The Quest for Perpetual Motion

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In an apparent attempt to establish its identity as a boatload of busybodies, ExxonMobil has been running ads in which a series of adolescents tries to convince other adolescents to become engineers. The young’uns, most of whom come across as pushy and unpleasant, if not positively unbalanced by somebody’s good intentions, ask the mighty questions of our time:

Who’s gonna do it? . . .
Design cars that capture emissions?
Build bridges that fix themselves?
Get more clean water to everyone?

The answer, according to the scripted kids, is: “Engineers! That’s who! Be an engineer!

I wouldn’t mind if more kids became engineers, but I hope that someone will let them know that engineers don’t just think up a trendy “problem” and then fix it.

Consider the idea of “bridges that fix themselves.” Even I can imagine a bridge with some contraption attached to it that could make some kind of repairs on the rest of the bridge. But how much would that contraption cost? How much would it cost to construct? Who would pay for it? With what? Earned in what way? Who would maintain it? Who would supervise its operations? Who would fix it when it needed to be fixed? Who would pay all these people? Again, with what? What would the engineer who designed the “self-fixing” bridge — or the people who constructed it, or the people who are supposed to run it — have been doing if some do-gooder hadn’t commissioned him to work on such a structure? Would he have been designing something more useful, perhaps?

I have some other questions, too — larger, and almost as obvious. What kind of society makes possible the existence of engineers and the situations in which they are able to devise whatever they devise? On what assumptions, institutions, and practices is that society based? If, for example, everyone doesn’t have clean water, why is that? Is it because enough ambitious young people somehow failed to become engineers? Or is it because of some broader problem, some problem that may involve authoritarian government, superstitious resentment of “Western” science, a static, anticapitalist economy, “the tragedy of the commons” (i.e., communal ownership), a lack of respect for “women’s work” (washing, cooking, getting water) . . . Is it possible that these are problems, and that they won’t be solved by clean little TV kids who want to “fix” all the “issues” their teachers mention?

How do you find the answers to these questions? Who’s gonna do it — who’s going to study the economic history and political philosophy and social practices and moral concepts that may shed light on them? If society provides a good environment for our young engineers, how can that environment be maintained? If society goes bad, who will fix it? How? And at what price, financial and intellectual? Or will social conditions fix themselves, because some social engineer devised a political contraption to make that happen? And will it work — or will it be the kind of thing that engineers used to call, derisively, a perpetual motion machine?

Because that is what the Exxon ad promotes: the idea, already far too prominent in our society, that there are self-fixing, frictionless, cost-free solutions for every problem — the idea that there is, in fact, such a thing as a perpetual motion machine.




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Aping the English Language

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Are you annoyed, angered, outraged by our national illiteracy? Or have you come to be amused by it? Do you wake every day grinding your teeth about the ridiculous mistakes you expect to find, not in the spam section of your email, but in the published words of people who are actually paid to write the bizarre things they write? Or do you rise bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to enjoy the latest nonsense?

I am still one of the intellectual Cro-Magnons who belong to the first category, but I’m evolving toward the second one. The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about. Suppose that a pianist sits down to perform her first recital, and forgets several bars of the sonata she wants to play. That would be sad, perhaps tragic. But suppose that a chimpanzee sits down at a piano and starts running his paws over the keys as if he were a concert pianist. That would be funny. It might even be entertaining. If chimps have charm, this would be a moment when their charm could be appreciated. The fumbling could be understood as a momentarily interesting, perhaps exhilarating, confirmation of what we already knew: we are smarter than chimps. Some of us, anyway.

This month’s examples of idiotic verbal mistakes are presented in that spirit of fun. At least most of them are.

On August 31, Fox News reported on an explosion in a Paris apartment house: “Initial reports are that this was caused by a potential gas leak.” How great is that! An apartment house blows up, and Fox blames it on a potential gas leak. Imagine what an actual gas leak would have done.

The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about.

On September 4, John Nolte, writing on Breitbart’s site, noted that “USA Todayis Gannett's flagship publication and enjoys the highest circulation of any other American newspaper.” A paradox worthy of Zeno himself: USA Today is both itself and something other.

On September 17, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article about the various kinds of incarceration available for T.J. Lane in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Lane, as you may recall, is the young gentleman who in 2012 assassinated several other young people at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, then showed up in court wearing a shirt on which he had written “KILLER,” and delivered bawdy insults to the victims’ families. This month, he escaped from a ludicrously under-secured facility, was recaptured, and was sent to a real prison. After detailing the penitentiary’s super-max provisions, the article notes that “the maximum-security portion houses about 300 slightly less restrictive inmates.” I can understand that some inmates have to be more restricted than others, but what are the inmates restricting? Their guards’ ability to restrict them, perhaps?

The most entertaining result of T.J.’s escape was the bewildered speculation pursued by many channels of public information about the motivation for his latest escapade. CNN’s online headline (September 12) says it all: “Chardon School Killer T J Lane: Tightlipped about Motive, Escape.” T.J., it seems, failed to say why he scaled the fence and left the prison. Readers can only guess why anyone would want to do a thing like that.

This month, even John McCain showed that he still has what it takes to entertain us. On September 11 he had an amusing confrontation with Jay Carney, formerly the president’s chief prevaricator (i.e., press secretary). In this instance, I suppose, McCain’s heart was in the right place. He called Carney a liar, and why should he call him anything else? But what he said was, “You are again, Mr. Carney, saying facts that are patently false.” Paradox again! Only a radical Pyrrhonist could so boldly assert that even facts can be false, and patently false. The biggest paradox, however, is that Sen. McCain, a man who for many years has done nothing but talk, more or less in English, can be so patently ignorant of the meaning of a common English monosyllable. The word facts is foreign to him.

Jonathan Swift claimed that he wouldn’t satirize people who didn’t court his satire with their ridiculous pretensions. He “spared a hump or crooked nose / Whose owners set not up for beaux.” To vary Swift’s metaphor, it isn’t sporting to make fun of lame people who slip and fall in the street, but when lame people advertise themselves as Olympic athletes, then one has a right to be amused.

If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo.

You can see how this applies to McCain, who smugly invoked the rare word patently, only to fall headlong over simple facts. It also applies to the headline writer of the Daily Mail. On September 3, the paper published a translation of one of those arrogant messages that ISIS sends to world leaders. The headline over the article was: “This message is addressed to you, oh Putin.” Oh, how literate! Oh, how parodically grandiloquent! The problem is that the headline writer and the headline approver and the headline proofreader, none of them, knew that the signal of the English vocative is O, not oh. It’s hard to parody someone else’s exalted tone when you don’t know the forms of exalted language.

Is this important? Is it a mere slippage from O to oh? A mere confusion between a vocative and an interjection? A mere revelation that someone doesn’t grasp the language of Milton, Shakespeare, or common English hymns? Or is it another ominous sign that these days, most people are more willing to write than they are to read? After all, when you read, you run into all kinds of whacky old words, and who wants to do that?

If you care about words as tools of meaning, you may have a hard time seeing any fun in the continual erosion of the language. But you won’t deny the dark humor of the latest disaster to afflict Malaysia Airlines. It was a verbal disaster, not an aeronautical one; this time, the company didn’t lose any planes. But it was the kind of disaster that is happening wherever English is the standard tongue, and tongues have found that they can operate without any connection to brains.

