Ayn Rand — Scariest Woman in the Universe

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What in the world is causing the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes level of hysteria being directed at Ayn Rand? How has onewoman, gone from this earth for decades, managed to inspire such loathing and dread? Far from being insulted, I think she’d be proud of herself if she could witness the panic being spread in her name. Not only proud, but if she could keep her temper,perhaps even encouraged.

The author’s name has become a sort of shorthand, in “progressive” parlance, for “great big meanie.” She believed that we own ourselves, that we deserve the fruits of our labor, and that we have a right to pursue happiness. She — gasp! — even extolled the virtue of selfishness, in one of the many books most of her detractors have never read, though what I believe is salient in her philosophy is the idea that we have a greater right to run our lives than others do to run them for us. Precisely why that’s meaner or more selfish than the notion that we have no right to do this, I can’t say.

It’s precisely because they’re still reachable by rational argument that so many people are barricading themselves behind walls. It’s why they create “safe zones” in schools. It’s why they listen only to certain media, and not others. What seems like a hopeless situation is, when viewed with clear eyes, actually quite hopeful.

Most of those who abuse Ayn Rand are too ignorant to know whether what’s being said about her is true or false, too lazy to find out, and too irresponsible to care.

People don’t need to protect themselves from other points of view if they’re sure of their own. Those who come unglued when presented with competing ideas are afraid that they might possibly be proved wrong. The good news about human beings is that once we’ve become aware of an alternative that makes more sense, no matter how determined we might have been to guard against it, our minds are stretched. And a mind that has been stretched can never return to its former, constricted position, no matter how hard its owner tries to squeeze it shut again.

Ayn Rand is the ultimate political punching-bag. She’s dead, so she can’t defend herself. Most of those who abuse her, or who regard the slanders against her as credible, are too ignorant to know whether what’s being said about her is true or false, too lazy to find out, and too irresponsible to care. I disagree with some of what she wrote, but then again, I have troubled myself to become familiar with it. I would find it impossible to intelligently criticize what I hadn’t bothered to understand.

I won’t expand here on what I like about Rand’s ideas and what I don’t. My purpose is not so much to delve into her thought as to comment on thinking itself. Most particularly, on thinking about the politics of liberty — or what passes for thought on the subject. Americans don’t appear, to me, to think too deeply anymore. I’m not sure that the rest of the world does, either, but as I happen to be an American, that is my primary concern.

I still have hope that the citizens of these United States will begin to do some serious thinking again. And my reason is that those who refuse to think must still clap their hands over their ears and shout, “la la la” every time they hear an idea that causes them discomfort. It’s when most people have stopped finding that necessary, and have become such braindead droids that they no longer need to put up a defense against sound thinking, that lovers of liberty will need to be very, very afraid.




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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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The Apple of Knowledge and the Golden Rule

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Russell Hasan is an author who has contributed a good deal to Liberty. Now he makes a contribution to liberty itself, in the form of two extensive monographs: The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning, and Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy. Both works are available online, at the addresses that follow at the end of this review. And both are very interesting.

I’ll start with The Apple of Knowledge, which itself starts with an account of the author’s quest for wisdom. He did not find it in the lessons of professional (i.e., academic) philosophers, who venerated the counterintuitive claims of earlier professional philosophers, often echoing their conviction that objective truth could not be found. The author turned to the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, but found that “it was truly a political philosophy, and not a rigorously reasoned system of metaphysics and epistemology. Rand’s ideas seemed clever and useful, but they contained contradictions and holes and gaps.”

So, as an intellectual entrepreneur, Hasan decided to see whether he could solve crucial philosophical problems himself. That’s the spirit of liberty.

He states his agenda in this way:

The six problems that this book will solve are: 1. Induction, 2. Consciousness, 3. Knowledge, 4. The Scientific Method, 5. Objectivity, and 6. Things in Themselves.

Hasan believes that these problems can be solved by his versions of “(1) the philosophical scientific method, and (2) pure empirical essential reasoning.”

