New York's Last Conservative: James Buckley

Email a Friend

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. This morning on The Brian Lehrer Show, James L. Buckley explains his views on freedom, health care, and the role of the federal government.  

James Buckley was the last person to in New York to be elected to the state Senate as neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but as a Conservative. He then served under Ronald Reagan in the State Department, the president of Radio Free Europe, and a federal appellate judge. He is the brother of William F. Buckley, and he was the Buckley in Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 court decision that ruled campaign spending is a form of free speech. James Buckley has published a new book, Freedom at Risk, on what he calls the "intrusive" growth of the federal government.

Buckley explains his choice of the word “freedom” in the title of his book as crucial to the message he is trying to convey, that Americans are being stifled by an overdose of federal interventions. 

We are transforming ourselves into an administrative state, issuing more and more regulations that are throttling our freedom of action. I don’t think people recognize the extent to which the federal government has been taking over. When I went to law school there were three volumes of federal law. There are now thirty volumes of federal law. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Congress has delegated more and more and more responsibility for issuing marching orders to agencies and bureaus. We now have 163,000 pages of regulations that have the force of law telling us how to run our lives.

While freedom may mean something else to someone living under governmental repression, the concept of freedom is not trivialized, he says, by applying it to situations like health care and regulation. Buckley says these are the same freedoms that inspired the fighters of the American Revolution and the authors of the Constitution to reserve to states and localities any responsibilities not assigned to the federal government. 

Those people were thinking in terms of freedom as committing responsible adults to run their own lives, to look after their own futures, to take care of their own kids and find their own means to happiness, without having superior minds looking over their shoulders telling them how to rule their lives.

Buckley does not find his concept of freedom from federal government overreach to be incompatible with the freedom from want. 

There’s a total difference between a program making sure that the people who are truly down and out have the basic means of sustaining a living and finding some health care, and the Obamacare, which is telling us in finite detail what the insurance company has to offer you, commanding you to take insurance if you don’t want to, telling the medical profession how to run it’s business. There’s a wide gap between a basic safety net and...a welfare state for the middle class.

As a former federal judge, Buckley has opinions on how he might have ruled on the constitutionality of the health care legislation. He says he would have had to look at the arguments on both sides, but that the authors of the Constitution would have been astonished at the idea of the federal government compelling people to purchase something. He stresses, however, that as a judge, he would be bound to follow the precedence of the Supreme Court. 

Buckley has already played a major role in US Court history. The Buckley v. Valeo court case he brought continues to affect current law, as seen in last year's Citizens United v. FEC ruling. Buckley argues that there are people on both sides of every issue that have a lot of money, and therefore the law is not unfair. 

You can’t be heard unless you spend money. That’s the simple equation in today’s world. The Supreme Court did say, in that case, that it was constitutional to place a limit on how much an individual could give. The effect of that decision was that you transferred power from individuals to PACs.  And PACs have a definite point of view, and they’re the ones who are going to be asking members of Congress to vote one way or another. So you’ve distorted the whole process. But I don’t see where we have to fear speech as speech.

While Buckley was in favor of the Citizens United ruling that lifted the ban on corporate spending in elections, he would have liked it to go further, overturning the limits placed on individual spending. The Supreme Court justified the limits on the basis that unlimited individual spending could lead to corruption. Buckley finds that unlikely.

In my experience, individuals support people they believe in. They’re not going to give the marching orders and to vote this way or that way on this issue or the other. But once you get unions, once you get corporations into the act, once you make them the principal sources of financing, then you raise those possibilities.

Buckley doesn't see the Citizens United ruling as judicial activism. In his opinion, judicial activism is when a judge distorts the original meaning of the drafters of the law in order to achieve unrelated political ends. In Citizens United, he says, the Supreme Court accurately defined the implied meaning of the First Amendment. Buckley says a court’s willingness to overturn a decision of the legislature is not judicial activism, but is, in fact, the court’s obligation if the legislation in question is unconstitutional.

In my mind I have always associated activism with this idea that the Constitution is a living document that you have to update by reflecting new ideas.

Buckley surprised some by championing the Endangered Species Act of the 1970’s — even going so far as to favor halting a big development to protect the snail darter fish. His stance was derided by many on the right for standing in the way of economic development, but Buckley finds it in keeping with conservative values.    

Conservatives are loath to upset nature, unless there’s a good reason to do it.

He says the Environmental Protection Agency should balance costs against benefits, but disagrees that environmental hazards are evidence of the failings of an unregulated market, pointing out that the Endangered Species Act was originally a restraint on federal action. 

We don’t know what biological entity, plant, and animal, and so on, has huge value for humanity. These things haven’t been tested out. There’s a huge reservoir of potential wealth out there. And once you destroy a species, you can’t recreate it.

Buckley sees value in Medicaid as a program for the destitute but feels that Medicare isn't as essential. He says that a free market in medical insurance, which he says we do not have, would provide a range of care and prices that he feels would include coverage even for those statistically likely to be most expensive.

I was looking after my own health until I turned sixty-five, I was paying my own premiums for insurance policies that I decided covered the grounds that I wanted to cover, and it seems to me that I didn’t need government to come in when I turned 65 to look after me.