The Unbearable Burden of Meaning

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“Life imitates art,” said Oscar Wilde. He was right about many things; maybe he was right about that, too.

On April 16, a sad confirmation came from Rolling Stone, that repository of everything that is dumb and faux and anti-art — and thus, if Wilde was correct, anti-life. In its article about the burning of Notre Dame de Paris, Rolling Stone said this:

For some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

Exemplifies, eh? I’ll tell you what’s being exemplified. This passage exemplifies the weird combination of ignorance and arrogance that gives current journalism its distinctive smell.

The Eiffel Tower is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago.

Just who are “some people”? Are there 30 of them, or is there one? By whom, exactly, and how many of whom, have the cathedral and the old city “been viewed” as such and such? Pray tell us, Rolling Stone; we presume you know. Maybe you can also tell us what “if nothing else” is doing in the third sentence, and why the second two sentences — when you actually read, rather than merely whiff them — aren’t tracking with the first sentence, which they’re meant to support.

The words about “exemplification,” of course, are just one more example of the wacko, your-engine-block-is-no-longer-attached commentary we expect from any of the outlets that make it to the first five on Google’s top stories list. Tour Eiffel is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago, when Alec Guinness made The Lavender Hill Mob. Effing Hitler was proud to pose in front of it. Modernity? The joy of life? Change? Change from what to what?

So that’s all meaningless. The Wilde moment comes in the first part, where we hear those lovingly quoted chicken cacklings about “liberation” from “meaning” itself. It’s an echo — certainly unconscious, or comatose, like everything else in the passage — from the world’s most popular book about architecture, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), in which Ellsworth Toohey, an expert on architecture, attempts to destroy all meaning in the world, so that he can enjoy liberation. To many readers, this idea has seemed too absurd to put in a novel, but now we find that it’s not. Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality. We’ve always heard of people killing themselves because “there’s no meaning left in the world.” Now we find that to other people, the thought is liberating.

Well, as Alexander Pope said, “Peace to all such!” They felt overburdened. Now they feel free. But I’m not that way. I’d rather live in a world that’s full of more meanings than I can ever live to enjoy. And this, I believe, is the world we live in. I thank God that when I contemplate a Sumerian statue, a poem of Yeats, a panel from an Egyptian tomb, a chorus from Sophocles, any line from King Lear, I sense more meaning than I can fully appreciate. I need to stipulate, however, that I do not feel that way about Rolling Stone.

Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality.

Few current authors or commentators are overtly following the program of Ellsworth Toohey, intent on freeing the world from meaning, although I can think of damned few who follow the program of those despised nonmoderns, the authors and public figures of the 18th and 19th centuries who set the standards of intelligent utterance. They labored to fill every sentence with as much meaning as a sentence could take. Read The Federalist. Read Hume. Read Tennyson. Read a hundred more of them. Read, even, the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, to cite a politician whose ideas do not happen to conform to mine — at all. But do not, whatever you do, read the utterances of today’s savants and politicians.

Consider the oracles momently delivered by the intellectuals’ candidate for president, Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. By what process of logic he persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess. I suppose it involved a stream of images without any meanings attached, because that’s what we find in his public sayings. Buttigieg is in favor of a scheme — some scheme or other — to mandate national service (i.e., enslavement, as Lori Heine points out) for all young men and women. Here are the mighty arguments by which he justifies his proposal:

We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era. One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.

Never mind the bad grammar and syntax. Let’s see what we can do with the meanings, alleged or real. Start with “we.” “We,” in this place, is a cunning way of saying “I,” which is sort of different. Then we have “social cohesion.” Who knows what this “cohesion” might mean, or why it is so particularly desirable, or why “this era” has so damaged it, or why national service would “change that.” The underlying image is probably that of millions of young men and women caught up in a harmonic convergence induced by two years of compulsory calisthenics, but maybe I’m putting too much content into the mayor’s words. I have a very clear idea about what enforcing “a social norm” might mean, and it seems strange to me that Buttigieg, as a gay person, would think that idea is swell. So maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he didn’t have any meaning in mind.

By what process of logic Buttigieg persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess.

If you take Buttigieg’s inspiration seriously enough to ask why, if it’s such a great idea, nobody else is pushing for it, he provides a still less meaningful parade of words:

It’s one of these ideas that everybody kind of likes, but it was always important and never urgent. How would that ever kind of hold on [sic] its own in a policy debate where we deal with kids in cages and we have to deal with climate change and there are all these pressing, burning issues?