Devising its current advertising campaign, Malaysia Airlines began by confusing wit with vulgarity. There’s a vulgar expression that unfortunately has some popularity today. That expression is bucket list. A bucket list is an enumeration of the things you want to do before you kick the bucket; i.e., die. Kicking the bucket was funny at the start of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), in the scene where Jimmy Durante kicks it. Bucket list is an attempt — a stupid attempt — to bring back the fun. But just when it was becoming obvious that bucket list had jumped the shark, Malaysia Airlines, famous for its multitude of dead passengers, initiated an ad campaign called “My Ultimate Bucket List.” If you submitted the “best” bucket list — whatever “best” might mean, although I guess it wouldn’t mean smoking less weed or apologizing to the people you’ve wronged — you would get some kind of prize.

Most people’s idea of an appropriate prize from Malaysia Airlines would be survival, but a thought like that would never occur to a company like that. The company was shocked to discover that anyone could possibly have been offended. Nevertheless, it changed the name of the contest to “Win an iPad or Malaysia Airlines Flight to Malaysia.” I’d accept the first gift, after checking it out for possible safety problems, but I’d pass on the second.

The errors I’ve discussed so far are mostly innocent, monkeylike antics; but not every verbal fumble can be described in that way. Oh, no. Consider the verbal wallpaper that goes by the name of “public service announcements.” If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo. This month, the PSA campaign that caught my attention was some advice dished out by a group ostensibly concerned with keeping people’s lives from being ruined by arrests for drunk driving — in other words, a group intent on threatening people with having their lives ruined if they don’t follow its advice.

Make no mistake: people’s lives are ruined by pressure groups like this. I have known several people who lost their jobs and therefore their families because they were poor and they got stopped by a cop and were found to be “drunk” and were jailed and fined and lost their license to drive, which meant that they lost their ability to work. Their lives were devastated, not because they did any damage but because the amount of alcohol in their blood was a trifle higher than a politically identified limit fixed by the law and continually lowered in response to the demands of mad mothers, crony capitalist insurance companies, do-good committees and foundations, municipalities cadging fines, and other lovable persons or nonpersons.

When people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway.

But that isn’t enough. Enough isn’t a word that busybodies ever understand. Their public service announcements now warn us that we will be arrested even if we are not driving drunk. They claim that we will be arrested for simply driving buzzed: “Buzzed driving,” the ads assert, “is drunken driving.” To which any ordinary speaker of English will reply, “No, it isn’t; that’s why they are called by two different words.” To be buzzed or tohave a buzz on or to have a buzz going is very different from chucking empties of Jim Beam out the window as you drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Everybody knows that. The confusion of drunk with buzzed is an intentional attempt to intimidate. It’s similar to all those other means by which contemporary puritans try to confuse normal conduct, or mild misconduct, with actual crime, and prepare to administer appropriate punishment. Thus, smacking a kid’s bottom becomes child abuse. Having sex with someone who is buzzed or who did not specifically say yes becomes rape. Accusing the president of laziness becomes racism, and declining to subsidize young women’s birth control becomes sexism.

It’s a rule with few exceptions: when people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway. There would be no reason to call spanking child abuse if people who are opposed to all corporal punishment had convinced the majority of the public that they were right. But they didn’t, so now they are trying to get public opinion, and ultimately the law, to punish spanking by jumbling it together with abuse. Their ideological cousins try the same stunt, by jumbling racism together with counting President Obama’s golf games.

Here is a great way of creating confusion: making one expression stand for very different things. A curious example of this method is what has happened to the most popular political expression of 2014, boots on the ground. This phrase was once fresh and vivid, and its purpose was clear. It was meant to identify and exclude a certain kind of military force: “There will be no boots on the ground.” But boots on the ground established itself as a cliché that could be given as many delusive meanings as friends of the most transparent administration in history could come up with. Its ostensible meaning is still no troops on the ground, but its real meaning has become no troops on the ground except advisors on the ground; no combat troops on the ground except those originally intended to be combat troops; and no foot soldiers on the ground — only paratroopers, Navy SEALS, Marines, active military advisors, Boy Scouts . . .

And no, I don’t think that’s entertaining.




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Their Gamble, Our Win

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A recent news piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention. Entitled “Germany’s Expensive Energy Gamble,” it reports on that country’s new grand energy plan, the “Energiewende” (“Energy Revolution”). This is now at the top of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic agenda.

Under this plan, Germany will spend a projected trillion euros — and we all know how government projections tend greatly to understate final costs — laying out a massive new network of high-tension lines to carry power from wind plants in the North Sea to the country’s heavily industrialized southern region. Merkel’s government is gambling that this titanic investment will pay off with cheap, inexhaustible energy.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results.

While the EU has a set of rules requiring its member states to achieve a goal of 35% of their electricity from so-called renewables by 2025, Germany has set its goal to hit 40–45% by then and to exceed 80% by 2050. Again, this is without using nuclear power.

If achieving this does cost the German economy a trillion euros (about $1.4 trillion), that would equal about half the country’s annual GDP.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results. Despite Germany’s history of no major problems with nuclear power, Merkel virtually shut down the nation’s nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster. Today, only nine nukes remain open, and they are due to be shut down in about seven years.

The result is that over the past five years, electricity prices in Germany have skyrocketed 60%, because the subsidies for the highly inefficient wind farms are passed on to the consumer. German electricity is now over twice as expensive as America’s.

Even riskier for the German economy is the strain this is placing on the manufacturing sector, one of its key components.

As Kurt Bock, CEO of BASF — the world’s biggest chemical company and one of Germany’s biggest companies of any kind — put it, “German industry is going to gradually lose its competitiveness if this [energy revolution] isn’t reversed soon.

BASF, by the way, has every right to be frightened by Merkel’s energy scheme. The company’s main plant employs 50,000 people in Germany, and consumes as much power as all of Denmark. And Bock is not alone in his concerns. A recent survey by the Federation of German Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that three-fourths of executives at small- and medium-sized industries feel that the rising energy costs threaten German productivity. A survey by the US Chamber of Commerce showed that a similar percentage of American company executives with operations in Germany felt that the Energiewende made Germany less attractive as a place to do business.

While the unfavorable opinions of the manufacturers, either German-based or with German operations, should worry the German government, even more worrisome are the attendant industry actions.

BASF has announced plans to cut investment in Germany by 8.3% of its world total, shifting it elsewhere. SGL Carbon, another German manufacturer, has decided to triple its $100 million investment in its Washington state plant rather than expand its domestic operations, for the reason that electricity costs only one-third as much in Washington state as it does in Germany. And basi Schöberl GmbH will turn to France rather than Germany as the site of its new plant. (France, note well, has kept its nuclear power plants at full strength.)

As Daniel Yergin has put it, the Germans enthusiastically embraced so-called renewable power, viewing themselves as trailblazers, “But now the Germans look back and see there aren’t many people behind them.”

Meanwhile, as another WSJ piece documents, our own energy revolution continues to flourish — even in the face of an administration downright hostile to it — because ours is based on fossil fuels.

