The first law of book reviewing is that you should always disclose your connections to an author. I have known Frank Buckley, author of The Way Back and a professor at the George Mason University law school, for 15 years, and he is my friend.
You’re not supposed to review books by your friends, but a corollary to this is that you can review books by your friends if you’d like them anyway. That’s the case here. Frank Buckley is a thoughtful writer who has interesting things to say and is well worth reading.
I have read three of Buckley’s books. The Morality of Laughter (2003) is an anatomy of comedy. The Once and Future King (2014) is a very provocative look at Constitutional history, which shows why the Framers rejected a parliamentary system and how America’s presidential system ultimately leads to sclerotic, statist government.
The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America, as its title suggests, casts a glance at the way we live now. For many Americans, the way they live has been stagnating for most of this century. The cognitive elite—the “one per cent”—live like kings, but the middle and lower classes have stagnating or falling wages and few chances to rise.
For champions of limited government, neither major political party offers a reasonable answer. The Democrats are a big-government party who propose to double down on the policies that have produced the weakest recovery since World War II. And the Republicans nominated a dime-store strongman who wants to use trade barriers and tariffs to return the U.S. economy to the way it was in 1978.
Those of us who don’t think that Donald Trump in any way represents them should recognize that his rise represents legitimate voter concerns that need to be addressed. Buckley reminds us that it’s a fundamental tenet of conservatism that there should be mediating structures—social clubs, churches, nonprofits—that serve as buffers between the individual and the state. Conservatives “celebrate the fact that Americans are the world’s greatest joiners.” They would agree that nonprofits do a better job in aiding the poor than welfare offices do, and that people who belong to clubs are happier than people whose chief interaction with others is through a screen.
Income immobility, Buckley argues, decreases trust and weakens civil society. People whose incomes don’t rise are less likely to trust others and less likely to blame others for their problems. They’re also less likely to vote.
It’s also a problem that technological change is making it hard for low-skilled workers to advance. You don’t have to believe scary scenarios about how robots will become sentient and will kill us all to recognize that computers are drastically changing the labor force. A friend of mine spent the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s as a file clerk for a medium-sized health maintenance organization. She spent her days filing forms with about 15 other women, and spent much of the day chatting with the 80 percent of her brain not spent on filing. Increasing automation obliterated her job, and I think with electronic health records there are no more paper files.
Automation also makes it easier for foreign competitors to do low-level jobs for less money. In 1997, I spent several months at the Library of Congress Newspaper Reading Room doing archival newspaper research. About half the terminals were taken up by paralegals researching a case that involved reading a lot of old Oregon newspapers. Both sides in the case were there and I heard a lot of snickering when someone discovered something. But today the lawyers involved would digitize the newspapers, ship the files to India and have computers read the newspapers far faster than humans can.
So what can be done? Buckley suggests these five useful reforms:
There’s a lot more in this book, but let me leave you with this point: I hope you don’t think The Way Back is another piece of inside-the-Beltway Washington wonkery. Buckley is a graceful writer. And he is very well-read. In fact, he is perhaps one of the few people who can do regression analyses who has read Thomas Love Peacock.
The Way Back is a serious book about important issues of our time. But it’s also a pleasure to read.