To this, one is virtually invited to respond, “Gosh. I don’t know. How would it?”

There is no meaning to be found here — no meaning of any kind, to be discovered in any way. “We,” who are debating “issues,” do not include me, or, I’ll bet, you. “We” — here intended, I think, to mean “ordinary people” — do not “have to deal” with “kids in cages,” or “climate change.” Those are non-issues, invented issues; they are life imitating the art of the press release. The other “pressing, burning issues” are created by Buttigieg with the same wave of the hand by which teenagers summon meaningless concepts: “Like, all these subjects I gotta take, I got, like, issues with them.” What are they? Again, who knows? Meanwhile, “pressing, burning” is the lowest form of cliché. What does it mean for an issue to press and burn you?

This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement.

But let’s look at universal service, which is “one of those ideas that everybody kind of likes.” No, it’s not. I was born a few miles from South Bend. I have spent lots of my adult life in South Bend. Neither there nor in any other place have I met anyone who said that he or she was in favor of national service. In the words of the great gospel song, “No, not one; no, not one!” Buttigieg is — literally, in the literal meaning of the word literally — a nobody talking about nothing.

Of course, expulsion of meaning need not occur on the exalted intellectual level where Buttigieg attempts to situate himself. Here’s a headline from the Washington Post (May 11):

Trump’s interest stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev

Pardon me? Did you say something? What is that supposed to mean? This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement. It’s just possible that being a stuffed shirt doesn’t automatically give meaning to your words.

Smugness creates no meanings, and neither does smarminess. There’s a guy who features in ads for Trivago, a company specializing in cheap hotel reservations. The guy was arrested for drunk driving. So what? What’s the deep meaning in that? Nothing; there isn’t any. But the company felt a compulsion to provide one, right away, and in the process . . . Well, take a look.

At this stage, we do not have the full details of the situation, but we want to make clear that Trivago treats such incidents very seriously and strongly condemns drinking and driving, which poses a risk to others and goes against the Trivago culture.

“The Trivago culture” is presumably one and the same with “the Facebook culture,” “the Tumblr culture,” “the Acme Widget culture,” and any other culture that wants to portray itself as absolutely loaded with meaning. Unfortunately, this “culture” is the exact opposite of culture. Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them. Not only is it empty of meaning; it’s a vacuum cleaner, sweeping up the last remains of the meanings around it. Sensing that, its operators insist all the more that they do so mean something. They mean it seriously and strongly; they mean it very seriously and strongly. . . . Are you still there? Are you still reading? Should we say it even more seriously and strongly?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that people who uttered such claptrap would notice what it is, and notice what other people think of it. They don’t — and why not? A cause is suggested by a comment made by the 18th-century rhetorician Hugh Blair. Speculating about what was wrong with James Macpherson, author of the Ossian poems, which are as close to being empty of meaning as 18th-century literature could get, he said that Macpherson “must be miserable,” because he was “absolutely void of curiosity.”

Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them.

It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Professor del Real to find something of continuing interest in the cathedral of Notre Dame. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Mayor Buttigieg and the Trivago flack to find some words that mean something. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for the Ivy League graduates at the Washington Post to observe that their words may be impossible to figure out.

Admittedly, a little curiosity might dispel some of this world’s alluring mystery, thereby, I suppose, dispelling some of its meaning. But it can protect one from exposure as the kind of person who has never noticed any meaningful objects lurking more than 12 inches away from his nose. At the moment, I’m thinking about the first George Bush, who marveled at the way items are scanned at supermarket checkout counters (he’d never seen it before), and Hillary Clinton trying to hide her confusion about how to get into the New York Subway (the Senator from New York had never done it before). I’m also thinking about that constant source of merriment, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who on May 6 reported to her Instagram audience about her latest existential crisis. No, it wasn’t “climate change”; it was — well, here it is:

OK everyone, I need your help because I just moved into this apartment a few months ago and I just flipped a switch and it made that noise and it scared the daylights out of me. This D.C. apartment is bougie [bourgeois-y] and has things I’ve never seen before. Like what is a garbage disposal really for? Is it better or worse than throwing something in the garbage? More importantly why is it so loud and yelling at me?

Why indeed? When that happens, there’s ground for suspicion. What is a garbage disposal really for? Imagine all the possible meanings! And none of them good!

Take this as a warning: If Notre Dame is so bougie that it’s overburdened with meaning, and you’re happy to get rid of it, you may still be threatened by your garbage disposal.