The article notes that while naysayers wrote off our fracking revolution under the theory that shale wells don’t produce for long and must be replaced with ever more wells, the fracking revolution enters its tenth year in fine shape. Shale wells have become far more productive.

For example, in 2013 the most fecund shale well produced, at its peak, 5.9 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. But last year — a mere decade later — the best shale well delivered an amazing 30.3 million cubic feet a day — a fivefold increase! And fracking oil wells have seen similar productivity increases over the last decade.

We have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

In fact, the focus of the American oil and natural gas industry — which has become the world’s largest energy producer — is now on finding ways to get more from existing wells, as opposed to looking for new shale fields. So while the number of wells has remained roughly constant, the production has jumped.

All this has kept American natural gas prices at historic lows.

This would suggest to a shrewd president — if we only had one! — a national strategy for renewing our industrial sector.

The strategy would be to embrace the American energy renaissance. Take back the regulatory agencies, as well as the Department of the Interior, from the environmentalist activists. Return to issuing leases to develop resources, both offshore and on land, leases dramatically curtailed by the Obama administration. Return to selling public lands — the federal government still owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that comprise our national territory. And allow our oil and gas to be exported freely. At the same time, reinvigorate our nuclear energy power industry.

In other words, aim explicitly at allowing the market to drive our energy prices, both the price of fuel and the price of electricity. This would create a cornucopia of benefits.

It would add a massive number of new jobs, first in the energy sector, then, as that wealth spread, in every other sector as well. It would drive down the amount of money that vicious dictators such as Putin and terrorists such as ISIS use to maim and murder free people around the world. That would lessen the probability that young Americans will die to protect our interests.

But we have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

Elections have consequences — alas! But people get the government they deserve.




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Libertarian Patent Reform

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Liberty has recently been a forum for discussing copyrights; this brief essay on patents is intended to contribute to the intellectual property conversation. First, I will suggest several legal reforms that could narrow patents — in my opinion, a good thing. Second, I will explain why patents should exist, although in a form more limited than the present one.

Much has been made in the media about “patent trolls,” companies that file or collect patents, not with the intention of ever selling a product, but simply with the desire to litigate against others for patent infringement. Their special target is small businesses that lack the legal resources to fight back. They extort money from these businesses by threatening to sue them. Patent trolls should be repulsive to all libertarians. Even libertarians who devoutly believe in patent law should consider this a blatant example of people gaming the legal system to steal money from innocent, productive businesses.

Twenty years enables a virtual monopoly that may encompass the bulk of a person’s working life, and that’s too long.

What can be done about such trolls? I have some recommendations for changes in the patent laws. I am confident that these changes would satisfy a broad swath of libertarians because, while hurting the trolls, they would provide a healthy limitation to the laws themselves, laws that, according to some libertarians, are too powerful and tend to help patent owners at the expense of the public.

1. Shorten the term of patent protection to ten years. A patent currently lasts for 20 years from its grant date. But the purpose of the patent laws, as spelled out in the United States constitution, is to encourage innovation — “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” An adequate incentive to invention would be ten years. Twenty years enables a virtual monopoly that may encompass the bulk of a person’s working life, and that’s too long. Ten years of protection rewards and encourages invention but allows a patent to pass into the public domain early enough so that the public can freely make use of inventions while they are still technologically relevant. This is the public’s reward for granting the patent to the inventor. In other words, the public and the inventor enter into a bargain wherein the inventor gets a temporary monopoly and the public gets the useful knowledge embodied in the invention after the monopoly ends. If the technology is out of date by the time the patent ends — and after 20 years most tech is outdated — then the public is not getting its end of the bargain.

2. Require “intent to use.” Currently a person may file and own a patent merely for having invented it, and may assign it to whomever he likes. Trademark law contains a concept called “intent to use,” but this doctrine has not migrated to patent law. If a legal requirement were imposed that to file or own a patent a person must possess a legitimate intent to develop the invention commercially and sell it, then patent trolls would cease to exist. This would not hurt penurious inventors, because the only requirement would be a good faith intent to use the patent at some point, and there would be no requirement of actually being commercially successful, nor of having the financial resources to start manufacturing in the near future.

3. Give teeth to the “obviousness” requirement. The two legal requirements for a patent to issue are, in the words of patent law, “novelty” and “non-obviousness.” Novelty means that no one has done it before. This is strictly enforced by the courts. But as to the invention being non-obvious, the test is enforced very loosely. The best example is the Amazon “one click” patent. Amazon filed a patent that was, really, for nothing more than the process of buying something on a website by means of a single click of a button on the site, where that one click does everything necessary to complete the sale. Apparently it was novel, and the patent issued. But, in my opinion, one click is patently obvious (pun intended). Clicking a button to buy something seems so obvious that a monkey could think of it. Yet this patent still exists, although it was somewhat narrowed by later litigation.

One click is not an isolated exception. For another example, Yahoo! has a patent, which Google licenses, a patent for including ads in search engine results. An idiot could have invented that patent. But patent law deems it “non-obvious.” I advocate, in all seriousness, the creation of a “monkey-or-idiot” test: if a monkey could have designed something or an idiot could have invented it, then it is obvious, and no patent may issue for it. The test used by the courts for “obviousness” right now is merely whether prior art anticipated it, which improperly collapses the obviousness test into the novelty test, and in practice creates one hurdle to clear when the laws explicitly require that a patent must clear two hurdles.

4. Make patents non-assignable. Right now, there is a handful of big corporations that dominate an area of technology and collect patents in order to prevent smaller startup companies from competing against them. For example, in the software realm, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and Amazon collect patents aggressively and use their patents to stifle competition. This is rightly characterized as the rich exploiting the laws to hurt the poor and the middle class, because the big corporations are owned by the rich while the small startups tend to be ambitious hard-working poor or middle-class entrepreneurs.

If a monkey could have designed something or an idiot could have invented it, then it is obvious, and no patent should be issued for it.

The solution to this problem is to make patents non-assignable: only the inventor of a patent can own it. This will diversify patent ownership so that the rich cannot use patents to suppress the middle class. One of the purposes of a patent is to reward the inventor for his creative contribution to society, and this reform would force corporations to pay inventors what they are due.

5. Make independent creation a defense to the charge of infringement. In the realm of copyrights, independent creation is already a defense to infringement. If Singer A writes a song, and Singer B writes the same song by himself and does not copy A, then B cannot be sued for infringement by A, even if A owns the copyright in the song. This makes sense, because intellectual property infringement is basically a claim for theft, and B did not steal or copy A, despite the two songs being identical. I advocate a similar defense of independent creation to patent infringement. If an inventor creates an invention by himself, and does not copy or steal from the patent’s owner, then he will be free to use it. (We can discuss whether, in addition to freedom of use, he should also have the right to file a patent for it, when a patent already exists.) This makes sense, because the inventor should reap the rewards of his work, and nothing that the patent owner has done makes it just or right to block an inventor from using the invention that he himself created.

Some libertarians suggest that “loser pays” should apply in patent litigation. Recent legislation to apply “loser pays” to patent cases, in an effort to curtail patent trolls, massively failed to elicit voter support and died in Congress. And the trillion dollar technology industry, and its lobbyists, will never allow patents to be eliminated. However, by intelligently advocating selective, sensible, wise reforms, we can nudge patent law in a direction that makes it more responsive to the needs of the public.

