Evidence for Emerson

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In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




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A Futile Controversy

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Everything that exists or happens results from earlier conditions or events. Only chance loosens causality. Everything that a person is or does or thinks is determined by his biology, experiences, and good or bad luck. This is the determinist doctrine. It denies that people have any scope to make decisions that are genuinely their own.

Controversialists on both sides agree that chance operates on both subatomic and human levels. One cannot say that everything since the Big Bang was fated to happen. Frederick III, briefly German emperor in 1888, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria and imbued with classical liberalism. He met an early death and was succeeded by his authoritarian and militaristic son William II. In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York. In February 1933 an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events? Anyway, chance no more establishes a person’s free will than freedom from causation would.

James B. Miles (The Free Will Delusion, 2015) finds the free-will doctrine false but appealing, not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also because it lets fortunate people congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming others’ poverty or criminality or even handicaps on avoidable weakness of their wills. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages archconservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. Thus, Miles continues, it is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because it absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (Miles, p. 223).

In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York.

But determinists hold no monopoly on morality. Free-will adherents also recognize that biological inheritance, physical and human environments, events, reading, preachments, earlier thoughts — all profoundly influence major and minor choices. But not totally. They and determinists alike can sympathize with offenders whose unfortunate biological inheritance and early upbringing have led to a life of crime. Despite this sympathy, determinists and free-will adherents alike can agree that protecting the public may require locking the most dangerous criminals up, even for life (and, arguably, deterring others by even crueler punishment for the worst crimes).

Could a man who shoots his uncle to inherit his money have refrained from this act? No, says a consistent determinist, because the murderer was driven by biology and circumstances and so forth, over none of which he had control. Agreed, history cannot be undone; but future wickedness can be made rarer by greater attention to morality in private and public life and by dependably imposed legal penalties.

The concept of responsibility goes along with the concept of freedom. The question of holding someone responsible for something concerns reward or punishment. We do not hold an insane person responsible, for he offers no point for applying a motive (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, trans. 1930, chapter VII).

How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events?

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position. Argument presupposes that listeners or readers, although free to accept or reject it, ought to accept it without being fated or compelled to do so. In academic controversy, is every book and article, every reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance? Why take part in such a charade?

In reply each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does. Similarly, if Clarence Darrow argues against convicting a criminal because he could not help what he did, the jurors might respond that they had no freedom to acquit him.

James Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers unfortunate enough to propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of philosophers whom he names, especially Daniel Dennett. Is there some inconsistency here?

The determinist doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense explained by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any adverse evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, however astonishing, is explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance. The free-will position is better, though not much, regarding built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If a large random sample of persons who had thought that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how their action had been totally predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken. Conceivably, also, free will might have “emerged” from other conditions, rather as human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even as life itself emerged from inanimate matter. This possibility supports the free-will doctrine, but not much without evidence.

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position.

The rival doctrines do not contradict each other on moral principles, on how anyone should live his life, or on public policy. Any difference between them is not operational. Sometimes I think that my choice is mine, free from total compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, music, clothing, cars, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (On consumers’ tastes, see F.A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” Southern Economic Journal, April 1961.) Anyway, my decisions still take place, along with their moral and practical justification, if any.

The history of philosophy has left us stuck with the two terms “free will” and “determinism.” People drift into thinking that if a term is in use, it must have a referent, some thing, event, arrangement, attitude, argument, or whatever that it refers to. (This confusion of labels with things is called “hypostatization” or “conceptual realism.”) Sometimes, further, we drift into seeking knowledge of the essence of the referent by brooding over its label: what is Virtue, Honor, Democracy, Truth—whatever? Karl Popper condemned such a style of investigation or argument as “essentialism.” Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis, 1954, p. 898) also identified “the deplorable ‘method’ of trying to solve problems by means of hunting for the meaning of words.” The terms “free will” and “determinism” exemplify these errors, and in contexts suggesting that they label opposite states of affairs.

