Are Objectivists Also Libertarians?

 | 

The second Atlas Shrugged movie has now come out. Should this be viewed as a cause for celebration within the libertarian movement? Well, to know that we must first answer whether Objectivists are also libertarians. Is Objectivism a part of libertarianism?

Many people who claim to be Objectivists vehemently say No, it is not. My first reaction, on hearing them say that, is to think, “This is preposterous!” But it is hard to “answer” the question, because there is so much political and intellectual baggage caught up in it. In order to say “Objectivism is a type of libertarianism” you would need to define the two terms, and definitions vary so much that most people won’t agree on any two you give. And naturally, one doesn’t want to start a fight.

But let me put on my Objectivist hat for a moment and say: “In the next part of this essay I am going to demonstrate that reason and reality say that Objectivism is, in fact, a form of libertarianism, and I will be presenting the objective, neutral honest Truth.”

Here goes.

1. If “libertarian” means “extreme and radical defender of capitalism,” and “Objectivist” means “a follower of Ayn Rand,” then because Rand was an extreme, radical defender of capitalism, all of her true followers must be this type of person also. So all Objectivists are libertarians.

2. If “libertarian” means “a believer in the idea that aggression should never be initiated and violence should be used only in self-defense,” and this thought can be seen at the heart of Rand’s politics (consider the Project X episode in Atlas Shrugged, for example), then she was a libertarian and those who accept her philosophy are libertarians.

3. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property comes from natural rights and human nature, a belief that mirrors one of Rand’s core beliefs, then the same conclusion can be drawn: she was a libertarian and her followers are also libertarians. Rothbardian libertarianism and Objectivism are like brother and sister, and Rothbard’s anti-Rand play “Mozart Was a Red” was merely a case of brother being mean to sister.

4. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property rights are practical, pragmatic, and utilitarian, in the tradition of Hayek and Friedman, then yes, on the surface one might say that this is different from Objectivism. But let’s look more closely. The utilitarians say that capitalism will produce wealth and make people happy. Objectivism holds that capitalism is the system for “life on this Earth.” Translation: capitalism will make people happy. Rand bases her ethics on what will work in practical reality, although she takes this practicality and dresses it in the language of strict, almost puritan “morality.” Utilitarians like to say that they will obey whatever idea works best, whether it be capitalist or socialist, but in practice Hayek and Friedman were some of the most passionately idealistic and principled of capitalism’s defenders. Libertarian utilitarians take practicality and mold it into a theoretically consistent ideology based on the idea that capitalism will make people happy. Even in this sense, Objectivism is a type of libertarianism, if interpreted correctly.

5. If “libertarian” refers not to specific ideas but to a historical political movement and that movement’s members, then how can anyone ignore the steady foot traffic from Rand’s novels to the libertarian movement, during at least the past 50 years? This is the reason why It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand was so popular among libertarians. I suspect that an accurate poll of movement libertarians would reveal that at least 25% to 30% are post-Randian Objectivists, which is probably just as many as are Rothbardians or Ron Paul fanatics.

The truth is that the “official” Objectivist movement is a subset of libertarianism that, unfortunately, seeks to exclude and cast out anyone who disagrees with it, in an effort to preserve its ideological purity, which revolves around the quasi-worship of Rand; and that the “unofficial” Objectivist movement is overtly libertarian. Another truth is that many, perhaps most, of the other subsets of the libertarian movement are also obsessed with ideological purity and seek to cast out nonconformers. Anarchists hate minarchists, and vice versa, and some followers of Rothbard and his vision of anarchy are as stubborn as any Randroid. A more detailed account is beyond the scope of this essay, but can be found in Brian Doherty’s history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism.

But all these people, including the Objectivists, are libertarians, whether they like it or not. Any contrary belief is illogical, self-contradictory, and blatantly irrational — precisely the type of thinking Rand preached against, although she herself had a spotty and checkered history of applying her theory of strict rationality in her personal life.

Some Objectivists reason in this form:

  1. Rand defined Objectivism.
  2. Rand said that Objectivists are not libertarians.
  3. Therefore Objectivists are not libertarians.

This sequence of assertions has a remarkable simplicity, of the kind that often appeals to the young. But, of course, the truly Randian thought would be: what matters is not what people believe or say, even about their own ideas; what matters is what exists in objective reality. I couldn’t agree more with this essential Objectivism. And I hope I have selected an appropriate way to provide an “unanswerable” question with an objective and obvious answer.




Share This


Atlas Huh?

 | 

Cloud Atlas is an ambitious project, encompassing half a dozen story lines spanning hundreds of years but played by the same actors.

The story concept reminded me of an engagement video I saw recently in which a young man induced his friends to create a dance video for his girlfriend. As the romantic pair walked along a path together toward a beach, friends danced for them and then ran ahead to appear in the next scene of the video. It looked as though hundreds of people were involved, but they were actually the same friends appearing over and over, with the entire crowd gathering at the beach for the final chorus. In Cloud Atlas the 6 billion people who live on earth today are an accumulation of all the people who have ever lived, reincarnated to return and play out yet another scene in earth's continuing saga.

But at nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas is overlong and often hard to follow. As with another "Atlas” film that was released this month, viewers who have read the book before seeing the film enjoy a distinct advantage. The opening scenes jump from character to character and scene to scene with virtually no exposition. And because there are so many disparate scenes, the result is disjointed and incoherent.

Early in the film a bombastic author, Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), complains about a critic who has written a poor review of his book, Knuckle Sandwich. The critic has called it "flat and inane beyond belief." I considered it a brave move on the part of the scriptwriter to include that phrase from Cloud Atlas in its book form, since it invites the same critical assessment of the film itself — which is, for the most part, flat and inane beyond belief. It tries to be profound, with high-sounding quotable quotes. But most of it amounts to philosophical mumbo jumbo on par with "it takes a village." Here is just a sampling:

This world spins from the same twine that twists our hearts.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others.

Knowledge is a mirror. For the first time in my life I was allowed to see who I am, and who I could become.

You have to do what you can't not do.

Only those who have been deprived of freedom have the barest inkling of what it is.

To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.