Of course, some libertarians will be outraged that I am advocating patent reforms instead of the wholesale abolition of patents. To enable a discussion of this topic, allow me to review the three libertarian arguments for patents. I call these the Randian argument, the Rothbardian argument, and the Nozickian argument.

1. The Randian (Ayn Rand-derived) argument is simply this: assume that John Galt designs a motor that can convert static electricity to usable electric power. This motor will solve the world energy crisis and create clean, cheap, limitless electricity. Should Galt own a patent in the motor? The Randian answer is yes, because Galt created it by using his hard work, intelligence, and genius, and a person deserves to own the results of his labor, as a matter of justice: you should be allowed to reap what you have sown. If you oppose patents, just imagine James Taggart, a principal villain of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, taking Galt’s motor and using it without his consent in order to make money for Taggart, who gives nothing to Galt. To a libertarian, this should feel shocking and ghastly. In fact, it should feel like the parasites exploiting the geniuses, opposition to which is the whole point of Rand’s philosophy.

2. Many libertarians oppose patents, not because of analysis or thought, but because libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard told them to. Many libertarians obey the Rothbardian party line and do what Rothbard says without any critical inquiry. But a little critical thinking shows why, even if we concede Rothbard's basic economic theory, we can still justify patents.

Why did Rothbard oppose them? My reading of Rothbard is that, for him, property exists in order to prioritize scarce resources. He believed that ideas are not scarce, and that therefore ideas cannot be subject to ownership. My analysis is that Rothbard confused the use of ideas and the creation of ideas. Once an idea is created, it cannot be used up or depleted, and anyone can employ it without taking it away from someone else. An idea is not scarce in its use. But the creation of ideas is scarce. If the design for a motor that could create cleaner, cheaper, more plentiful electricity is not scarce, then where is this idea? If not truly scarce, it should be growing on trees and waiting to be plucked and used, like berries on a bush or air to breathe. But Galt’s motor is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the motor must be created by Galt before we can use it. And, until it is created, it is scarce.

Recent legislation to apply “loser pays” to patent cases, in an effort to curtail patent trolls, massively failed to elicit voter support and died in Congress.

The creation of ideas uses scarce resources, such as Galt’s genius, or funding for research laboratories. Therefore, even according to Rothbard’s basic idea that property exists to prioritize scarce resources, patents should issue to inventors, so that money can be paid to the creators of inventions, to prioritize the resources that go into creating inventions.

3. Robert Nozick, Harvard’s most notable libertarian, once posed a thought experiment about what would happen if people were allowed to sell themselves into slavery. He posited that everyone would buy an interest in everyone else, leading to a communal society grounded in contract law.

Nozick's argument, which comes from the second section of chapter 9 in his book Anarchy State and Utopia, is very complicated and difficult to summarize. The gist of it is that a socialist state could arise from a series of contracts if everyone were allowed to sell to others the right to make the seller's important life decisions, such as the decision of which job to work, what drugs to use, what to do with money, etc., because eventually everyone would own a decision-making interest in everyone else, so the community would then have the contractual right to make each individual's decisions. Nozick's prose is dense enough and meanders so much that it is debatable whether he thought this was an argument against the right to make such contracts, or whether he merely found it a thought experiment colorful enough to elaborate. I have no need to answer this question, because my version of Nozick's argument focuses on other contracts that, in general, most libertarians would agree that a person has the right to make.

Let us assume that in a libertarian utopia a person is free to enter into contracts with other consenting adults, without limits. And let us assume that Galt invents a great motor. Then, as a condition to telling anyone else how his motor works or showing his design to others, he requires that everyone else involved with it, such as the investors who fund it and the consumers who buy it, signs a contract. This contract between Galt and third parties would say that the other person consents not to use, buy, make, or sell a motor similar to Galt’s, without Galt’s permission or without paying Galt a licensing fee, in return for the right to do business with Galt. How would this arrangement differ from a patent?

But, also consider: what in libertarian theory would forbid such a contract? If such contracts were allowed, then de facto patents could exist, although they would be based on contract law and not on patent law. So the Nozickian argument proves that a libertarian utopia would collapse, or develop, into a society where de facto patents exist, even if patent law had been abolished.

For all three reasons, Randian, Rothbardian, and Nozickian, it is worth asking: why should (some) libertarians be so passionate in their hatred of patents? I do not ask for your blind agreement on an answer, but merely ask that you consider whether your position on patents is the result of thoughtful reflection or peer pressure from the libertarian movement to conform to the standard form of Rothbardian dogma.




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A Row of Ducks

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Have you ever thought about joining the jihad? No? Neither have I, at least not in the sense that I might be the one doing the joining. I’ve thought about others joining, though. I’ve thought about privileged American white kids who convert to Islam and join the fight to reestablish the Caliphate.

I’m not that interested in the kids of Somali or Pakistani immigrants, or other kids raised as Muslims, or even African American kids who answer the call to jihad. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that’s already been started. But middle-to-upper class white kids who convert to Islam and become the foot soldiers of Allah? This, I am interested in.

In his book Pragmatics of Human Communication, Donald B. Jackson tells a story about Konrad Lorenz, the now-famous ethnologist. One morning, some tourists walking past his front yard saw him waddling through the grass on his haunches, making quacking sounds. They thought that he was mad. What they didn’t know was that he was trying to convince a trailing brood of ducklings, hidden by the grass, that he was their mother. What they didn’t know was that Dr. Lorenz was developing the concept of imprinting.

Of course, the tourists may have thought that he was mad even if they had seen the little ducks, but there are two points in this story that remain relevant here. The first is the one that interested Lorenz: if you can get to a duck at just the right age, you can fool it into thinking that an Austrian scientist is its mother. In fact, it will follow almost anything that waddles and quacks. It may even follow a waddling caliph. The second point is the one that interested Jackson: a behavior that looks crazy in isolation may seem less so when the wider behavioral context is seen. So, to a hockey mom, seeing some young white guy from San Diego — I’ll call him Connor — dressed up sort of like Zorro shouting “Death to the infidel” in Arabic may seem a lot like seeing Lorenz waddling around his front yard quacking. But suppose, just suppose, that there are little ducks in Connor’s yard, too.

Here I’ll use the concepts of imprinting and behavioral context to help understand why jihad might appeal to Connor. Put another way, we’re on a duck hunt.

“Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards.” — Attributed to St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer devotes a chapter to describing potential converts to mass movements in general. Two groups of likely recruits are of interest right now. The first comprises those who are “partially assimilated,” who “feel alienated from both their forebears and the mainstream culture.” (Hoffer assures us that those who live traditional lifestyles are usually too contented to be good candidates.) The second group comprises those who feel that their individual lives are “meaningless and worthless.” According to Hoffer, then, young people who have been successfully assimilated into a traditional belief system or the mainstream culture and see their lives as having meaning and purpose are less likely to answer the call to jihad. They have been, shall we say, inoculated.

American culture has changed slightly since Hoffer wrote his book in 1951. For example, according to the Gallup, the proportion of the population that considers religion “important” has fallen from 75 to 56%. (N.B., The 56% presumably includes jihadists.) The people who say they have no religion has grown from two to 16%. Generally, “faith tradition” and “traditional belief system” are today understood by those who use such terms to mean “archaic fictions.” In short, religious ardor has cooled. So, the program of inoculation by means of the traditional faith vaccine is not as widespread as it once was. This is our first little duck. Don’t worry, there are more.

