Much has been said, both good and bad, about William F. Buckley since his death. While I don’t mean to minimize his very real and serious faults, I would like to talk about the positive effect he had on me, personally.
When I was a young conservative, my grandfather got me a subscription to National Review, which I eagerly read every two weeks. In 1996, they came out with an issue that announced, right on the front cover, “The War on Drugs is Lost.” Inside the issue were a series of articles cataloguing the evils caused by the Drug War: increases in crime, the erosion of Constitutional protections against warrantless search and seizure and punishment without trial (Remember when there were conservatives who actually thought destroying the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments in the Bill of Rights was a bad thing?), the growth of street gangs, damage to public health, and so on. The editors, including Buckley, called for the legalization of drugs.
This utterly blew my mind. My whole generation was raised on a steady diet of hysterical propaganda about drugs and the need to crush drug use at any cost. The idea of anyone publicly saying that drugs should be legal was shocking, and the idea of conservatives saying it even more so. The necessity and righteousness of the war on drugs had been drilled into me by popular entertainment, government propaganda, and the educational system my entire life. Yet, as I read the issue, I became more and more convinced.
Part of it was because of all the information about the effects the war on drugs had had. (I remember being especially disgusted by the idea of property forfeiture without trial on mere suspicion of illegal activity. I was a typical conservative in that I believed strongly in law and order; I was an atypical conservative in that I thought some sort of law ought to apply to law enforcers themselves.) Perhaps more importantly, though, it exposed a major blind spot in my political thought. I already had a general feeling that it was wrong for the government to throw people in jail for things that didn’t harm others, but I had never applied that to drug use; I had a lifetime of indoctrination in my head to discourage me from thinking about the issue rationally. When I was done with the issue, I found myself actually thinking about the drug issue for the first time, and once I did a question that should have been obvious presented itself: What moral right does the government have to use force to control what people put into their own bodies?
I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer back then, and I haven’t been able to since. After that, I became much more conscientious about always asking, when faced with any form of state control, “What gives the government the right to use force in this situation?” Over time, as I devoted more and more thought to different issues, I realized that the number of government actions that seemed able to pass that test was getting smaller and smaller until, one day, I found myself asking what gave the state the right to exist at all.
I suspect I would have become a libertarian even without Buckley and his magazine, but he certainly sped me along. I imagine he wouldn’t approve of what he helped turn me into, but I thank him anyway. Rest in peace.