What does this mean in practice? It means a rejection of dualism and radical skepticism, a reasoned acceptance of the world as empirically discovered by the healthy consciousness. An example:

When you look at this book and say “I am looking at this book, I am reading this book, I am aware of the experience of this book,” and you wonder about what it means to be conscious and to have an experience and to see this book, the only things in the picture are two physical objects, (1) this book, which physically exists and is the thing that you are experiencing and are conscious of, and (2) your brain, which is the consciousness that experiences and is aware of the book by means of the perceptions and concepts in your brain. Similarly, when you see a red apple, the red apple itself is the red that you see, and your brain is the subject which perceives that object and is aware of that object. Nowhere in this picture is there a need to deny that consciousness exists. We need not deny that you really see a red color. We need not deny that you are aware of an apple. And there is also no need to believe in ghosts or non-physical souls as an explanation for your being aware of an apple and seeing its red color.

As this example suggests, Hasan has an admirably clear style throughout. His clarity may also suggest, erroneously, that the problems he addresses are easy to solve, or that he deems them easy to solve. They aren’t, and he doesn’t. For every statement he makes there are time-honored quibbles, evasions, and yes, real challenges. The enjoyment of reading through this fairly long book comes from following Hasan’s own path among the challenges, assessing his arguments, and finding out how many of those arguments one wants to buy.

To this process, a statement of my own ideas can add no particular enjoyment. For what it’s worth — and it isn’t directly relevant to Hasan’s essential concerns — his grasp of Christian and biblical theology could be much stronger. Here’s where the dualism that he rejects asserts itself despite his efforts; he tends to see Christian ideas (as if there were just one set of them) as dualistically opposite to his own: Christians are against the world, the flesh, and the devil, while he is heartily in favor of the first two, at least. But it’s not as simple as that. “World” and “flesh” can mean a lot of things, as a concordance search through St. Paul’s epistles will illustrate. You don’t need to believe in God to recognize the complexity of Christian thought. (And, to digress a bit further, “666” didn’t come “from ancient confusion between the Latin word ‘sextus’ which means six and the Latin word ‘sexus’ which means sex.” No, it originated in the biblical book of Revelation [13:18], and it’s a code term, probably for “Nero.”)

It makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone.

About the philosophical problems that Hasan treats I can say that he usually appears to make good sense — very good sense. His education in the objectivist tradition is evident; his respect for the real world — which is, after all, the world that all philosophy is trying to explain — is still more evident. Both are valuable, and essential to his project. Indeed, Apple of Knowledge can be viewed as a particularly interesting and valuable addition to the objectivist tradition of philosophy that begins with Ayn Rand.

Golden Rule Libertarianism is an exposition and defense of a variety of radical libertarian ideas — about victimless crimes, war and peace, government intervention in the economy, and so on. Few libertarians will be surprised by the results of Hasan’s inquiries in these areas — but what does “Golden Rule Libertarianism” mean?

This represents what I take to be a new approach, though one that is nascent in the libertarian concept of the great “negative right,” the right to be left alone. From this point of view, it makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone. The Golden Rule, most famously enunciated by Jesus but, as Hasan points out, hardly foreign to other religious and ethical teachers, yields a more “positive” approach. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Yet nobody wants his neighbor to do certain things — to prohibit him from speaking or publishing his views or sleeping with whomever he wants, even on the pretense of helping him. In this sense, the Golden Rule turns out to be just as “negative” as libertarians could wish. As Hasan says in one exemplification of his theory:

if you let me be free to make economic decisions, including what wage to pay and at what price to buy services from other people, then I will give you the same freedom to make your own choices instead of me making your choices for you.

There is a pragmatic dimension to this. In case you are wondering whether letting everyone be free to make his or her own decisions would leave the poor in the lurch, or, to vary the metaphor, in the clutches of an exploitative capitalism that the poor are not capable of turning to their own advantage, Hasan adds:

The best thing you can do for me is to get the government out of my way and let me be free, because capitalism helps the poor more than socialism.