“To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” — “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

Efforts to assimilate the young into the evolving mainstream secular culture have changed, too. The melting pot has been moved to the back burner and the back burner has been put on simmer, to encourage diversity. The ranks of the Boy and Girl Scouts have been thinned and their once slightly grim mix of quasi-military discipline and Sunday school fun has been rendered more secular and humane. It’s been defrocked and declawed. In public schools, American history is now often taught as a litany of imperialism, racism, oppression, exploitation, and hypocrisy and, on the brighter side, as a continuing struggle against those persistent evils. Jingoism is just not happening.

Is it possible that a child who is asked to pledge allegiance to the flag of a country that, in his second period history class, is revealed to be vile might end up being less than completely assimilated into the mainstream culture of that country? I don’t see why not. Sure, America is ashamed of Wounded Knee, but should every non-American Indian be ashamed to be an American? Perhaps, but if Hoffer is right, failing to inculcate a modicum of patriotism in the minds of the young is a risky lapse in a program of mass-movement disease prevention, particularly in such a diverse society, where a little unifying vaccine may be just the thing to prevent an epidemic of say, jihaditis. Maybe St. Francis Xavier’s point was practical and secular as well: if children aren’t assimilated when small, anyone may have them afterwards, even the Islamic State. In any case, patriotic fervor seems to have faded. This is our second duck. Let’s keep looking.

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whaddaya got? — “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as Johnny,1953

Fish swim, birds fly, and young people rebel. In ’60s America, the young (mostly the white, middle-to-upper class young) rose up against crew cuts, cocktails, war, three-piece suits, button-down shirts, organized religion, and white bread, embracing instead long hair, drugs, peace, bell-bottom trousers, tie-dyed shirts, mysticism, and granola. As intended, parents were apoplectic.

Parents today are made of mellower stuff. Offspring who are agnostic, long-haired, peace-loving, marijuana-smoking, vegetarian, and sport casual, colorful clothes are often a source of parental pride. In a rhetorically tolerant world that adores diversity and is deeply reluctant to be seen as judgmental, it just isn’t as easy to raise parental hackles as it once was. And what’s a rebellion without raised hackles? Boring, that’s what.

What’s a rebellious young person of privilege to do? Occupy Wall Street? You’ll be seen as either an unemployed mercenary or a naïve Marxist. Live off the grid? For a few weeks, maybe, but you’ll be back, and probably be considered a malodorous loser who just couldn’t hack it. Save the Whales? That is so ’80s. Buddhism? You’ll be meditating between your parents. Yawn.

Yes, it’s tough to be a successful young rebel today, but not impossible. In a world of tolerance, cultural diversity, and non-judgmental relativism, here’s what you do: adopt a faith that both preaches and practices intolerance, that scorns cultural diversity and demands strict adherence to religious laws governing every aspect of daily life, and that embraces harsh judgment, severely punishing every forbidden or shameful act. Just do that, and there is a better-than-even chance that your parents, no matter how open-minded they think they are, will become apoplectic. Your dad will probably say a very bad word. Your mom may clutch the drapes. It may be hard to be a rebel today, but, if you want to stick it to the man, just tell him that you’re going to join up with the Caliph and help impose sharia. Clearly, this is our third duck.

“I want to be a vampire. They’re the coolest monsters.” — Gerard Way, co-founder of the band My Chemical Romance

Not only are the young prone to rebellion, but they want to be cool. Don’t scoff. It is a very big deal in American culture to be considered cool. Millions seek it. Trillions are spent each and every fiscal year trying to achieve it. Older people who dismiss it as unimportant have usually just forgotten.

A large part of the universe of cool consists of dark matter. Think of George Chakiris with his switchblade in West Side Story, or Marlon Brando on his hog in The Wild One, or Al Pacino with his “little friend” in Scarface. Think of heavy metal, gangsta rap, and the Twilight Saga. The dark side of cool is alluring, all right, but never forget that cool is a competitive sport. To stay ahead in the competition, sometimes a guy has to adopt a style that is just a bit darker than the next guy’s, with coarser speech, a more menacing look, and deadlier weapons. The competition can spiral out of control.

Consider: a twenty-something student who moonlights as a pizza guy is flopped on the sofa in his apartment in San Diego with his iPad. He is bored. Surfing aimlessly, he stumbles upon a video of a white Toyota pickup speeding across the desert. There’s a black banner covered with white Arabic script flapping over the bed of the truck. A guy wearing wild black pajamas and a big black turban is standing in the back with one hand braced on the top of the cab and the other clutching an AK-47 that he is brandishing in triumph. His tanned, bearded face is lit with a dazzling, slightly crazed smile. The pizza guy’s eyes squint as he studies the face, then open wide as he draws back slightly. After a pause, he whispers, “Connor?” In the Dark Cool Olympics of 2014, Connor has just scored a gold. Duck four and counting.

“Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) Pope Urban II, declaring the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont, 1095

In “The Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” Jorge Luis Borges tells two tales. The first is about the Lombard barbarian, Droctulft, who, faced with the magnificence of 6th-century Ravenna, switches sides to become a defender of Rome. The second is about a Yorkshire woman who, captured by Indians on the pampas in 19th-century Argentina, spurns rescue and casually demonstrates her rejection of her English heritage by leaping from her horse, drinking the hot blood of a freshly slaughtered sheep, then remounting and galloping off.

The ways in which the human hunger for meaning and purpose can be satisfied can’t be spelled out on a simple, numbered list. Furthermore, loyalties and bonds can be strong or weak, flexible or brittle, but not immutable. As Hoffer said, people who see their lives as “meaningless and worthless” are ripe for conversion. We must find a duckling that tells us just what kind of meaning and purpose jihad offers Connor.

Connor submits to the will of Allah. He learns Arabic and reads the Holy Quran. He prays five times daily, facing Mecca. He fasts. He becomes a member of the global community of the faithful, the Ummah. All true Muslims become his brothers. He moves from the United States to the Islamic State, crossing over from Turkey. He works tirelessly to help reestablish the Caliphate, pulled down by nonbelievers in 1924. He becomes a soldier of Islam, fighting to convert or vanquish all nonbelievers and to spread the word of Allah as revealed by the prophet Mohammed. He fights to defend and expand the IS. He joins in the centuries-long struggle to let the entire world know and enjoy the peace of Islam. His life is filled with personal, cultural, political, military, philosophical, and religious meaning. And if he is martyred in this struggle, he knows he will live forever in paradise.

All of this is pretty heady stuff for a kid from the southern California suburbs who cut his religious and philosophical teeth on Harry Potter. In fact, his first, and unsuccessful, round of imprinting almost certainly happened quite by accident, as he followed the waddling footsteps of Master Yoda.

In his new identity as a salafist mujahid, Connor becomes Abdallah (“slave of Allah”). His new world is pure and clean. Alcohol is forbidden. Drugs are forbidden. Infidelity is forbidden. Immodesty is forbidden. Sexual perversion is forbidden. Pornography is nonexistent. Looking back on his old world, Abdallah realizes that it was corrupt and filthy. The people there lived like pigs (“zay khanzeer”). All the “whatevers” he has ever heard have been trumped by a single shout of “Allahu akbar.” He thanks Allah that he has been shown the way. And that is our fifth and final duck.