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The Opposite of Libertarianism

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In libertarian circles it is a conventional position that the word that describes our opposite is "statism," adherents of which are "statists." I challenge that assumption.

In the first place, most people are unfamiliar with the term “statism.” Its use merely adds to the aura of weirdness and abnormality surrounding the advocacy of liberty. To the extent that voters don't know the definition of “statism,” any argument relying on it cannot help us win elections.

Second, I am not an etymologist and lack data to prove this, but my gut feeling is that libertarian writers in the 1930s to 1960s felt comfortable using the word “statist” because (Ayn Rand comes to mind) they spoke French and viewed “state” as the English translation of état. In the USA, however, “state” specifically refers to one of the 50 states. The better translation of état is “nation” or “government.” So I propose that “statism” be retired in favor of either "nationalism" or "governmentalism" as the word by which we designate the opposite of libertarianism.

To the extent that voters don't know the definition of “statism,” any argument relying on it cannot help us win elections.

“Nationalism” is particularly attractive because it conjures up connotations of National Socialism as the end point of liberty's opponents. “Governmentalism,” on the other hand, pinpoints the government as our nemesis. Yes, “state” can also mean “government,” but I feel that my proposal would best align our language with that of the people we want to reach.




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Bitcoin Blues

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Enthusiasts expect bitcoin to become a new privatized money, perhaps even replacing government money. The system will keep track of cash balances and transactions in such a way as to prevent fraudulent double-spending of the same units. Operating without any centralized recordkeeping (as by a bank or government), it will enhance financial privacy. It will employ an advanced technology called blockchain. As the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (first quarter 2018) said, to really understand bitcoin and its many imitators requires combined knowledge of cryptography, computer science, and economics.

I lack this knowledge. Some points, though, are clear enough. A workable monetary system requires a unit of account and a medium of exchange. Prices, values, debts, claims, and cash balances are expressed, and accounting is conducted in the unit. The medium is something routinely used for receiving and making payments; in the United States it is currency and bank accounts denominated in dollars. Each transactor needs to hold some of the medium of exchange because receipts and expenditures are uncertain in exact timing and amount and are not closely synchronized.

The bitcoin unit goes undefined by anything and lacks redeemablity.

A suitable unit of account has an at least roughly stable value, which may be achieved in either of two ways. First, the unit may be defined by a quantity of some good or basket of goods, with the definition kept operational by two-way convertibility between money and the defining good or basket. Under the gold standard the US dollar was defined as the value of 1.5046 grams of pure gold. Under such a system the money supply adjusts almost automatically to the defined value. Alternatively, the value of the unit may be managed by central control of the money supply. The price level then adjusts to rough proportionality with the money supply, as explained by the quantity theory of money.

The bitcoin unit goes undefined by anything and lacks redeemablity. Its quantity grows in a strange way called “mining.” As a reward for taking part in the system’s decentralized record-keeping and especially for solving increasingly difficult mathematical problems, miners obtain new bitcoins. Their final amount is limited to 21 million. Who knows what happens then? Meanwhile, bitcoin-mining destroys real wealth by consuming vast amounts of electricity to operate huge computers.

Wild fluctuations in bitcoin’s undefined value rule out its use as unit of account and so, almost completely, as medium of exchange. Who wants to hold amounts of such an unstable asset for receiving and making payments? The occasional business firm “accepting” bitcoin promptly sells it for standard money rather than adding it to its transactions cash balance. A video by a Wall Street Journal reporter shows the great effort and extra costs of buying a pizza with bitcoin in New York City.

The final amount of bitcoins is limited to 21 million. Who knows what happens then?

Why, then, does anyone hold bitcoin? Some libertarians hold it to express disgust with government money and a hope for some kind of private and privacy-preserving alternative. (But other and academically respectable proposals for privatized money are available.) Some enthusiasts buy it as an investment or speculation. (Saying so in no way denies that speculation generally serves sound economic functions and that the distinction between it and investment is fuzzy.)

Prudence recommends that anyone considering an investment should ask how the desired gain might come as a share of real wealth — desired goods and services — created by his own and others’ investment. Even a gambling casino creates wealth in the perhaps questionable form of hopes, excitement, and entertainment. Gain on an investment or speculation with no prospect of creating wealth must come as a transfer from losers.

Meanwhile, bitcoin-mining destroys real wealth by consuming vast amounts of electricity to operate huge computers.

