Americans no longer live in such a society, ensnared in a system of, in Buckley’s words, “crony capitalism in which favored firms pay for protection against business rivals” (emphasis in original). The alacrity with which Buckley confronts this uncomfortable feature of American political economy is an example for everyone in the liberty movement. If we are ever to demonstrate the importance of individual liberty and free market competition, to show the way back from the new expression of aristocracy that Buckley describes, then we must heed his lessons well.

Even more problematic than America’s inequality, Buckley argues, is its immobility, which finds Americans locked in the social and economic class of their birth. Citing data from 2011’s Pew Economic Mobility Project, he shows that “the U.S. is now one of the least mobile societies in the First World.” Part of what immobility metrics measure, Buckley explains, is the lag time that separates the high-earning forebear from his middle class descendants; if it takes longer for the rich ancestor’s wealth to dissipate, for subsequent generations to fall out of the upper echelon, then the society is less mobile, with inequality calcifying into immobility. Buckley suggests that this should “be troubling for Americans, who don’t want to see permanent classes of peers and peasants.” Libertarians seem to have a tin ear in discussions concerning economic class distinctions, inequality, and immobility, assiduous in our efforts not to feed the fallacy that free market economic relationships are zero-sum in orientation. But while it’s certainly true that exchange in a true free market is positive-sum, beneficial for both parties, cronyism often is a zero-sum fight for special favors. The recrudescence of aristocracy, Buckley argues, is the direct result of this cronyism, a “courtier class of favored recipients enrich[ing] itself” at the expense of societal wealth and efficiency.

The Way Back teaches that conservatives and libertarians need not — indeed, must not — shy away from condemning the present system of privilege and rent-seeking, instead contrasting that system with an open, competitive market. Today’s friends of freedom are heirs to the legacy of nineteenth century free traders who saw competition and commerce as diffusive of vast fortunes; they did not take their principled defenses of economic liberty to be apologies for the status quo but threats to it. Based on the idea that the law should treat everyone the same, that class laws, special protections, and privileges of all kinds should be repealed, Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” was inherently an attack on the powerful special interests of his day. Landed aristocrats were, during the 1800s, among the most forceful opponents of free trade. Indeed, the advent of classical economics, through the works of Smith, Ricardo, and others, represented a seismic shift, a turn away from statist power and privilege toward the peaceful cooperation of free trade. Even now, the profundity of their insights has not fully expressed itself. The persistence of certain economic fallacies (protectionism, for example) opens the way for rent-seeking pressure groups. Thus does the long-discredited mercantilism of old creep insidiously into our politics, firms and whole industries competing not in the marketplace but in the halls of government. Honest entrepreneurship is naturally anathema to the New Class, for whom the way to wealth is through government authority, blocking the path to advancement with “a profusion of new legal and regulatory barriers.” Hamstrung by the separation of powers that was designed to prevent such profligate aristocratic government, an America that is both too big and too tightly bound to special interests seems almost beyond reform and repair.

Buckley’s book shows, among other things, that history is not always and necessarily the steady march of progress; it can, propelled by the reemergence of poisonous ideas, chart the wrong course. History has not, contra Fukuyama, found its end. And if a happy ending is not a foregone conclusion, then the battle of ideas is that much more important, the stakes that much higher. The proponents of limited government, free markets, and individual rights must prosecute the case — practical and moral — for these vital ideas with clarity and conviction. Rather than waving away legitimate concerns about America’s class structure and the growing chasm that divides rich from poor, libertarians and conservatives must demonstrate that free markets are not culpable, that big government favoritism has perverted our political economy. The importance of studying the history of economic thought grows more apparent as the failures of the prevailing political and economic consensus appear ever more striking. For so long, economics has, as Murray Rothbard once noted, “displayed little interest in its own past,” overconfident in its mathematical methodologies, complacent in its self-image as a hard science.

Buckley’s The Way Back accomplishes the almost Herculean feat of discussing wealth and income inequality, class, and social mobility while appealing to neither the vacuous class war rhetoric of the left nor the revolting anti-intellectualism of, for example, the current election cycle. Buckley is a realist; he isn’t aiming at the castle in the clouds of “perfect mobility.” To be beguiled by that “false ideal” is to start on the progressive path of social engineering, the disastrous policies of which gave us the very aristocratic New Class that Buckley condemns. While “[w]e’d like to think that there’s something natural about social mobility,” he observes, it seems the natural state is actually the aristocracy to which we are returning, America’s relative freedom being the true historical aberration. Again we see that the fight for liberty is forever balanced on a razor’s edge. The Way Back concludes on a word of hope, “the voices which . . . appeal to individual liberty and a common humanity,” scorning the cronies of all partisan stripes, fighting the “uphill battle” for liberty and justice.