Libertarians understand this, and Hasan provides plenty of reasons for everyone else to understand it too. His book will be valuable to nonlibertarians, because there is something in it for every interest or problem they may have. As he says, in another exemplary passage:

The liberal concern for civil liberties, e.g. my freedom to write atheist books, and the conservative concern for freedom from regulation, e.g. my freedom to buy and sell what I want on my terms, is really two sides of the same libertarian coin, because if the government claims the right to be the boss of your beliefs then it will soon usurp the power to be the boss of your place in the economy and take total control over you, and if the government is the boss of the economy then it will inevitably take over the realm of ideas in order to suppress dissent and stifle criticism of the economic planners.

I believe that Hasan is right to pay particular attention to what he calls “the coercion argument,” which is one of the strongest ripostes to libertarian thought. It is an attempt to argue against libertarian ideas on libertarian grounds. The notion is that if I leave you alone I permit someone else to coerce you. As Hasan says,

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

Hasan’s insight into the legal history and ramifications of the coercion argument is enlightening:

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism.

This is a powerful myth, but Hasan has little trouble refuting it. Others are yet more formidable; I would be surprised, however, if even a hostile reader could emerge from a serious consideration of Hasan’s arguments without admitting serious damage to his or her own assumptions.

For libertarian readers, the fun is in seeing what Hasan will do with various popular topics of libertarian discourse — natural rights versus utilitarianism, racial discrimination, gay marriage, an interventionist versus a non-interventionist foreign policy, privatization of education and banking, disparity of wealth, etc. Even well-informed libertarians will be surprised, and probably grateful, for many of the arguments that Hasan adduces.

Hasan is one of the few questioning occupational licensing, which exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services.

I was such a reader — and for me, the book gained in stature because I did not always agree with it. For me, libertarianism is more a matter of experience and less a matter of moral logic than it is for Hasan; but even within the large area of our philosophical, or at least temperamental, disagreement, I found myself admiring his intrepid and intricate, yet nevertheless clear and cogent progression of thought. I suspect that anyone who shares my feeling for the great chess match of political economy will share my feeling about this book.

Not all of Hasan’s many topics can possibly be of intense interest to everyone, but that’s just another way of saying that the book is rich in topics. My heart rejoiced to see a chapter on the evils of occupational licensing — a practice that virtually no one questions but that exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services of licensed individuals. And I was very pleased to see Hasan take on many of the most sacred cows of my fellow academics.

One is game theory. Readers who are familiar with game theory and with the part of it that involves the so-called prisoner’s dilemma know that for more than two decades these things have been the favorite pastime, or waste of time, among thousands of social scientists. (If you ask, How can there by thousands of social scientists? or, Why don’t they find something better to do?, see above, under “occupational licensing.”) The tendency of game theory is to deal with people as objects of power, not subjects of their own agency. Its effect has often been to emphasize the statist implications of human action. Hasan cuts through the haze:

The specific refutation of Game Theory and the “prisoner’s dilemma” is that the solution is not for the group to impose a group-beneficial choice onto each individual, it is for each individual to freely choose the right choice that benefits the group. If the benefits of the supposedly right, good-for-the-group decision are really so great, then each individual can be persuaded to freely choose the right, optimal, efficient choice.

My advice is to get the book, which like the other book is available at a scandalously low price, read the introductory discussion, then proceed to whatever topics interest you most. You may not agree with the arguments you find, but you will certainly be stimulated by the reading.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning," and "Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy," by Russell Hasan. 2014.



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The War of Words

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I am writing this during a long road trip. You know what happens when you’ve driven a few thousand miles and you’ve been through all your CDs and you’re off in the middle of farm country where there’s nothing between you and the stratosphere except NPR (which is everywhere), the daily hog reports, and Sean Hannity. So you listen to Sean Hannity. At least I do. Despite the fact that I dislike him intensely.

