Thursday, February 28, 2008

RIP Bill Buckley

Conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. died Wednesday. Based on the demographics alone of my readership (mostly Bay Area plus Europe), I don’t imagine he has a lot of fans here, but no one can deny his great influence on American political thought over the past fifty years.

The official Libertarian journal, Reason magazine, wrote

I received the news of Bill Buckley's death with a great sense of loss. No, he was not a major intellectual influence on my becoming a libertarian. I have to credit Robert Heinlein and Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand for that. But since for most of us libertarianism as an intellectual and political movement has been an offshoot of conservatism, Buckley in truth was a great enabler.

...Buckley created space for the development of our movement. He kicked out the racists and conspiracy-mongers from conservatism and embraced Chicago and Austrian economists, introducing a new generation to Hayek, Mises, and Friedman.

The reason I bring him up here is that any role he played in legitimating such this economic thought helped bring the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communist rule west of the Urals, and the permeation of free market principles throughout the world (although the pendulum right now seems to be temporarily swinging back).

Some of the extreme interpretations of the Austrian school (e.g. Ayn Rand) are dubious. However, the role of Hayek and others is undeniable in providing an economic grounding to the philosophy of individual liberty developed by Locke, Hume and others.

Unlike my students, I don’t have to explain to this audience the importance of free markets and capitalism, so let me make two quick points. First, that economic growth depends on improving efficiency — and so we want a market system that sends price signals that reward efficiency and punishes inefficiency. Second, most of the claims of market failure are more likely failures of pricing, or incentives — particularly the tendency of US publicly held firms (and shareholders) to reward executives for short-term profits rather than long-term growth.

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