Something as important as this [a musical piece called "The Cloud Atlas Sextet"] cannot be described as yours or mine, but ours. (Shades of "You didn't build that" . . .)

The philosophy behind the film is that "death is just a door to another room" where one encounters many of the same souls one knew in a previous lifetime, but in different guises and with different purposes and relationships. But this is no Somewhere in Time, where two people who have fallen in love in the past fall in love with each other again in the future; instead, the characters switch roles entirely, playing significant characters in one scenario and minor parts in another.

Tom Hanks, for instance, plays a murderous antagonist in two scenarios, a classic protagonist in two others, a minor character in a fifth, and a woman in a sixth. Although he does fall in love with characters played by the same actress (Halle Berry) in two of his scenarios, he does not have meaningful relationships with her in the others. In other words, the film does not seem to imply, as other reincarnation films have, that finding one's soul mate across the eternities is the main purpose of life.

The controlling theme in these stories is not just the idea of finding the same lover in different lifetimes, but of fighting against tyranny in every age. In each scenario someone brave is needed to stand up against evil groups. This might seem a libertarian theme. But the cosmic conflict between "rebel good" and "societal evil" lends Cloud Atlas an undeserved gravitas, since the film never fully or accurately identifies the underlying philosophies or actions that lead to tyranny. In one scene, for example, the protagonist sneers at her society's rule that "the first catechism is to honor thy consumer," an obvious dig at free market principles, not tyranny. (And apparently no one knows what a “catechism” is.)

Despite its philosophical inanity, Cloud Atlas can be admired and even enjoyed artistically. The film is worth seeing for the disguises alone; they are stunning, and will surely garner Oscar nominations for costume and makeup. And halfway through, the stories and characters begin to sort themselves out enough to become compelling and empathetic. The acting is superb on all counts. This is a tour de force for Tom Hanks, who revels in his makeup and accents, although there is an unfortunate hint of Forrest Gump in one of his characters. Halle Berry is gorgeous, as always, and so, for that matter, is James Sturgess. It is a pleasant surprise to see Hugh Grant outside the familiar romantic comedies where he has been most comfortable. Moreover, the music, cinematography, and special effects are splendid. Be sure to stay for the credits, where you may be surprised to see which actors played which characters.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cloud Atlas," directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



Share This


Distorting the Energy Market

 | 

The government is hurting our ability to develop new sources of energy; and both the Republicans and Democrats are to blame.

In the most general terms, Republicans support continued tax breaks and subsidies for the oil and gas industry, and Democrats support grants, subsidies, and tax breaks for such new forms of energy as wind and solar. Neither party has a good energy policy. Both are blocking the path of innovation.

To create a fossil fuel alternative we must find an energy source that is cheaper, easier, and better than fossil fuel. But when government is picking which alternatives are worth pursuing, in addition to funding traditional energy sources, our view of what energy sources may work out becomes clouded. As long as government provides subsidies and tax loopholes to oil and gas

companies, they will hold an advantage in the market. Not only does government intervention in this manner make fossil fuels a highly lucrative industry, thus attracting many bright businesspeople, engineers, and scientists, but it makes the introduction of alternatives more difficult, since potential new competitors find working in an unbalanced market nearly impossible. Even if there were an energy alternative that consumers would want, the alternative would not be able to seize enough market share to turn a profit, because the coalition of government and big oil cannot be challenged by a newcomer.

With few exceptions, people agree we need to move away from burning fossil fuels if we want to meet future energy needs with as little disturbance to existing ecosystems as possible or beyond what we might consider desirable. And because oil and gas receive government benefits, the conventional thinking goes, so too should alternative energy exploration, in order to “level the playing field.” But what the best alternative might be is still unclear. One reason why it is unclear is that government involvement clouds the picture.

Think of ethanol. For years, because of Iowa's importance in the presidential nomination process, ethanol was highly subsidized by the government. Now we discover that it was not a workable, standalone alternative to fossil fuels. Consider all the resources that were misallocated because of this pursuit. Private resources, such as time and expertise, were focused on making ethanol work — in order to procure government money. If there had been no government money in ethanol research, engineers and scientists in the energy industry would have had a greater incentive to look elsewhere for a good alternative. But when the government creates a market there is no need to look elsewhere. The only problem is that the government lacks anything like a good record as a venture capitalist.

If it is true that necessity is the mother of invention, then the government is stripping us of that necessity. What is necessary for every company to operate is money, and if it doesn’t have a strong need for money, because government is supplying all it needs and then some, its incentive for invention is stripped away. If we want to find the best energy source, both long-term and short-term, the government needs to stop trying to control which sources come to market, or stay in the market.The government needs to divest itself of all financial interests in the energy industry.




Share This


Argo F*** Yourself

 | 

One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.

Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.

When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.

Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.

As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.

The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.

During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.

Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.

This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.

Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.

But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.

Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.

To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2012, 120 minutes.



Share This


The Intelligent Person's Guide to Presidential Politics

 | 

The tradition at Liberty is to introduce every presidential election witha symposium of libertarian views about whom to vote for: the Democrat, the Libertarian, the Republican, and No One at All. This year, we are happy to follow the tradition with commentary by four expert analysts, each well known to our readers: Drew Ferguson, Jon Harrison, Wayland Hunter, and Gary Jason. There's enough here to get anyone's blood boiling. —Stephen Cox

* * *

The Case for Johnson

By Andrew Ferguson

I’m here to exhort you, reader, to vote Libertarian in the upcoming election. Specifically, I’m urging you to vote for Gary Johnson, rather than sitting out the election entirely, or writing in “Donald Duck” or something similarly hilarious.

Since I’m writing to an ostensibly libertarian audience, I assume that those are the options you’re considering. Because your individual vote contributes to the totals about as much as a decent piss does to the ocean, why bother disrupting an otherwise productive day to cast a vote in favor of either major party? They don’t care about your vote; in fact, they go as far out of the way as possible to disclaim any “libertarian” viewpoint or content in their campaigns. And whichever candidate wins, he’s going to screw you more or less in the same way: more taxes to fund more wars; more kickbacks to benefit more cronies; more tariffs to feed nativist ignorance and hike prices for consumer goods . . . in short, more for DC, and less for all the rest of us.