Well, not him. His shows. This side of the White House, there’s no purer example of partisan talking points. Every week Hannity has one thing to say, and he says it all week. During the week of September 16, his talking point was how terrible it was that President Obama gave a speech that day in which he made “noble” statements about the shootings at the Navy yard in Washington, then proceeded to give his scheduled speech about the economy in which he dissed Republicans and the former Republican administration. On Sept. 17, Hannity said, “I can’t think of anything more despicable” than Obama’s going on with that scheduled speech. Hannity said that for the rest of the week, in every context and on all occasions.

If you’re looking for overkill, look no further. Indeed, if you’re looking for irrationality, look no further. Obama’s remarks about the economy and about Republicans were nonsense; they always are. They were also obnoxious. But they were not obnoxious because a madman happened to conduct a shooting spree on the same day.

If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

What offended me was the fact that the president canceled a performance of Latin music that was supposed to be staged at the White House that evening. Why should he do that? People in Amarillo didn’t cancel music events that night. So what if the shooting took place in Washington, within miles, in the constantly reiterated media phrase, of the White House? Is life, such as it is in Washington, supposed to come to a stop because of a minor event (yes, I said minor event) like that? Was the Latin music troupe supposed to spend the night meditating about violence in our society? Or initiating a national conversation about our treatment of the mentally impaired? Were the rest of us supposed to do that? If Obama had any kind of leadership, he would have issued a brief statement and continued as usual, despising the criticism of people like Hannity, who was blue with anger for no reason at all.

Since I’ve said this much, I may as well say more. None of the shootings about which the country has paused, prayed, lowered the flag to half-staff, engaged in a national conversation, mourned the victims of tragedy, kept the families in our hearts and prayers, etc., etc., has been anything but a festival of hypocrisy. If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

Many of the deep mourners over the shooting victims are simply gun-control fanatics, happy enough to discover victims (of guns, not the lack of guns, which is a somewhat greater problem). Many of the others are chasers of thrills, ecstatically snuffing the air of crisis. Many of the rest are slaves of the eye, not followers of the brain: they mourn the deaths of anyone killed on national TV, but when they find out that someone they actually know has died from a car accident (or cancer, or a heart attack, or suicide), their reaction is to move on with their lives, in the same way they were five minutes before. Their reaction to violent news on television is sensationalism: the quest for sensations. But sensations aren’t moral feelings.

I am happy that in September the American populace staged a revolt against sensationalism, when they rejected the president’s plan to punish Syria for its government’s alleged gassing of some of its people. The point was clear: there are people who feel real concern about human life, and then there are people who merely think they do, or act as if they did, because they are interested in the latest media sensation; and that the latter group should not be allowed to set policy for the former.

Multitudes of people have died, in Africa and other places, because environmentalists succeeded in restricting the use of DDT, thus allowing insect-borne diseases to thrive, with devastating effects. Christians, gay people, and members of other minority groups are martyred daily in both “friendly” and “unfriendly” Islamic countries. Uncounted thousands of people have died in Syria, butchered by the government and its foes. Fifteen hundred of those people are thought to have died of a gas attack. Why is the conscience of the world aroused by the latest event and not by the earlier ones?

And what is the response of those whose consciences are so highly exercised? The response is that we should bomb the Syrians — not to remove the government, not even to cripple the government, but just to show ’em. Or, if you’re John McCain, the response is that we should send guns and ammo to antigovernment fighters (curiously, they’re never soldiers; I guess that would make them look bad, somehow), many of whom stand ready to become the jihadist foes of the United States. Do you think that more than 1500 lives might be lost in that way?

But now comes the Obama administration, with a hypocrisy even greater than that of the strict interventionists. And here I need no help from Hannity in discerning the debased quality of our leaders’ rhetoric.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." It was typical of Obama, that weird combination of faux folksiness (“a whole bunch”) and faux acadamese (“calculus,” “equation”).

The weirdness continued on Sept. 4 of this year. You remember the president’s remarks on that day. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” he said, with the high-school-principal petulance that expresses his dislike of criticism. “The world set a red line.” He continued, with equal testiness: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also mentioned America’s credibility, and that of Congress. There he went beyond hypocrisy. He told a set of flat-out lies.

Isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies?

Of course, the weirdest thing about the Syria affair was John Kerry, the dove turned screaming eagle. First Kerry ranted like a maniac about the gas attacks, which he insisted, because of evidence he would not reveal, were both real and the responsibility of the Syrian government, not that of its equally nasty opponents. About this, he said, in the bullying voice with which the global warming nuts announce their findings, there were “no dissenters.” (Whenever someone says that, you know they’re trying to fool you.) According to him, all good people must unite in hitting Syria so hard that it would never dream of gas again. Then, after he was criticized for being a warmonger, which he visibly was, he insisted that the airstrikes he advocated would be (dramatic drum roll) “unbelievably small.”

Tell me: can someone with such wild mood swings be believed about anything?

It’s curiously appropriate, isn’t it, that Kerry should come to roost on the word “unbelievably.” And isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies? Can it be, can it be, that they have never actually read a book?

Consider President Obama’s comments about Syria on Sept. 6:

"When there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future."

Can you think of a good author who has ever tried to foist an image as bad as an unraveling norm? Jane Austen would slit her wrists before doing something like that. Jane Austen, hell; Harry Truman would slit his wrists. Not only did Obama evoke that unvisualizable image: he insisted on it; he used it three times in a row. It’s the kind of image that only the most childish of bureaucrats would use. You can picture them, hunched over the computers, proudly crafting their next public utterance. So, they’re thinking, there’s this really cool word, that word we hear all the time on NPR . . . norm, normed, normative, norming . . . And there’s this other hip, cool word, which is unravel. Like, uh, our initiative unraveled, our funding unraveled . . . . So yeah! It would be really really cool if we put them together and said, like, our norm, our norm unraveled.

James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent who probably dislikes Obama as much as Obama dislikes him, which is plenty, opined on August 31 that “this president, so attuned to literature,” would put a lot of effort into preparing his next speech on Syria. Obama would be all worked up about the judgment of history and so forth. But what’s the evidence that Obama is thus “attuned”? Name one author whom Obama reads and quotes. You can’t — and that’s enough to make my case. No one ever charged Obama with fleeing the responsibilities of office in order to curl up with a book. He is charged, instead, with fleeing his responsibilities to play golf or watch basketball on TV.

Obama is not only unattuned to literature; he’s unattuned to grammar. Try this passage, selected virtually at random from his recent (Sept. 6) verbal interventions:

"For the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion." Obama is a great orator. He just can’t make his subjects match his verbs.

 And Kerry is worse, much worse. As if to emphasize his total lack of literary education or sensitivity, Kerry (or one of his assistants, deputed to the hard task of fishing through the internet for jazzy quotes) discovered a cliché that has been kicking around for about 250 years. It started as one of Samuel Johnson’s witty remarks. According to Boswell’s Johnson, it went like this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." 

That’s still quotable, I suppose. But when something, even a cliché, gets into Kerry’s maw, it ends up horribly mangled. “A lot of people,” he intoned on Sept. 10, à propos his threats to Syria, “say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

I would like to find some cunning here. I would like to think that Kerry didn’t credit Dr. Johnson because he didn’t want to ruffle the rubes by implying that he could actually quote an actual author, and had therefore, at some desperate hour, managed to read a book. I would like to think he wondered about the possibility that someone would think, “Strange — I never heard anyone say that ‘nothing focuses the mind,’ etc.,” but concluded that the possibility was remote: no one would check his memory on that point. And I would like to think he substituted “focuses” for “concentrates” because he knew that “concentrates” would take the rubes as much as two seconds to figure out. But there’s no evidence that Kerry himself is anything but a rube. And that goes for the rest of our statesmen, too.

the judgment of historyJohnson




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The Indie Revolution

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I would like to give Liberty’s readers an update about technological progress regarding a device that some thought would never change: the book.

