William F. Buckley and Economics-Becker
I agree with Posner that Buckley was not a major originator of ideas. He was, however, an absolutely superb public intellectual who had the courage to be a conservative when that was still highly unpopular, especially in the New York City circles that Buckley inhabited. He persuaded many young college students that a conservative stance is a respectable position intellectually, and to this end founded the political youth movement Young Americans for Freedom. He influenced Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, although he was a much less important influence on their thinking, or on that of Margaret Thatcher and other conservative political leaders, than more creative thinkers like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.
I did not know William Buckley personally, but I admired his multi-talented contributions. He was a media entrepreneur, as seen from the influence of The National Review, a magazine that he founded when conservative magazines were not popular, and supported financially for many years. He wrote a widely read syndicated column On the Right, and hosted for many years Firing Line, a weekly television program that debated public policy issues. I have only occasionally read National Review or his columns, or watched his television programs, but I usually enjoyed and admired them when I did. When young he had repugnant views on several issues, like racial matters and McCarthyism, but he had the intellectual honesty to eventually repudiate most of these opinions. Over time he became the favorite conservative of liberals for his wit, use of language, and urbane debating skills.
Although a friend and skiing companion of Milton Friedman, Buckley had little interest in economic issues per se, and he was not concerned with the effects of taxation, regulation, and other economic policy issues. He recognized and accepted that his support of strong armies would lead to a much bigger government. He had a well-publicized conversion toward legalizing the use of drugs, a conversion influenced by Milton Friedman's strong stand in favor of legalized drugs.
Discussions by economists of regulation, competition, and other economic issues generally concentrate on their contribution to economic efficiency, and the analysis of conditions under which competition and private enterprise promotes efficiency. Friedman, Hayek, and George Stigler, three leading free market economists of the twentieth century ,were very much interested in these issues, but they also took a much broader view. For example, in Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman claims that greater freedom should be the goal of economic activity, and also discusses the connection between political and economic freedom: "economic freedom is an end in itself‚Ä¶economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom". Hayek's Road to Serfdom and Constitution of Liberty argues that a private enterprise system is crucial for the achievement of political and social freedoms.
Stigler in his Five Lectures on Economic Problems references with approval the classical economist' much broader approach toward the contributions of individual choice and private enterprise. By making individuals responsible for their decisions, competition and private enterprise force individuals to become more self-reliant since this type of economic system provides much stronger pressures to act responsibly than do systems where individuals have their choices made for them by governments. In essence, this approach argues that competitive economic systems do not just (usually) satisfy individual preferences in an efficient way, but that these systems also change preferences themselves in valuable directions. Hayek claimed in Individualism and the Social Order that Adam Smith, and presumably Hayek as well, believed that "man was by nature lazy and indolent, improvident and wasteful, and that it was only by the force of circumstances that he could be made to behave economically or carefully to adjust his means to his ends".
Buckley was not interested in the technical discussions of economists, and the nitty-gritty economic issues they analyzed, but he was drawn to a generally free market position because he was attracted by the broader virtues of free markets and capitalism in encouraging economic, political, and civil freedoms. He did not care as much as economists do that, for example, agricultural price supports make for inefficient food production, or that tariffs on imports raised the cost to consumers of various goods. On the other hand, he did care very much that these and other interferences tend to stifle various freedoms. In this way he was, I believe, greatly influenced by the broader perspective of the effects of an economic system on individual responsibility taken by classical economists and the leading free market economists of his time.