If those were my only two choices — as all the major media seem to believe — I’d certainly exercise my right not to vote. And in fact, I’ve done exactly that in the past two election cycles: with the major-party candidates, as always, being unconscionable, and the LP candidates being, respectively, naïve and loathsome. But this year . . . this year is different.

I am on record saying that Gary Johnson is the strongest candidate the Libertarian Party has ever recruited to head its ticket; likely, he is the strongest candidate who ever will carry the LP torch. I knew this within the first 15 seconds of my interview with him at the LP Convention, when he quickly showed himself to be neither naïve nor loathsome, nor — and this by far the most important — the sort of personality who seeks guru status, or who inspires (and accepts) cultish devotion.

Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance.

Of course, he is in no way a perfect candidate. (Such politicians are illusions, reflections of a better universe, in which each person has the rule of his or her own house alone, and is free there to enact his or her own image of the perfect ruler.) But an America under Gary Johnson would be an America that doesn't maintain or extend its imperial military presence around the world; an America that doesn’t haul off and invade Iran or any other country on someone else’s say-so; an America that doesn’t exude a rhetoric of hatred, fear, and absolute moral certainty. His America wouldn’t lock up hundreds of dissenters or millions of victimless criminals; wouldn’t starve poor countries to prop up farm subsidies; wouldn’t hand economic policy over to Goldman Sachs to impoverish the unconnected; wouldn’t court a new Depression by inciting trade wars and deepening international divides.

Clearly such an America is too badass a country for the cultural elites to allow even a fleeting image to lodge in the minds of most American voters. But if such a vision is to get any foothold in this great land — if we are to pull back from the ledge at any moment before we fling ourselves pell-mell over it — we must show in this election that there is some opposition left, some coherent alternative to wars and prisons and empire.

With every election that goes by, the militaristic oligarchy that controls these United States grows stronger, conducting its business and screening itself from criticism behind the farcical pretense of partisan politics. Whichever party takes the present contest will further the agenda and then, since this will take our nation still closer to bankruptcy, lose big in 2016. The party assuming control at that time will misrepresent a normal response to failure — kicking the bums out — as a “mandate” to enact legislation that does yet more harm. Then matters will repeat in 2020, and 2024, and ever after, until we find out just how much ruin there is in a country — or until we shake things up, and crash the comfortable party.

So let’s get this straight: Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance. This election, don’t waste your vote on the big guys. And don’t let it pass into nothingness. Give it to someone who can actually use it, someone who can channel the voices of millions of Americans who are fed up with the system and its phonies, its cronies, and its crooks. Vote Gary Johnson.

* * *

The Case for Obama

By Jon Harrison

I find this assignment, to make the case for voting for Barack Obama, somewhat distasteful, because I am neither a Democrat nor a strong supporter of the president. I am turned off by both of the major parties — so much so that I haven’t voted in a federal election since 1988. I could perhaps make the case for not voting. I must admit, however, that if my home state of Vermont were in danger of going Republican, I would get out on November 6 and vote for Obama.

I would’ve been happy to make the case for voting Libertarian, because I think the LP’s 2012 ticket is the best it has ever fielded (although John Hospers was a fine choice as the party’s first presidential candidate in 1972), and the party platform is one I can live with although I disagree with some of its planks. But as I believe the LP is an exercise in futility, and that libertarians would do well to devote their energies to working within the major parties in order to transform them into something like true liberty-loving movements, I can’t honestly make the case for voting Libertarian.

I can’t possibly make the case for voting Republican this year, given the manifest danger to liberty the party represents. The party is both beholden to, and largely divided between, two groups of radicals: ultracapitalists on the one hand, and protofascist populists on the other. Establishment Republicans, such as John McCain and David Brooks, are a shrinking minority within the party, and increasingly irrelevant to its deliberations. And even these people tend to hold dangerous neocon views on foreign policy.

Recall that the Republican Party gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, exploding deficits, and two wars financed entirely on credit. Paul Ryan, the party’s candidate for vice president and the darling of the far right, voted for all these things in Congress. And Ryan, like so many Republicans, is a notorious reactionary on social issues, with a 1950s attitude toward homosexuality and women’s reproductive rights. Do we really want such a man a heartbeat away from the presidency? Do we really want a party that contains people like Todd Akin (he of “legitimate rape”) and Allen West (“there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party”) running the country?

The state of the party is such that its candidate, Mitt Romney, had to become a serial liar in order to gain the presidential nomination. Romney is basically the Massachusetts moderate he was accused of being during the Republican primaries. Whatever he may say now, the fact is he pushed through Romneycare in Massachusetts, and he would keep important aspects of Obamacare on the books. He is for progressivity in the tax code. He is in favor of shoring up the welfare state, not radically restricting it. If elected, he will rely upon the Democrats in Congress to keep his own party from moving policy too far to the right.

Romney’s greatest fault is that he lacks the courage of his convictions. He should be denied the presidency because he is a man without principle: he is willing to say and do almost anything to become president, to an extent that puts even Richard Nixon in the shade. Thus we have the Mitt of the 47% recording, and the Mitt of the first presidential debate, both dwelling within the same fleshly envelope. A Janus such as this in the Oval Office would almost certainly create havoc in the body politic. Add to this his formidable ignorance of foreign affairs, and you have a man who simply must be kept from the highest place, lest we descend once more into Bushworld.

The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one, and yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009.

Now to the current occupant of the White House. The president has been craven on such issues as the deficit and entitlements. He has done nothing to reverse the Bush administration’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance programs. The former dabbler in illegal substances has shown neither courage nor compassion in dealing with America’s tragically misguided policy toward drug use and abuse. He allowed Congress free rein to craft a stimulus bill that amounted to the biggest pile of pork ever made into law. He responded poorly to the housing crisis, adopting a middle course that proved the worst of all worlds for real estate, and seriously hampered a recovery of the economy. He also temporized with regard to the shenanigans of the big banks, a policy that may eventually prove disastrous. He came into office even more unprepared than the man he was often compared to, John Kennedy, and he has not grown in office to anything like the extent JFK did. And yet . . .

And yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009. I was opposed to Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, yet we must admit that it probably prevented an economic disaster (on this see Bruce Ramsey’s “Assessing the Bailouts”). The American war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is finally being wound down (Obama’s Afghanistan “surge” was a mistake, it now seems clear, yet unavoidable given the pressure he was under from the Republicans and certain quarters of the military). Bin Laden is dead. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been abolished, with no noticeable effect on the morale or combat capability of the military. Above all, we have not plunged into the folly of pulling Israel’s chestnuts out of the fire in Iran. An American war to stop Iran’s nuclear program would be a catastrophe economically, causing energy prices to soar to unprecedented levels. Add to this the cost in blood and dollars of such a campaign, and the growth of radicalism in the Muslim world that it would provoke, and you have a situation even worse than the final years of Bush. We are more likely to avoid such a fate under Obama than Romney.

The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one. The man, though personally engaging and far more “cerebral” (as former Secy. of Defense Robert Gates put it) than his predecessor, has been a mediocre first executive. Moreover, he appears worn and seems to lack fresh ideas for the future. How then to justify a vote to reelect him?

Bloomberg conducted a poll on the presidential race at the end of September. In its report it quoted a self-described libertarian, one Stephanie Martin of Virginia, who said the following:

If I have to choose between the two, I prefer Barack over Mitt. I think Mitt Romney is just so out of touch. It’s mostly a protest against him and the Republican establishment; it’s not that I think Obama has done such a great job.

Stephanie, I’m with you.

* * *

The Case for Romney

By Gary Jason

I will be cheerfully (though not enthusiastically) voting for Mitt Romney. While I don’t expect the following sketch of my reasons to convince many readers who don’t already favor him, the case is worth stating.

Let me begin by stating the obvious (but not the always recognized): in our system, voting for a third party candidate is almost always just wasting your vote. Since I have written at length on this elsewhere in this journal, let me simply reiterate that while I would favor something like a ranked voting system, in the absence of such a system, to vote for a third party is merely political theater.

Put another way, the reply to “I’m tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils” is that when you vote third party (or refuse to vote) you are helping the greater of two evils to triumph. Seems pointless, right?

Moreover, Romney (while admittedly a moderate) has a number of strong points (especially when he is compared with Obama) that make me positively want to vote for him. The most obvious of them include superior managerial competence, deeper economic understanding greater disposition to freedom, more realistic vision, and better character.

Superior managerial competence: Begin with the fact that our nation is in an enduring economic malaise, with unemployment still around 8% even after several years of recovery, and debtlevels soaring. Romney seems clearly more qualified to turn this around.

  • Romney, who earned an MBA from Harvard and had an outstanding career in business, views free market capitalism as the key to prosperity. In contrast, Obama continues his college professor rants against businesses and wealthy people, which only discourages economic expansion. In this Obama recapitulates the errors of his hero FDR, who (as Amity Shlaes has argued in The Forgotten Man) managed to extend the Depression through his class warfare rhetoric.
  • Romney is less likely by far to raise taxes. Obama in a second term would surely use his power to force increases in taxes at least on wealthier citizens.
  • Will Romney lower all tax rates by 20% and eliminate deductions? It will be great if he does, and he did do so when he was governor of Massachusetts. One of the advantages of Romney’s plan is that it would lessen the deduction of state taxes for the wealthy, which I strongly favor even though I live in the tax hell called California, because it is immoral to force citizens of low-tax states to carry part of the burden of state taxes in the irresponsible high-tax states. However, I don’t know whether and to what extent Romney’s party will control Congress, so I don’t know whether he will succeed. If he just keeps the present rates in place that would be enormously helpful.
  • Romney’s masterly handling of Bain Capital and the Olympics showed an innate talent for running organizations competently.

Deeper economic understanding: Romney shows reasonable understanding of the need for free trade, free markets, and free labor mobility — not to as great a degree as I would hope, but surely infinitely better than the economically ignorant Obama.

  • Romney will at least be open to free trade, especially with South America. I have suggested elsewhere that he should start with Brazil. An FTA with Brazil (and one with India) would do wonders. Obama by contrast started trade wars with our close partners Mexico and Canada, stalled for three long years the three FTAs he inherited from Bush, and has taken no steps to enter into FTAs with any other countries.
  • Romney clearly seems to favor free markets in energy. He would end the war on fossil fuel waged by Obama and the environmentalist ideologues he placed in power at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and elsewhere. Romney will almost surely sign off on the Keystone Pipeline. He will very likely allow more leases on federal land and offshore. He may even succeed — finally — in opening up ANWR, through (again) that will depend upon his control of Congress.
  • More generally, Romney will doubtless lighten up on regulation. Can he repeal and replace Dodd-Frank? God, I hope so — why not just repeal it and reinstitute Glass-Steagall? Again, it depends on Congress. But at least he will not push new regulatory mischief.
  • Romney seems more inclined to allow free mobility of labor, aka immigration reform. He seems sincere when he expresses support for expanding legal immigration of skilled labor, though I am not entirely sure of the depth of his feeling in that regard. But while Obama talks as if he favors comprehensive immigration reform, he really doesn’t. He had complete control of Congress for two years, and never bothered to introduce a bill. At least Romney has promised to increase the H1-B Visa limit for skilled immigrants, which is something.

Greater disposition to freedom: Romney seems to want to roll back the encroachments on freedom imposed by Obama’s expansion of the progressive liberal welfare state.

  • I am very sure that Romney will carry through his promise to try to repeal ObamaCare, and if he succeeds, it will be hugely important. It would be the first major defeat of the ever-advancing progressive welfare state since 1932, and would stop the process of nationalization of healthcare which, when it has happened in other countries, has proven impossible to reverse. It would also prevent a wave of built-in tax increases, such as the new federal tax on the profits from home sales, and the new tax on medical devices.
  • Regarding education, again the choice is clear. Romney favors expanding school choice, while teacher union tool Obama ended the meager DC Voucher program, and did little to expand charter schools.

More realistic vision: Regarding foreign policy, I view Romney as simply more realistic.

