Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country will surprise readers familiar with the career of William F Buckley, Jr. His arguments in support of national service radically contrast with the views for which he has achieved wide recognition. Buckley began his political life as a classical liberal or libertarian. He thought that the functions of the state ought to be reduced to the minimum compatible with an ordered society. Gratitude, by contrast, portrays Buckley as sharply opposed to libertarianism.
Buckley sprang to public attention in 1951, when his God and Man at Yale was published. In that book, he denounced Yale University for the bias against capitalism he had encountered among its faculty. Buckley ardently favored free enterprise and disapproved of the New and Fair Deals. The outlook he favored encompassed an entire philosophy of political life.
Under the tutelage of Frank Chodorov, a prominent conservative publicist, Buckley embraced libertarianism. This doctrine places supreme emphasis on the individual and his rights. The state is viewed as a necessary evil, which should be rigidly confined to the night watchman tasks of law enforcement, justice, and defense. Libertarians oppose national service: They think that self-sacrificing service to the state is to be shunned rather than pursued.
Buckley soon abandoned the pure libertarian position. To defeat the forces of world Communism, it was necessary to spend enormous amounts on defense. The libertarian “minimum state” would have to be suspended for the duration, though it remained the ultimate ideal. Should the Cold War ever end, the classical liberal position would again move to the fore. From the founding of his noted political journal, National Review, in the mid-195O’s through the 1970’s, Buckley never abandoned this viewpoint.
Readers of Gratitude will discover an entirely new Buckley. Although the Cold War has concluded, the author presents himself not as a champion of individual rights, but rather as one fearful of the excesses of exclusive stress upon individuality. He contends that people should feel grateful to society for their existence and privileges. Most countries lack the political freedoms and prosperity characteristic of the United States. Should these be taken for granted or seen instead as precious legacies worthy of the utmost devotion?
To Buckley, the answer is obvious, and he devotes little time to establishing that Americans ought to feel grateful to society. Instead, he moves to the question, “How can we discharge the debt of gratitude?” Critics might note that feeling grateful and owing a debt of gratitude are not synonymous. The latter phrase suggests an obligation to a particular person or group in the way that the former need not. Buckley clearly chooses this second, stronger, meaning by his questionable use of the phrase “debt of gratitude.”
Proceeding in a methodical way, Buckley next asks, “How can the American youth best discharge their debt of gratitude?” He mentions that the ideal way to respond to a debt of gratitude is to do something for one’s benefactor: Here arises his main justification for national service.
Buckley is likely to encounter opposition regarding his view of gratitude. Perhaps some debts of gratitude should be simply recognized for what they are. For example, adults, while solicitous for the welfare of their parents, do not normally endeavor to repay the capital and labor expended in rearing them. Why are the youth singled out to discharge the debt? To the extent that it is present, does not the feeling of gratitude apply to the whole society?
Buckley is not without resources to answer this question. He thinks that young people are in an especially good position to gain from national service. If someone performs work of an altruistic sort, he will derive satisfaction from helping others. He will also strengthen his character and develop traits that will serve him well in later life. Buckley supports this contention by recounting the story of Robert Ely, a young man who works in a senior citizens home and confronts the daily needs and experiences of the elderly. Ely rises to the challenge and gains insight and compassion. Though Buckley tells the tale poignantly, its significance seems difficult to assess. Ely’s story is intended to serve as a fictional illustration, and readers are left wondering how many real Robert Ely’s a national service program will generate. Buckley is convinced that their number will be substantial, although he attempts no exact calculation.
Before the author presents his national service plan, he endeavors to come to grips with his former comrades, the libertarians. He partly disarms their criticism in advance by renouncing compulsion. No one will be forced to enlist in a national service corps, and nothing resembling a military draft is contemplated. Nevertheless, Buckley readily acknowledges that strong...