A number of years ago Amazon.com, the huge online bookstore, developed an invention, the Kindle, which was a mini-computer (what would now be called a “tablet”) for reading books. Once the technology was perfected, the Kindle represented a paradigm shift in the book publishing industry. Previously the price of a book had been deeply connected with the cost of printing it. The bigger the print run, the more the publisher could achieve an economy of scale and lower the per-book marginal unit production costs. This meant that in order to be cost-effective a print run had to be large. And because of this a small group of highly successful publishers came to dominate the book publishing industry.

This group, sometimes called the “Big Six,” was, for aspiring authors, “both the gatekeeper and the gate.” If you found a literary agent who had connections to editors then you could get your foot in the door and get published and get into bookstores. If not, you were shut out. Self-publishing developed a horrible stigma, but this is simply because it was not cost-effective and there was no economic impetus to change popular perceptions.

Enter Kindle. The Kindle works by downloading electronic files from Amazon.com, which can then be read on the device itself — no printing costs. This made Kindle ebooks much cheaper than print books. Amazon.com began by instituting a practice of dramatically slashing the retail price of its ebooks, such that most of them cost $0.99 to $3, whereas comparable print books cost $10 to $14.

The Big Six rebelled. They used their pressure to switch ebooks to the “agency” pricing model. Under the traditional pricing model the publisher sets the list price, which is basically the wholesale price that the publisher receives, while the retailer sets the retail price, which is the price that consumers actually pay. Under the agency model, the publisher, not the retailer, sets the retail price. The agency model enabled the Big Six to force Amazon to sell ebooks at prices roughly comparable to paper books. The Department of Justice and FTC recently launched an antitrust lawsuit arguing that the Big Six were trying to prevent Amazon.com from competing on price. Several Big Six publishers have agreed to settle the antitrust litigation, although a few of the Big Six continue to fight in court. The antitrust litigation is interesting and complicated, and it also involved Apple, which used its iBooks store to help the Big Six exert pressure upon Amazon. It is still unclear how ebook pricing will look in the future.

Self-publishing once carried a horrible stigma, but this is simply because it was not cost-effective and there was no economic impetus to change popular perceptions.

Kindle instituted another major change. Now, with no production manufacturing costs, you can self-publish on a zero-dollar budget. In 2010 a young woman named Amanda Hocking wrote a “paranormal romance” novel (half fantasy, half romance) and self-published it on Kindle, using Amazon’s newly developed self-publishing program, “Kindle Direct Publishing” (KDP). She was working as a waitress at the time, and put her novel up on Kindle after many rejections from agents and publishers. She didn’t spend any money to promote her book, which she titled “Switched.” She just sent review copies to a handful of book blogs. Initially she sold several thousand copies, and she considered this a success.

Then in late 2010 and early 2011, her sales rose to several hundred thousand copies. From 2011 to 2012, estimates are that she sold over one million copies of her novels. Her books, priced from 99 cents to about $3, have made her a self-published millionaire. I have read what Hocking wrote about her success, and I don’t think even she knows how she sold so many copies, other than by writing a high-quality novel in what was then a wide-open market. These days the many thousands of novelists (me included) who have been rejected by the gatekeeper Big Six and their literary agents have been lured by the Amanda Hocking dream into self-publishing. We don’t even call it self-publishing anymore; we call it indie publishing, “indie” meaning “independent.”

When I decided to self-publish my own novel, Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus (which can be found on Amazon), the selling points of going “indie” were simple. You make a royalty rate per sale of about 65%, in contrast to the Big Six’s typical 25% or less (not including the literary agent’s cut), you get published immediately instead of waiting three years for your book to come out (6–12 months to get an agent, 6–12 months for the agent to land a book deal, and one year of pre-release publicity), and you have a very tiny possibility of success either way. You typically have to do your own book promotion, even if you can get a Big Six book deal, because the Big Six care mainly about their established bestsellers, not their unproven debut authors. Within the last two years I estimate that at least 10,000 books have been indie published, and the number grows every day.