  • Yes, both major candidates favor withdrawing from Afghanistan, but Romney seems to recognize that to simply turn the country back over to the Taliban would not prevent future attacks. Taking the time necessary to train a proper Afghan force may take longer, but it saves lives in the long run.
  • I won’t rehash Obama’s policy of being overly attentive to Russia (in canceling the missile defense system we had arranged to put in Poland, for example) and getting nothing in return, or in tossing the tyrant Mubarak under the bus in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood — a huge mistake with ever more disturbing unintended consequences appearing every day (for example, the recent announcementby one of the Brotherhood’s leaders that he favors instituting Sharia law). Just ask the Copts — which will be easy to do, since very soonall of them will live here. And the inconsistency is breathtaking: we aided the Libyan rebels — even though Col. Gaddafi had in fact turned over his weapons of mass destruction (including an advanced nuclear program) to our country the week when Bush invaded Iraq, and ended his support of terrorists, in exchange for our tacit agreement not to invade him — but we have refused to give armed support of the Syrian rebels — even though the government they fight (the Assad regime) is a devoted supporter of Iran, which funds terrorism against us. Go figure.
  • The naiveté and hubris of Obama’s foreign policy has been evident from the day he accepted the Nobel Prize for “peace,” after doing nothing but say that he wanted peace. The sheer dishonesty of his foreign policy is sufficiently exemplified by recent events regarding Libya. Naivete, hubris, and dishonesty are assets to no one, even people who favor the president’s announced goals of peace and international harmony.
  • I can imagine the responses from some readers: You are a dirty neocon! No, in matters of foreign policy I obey a law older than neoconservatism: realism. We can’t withdraw into Fortress America, and we never could. But on the other hand we certainly shouldn’t take on the role of Captain America, world policeman. We need to exercise practical wisdom — what the Greeks called phronesis — to distinguish (among other things): vital national interests from mere national preferences; sending weapons from sending troops; encouraging alliances from establishing empires; supporting the lesser of two evils (such as Mubarak) from supporting the greater of two evils (the Brotherhood); and maintaining peace through free trade from courting war through protectionism.

Better character: Can anyone doubt that Romney has superior character to Obama?

  • Obama has proven himself to be arrogant, snarky, cheap, infantile, and narcissistic. Romney seems none of those things, appearing essentially modest, decent, and generous — actually having given $50 million of his own money to charity — as well as mature.
  • The mainstream media have been trying to dig up dirt on Romney for many months now, and cannot find one iota of dirt to display. Hence their pathetic attempts to use his wealth and Mormonism to attack him.
  • We might also mention Obama’s disgusting corruption — learned no doubt as a community organizer and player in Chicago’s political cesspool. In numerous cases, government loans and grants have gone to companies headed by prominent cronies of Obama. Not a scintilla of this has ever attended Romney’s tenure in any of the enterprises (for-profit, non-profit, or governmental) that he has run. Maybe knowing you can earn a quarter of a billion bucks legally and honestly makes you less inclined to corrupt dealings.

I know many people are nervous about Romney, especially those on the political right. Romney may possibly be lying across the board. Maybe he will not sign Keystone, not try to repeal ObamaCare, let all the tax increases happen, not allow more skilled immigrants in, block free trade agreements, and go all wobbly Green by opposing fossil fuels. Maybe — but the point I would make to the ultra-pure rightists is that Obama has shown that he will do all these things.

Nor am I under any illusion that Romney is Hayek redivivus. He has what seems to be a congenitally moderate nature, one that doesn’t adhere to a purely classically liberal ideology –more’s the pity. So I don’t expect him to get school vouchers enacted nationwide (as Sweden did years ago), or to end all farm subsidies (as New Zealand did years ago), or to enact a truly low flat tax with no deductions allowed (as Russia and numerous other countries did years ago), or to privatize Social Security (much less Medicare), or to create a vast free trade alliance of all democratic countries. I myself deeply desire all of these things, although I believe I will live to see none of them.

For this I won’t blame President Romney but my fellow Americans. They are too addicted to the welfare state, and will only change when the major welfare state programs finally fail. But Romney can do some moderate good in limiting the depth of our decline, instead of willfully accelerating it, and for this he will have my vote.

* * *

The Case for None of the Above

By Wayland Hunter

When I walk past my local polling place, I see people coming out with little stickers on their shirts, saying “I Voted!” As if that were something to be proud of.

I’m not saying that I’ve never voted, or that I feel some kind of quasi-religious objection to the secret ballot, à la 19th-century anarchist Lysander Spooner. I’m not an anarchist. I remember, maybe 30 years ago, Reason ran a poll asking its readers all sorts of things. One of them was, Are you an anarchist? Another was, Do you vote? The results were something like 40% on the first question and 90% on the second. So much, I thought, for libertarian anarchism.

I have no such “principled” objection to voting. If I find an election in which I think my vote matters, in the right way, I’ll go ahead and vote.

But right now, I feel as if I were channeling R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal. I don’t know whether, or how often, Mr. Bradford may have voted. (Seldom, I suppose.) But I recall his exposure of the “handful of votes” myth. He showed, beyond any possibility of confutation, that virtually no elections, however petty, are decided by the proverbial “handful.” The possibility of any election being decided by one vote, your vote, is similar to that of Columbus, Ohio being obliterated by a meteor strike.

There is no practical reason to vote.

But what about the alleged moral reason? Good libertarians remind us, every four years, of the categorical imperative: you must act in such a way that if everyone acted in that way, it would be good, or there would be good effects, or better effects than worse ones, or no really bad effects, or something. In other words, you shouldn’t throw your cigarette onto the sidewalk, because if everyone threw a cigarette onto the sidewalk, what would the sidewalk look like?

If you don’t see how silly that is, I’ll try to explain it, or at least to extend its logic into the absurdity it’s heading for.

Just think: if everyone ate a hamburger at every meal, every day, no cows would survive. If everyone went to the symphony, tickets would be priced out of sight. Don’t become a guitar repairman, because if everyone becomes a guitar repairman, the world will starve to death. If I don’t have children, it means I am decreeing the depopulation of the earth.

Not convinced? But why should you be? It’s a silly idea. If I had a cigarette, I would look for a decent receptacle to put it in. I wouldn’t throw it on the sidewalk. Why? Because littering is wrong in itself. I don’t care how many people do it; it’s ugly and therefore wrong. Now show me why it’s wrong in itself not to vote. Is it only wrong because if everybody else refrained from voting, that would be wrong? Have we gone in a circle here?