“And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid down to rest.”

— “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

For readers whose hearts have been stirred by the call to jihad, as Connor’s was, I have prepared for your consideration a list of five perfectly reasonable alternatives.

  1. Become a Red Cross Volunteer. Take the training to become an Emergency Response Vehicle driver. It’s the best.
  2. Go to Europe, buy a bicycle and some light camping gear, then explore for three months or so. Get a topographical map so you can avoid the really steep bits.
  3. Get a folk guitar, learn the basic chords, then learn to play and sing as many Bob Dylan songs as you can. Start with “Desolation Row.”
  4. Build a tandoor in your back yard. Learn to cook tandoori chicken and naan. You won’t regret it.
  5. Read everything that P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote. Though somewhat dated, it is still hilarious. Bertie Wooster is a hoot.

Maybe these suggestions leave you cold because they don’t address your spiritual needs, or your need to assimilate in the mainstream culture, or your need to rebel, or your need to be cool, or your need to have meaning and purpose in your life, or maybe because they simply sound totally boring.

If that’s how you feel, there is one more alternative. Before it is presented, I have a request. Please read the list above one more time, and this time notice that in all five of the alternatives, no one gets killed, and no one gets tracked by a Predator drone, armed with a Hellfire missile. Surely, these are the kinds of details that one must take into account when charting the course of one’s life journey, don’t you think?

You read the list again? Really? Still not convinced? You’re sure? OK, here goes: Connor? You’re on the wrong side, man! Join the Marines.




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Three Good Books

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I have an apology to make. I have been far behind in letting you know about books I’ve enjoyed, books that I think you will enjoy as well.

To me, one of the most interesting categories of literature is a work by a friend of liberty that is not the normal work by a friend of liberty. The typical libertarian book (A) concerns itself exclusively with public policy, (B) assumes that its readers know nothing about public policy, (C) assumes that its readers are either modern liberals or modern conservatives, who need to be argued out of their ignorance, or modern libertarians, who need to be congratulated on their wisdom. I find these books very dull. I suspect that when you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all. But I have no intention of reading them all.

What I want is a book that has a libertarian perspective and actually tells me something new. One such book is Philosophic Thoughts, by Gary Jason. You know Gary; besides being a professor of philosophy, he is also one of Liberty’s senior editors. The book presents 42 essays, some on logic, some on ethical theory, some on metaphysics, some on applications of philosophy to contemporary issues. Libertarian perspectives are especially important in the discussions of ethical theory, where we have essays on such matters as tort reform, free trade, boycotts of industry, and unionization (issues that Jason follows intently). The attentive reader will, however, notice the spirit of individualism everywhere in the book.

What you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

The essays are always provocative, and Jason knows how to keep them short and incisive, so that the reader isn’t just invited to think but is also given time to do so. Of course, you can skip around. I went for the section about logic first, because, as readers of Liberty know, I understand that topic least. I wasn’t disappointed. There is nothing dry about Jason’s approach to problems that are unfairly regarded as “abstract” or “merely theoretical.” He is always smart and challenging, but he makes sure to be accessible to non-philosophers. In these days of fanatical academic specialization, it’s satisfying to see real intellectual curiosity (42 essays!). And Jason doesn’t just display his curiosity — he is no dilettante. He contributes substantially to the understanding of every topic he considers.

Another book that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t want other people to miss, is a work by Jacques Delacroix, who has contributed frequently to these pages. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover, because the cover of Delacroix’s book bears the title I Used to Be French. Here is the cultural biography — cultural in the broadest sense — of a man who became an American, and an American of the classic kind: ingenuous, daring, engaging, funny, and again, curious about everything in the world. Whether the author began with these characteristics, I don’t know, but he has them now; and what you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

Arthurdale was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty.

It takes literary skill to project a many-sided personality; and the strange thing is that it takes even more skill to project the differences we all feel between American culture (bad or good) and French — or any other European — culture (bad or good). We feel those differences, but when we try to describe them we usually get ourselves lost in generalizations. Delacroix doesn’t. He has a taste for the pungent episode, the memorable anecdote. He also displays two of the best qualities of which a good author, American or French, can ever be possessed: an exact knowledge of formal language and an intimate and loving acquaintance with the colloquial tongue.

Sampling Delacroix’s topics, one finds authoritarianism, Catholicism, Catholic iconography, the Cold War, communism, diving, driving, the end of the Middle Ages, existentialism, food, French borrowings from English, the French navy (being in it), getting arrested, grunion, jazz, Levis, lovemaking, Muslims, the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz, political correctness, the Third World in its many forms. . . . Most (even grunion) are topics that a lesser author would inevitably get himself stuck to, but Delacroix romps through them all. If you want a loftier metaphor, you can say that they (even the grunion) are jewels strung on the book’s central story, as sketched in the summary on the back cover: “A boy grows up in the distant, half-imaginary continent of post-World War II France. Bad behavior and good luck will eventually carry him to California where he will find redemption.” And a lot of fun, for both the reader and himself.

Fun, also, in another way, is a book I’ve been perversely withholding from you for three years. It’s Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning, by C.J. Maloney (also, be it noted, a contributor to Liberty). What does that title mean? Well, Arthurdale, West Virginia, was a settlement begun in 1933 by the United States government under the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty. Her idea — which was shared by a multitude of college professors, pundits, quack economists, and the usual products of “good” Eastern schools — was that there was an “imbalance” between rural and urban America; that the latter was too big and the former too small; and that the government should “resettle” hordes of Americans “back on the land” (where, incidentally, most of them had never lived). Mrs. Roosevelt was especially concerned with converting out-of-work miners into “subsistence” farmers. She and her New Deal accomplices designed a turnkey community for 800 or so lucky recipients of government largesse — land, houses, furnishings, equipment, expert advice. What could go wrong?

The answer, as Maloney shows, is “virtually everything.” The planned community had no plans except bad ones. The farms didn’t support themselves, and the farmers didn’t really want to farm them. Everything cost more — lots more — than it should have. Attempts to supplement small farming by small industry repeatedly failed. When the “colonists” managed to produce a surplus of something, the government wouldn’t let them sell it. The democratic and communitarian ideals hailed by government bureaucrats — who included some of the nastiest specimens of the New Deal, such as Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the smuggest and stupidest creatures who ever attracted national attention — were continuously negated by the power of the Planners themselves.

It’s a good story, amusing though sad; and I wish I could say it was amazing. Unfortunately, it was just one of the predictable results of those dominating impulses of big government: arrogance and wishful thinking. Maloney’s well-researched book places Arthurdale firmly in the context of 20th-century interventionism, with plenty of information about the broader movements it represented and the people involved in them. The book is lively and pointed. Like the other books mentioned here, it is both an education and an entertainment. Like those other books, it is one of a kind, and not to be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy," by Gary Jason. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 416 pages; "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography," by Jacques Delacroix. Santa Cruz CA: By the Author (but you can get it on Amazon), 2014. 420 pages; and "Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning," by C. J. Maloney. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 292 pages.