How, then, might promoting bitcoin create wealth? The advantages of a sound nongovernmental monetary system could count as wealth, but as a “public good” in the technical sense of something whose benefits cannot be withheld from people not paying for it — such as national defense or policing. Furthermore, competition from bitcoin’s surviving imitators would dilute any profits. More optimistically, experience with bitcoin might spur profitable improvements in its blockchain technology, which is already being extended beyond monetary uses.

Bitcoin might even evolve, after all, into a workable privatized money, quite in contrast with our current system. But how? Ayn Rand would dismissively reply: “Somehow.”

A final comment may be unfair, but I cannot resist making it. Excitement over bitcoin reminds me of the dotcom boom of the 1990s and even more so of the British South Seas bubble of 1720. For little more reason than that stocks kept going up, speculators drove prices still higher — until the crash came. Meanwhile, stock in dubious new enterprises sold readily. Charles Mackay (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1848) writes of one promoter who disappeared with the proceeds of successfully issuing stock in something described as “A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.”




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Capitalism Claims Another Victim

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A few years ago I invented something called the Atlas Shrugged Scale. It’s a way of estimating how close reality comes to the satire in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Some may recall the time when the novel’s portrayal of bureaucrats, social activists, government enforcers, and crony capitalists was denounced as impossibly far-fetched, as just downright pigheadedly mean. We don’t hear much talk like that anymore.

The reason is that every day brings us real-life stories that seem to be written by Ayn Rand, still satirizing from the Next World.

The moral that friends of the college take home with them is that the college was a victim of the capitalist system.

Here’s one. A college is started by a dissident professor who thinks it’s a good thing for faculty to be scared by their students. He puts his college in an economically depressed town where lots of people have time and government benefits on their hands. It apparently admits everyone who wants to enroll, and to have no required courses. There are no grades. Yet in 40 years it manages to enroll at most 200 people at a time. When the college wants to establish a “cultural exchange” with another institution, it chooses the University of Havana. Vaunted college accreditors vouch for the place.

The annual budget of this college is around $20,000 per student, a hefty sum for a place that barely exists. But its president, who seems to owe her appointment to the fact that she is married to a congressman who is a former mayor of the town (and a future US senator), borrows millions of dollars to expand the campus, assuring lenders that there is plenty of money coming in. The money doesn’t come in, although the president has no problem collecting her large salary. Finally she is prevailed upon to resign. Her successor is persuaded to resign by a student mob. Two years after that, the college collapses and ceases to exist. The moral that friends of the college take home with them is that the college was a victim of . . . the capitalist system.

The story is well summarized here. The institution is Burlington College. Its former president is Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie Sanders. The story’s score on the Atlas Shrugged Scale is 9.

Don’t ask me what events would justify a 10. I’m not sure we can take that much satire.




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The Smallest Minority

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After the terrorist attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, some pious souls in the media called for 24 hours of dignified silence before the politicizers launched into their usual politicizing. I don’t think it lasted even 24 seconds. In the length of time it takes for the shot-clock to run out in an NBA basketball game, the players were at it again.

From the right came cries for tightened restrictions on Muslim immigration. “The Religion of Peace strikes again!” conservative pundits crowed. And from the left, somber words of comfort for “the LGBT community.” They’d ban all those horrible guns this time. Oh, and this heinous crime was most certainly not the fault of radicalized Muslims, but of anti-gay Christians who don’t want to bake cakes.

The concept of the individual is as dead as the human beings liquidated in the Pulse attack.

A meme almost immediately made the rounds on Facebook. Where “gays” — meaning all of us, evidently — needed to be schooled on how stupid we “all” are because we side with the gun-banning appeasers of terrorists who want to kill us. Or something.

I left a comment reminding these “libertarian conservatives” that collectivist thinking and mindless identity politics are supposedly the sole province of the Left they so despise. That by no means all gay people think the way they assumed every one of us did. I was readily assaulted by a battalion of overaged third-graders, screeching that I had to be an hysterical, gun-grabbing, Muslim-appeasing leftist (what else could I be?). One patriotic gentleman told me that I had the IQ of squashed fruit. Pun almost certainly intended.

If this is the state of “libertarian conservatism,” then heaven help us. These people have been sucked headfirst into the same black hole that has already swallowed millions of leftists. The concept of the individual — defended by Ayn Rand as “the smallest minority” — is as dead as the human beings liquidated in the Pulse attack.

Members of any so-called community of minorities who permit themselves to be lumped together into a faceless glob are committing a sort of suicide.

The full Rand passage is this: “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” I guess the battalion on that Facebook post missed that in their quick scan of the CliffsNotes.