One of Obama or Romney will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.

But there’s another reason why not voting is not equivalent to littering the gutters. Not voting is not doing something. If nobody voted, well, the parties would have to nominate candidates whom somebody would go ahead and vote for, willingly and unthreatened by false moral theory — and that would be a good thing, right?

To support my view, I don’t need to go in the Randian-anarchist direction and talk about how awful it is to give my “sanction” to some candidate who isn’t ideologically perfect (“moral”) by voting for him or her. All I have to do is point to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. One of them will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.

Well, what about the Libertarian Party nominee?

Please. When I vote LP, what am I voting for? An organization that, in forty years, has never won a significant election. An organization that occasionally appears to have thrown the election to a Democrat, rather than a Republican. This is not a compelling reason to go to the polls.

Oh, but by voting Libertarian you would be voting for your principles!

Would I? You who say that — have you read the LP party platform? Neither have I. Neither has anyone else — including, I suppose, the people who wrote it. In this case, principles are irrelevant.

I rest my case. If all the paid staff members of the Libertarian Party, and all the unpaid volunteers whom they try to organize, would devote themselves to nonelectoral work for specific libertarian causes, who would deny that more would be accomplished? So if, by not voting, I am somehow objectively voting against the LP — as the old Marxists used to say when arguing that if you don’t participate in the workers’ struggle, then you are objectively in favor of fascism — aso be it. But I don’t think I am voting against the LP. I think I am voting for the LP activists to go out and do something productive. Even the devotees of the categorical imperative should be proud of me for saying that.

And that is all I need to say.



Share This


Persuasive Definitions

 | 

Charles L. Stevenson coined the term "persuasive definitions" (Ethics and Language, 1944). It means: to apply words with favorable or unfavorable connotations to things or actions in such a way as to substitute for actual argument. Examples abound in political discourse nowadays.

I'll focus on just one: "invest." Politicians repeatedly tell us Americans to "invest" in our children, education, job retraining, medical and other research, defense, infrastructure, a healthy environment, clean energy, energy independence, transportation, progress, the future — whatever. Here "invest in" means "have the government spend more money on." More fully, it means "have the government spend more money on such things — money raised by taxes and by increasing the national debt."

What further examples can readers contribute?




Share This


The Grand Old Pitch

 | 




Share This


Only 14 Percent?

 | 

Each time Barack Obama and his supporters sniff disdainfully at the 14% of his income that Mitt Romney paid in taxes, I want to shout at them to acknowledge the obvious: Romney does not have earned income.

In the private sector, companies expect their employees to come to work every day. Romney isn’t gainfully employed, because he has spent the past two years campaigning for office. Of course, Barack Obama has spent the past three years campaigning. He has missed important security briefings and delegated most of his duties to others. He does very little actual work and campaigns on the taxpayers’ dime. If you or I tried that, we would have to use up all our vacation days and then take time off without pay — assuming that our employers would be willing to keep us on the books (and the benefits) while we are off job hunting.

Romney paid a higher tax rate when he was working and earning an income. He pays plenty now on his investment income (the principal of which was already taxed at earned-income rates). More important to me than his 14% tax rate is the fact that he has chosen to give away nearly 30% of his income to charities and causes he believes in. He has created jobs throughout his career, and he has given failing companies a second chance. He is, in fact, a great example of how the private sector should function.




Share This


The Pains of Proflish

 | 

A student taking an advanced degree at a world-renowned institution sent me a news item about a math professor at Michigan State University who (allegedly, always allegedly) took off his clothes in the middle of class and ran around naked, shouting things like, “There is no f*cking God!”

No, I’m not going to claim those words as an invitation to comment on the linguistic habits of scientific atheists. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I could do that, but it would be wrong. But I’m not sure how wrong it would be to take it as a commentary on the linguistic habits of college professors (of the which I am one). It seems to me that during the past 30 years we’ve done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

I can’t say I was surprised by the news my fellow Watcher sent me. What did surprise me was the reported reactions of the professor’s class. (No, I didn’t mean “were the reported reactions”; I meant was; the number of the verb follows that of the subject, which is what, and which is singular.) “We were literally scared for our lives,” one student said. “The police took about 15 minutes to get here, and during this time he continued walking around screaming.” The complaint was echoed by another student: "It took them more than 15 minutes to arrive. It could have turned into something very bad if he had a weapon on him. It was pretty infuriating to have to wait that long." And that second student wasn’t even in the professor’s presence; the professor was out in the hall, by that time, and the student was in a classroom.

The fact that the troubled pedagogue was naked didn’t seem to have allayed these young people’s fears. And as for the 15 minutes: I’m no fan of the police, but look at your watch and picture yourself getting a call, leaving your office, traveling across one of the nation’s largest college campuses, locating the place where an incident is taking place, clambering upstairs, and confronting some nut who’s running around naked . . . Now look at your watch again. Think you could make it in 15 minutes? Think that somebody has a right to complain bitterly at this complete abdication of police responsibility? Think that you and I and a bunch of fit young college kids concerned with a naked, middle-aged man possess a right to have cops show up in less than 15 minutes?

I think I’d rather take off my clothes and run around like a maniac than to utter the complaints of those college students.

But if you’re thinking just about words, and not about guts, the worst part of this report is the eight words that say, “The professor’s name has not yet been released.” Not released by whom? And why not? Everybody on the scene knew who he was. Their reactions were reported at length. A blurry picture of his apprehension was included in the news report. So why not his name?

During the past 30 years we professors have done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

Pity? Perhaps. But this pity, this verbal delicacy and restraint, is by no means evenly distributed. If Joe Blow from Kokomo has a fight with his girlfriend, gets a little drunk, drives down the street, and gets nailed by a passing cop, no one will withhold his name from publicity — or his mugshot either, in some jurisdictions.

The day after the scary incident, anonymous students identified the professor as a certain John McCarthy. The day after that, the really loony thing happened. An article about the affair appeared in the MSU student newspaper. You can tell MSU standards of journalism by contemplating the following sentence, which is about the weekly meeting of the “steering committee” of the university’s president: “At the Steering Committee meeting Tuesday, the conversation turned to mathematics professor John McCarthy, which students said he had a mental breakdown during a class Monday.”

