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Book Reviews

Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country
by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Random House, 1990, 165 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson

During my high school years, I lived in Ann Arbor, which was then being roiled by the turbulence we are now pleased to call "the sixties." An instinctive conservative, I was thoroughly and completely out of step with my peers. In this condition, I wandered one day into a bookstore and picked up a copy of Up From Liberalism by William F. Buckley, Jr. That marked the birth of my self-conscious conservatism; it is fitting that in reviewing Gratitude, by the same author, I should preface my criticism by acknowledging my deep gratitude to him. It is a gratitude untouched by my disappointment in the book under review -- which disappointment is considerable, but then, so is the gratitude.

There are a number of confusions in the book which warrant mention. But first, a summary of Buckley's thesis: The book is an apology for national service. Buckley's proposed version would involve one year of service, directed and funded by the various states, with the federal government providing overall guidelines, along with various sanctions and inducements. As Buckley sees it, the service should not be conscripted, but neither should the government remain neutral on whether or not service is rendered. An example of one of his suggested sanctions is the refusal to grant a driver's license to one who had not spent a year in national service.

R.L. Dabney once spoke of the impotence of Yankee conservatism -- he said it was simply the shadow that follows radicalism to perdition. Each innovation is opposed by the conservatives, but after enough time has passed, the conservatives take their stand on that innovation in order to oppose (unsuccessfully) the next one. Consider Buckley's argument for the constitutionality of his proposal in the light of Dabney's observation.

"If, under the Constitution, states can require students to attend schools, and if local boards can specify the curriculum of those schools, then it would seem merely an extension of this gestational authority of the state over the aspirant citizen to impose such other training as the state, which is the agent of its citizenry, deems necessary fully to qualify him as a fellow member" (p. 112). The observation is valid enough. If the government has the authority to keep you in Cell Block D for twelve years, surely they have the authority to transfer you to Cell Block E for one year. But validity is not the point here. The question is whether a national conservative spokesman should be using one form of statist tyranny (public schools) as an argument for establishing another form of statist tyranny.

Is the word tyranny too strong? I don't think so. But since the word has been used, it is important to make a comment about the theme of gratitude that is central to Buckley's argument. All of us, like Buckley, are very grateful for the freedoms we enjoy. But we should be grateful to God for them -- He being the One who gives them. We should all love our country, but it does not earn this love by discharging its obligation before God to protect its citizenry. We must love our country in spite of the fact that its leaders are currently doing a very poor job as God's ministers. This is a difference over the nature of the gratitude we should have. A free man should be grateful to God that his fellow creatures (including the state) respect his dignity to whatever degree they do. This is quite different from the servile gratitude of a slave, happy that his master has finished the beating -- for now.

Buckley quotes, with approval, John Stuart Mill's contention that "every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit..."(p. 18). In contrast to this kind of thinking, I would maintain that I have a duty to God to honor the emperor, and that the emperor has a duty to God to administer justice.

There are practical, economic problems with the proposal as well. On page 20, he states: "What we have in mind is a program that seeks to meet needs undefined, or ill-defined, by the market, while inculcating a prime sense of citizenship among participants." When the government gets involved with things which have a quantifiable market price, we all know what kind of job it does. Just imagine the horrors that would be inflicted upon us if the government assumed the role of trafficking in things "undefined, or ill-defined" by the market. Here is a suitable thought experiment. Let's put the Post Office in charge of delivering truth, beauty, and the noumenal -- which is crazy, but comparable to putting the National Service in charge of gratitude. Those struggling in kindergarten ought not to be thinking about graduate school.

Buckley argues the program is needed to shape a national ethos. We need to remember that America once had a national ethos of individual liberty and responsibility, which has been largely eroded by statism. More statism will give us an ethos alright, but one quite different from what we had before. It most certainly will not restore the old ethos.

The book serves as a useful reminder of one other thing. Students of history know that conservative Roman Catholicism is not the most conducive soil for growing liberty for individuals. William Buckley is a gentleman, and a patriot. But like all of us, he does think in terms of his world view, which in this case is dangerous.


Douglas Wilson is a Contributing Editor of Antithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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