Members of any so-called community of minorities who permit themselves to be lumped together into a faceless glob are committing a sort of suicide. They are sacrificing their very selves. No politician or activist who demands this of them has any genuine regard for them as human beings. When people are rounded up together like cattle, it is not very often by those who care about them, or mean them well.

The Orlando shooter was able to kill so many because they’d corralled themselves into a confined space. Not because of cowardice or any coercion, but because that was where they could have a good time. The reasoning of those who would exert power over us “for our own good” also presses us together into a crowd, where we are indistinguishable from everybody else, can’t assert our individuality and can be more easily manipulated. We also find it more difficult to defend ourselves from harm, and nearly impossible to escape it.

In the aftermath of the Pulse massacre, of course many of the usual people are repeating their boilerplate blather. They’re obsessed with “gun violence,” about which we supposedly must “do something.” But the master programmers of this blather seem less confident than they have in the past. An increasing number of gay people are now deciding that the “something” we must do is something else.

As first responders moved among the shattered bodies of the dead in that nightclub, they heard the ringing of victims’ cellphones. Calls that would never be answered. Calls from friends and relatives who were not trying to call “the gay community,” or “stupid liberal gays who hate guns,” but merely loved ones for whose lives they feared, and whom they’d called too late.

I will need to be more careful, from now on, about where I go and whom I’m with. I’ll need to watch the exits when I’m in a predominantly-gay crowd. Of course I’m not always allowed to bring a gun wherever I go, and in the types of gatherings where large numbers of gay people will be, firearms will almost certainly be forbidden. Yes, I take it personally that 50 people were murdered because they were gay. But I take it as no less of an affront that a few elites, who think they’re better qualified to see to my safety than I am, are doing their utmost to keep me from defending myself.

I will need to be more careful, from now on, about where I go and whom I’m with. I’ll need to watch the exits when I’m in a predominantly-gay crowd.

They’ll tell me I’m stupid when I protest that I have the right to self-defense. Others will call me stupid simply because “all” gays must be presumed not to care about defending themselves. There are already many, many more Muslims in this country than there are gays. The Left — which really cares about nothing but power — can certainly do the math. If they couldn’t use it as a pretext for disarming the citizenry, or for slandering all Christians yet again, many of them wouldn’t bother shedding a single tear for those of us who are murdered.

In one way or another, every one of us gets thrown into some demographic group, which then becomes a voting bloc, of interest to the political class only because it wants something from us, or can get something out of us. The individual is indeed the tiniest minority. Yet if enough of us remember that individuality is the one feature we all share, perhaps we can rise up and reassert a commitment to our common humanity. And if that does happen, maybe those cellphones won’t have rung in vain.




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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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Ayn Rand: Champion of the Working Class?

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In his libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard accused Ayn Rand of being a pawn of corporate people profiting from the welfare state. As evidence that she was out of touch with reality, he cited her famous statement that the businessman is America’s most persecuted minority (Mises Institute edition [388], quoting Rand, “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business” [1962]; reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Objectivism, to the extent that the general public knows anything about it, is often regarded as a rightwing position and can be seen as a boon to efforts to push libertarians into the hand of the Tea Party Right. While this belief is ignorant, the masses do not have a detailed and nuanced grasp of the details of libertarian doctrine, nor should we expect them to. Many people merely adopt a false and shallow impression that libertarians are some type of conservatives who are on the far Right, compared to moderate Republicans. Some left-libertarians, such as I, are very frustrated with the tendency of Objectivism to be classified in this way. The truth about Rand (like the truth about all things) is deeper and more surprising than a first impression would allow. Rand should not be considered a member of the Right. In several important ways, indeed, she resembled a populist leftist.

The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

To examine the sense in which she was, historically, a friend of the working class and an enemy of the conservative Right, several things come into focus. First, let us consider Rand herself. She was a working-class woman, and quite poor during much of her adult life. It was only with the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead, when she was almost 40 years old, that she achieved significant self-made wealth, which was to last and grow for the rest of her life. To say, then, that Ayn Rand hated the working class and loved the rich would be to assume that she hated herself for many years — something absurdly contrary to her fundamentally self-loving and perhaps narcissistic personality.