“Which students said he had a mental breakdown . . .” OMG — now we know what kind of grammar MSU is teaching.

Well, let’s see what intellectual level MSU’s president is operating on. For other people, the serious issue introduced by the professor’s actions might be, “Did MSU know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does MSU have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?” But that was not the issue that President Anna K. Simon wished to discuss. For her, we learn, “an incident Monday brings in to [sic] question the impact and role of social media.”

Huh? As far as I can make out from Simon’s murky remarks, murkily reported, the problem is information control: “’The complication of social media, with everyone with a camera and a cell phone, is one that we continue to struggle with in terms of information because the event would not, under (normal) circumstances, trigger one set of alerts,’ Simon said. ‘There’s also the need for more crisp communication about what the outcome was. Whether that would have controlled some of the rumors, tweets and other things, I’m not quite sure.’”

Did Michigan State know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does Michigan State have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?

Let’s look at this in another way. Suppose you’re concerned about the quality of some public institution. You want to find out whether there’s any quality control. You learn that a teacher, policeman, bureaucrat, or other publicly employed personality, may have done something egregiously stupid and wrong, and perhaps illegal, while exercising his or her official duties. She’s said to have told her students to vote for Obama. He’s said to have beaten a homeless person for “resisting” some “order.” She’s accused of making a “questionable” transfer of city funds. He allegedly takes off his clothes in front of his students and runs around screaming.

You’d like more facts. But how long do you have to spend just trying to confirm this person’s name? A week? A month? Three months? Forever? Unless there’s a miracle, the information control artists will keep you from knowing what it is until virtually everyone has forgotten the episode — and then the data will be stored in a closed file, no longer accessible to the public. In the meantime, you will be informed that personnel regulations do not allow release of that information, or, pending possible legal action, the city cannot comment on this case, or some other nonsense that never applies to a normal person in a normal job (or didn’t, until the “standards” of “public service” bureaucracies spread into big private companies). And, to top it off, some CEO will entertain the media by looking at her navel and meditating about how tough the times are, what with all these cameras and phones and computers around, ready to convey the truth to anyone online . . .

So what do you think? What are we supposed to say about that? What are we able to say, since if we do comment we can always be told that we do not have all the facts?

The chair of John McCarthy’s department presumably has all the facts. These facts lead him to be concerned “about the way some people made jokes about the incident. An incident like this often teaches us who we are and what we represent. I hope we can all use what transpired after this incident to reflect on our values and our role as members of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world.”

Gosh, don’t you feel guilty? Your making jokes about a figure of authority at an institution that strives to be among the best of the world has hurt the feelings of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world. Or something.

But to continue with college professors, which I can easily do, considering that I am one, have you been following the curious case of Professor Amy Bishop? She’s the one who was recently convicted of killing three of her colleagues and wounding three others at a meeting of the Biology Department at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. That happened in 2010, and there were plenty of witnesses, because she didn’t manage to kill them all, but it took two and a half years to convict her. I don’t know why, except that it may have something to do with the cultural and verbal universe in which she lived.

Perhaps the EEOC is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health.”

In 1986, in Massachusetts, where’s she’s from, she killed her brother Seth with a shotgun, then went to a local auto dealership and tried to commandeer a car so she could escape. Apparently because of her family’s ties to the local power structure, she wasn’t even questioned about the shooting for 11 days. Then it was called an “accident.” Eight years later, she was implicated in an attempt to pipe bomb an academic supervisor in Boston. He had suggested she was “mentally unstable.” Four months after the attempted bombing, investigators finally showed up at her house. She was uncooperative, and the investigation was inconclusive. It went away. Seven years later, she was arrested after assaulting a woman in a fight over a high chair at an International House of Pancakes in Peabody, MA. She was sentenced to probation and an anger management class (which she probably didn’t take). In the restaurant, she had yelled, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Amy Bishop!”

Now she gets to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where she is known as “difficult” by “some.” A good piece of reporting tells the story. Bishop didn’t publish very much; she listed her children as first and second authors on one of her publications; a student filed a grievance against her; she was detested by almost everyone.

Then, as our reporter says — and this is the cream of the jest:

In September 2009 Bishop filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Someone on her departmental tenure committee had called her "crazy" in her tenure review, and would not retract the statement when an administrator gave him a chance to back down. The anonymous professor maintained that Bishop's unstable mental health was apparent on their first meeting.

The EEOC is still looking into that complaint.

I have been unable to learn whether the federal agency is still looking into it. Perhaps it is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health,” or, in plain terms, insane, bonkers, off her rocker, completely gone, in the zone, out of her skull, a desperate lunatic, and otherwise, well, crazy, or if she is, whether anyone should have said it.

A Martian appears in your kitchen and tells you that the folks back on the slopes of Olympus Mons have been following the Amy Bishop story on their nightly news. He wants to know what is so weird and touchy about that word crazy. He wants to know how somebody who uses it in its clearest and most self-evident application could possibly be investigated by a government of 300 million people (which presumably ought to have other things on its mind), because the word might have been discriminatory against the woman who killed four people. What words would you use to explain this?

Maybe you wouldn’t be able to find them, but we professors would — or at least keep anyone else from doing so.

On October 2, I was watching a CNN segment about why more security wasn’t provided to our diplomatic installation in Benghazi, when it was obvious that the place might be in danger from fanatic Muslims. The interviewer asked a professor — or someone who talked so much like a professor that he should immediately be given tenure — what he thought about all the warnings that came in, and apparently were not adequately heeded. Well, he said, “you have to parse the different kinds of violence that were taking place.”

That was his response.

What would you have to do to interpret that for your Martian friend?

I suppose you would start by noting that the key word was “parse.” In normal English, “parse” means to identify the grammatical functions of the words in a sentence. But in Proflish, the professor tongue, which is the status language of planet earth, the language to which all other languages aspire, “parse” means anything you want it to mean. In this case, it appears to mean something like “look at.”

Well, says the Martian, why can’t he just say “look at”?