The Big Six are very much afraid of losing the “browse” effect. Most book sales used to happen, so it was said, from consumers browsing through shelves in a bookstore. Browsing’s ebook replacement is the book blogging community: there are now over 2,000 book blogs, where bloggers write a constant stream of reviews. The Big Six have some advantage in promoting their ebooks, but the book bloggers don’t favor them as heavily as the browse effect did.

Most successful indie authors write romance novels. The frequency with which e-readers like Kindle are used for this genre has prompted some to speculate that women feel less embarrassed reading soft-core erotica on Kindle than reading a print book with half-naked men on the cover. But indie fantasy and science fiction (which is what I write) are also growing. Hocking herself has said she thinks book publishing is moving toward a model in which most debut authors go indie, then successful ones attract the attention of the Big Six and sign major book deals, leaving the many unsuccessful authors to fade away. Hocking herself signed a major book deal, although she still uses an indie format for some of her books.

A postscript: enjoy your local bookstore while it still exists. After Borders went bankrupt, Barnes & Noble emerged as the only major chain bookstore left. B&N has come out with an e-reader, the Nook (which is very nice, but doesn’t sell as well as Kindle). It has a self-publishing program called PubIt, although it doesn’t yet care about PubIt as much as Amazon cares about KDP. Barnes & Noble’s fate is deeply connected to the Big Six, and to the public’s continuing to go to “brick and mortar” retail stores to buy books made out of paper. B&N is caught in a tight spot between clinging to the paper book business model and getting 100% behind Nook and the e-reader business model. I go to my local Barnes & Noble a lot, mainly to drink coffee and look at magazines, and the place still looks as if it does a lot of business in-store. But Barnes & Noble is in danger, and knows it: it has hedged its bets by promoting the Nook heavily within its stores.

Your local library won’t be around forever, either. The Google Books Project has tried to scan every book in ten libraries, so as to create a huge digital and searchable public library. Google ran into legal trouble about the copyrights of old books and is stalled by ongoing litigation, but it is only a matter of time before paper libraries are replaced by more efficient online digital ebook file repositories.

As for book publishing, it isn’t clear what the future will look like. But I think the indie movement and ebooks are not going away. The summer of 2012 might be looked upon as the birth of the indie movement. History has shown that technology and economics are two hugely powerful forces behind social change. So don’t be surprised if a dramatic shift happens within the next five to fifteen years, not unlike the “dotcom” shift of the 1990s, when the internet took off: the Big Six and paper bookstores will collapse, and the book universe will consist of hundreds of thousands of indie titles, all available for 99 cents with the push of a button.




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Update on Laissez-Faire Books

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The January-February 2008 issue of Liberty ran my account of Laissez Faire Books, entitled “Laissez Faire: RIP?” When I began working on the story the previous October, the longtime mail-order service appeared to be in the coffin; but by the time I had it in to Editor Stephen Cox, the business had been rescued by the International Society for Individual Liberty.

Last October, the Society closed the sale of LFB to a financial newsletter company, Agora Financial LLC, which moved LFB’s inventory from Arizona to its offices in Baltimore.

Agora’s owner, Bill Bonner, runs a longtime business serving hard-money clients. He has been blogging at dailyreckoning.com since 1999 with his colleague Addison Wiggin, and, with Wiggin, is co-author of the books Financial Reckoning Day, Financial Reckoning Day Fallout, and Empire of Debt. His most recent book is Mobs, Markets and Messiahs, co-authored with Lil Rajiva. Bonner has written extensively for LewRockwell.com.

I recently spoke with Bonner’s manager for LFB, Doug Hill. He said that Bonner is most interested in economics-oriented books “with a takeaway for investors,” but that the company will make an effort “to carry a lot of the titles that are expected of a libertarian bookstore.”

He said they know they have to compete with Amazon, and they hope to sell some books at prices lower than Amazon’s. Agora’s specialty is direct mail, he said, and “this is the first bookstore we’ve run.”

He said he expects to put together a libertarian board to advise on the selection of books, and to run book reviews. He said LFB will test the use of a printed catalog.




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