Over the centuries philosophers have failed to specify what observations could distinguish between the states of affairs labeled “free will” and “determinism.” Both doctrines have built-in immunity to counterevidence, which, as Karl Popper might say, deprives them of scientific status. We therefore should not let their labels cloud how we perceive or describe reality. We perceive that biological and environmental conditions, along with luck, strongly affect our choices and behavior. No one denies that. Still, we have a strong sense of weighing some decisions and making choices. Even the determinist philosophers among us, to judge from their polemical writings, also have such a sense. The prevalence of two contradictory terms does not indicate that one or the other of two distinct states of affairs exists.

We might better discard those terms and describe what we actually observe. This conclusion is not some compromise (called “compatibilism”) between distinct doctrines. If we can invent a new word that aptly labels perceived reality, fine. If not, we will have to continue using a string of words. But let us not persist in empty controversies.




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And Now For Something Completely Different

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What can one say about a book on infinity that hasn’t been said before? An infinite number of things, presumably, but I’ll make this brief.

The book, Approaching Infinity, is by philosopher Michael Huemer. Perhaps you’ve heard of him — but why? If you’re a libertarian, but not a philosopher or “into philosophy,” it’s likely because of his well-received book, The Problem of Political Authority (2013).

If you’re a libertarian and, though not a philosopher, are into philosophy, you may also be aware of Huemer’s excellent online-available essays on the right to own a gun and the right to immigrate. (I imagine readers on both the Left and Right are now gnashing their teeth.)

Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.”

But Huemer is nothing if not prolific. Libertarians who are really into philosophy may even be aware of his criticism of Ayn Rand, his argument that we sometimes have a duty to disregard the law, his argument that attorneys have a moral obligation not to defend unjust causes, his criticism of the US government’s War on Drugs, and his essay on why people are irrational about politics (also a TED talk!).

But — and this is the point I want to stress — even though he’s published much of interest to libertarians, Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly a person better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.” His first book, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001), dealt with epistemology (the field of study that led to his hiring at University of Colorado, Boulder); his second, Ethical Intuitionism (2005), focused on ethics. Now, having covered epistemology, ethics, and politics, Huemer, in Approaching Infinity, turns to the philosophy of mathematics (with an occasional nod to some issues in the philosophy of science). Clearly a well-rounded guy, philosophically speaking.

Also an iconoclast:

  • Although most philosophers since Descartes have opposed direct realism (the view that we are directly aware of real, physical objects), Huemer argues for just that point of view.
  • Although most modern philosophers oppose ethical intuitionism, the view that we can have direct knowledge of objective moral truths, Huemer again argues for exactly that.
  • Although most people readily accept political authority, and most philosophers are not anarchists, Huemer argues both against political authority and for a capitalist version of anarchy.

So it should surprise no one that Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

Almost everyone is familiar with at least some infinity paradoxes. We’ve all heard about Zeno and why that ball coming at you will never reach you, or why the hare can never catch the tortoise. Any you’re probably aware that strangeness results when even simple arithmetic is applied to infinity. E.g., ∞ = ∞ +1. Subtract ∞ from both sides: 0 = 1.

But I had no idea there were at least 17 different paradoxes associated with infinity. From Hilbert’s hotel to Gabriel’s horn . . . from Thomson’s lamp to Benardete’s paradox . . . from ancient Greek problems to dilemmas developed only in the past century . . . Huemer describes them all and then starts to evolve some background needed to solve the infinity paradoxes. There are discussions of actual and potential infinities, of Georg Cantor’s set theory, of the theory of numbers, of time and space, of both infinity and infinitesimals. Of the metaphysically impossible and the logically impossible. Of the principle of phenomenal conservatism (which Huemer introduced in his epistemology text), and even of the synthetic a priori.

Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

In building the background to handle the infinity paradoxes, Huemer argues that extensive infinities (including the cardinal numbers) can exist but not as specific magnitudes. Thus, the positive integers are infinite, in the sense that for any such number you can find higher positive integers, but not in the sense that there is a number “infinity” that is higher than all the positive integers. You cannot add and subtract “infinity” as I did in the previous paragraph. And he argues that while extensive magnitudes (time, space, volume) can sensibly approach infinity in this understanding, infinite intensive magnitudes (such as temperature, electrical resistance, attenuation coefficient, etc.) are metaphysically impossible. This distinction allows several paradoxes to be solved, or avoided.

