The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America
by F. H. Buckley.
Encounter Books, 2016.
Hardcover, 359 pages, $28.

A professor at George Mason School of Law, F. H. Buckley is one of the must-read contributors to The American Spectator and The American Conservative. Well-read in history and judicious in his interpretation of the American political scene, he is a scourge of that element within modern American civilization he terms the “New Class”: the born-to-rule scions of political and economic power. The influence of these people sways the nation’s politics and accounts for the sluggish level of inter-class fluidity in the United States.

Through persuasive argument unencumbered by cant, and through the use of timely statistics, Mr. Buckley effectively diagnoses much of the cause of our national discontents. At the center of this is the alliance between the New Class (or “Red Tories”) and America’s underclass to maintain a steady level of envy, resentment, and sense of entitlement while the middle class pays the freight for every legislated panacea and earnestly struggles, with little success, to rise in fortune and station. The goal of the New Class is to minimize the influx of newcomers within its world of well-groomed men and women who undergo the best schooling, land the best jobs, shape national policy, and otherwise enjoy perks and privileges that remain out of reach for the mere bourgeoisie.

To offset this cycle and reinvigorate America’s social mobility, Mr. Buckley recommends a list of five commonsense pieces of “useful and efficient legislation, in the pursuit of socialist ends through capitalist means.” These ideas are concerned with lowering top marginal tax rates for capital gains and corporate taxes, reforming the nation’s immigration policy to move away from its current come-one-come-all status, reforming criminal justice to focus upon crimes of violence and intentional wrongdoing, reforming civil law to eliminate judicial incentives to shift money from out-of-state defendants to in-state plaintiffs and their lawyers, and promoting school vouchers to permit parental choice.

This is all to the good. And yet there is something missing in The Way Back, something implied by the work’s very title. What is the way back for a people who have lost much of their sense of community, good will, common cause, and religious faith? Is man driven only by economics and the desire for fair treatment in courts of law, or is he something more? The Way Back is a strong book as far as it goes; but it would have been improved had Mr. Buckley recognized that the great challenge of the wise reformer in our time of troubles will lie in clearing the way for “the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded,” as Russell Kirk famously wrote. That will be the crucial test.  

James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, and a longtime reviewer.