Second, Rand always had a particular affinity for working-class people who want to earn their wages instead of relying on the welfare state. For example, Rand pushed to have The Fountainhead movie premiere in a working-class area, saying that she knew her “real audience” was there (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor Books edition, 212). When the audience in working-class Southern California applauded the movie at its premier, Rand said, “That’s why I like the common man.” The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

Third, and perhaps most obvious and also most extremely inconvenient for rightwing libertarians, is the conservative movement’s frequent hatred of Rand, and her counterattacks against that movement during the 1960s. Any disciple of Rand knows what the hateful, anti-Randian sentence “To a gas chamber, go!” means and embodies; for those who don’t, a more extensive knowledge of the history of the libertarian movement is required (for which I recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, one of the best works on the subject). Rand’s hatred of conservatives is undeniable. The title of her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” (1962, reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is self-explanatory. If one goes beyond the title to read the text, one sees that Rand held nothing back. She was full of anger. She once said that liberals seek to enslave the body and conservatives seek to enslave the mind, both conceding freedom to that part of human existence which they care about least. This comment is hardly flattering to the Right.

Fourth, and finally, consider Rand’s signature novels themselves. Of course, all her fans have read them, but few have read carefully. In The Fountainhead, Gale Wynand gets rich by pandering to the stupid masses in his newspapers. In Atlas Shrugged, James Taggart, the major villain, is, among many other things, a rich white male businessman who inherited vast wealth and is the CEO of a major railroad. Is this a character created to praise the rich, a character that rich people should love?

Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist.

Or did Rand seek to praise productivity and intellect, not the rich as such? Compare James Taggart to his sister Dagny, a hero of the novel. Dagny is a woman who actually runs, not simply pretends to run, a great railroad. Her role in the novel makes it years ahead of its time in terms of gender equality. Let us not forget that Rand was a woman, and, as such, a living embodiment of the freedom of women to pursue careers, a freedom by no means certain for most women in America during Rand’s lifetime. Most people would regard progressive feminism as a leftist element in Rand. The creator of Galt’s Gulch, the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged, is fairly prosperous in the Gulch itself, but in “our world” he is a mere day laborer who lives in poverty — and that’s where he lives during most of the book. It is easy to connect the dots and assume that Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist. One of the basic messages of the novel is that our world would condemn all such people to a meager existence.

Murray Rothbard despised the big business Right (at least before his “paleolibertarian” phase); I believe that Rand did as well. Contemporary conservatives may exploit Rand’s ideas, just as they exploit so many other ideas, both economic and philosophical; but that’s no reason for working-class libertarians and left-libertarians not to embrace Rand as one of their own.




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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?

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It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.



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Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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Atlas on Woodward Avenue

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The great power outage that struck Detroit on Dec. 2 reminded me — did it remind you also? — of the way in which Ayn Rand and some of her disciples used to look for signs that “Atlas is shrugging.” They closely inspected every sign that scientists and engineers were withdrawing from the industrial grid and that the grid itself was collapsing.

The apocalypse never came. Jimmy Carter was kicked out of the White House. Stagflation went away. Capitalism kept producing wealth even faster than the government could devour it. Even in this Age of Entropy, Atlas is not so much shrugging as working harder than ever to pay his medical bills. He’s depressed; he’s ailing; but he’s still showing up at work.

Nevertheless, there is something emblematic, something that provides a startling reminder of the End envisioned in Atlas Shrugged, in the horrible fate of the former industrial capital of America. Detroit is bankrupt. It has lost almost two-thirds of its population. Large segments of the city have returned to wilderness. Along Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Elysées of the Midwest, every large business has disappeared. The avenue’s distinguished churches, each an architectural masterpiece, still raise their towers, but several have been abandoned, and all are struggling. A classic theater, a classic movie palace, a classic this and that have been heroically preserved, but the monumental beaux-arts building that used to be GM world headquarters is a nearly empty hulk in a crime-ridden neighborhood, a square mile in which only 3,000 people dare to live. A magnificent art deco skyscraper now houses the countless bureaucrats of the failed public school system. The Institute of Arts, one of the world’s most important museums, the gift of fortunes created by the automobile, has been supported by the state for many years. Its hours are limited; its parking structure has been closed because of structural decay.

A picture tells part of the story. It shows visitors standing in the museum’s central court during the outage. The court, which is lit by windows in the ceiling and is therefore not dependent on electricity, is decorated by murals made by Diego Rivera, a communist, and financed by Edsel Ford, an industrialist. The murals show the progress of industry and suggest that it can be used either to create or to destroy. Beneath the murals, people mill about, apparently oblivious to the art. Perhaps a few of them are reflecting on the process of cultural disintegration. Perhaps one of them is asking himself, Did Atlas shrug — or did he merely lose what made him Atlas?

rsquo;s still showing up at work.




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