That’s sort of a puzzler, but I can think of two, related reasons. One, he would be understood immediately, and that is not the goal of anyone speaking Proflish. Two, he would reveal the fact that he is saying nothing. Suppose I do look at or inspect various kinds of violence. Suppose I go further, and distinguish one kind of violence from another. So what? That isn’t enough. I haven’t really said anything. But a word like parse will keep everyone, or at least the interviewer, impressed with me. And that’s the point of talking, see? Ya see?

Yes, says the Martian. I’m parsing it all.


Editor's Note: Word Watch will comment on the presidential and vice presidential debates after the disease has run its course.



Share This


The Second Reel of Atlas

 | 

The two questions I have been hearing from my libertarian friends all week are these: Have you seen the new Atlas Shrugged? Is it any good?

My answers are Yes! And Ye-es.

I was invited to attend a posh private screening with the producers in Manhattan two days before the official opening. David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society (neé the Institute for Objectivist Studies) and script consultant on the film, introduced the screening to a friendly audience of Rand enthusiasts. Esai Morales, who plays Francisco d’Anconia to perfection, also attended. It was a festive event honoring the Herculean efforts of producer John Aglialoro to bring this book to the screen.

As the lights dimmed and the film began, my biggest concern was whether the film could stand on its own merits, despite its being the middle chapter of a three-part story. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the entire cast and director were changed from Part I, making it virtually impossible to use flashbacks for exposition.

I am happy to report that it does indeed work as a standalone film. Three main subplots drive this episode: Dagny Taggart’s quest to uncover the secret of a mysterious engine that could solve the world’s energy crisis; the government’s enactment of “Directive 10-289,” which freezes all employment, wages, and even personal spending at the previous year’s rate, thus making it illegal for anyone to quit, retire, be fired, be promoted, earn less, earn more, or even spend less or more than in the previous year; and the inexplicable, almost spiritual, disappearance of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers at the hands of a mysterious stranger.

I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it.

Rand purists will be relieved to hear that the plot remains faithful to the original (almost to a fault). Some lines of dialogue have been inserted intact from the novel, and even the changes made in the name of streamlining remain true to Rand’s intent. Hank Rearden’s speech in front of Congress, in which he defends (or, rather, refuses to defend) his right to determine who will buy the metal he produces, is powerful and thrilling. It should resonate even with viewers who have never heard of Ayn Rand.

A few welcome adjustments have been made in the casting to acknowledge 21st-century racial integration, without drawing special attention to race. Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones), for example, is black, but the film places no greater significance on the fact than if he were blonde or brunette. He just is.

Similar updating of the story itself would make this film more accessible to non-Randians. Yes, Ayn Rand loved trains. Without trains, Atlas Shrugged would not be Atlas Shrugged. And yet, for audiences who don’t care one whit about the author of the foundational work, a 21st-century setting in which trains are the primary mode of transportation simply doesn’t make sense. The film’s producers attempt to explain this with a note in the opening credits saying that in the future, trains have become the most economical form of travel, but come on. No one is going to buy that. Train travel is luxurious and impractical, especially in a country as vast as the United States. Cars and planes can go almost anywhere; trains are limited to where the tracks can take them. It’s especially laughable when Dagny travels by herself to Colorado in her private rail car. How could it possibly be more economical for one person to take a train than a car?

Modern audiences will also have a hard time believing that a single man — such as Rearden (Jason Beghe), Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), and Francisco d’Anconia, could control the entire markets in metal, shale oil, coal, and copper respectively. I think my friends and colleagues, the ones I would like to convince by inviting them to see a film like this, would be able to relate to the story more if the heroes were adapted so as to represent smaller, more sympathetic businesses. I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it. Such a film would be true to the purpose of the book, but would not be held back by the setting and technology of 60 years ago. Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Coincidentally, I happened to see Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway the day after I saw Atlas Shrugged II. Several critics have complained about how the language of this classic play has been updated to modern vernacular for this production. I disagreed. Ibsen was a realist. He rejected the larger-than-life heroes and cosmic issues of classic drama to write about everyday people experiencing everyday conflicts. His protagonists spoke in current language about current issues. If he were writing today, he would be using today’s idioms and swear words. So while director Doug Hughes’ version is not true to the language of Ibsen’s play, it is true to the spirit and intent of Ibsen’s play. The result is fast-paced, tense, and very modern.

So YES! I have seen the new film, and I had a great time. And ye-es, it is good, but with some caveats. The story stands on its own. The main points about the sovereignty of the individual are strong and intact. It injects some delicious ironic humor, such as the placard held by a picketer that says, “We are the 99.98 percent!” John Galt is both mysterious and inspiriting — I can’t wait to see what D.B. Sweeney does with the role in the final installment. Exposition is handled deftly, using dialogue to bridge the gaps between Part I and Part II.

But I’m still not pleased with the casting. Diedrich Bader, best known for portraying intellectually challenged characters like Oswald on “The Drew Carey Show,” Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), draws laughter when he first appears as Quentin Daniels, the scientist working to unlock the secret of the engine. Similarly, Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) creates a stir with his small speaking role as Laughlin. Both acquit themselves well as dramatic actors, but they create a distraction when they appear onscreen, pulling audiences out of the scene.

Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Far from being cool and sophisticated, the new Dagny (Samantha Mathis) is frumpy, and she lacks chemistry with Rearden. Nor is there any chemistry between Dagny’s brother James (Patrick Fabian) and his new wife Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), the shopgirl with whom he falls in love, despite their social differences. In fact, none of the characters is particularly passionate, with the exception of Francisco, who moves and speaks with a natural intimacy, and Galt, who manages to inject more charisma and personality with his unseen, offstage voice than Dagny is able to create with all her screen time. Not surprisingly, Francisco and Galt are brought to life by the most seasoned actors of the crew, and it shows.

Despite these shortcomings, Atlas Shrugged II is an admirable work, made more difficult by the rigorous expectations of Rand’s hard-to-please fans. The original score by Chris Bacon is strong, and the special effects are impressive. I applaud the efforts of the producers and all those responsible for the script.


Editor's Note: Review of "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," directed by John Putch. Atlas Distribution Company, 2012, 112 minutes.



Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.