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Listen Up, Groupmates

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The Giver is a new film based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry (1993) about a community in which choice and individuality have been eliminated in an attempt to eradicate unhappiness. The community is characterized by sameness; houses are all the same, husbands and wives are assigned to each other, and one boy child and one girl child are assigned to each family unit. Occupations are assigned for life by the community elders when children turn 12, thus eliminating the “agony” of deciding for oneself what career or avocation to pursue. Lowry has written over 30 books for young adults and has reaped numerous awards for them. She has a gift for evocative language and for creating characters and settings that draw the reader into her worlds. The Giver addresses important issues about choice and accountability, joy and despair, family and friendship, community and individuality.

To demonstrate the Otherness of herseemingly familiar, yet imaginary community, Lowry creates Orwellian terms such as “newchildren” for babies and “groupmates” for friends. Children are grouped by their birth years as Fours or Eights or Tens. When Elevens become Twelves, they are assigned their occupations at a community celebration also characterized by the “Release to Elsewhere” of the older members of the community. This hint of a glorious retirement is actually a euphemism for euthanasia. As the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is explaining in a voiceover narration what his community is like. “Differences aren’t allowed,” he tells the audience. “No popularity, no fame, no losers.”

The story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem(1938), in which the first-person singular pronoun has been outlawed, names have become numbers, children grow up in dormitories, and occupations are assigned for life. But The Giver immediately contradicts itself, because Jonas is riding bikes and joking happily with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) while other children can also be seen chatting happily in groups of twos or threes. Popularity might be frowned upon in this community, but unlike in Anthem, there doesn’t seem to be any tyrannical enforcement of the rules or atmosphere of oppression.

No history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation.

In the next scene, Jonas and Fiona are visiting Jonas’s father (Alexander Skarsgard) in the birthing center where he has been assigned as a nurturer. They compete jovially as they weigh two newborns to see which one’s baby is larger.Fiona’s weighs an ounce more than Jonas’s. Father says, “Thank goodness they aren’t identical! That makes this much easier,” as he takes the newchild who is an ounce lighter to be “released to elsewhere.” Oops! Loser. Evidently it pays to be stronger and heavier in this society of sameness. Similarly, in the assignment ceremony that follows, the elders assign Jonas and his groupmates (who are 16 in the film, not 12, as in the novel) to their occupations by reference to thetalents and differences they have exhibited, not by random selection to confirm their sameness. Fiona and Asher are delighted with their assignments as nurturer and drone pilot, respectively. Jonas is honored to discover that he will be a Receiver of Memories, the first Receiver to be discovered in many years. This is very different from the assignment ceremony of Anthem’s Equality 7-2521, who longs to be a Scholar but is assigned instead to be a street cleaner. I understand the point the film is trying to make about lack of choice, but these contradictions so early in the film are jarring and reduce the sense of drama or conflict.

The purpose of a Receiver is to retain all the memories of the past, including the emotions that accompanied them. In a way the Receiver is a Christ figure, taking upon himself the pains, but also the joys, of the world. Jonas is assigned to learn his role from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) who will now be the Giver. He transfers his memories to Jonas telepathically, and Jonas experiences the joy, pain, and wonder of activities that happened in a life without sameness. Only the Receiver has this knowledge; no history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation. Citizens are also given daily injections to prevent emotional highs or lows or any kind of passion. (One wonders why the elders would want a Receiver to remember the history that they deem dangerous, and I think it would have made more sense if The Giver had been an outcast hiding in the woods, waiting for someone with “the gift” to help him restore freedom and choice. But that’s where we simply need to suspend our disbelief and go with the story.)

Director Phillip Noyce has strong visual instincts and uses color to good advantage. Much of The Giver is filmed in black and white to indicate the sameness in the community, with splashes of impressionistic color to indicate freedom of thought and full color for the memories the Giver shares with Jonas. A few allusions give the film added gravitas as well; for example, Jonas tells us in the beginning that they are “protected by the border” from what they perceive as the evils of the outside worlda reminiscence of Plato’s Cave. At another point Jonas gives Fiona an apple and tells her that using it in a certain way will allow her to gain knowledge and feel forbidden passion. He places it in her hand with great ceremony, rather like Eve urging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in order to experience the new knowledge and passion that she has discovered.

Through techniques such as these, The Giver tries very hard to be a great film. Its themes about the importance of choice and individuality are themselvesprofoundly important. Jeff Bridges was so impressed by the book that he purchased the movie rights shortly after it was published, expecting to film it with his father (Lloyd Bridges) as the Giver. Rumor has it that he and his family (brother Beau is also an actor) filmed a home movie version of the book in their garage several years ago. Bridges waited 20 years to make the commercial production, and parts of it are quite effective and well done. I enjoyed the novel, and wanted very much to love this film. But like so many works that are philosophically important, The Giver doesn’t translate well to film. Some books just need to remain as books.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Giver," directed by Phillip Noyce. As Is Productions, 2014, 97 minutes.



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Bringing the World under Its Domination?

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A couple of new YouTube videos making the rounds talks about the Islamic strategy to take over the world. They talk about how over the last 1,400 years, Islam has spread its tentacles nearly everywhere, slowly increasing its political influence. Mullahs in these videos prophesy, while beating their chests, that Islam will take over Europe and fly its flag over the White House. Sharia will rule the world. It is assumed that Muslim men are forever ready to die and to claim their 72 virgins, once in heaven.

The horror of ISIS’s actions has been made palpable in its own videos. And it is understandable that non-Muslims should react viscerally to the actions of fanatical Muslims in the Near East and elsewhere. But some perspective is necessary. It is even possible to say that not all the bad news is real.

Recently news about ISIS demanding that all women between 11 and 46 years old undergo genital mutilation became the talk of the blogosphere and was widely reported in the international media. Female genital mutilation is mostly a problem in African countries, so the world would be right to pay attention to any news that shows wider enforcement of a horrible custom in an area already afflicted with religious fanaticism and tribalism. Even those who quite rightly don’t want to get their own military entangled in the internal issues of foreign countries would be justified in criticizing practices that are inhuman.

The result is a growing anti-Muslim mass hysteria and an intellectual climate that the military-industrial complex wants.

Alas, not many people paused to verify whether the news related to genital mutilation was authentic, or to check whether there was someone else apart from a lone UN official to support its validity. How easy or acceptable would it have been if the media had written a similar accusation, about some other group, without confirming the authenticity of the report?

But thirteen years after 9/11 — a period during which talking about Islam has been taken out of the realm of political correctness — one can expect to get away with saying the most outrageous things against Muslims without a need to verify the information, before critically examining it. As with several news items like that regarding genital mutilation, even if the news is eventually proven to be false, in the minds of those who accepted it first without critical examination, it will have left an undefined hatred and repulsion against Muslims.

The result is a growing anti-Muslim mass hysteria and an intellectual climate that the military-industrial complex wants. By compromising our capacity for critical examination, we make ourselves gullible and vulnerable to manipulation, sacrificing the very foundations of Western civilization. At the minimum our judgements of the risks we face and solutions we see are erroneous.

I am no fan of Islam. Neither am I a fan of Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Neither am I a fan of the tribal, narrow-mindedness and high time-preference lifestyle of a large proportion of many of those in the African continent. Neither am I a fan of nationalism, a new-age religion to which a large section of Americans is extremely prone.

* * *


I have nothing against “religions” as long as they attempt to explore the spiritual nature of life. But ritualistic religions based on a system of concrete beliefs are an antithesis of spirituality and discourage thinking.


* * *

As I write this, Muslims are being butchered in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka by the much-esteemed Buddhists, for no reason that a rational mind can understand. But isn’t Islam a more fanatical religion? In the sea of irrationality, it can be hard to know which of these formal religions has been worse. Only a century back the Christian nations were killing tens of millions of their own kind in two “great” wars, and even today African tribes kill hundreds of thousands for no good reason. Chinese killed tens of millions of their own. Cambodians killed 25% of their population. Massive killings and pain were suffered in South America and Russia. A few hundred thousand innocent people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were incinerated by the US. And in suicide bombing those who have shown extraordinary performance are not Muslims but Japanese kamikaze pilots. In recent times the concept was revived by a Hindu organisation, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

What Islam suffers from is generally the reality of life in all poor societies: their irrationality, a cultural existence that has not gone through an age of reason and the age of enlightenment. I have no interest in defending Islam from its problems. It has its own, some very specific to it. But there are some that are taken out of context. So let’s get a perspective on some of those.

In my city in India, businesses complain that Muslims must go to pray twice during working hours. I ask them why they don’t hire Hindus instead. The response I get is that Hindus come drunk in the morning, if they come at all. Alcoholism is a massive problem in most of the poor parts of Eastern Europe and Africa. Drug addiction and alcoholism, albeit not yet officially recognized, are an increasing and major problem among Hindus in India. Ironically, in the popular culture, it is Muslims who have the bad name: for their prohibition against alcohol.

In some Islamic countries, women are not able to attend universities. They are not allowed to have sexual relations when they want, with whom they want, because many Muslim men are obsessed with virginity. Misogyny rules the roost. Men control what women wear. This is the commonly understood narrative in the West. But while men get all the blame, in reality much of the control over women in these societies is conducted by elder women. In the Western media such information is often expressed by using the passive form, perhaps to cater to the needs of those in the Western feminist movement who never want any blame to go expressly to women. Indeed, besides the military-industrial complex, a certain strand of the Western feminist movement takes pride in demonizing Muslims, perhaps because some people caught in that strand want to feel better about themselves. For some women in the West, casual sex, peer pressure that urges them to work even when they don’t want to, the routine of day care for children, and, very importantly, the need of western governments to collect taxes from more bodies have brought more burdens than happiness.

Virginity is indeed valued in poor societies, not just among Muslims. But in some communities in the US as many as 70% or more of babies are born out of wedlock, with the average being 40%. This is a major social problem leading to disintegration of families, which ironically Muslims rightly recognize, calling it “decadence.” In rich societies social welfare programs, albeit in a very corrupt way, take the place of the missing dads. In poor societies, women cannot afford to be single mothers. Parents of such girls are paranoid about their getting pregnant, because bringing up children is very expensive. But can they not use contraception? Contraception is expensive for those earning $1 a day, and still carries the risks of pregnancy and disease. For poor people this risk, however small, is simply not worth the fun — these societies are mostly attuned to survival, not happiness or pleasure, anyway. To put this in perspective: half of births in the US are unintended.

* * *


A deeper reflection on the above might show that examining an alien culture’s social problems without understanding the broader context can be grossly misleading. Should you work for “liberating” women in such societies? Are you more likely to destabilize their societies, making the situation of women worse? Do the problems of women exist in isolation from the problems of men, children, and the elderly? Or do they exist in a balance within their cultural and economic context? Should you shovel democracy and western institutions down their throat? Or would such imposition — if not preceded by an intellectual renaissance — only confuse them, killing their capacity to develop the cultural ingredients to develop such institutions on their own?


* * *

But isn’t what women wear in Islamic countries particularly restrictive?

Not only in Islamic countries but in many Western countries as well, women are expected to show a higher level of modesty. In most of the US, it is permissible for men to go topless but not for women. Depending on their society, people have different senses of shame. Not all forms of distinctive dress for women — or men — are necessarily signs of male domination. One might want to visit Turkey, Malaysia, and even Indonesia, to see whether Islam is necessarily in opposition to modern life.

We grow up with idiosyncrasies of our own culture and don’t see them as such. In India and China, both of which are considered to be on the front line in dealing with Islamic fanaticism, a very large proportion of women are missing: babies relegated to the dustbin, put under the leg of the bed soon after birth, buried alive, not looked after when sick, or aborted because they were female. Why isolate Muslims as particularly bad?

But what about chest thumping mullahs who want to bring the West under sharia law? Such people have existed in all religions and in all regions. Moreover, new immigrants to the West, particularly the so-called educated — from Mexico, Africa, China, India, and elsewhere, including Muslims — have a tendency to vote for collectivist public policies, ironically directing the politics of their new home toward what made their original country wretched. A majority of Western women, who mostly got the right to vote in the last century, have voted for collectivist policies, increased social welfare, police, and state control. The result is that the US has increasingly turned into a militarized police state. They achieved this without much “help” from Islam.

When you hear about mass killings, the reality is usually not that the society is murderous, but that it is just too sheepish and emotionally broken.

One does see armed gangs and in some cases real armies beheading people on TV in Iraq and elsewhere in that region. Such gangs succeed not because individuals and communities, despite the other sins and irrationalities that blossom in a tyrannical society, directly approve of such criminality. They happen because most of the society is so completely broken, superstitious, irrational, and sheepish that it does not resist or fight back. Yes, when you hear about mass killings, the reality is usually not that the society is murderous, but that it is just too sheepish and emotionally broken. The average Muslim, however irrational he might be, still cares for his family and has no interest in killing others.

The Middle East is dotted with American bases, where America has historically tried to influence the region’s culture and politics. What would Americans think if there were a Muslim army stationed outside New York? One might even ask if it is not the sign of sheepishness that some people in the Middle East don’t hate America.

Almost certainly such wretched societies seriously lack the organizational power to take over the world, if they can even conceptualize that. Were this not the case, Israel — a country of a mere 7 million people — would never have come into existence. Many people in the Islamic world have no clue about the US, apart from drones and occupying forces. But the same people have problems identifying major cities in their own neighbourhood. Mostly they don’t know what their neighboring countries are. They just don’t have the intellectual ingredients to imagine expanding Islam to take over the world.

Islamic societies’ biggest problem is not fanaticism but irrationality and superstitions. That is the reason they are poor. Thousands are killed in fights between Shia and Sunni. Some are killed because they refuse to change their religion. But torture, pain, wretchedness, and systemic corruption are a part of day-to-day, moment-to-moment life in most of the world outside the West. Most of these people are born in virtual slavery, wallowing in disease and tyranny. Might-is-right is the operating principle in most of the world, from Islamic countries to China, to Africa, to India. Millions of people in these regions die needlessly every year, their deaths unreported in the media. Why blame only Islam?

More than Islam, what the West should worry about is the increasing irrationalities in the West itself, loss of critical examination in the intellectual space, and an increasing influence of cultural Marxist values — values that are the antithesis of what made the West great but are today posing as what underpins Western civilization.




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