A fascinating section of the text discusses various forms of impossibility. Sometimes philosophers note that X is physically impossible, given the laws of the universe as we now understand them, but nonetheless that it could be possible in a similar but slightly different possible world — say, with a slightly different Coulomb constant. But at other times X is deeply physically impossible. Consider these two alternatives described by Huemer:

Compare this pair of questions:

A. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe, how would it taste?

B. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe in an alternative possible world in which salt is a compound of plutonium and mercury and we are sea creatures who evolved living on kelp and plankton, how would it taste?

Huemer notes that it’s not merely that we have no idea about how to answer B but that, more importantly, even if we could answer B, answering it gives us no intuitions, is of no help in trying to figure out the answer to A. Though Huemer makes this point in the context of determining what counts as a solution to an infinity paradox, it also has direct application to various thought experiments in other areas of philosophy and to what counts as a helpful or unhelpful thought experiment. (On this see my own work, “Experiment THIS!: Libertarianism and Thought Experiments.”)

Related to the paradoxes of infinity are the problems of infinite regress. You may have heard of the problem of the regress of causes: asked what caused A, you explain that it was caused by B. But what caused B? C caused B. But … here is an infinite regress. Does this imply that we never really understand what caused A?

There are other interesting infinite regresses: of reasons, of truths, of resemblances, etc. Huemer offers helpful insights here as well, elaborating various factors that determine whether such infinite regresses are vicious or benign.

Did I mention that Huemer can be iconoclastic? Consider these passages from Approaching Infinity:

  • There are certain philosophical assumptions that tend to generate strong resistance to my views, and these assumptions are commonly accepted by those interested in issues connected with science and mathematics . . . I have in mind especially the assumptions of modern (twentieth-century) empiricism . . . the doctrine that it is impossible to attain any substantive knowledge of the world except on the basis of observation.”
  • “In the original, core sense of the term ‘number,’ zero is not a number. . . . Why is zero not a number in the original sense? Because a number, in the primary sense, is a property that objects can have, whereas zero is not a property that objects can have.” Huemer extends the concept of number to include zero but explains why such an “extension” does not work for “infinity” as a number.
  • There are reasons to doubt that sets exist. No one seems to be able to explain what they are, they do not correspond to the ordinary notion of a collection, and core intuitions about sets, particularly the naive comprehension axiom, lead to contradictions.”

In his final chapter, Huemer, taking to heart Nozick’s concerns about coercive philosophy, offers readers his own thoughts about problems that remain: which of his answers leave him concerned or unsatisfied, arguments that are incomplete, areas for further exploration.

As in his earlier books on ethics, epistemology, and politics, Huemer’s style is as easy and enjoyable as his logic is rigorous. Intelligent laypeople who are interested in philosophy can follow his thoughts without difficulty. No Hegel here.

Because I have little background in the philosophy of mathematics, I approached Huemer’s latest effort with trepidation, despite having very much enjoyed his three earlier books. But now that I’ve read it, I highly recommend it. The best news: before finishing Approaching Infinity, you’ll have to read halfway through it, and before that one-quarter of the way, and before that one-eighth, and before that. . . . Yet despite this you can read it through to the very end, and be enthralled on every page.


Editor's Note: Review of "Approaching Infinity," by Michael Huemer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 275 pages.



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A Libertarian Novel of Ideas

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“You couldn’t make this stuff up, yet it all seemed so natural and matter of fact” — so says Free Dakota, William Irwin’s new novel, in a comment about some of its own plotline. The first part of the comment is, of course, as fictional as the novel itself: Irwin made all “this stuff” up. But the second part is real and true: Irwin’s unusual work of fiction does somehow seem natural and matter of fact.

The book demonstrates, for one thing, that you can start to make a fantasy seem real if you surround it with realistic detail. Free Dakota is as loaded with Americana as a Tom Wolfe book, or it would be, if it were as long as a Tom Wolfe book. Actually, Free Dakota is becomingly brief. Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town, to make a fictional diner in North Dakota seem like a real diner. He does the same with his characters. But descriptive details are never enough. Irwin adds to the details a story that appears to be real because the plot develops naturally from his characters’ psychology.

If there’s a protagonist of this novel, it’s Don, a middle-aged novelist with an enormous writer’s block and even more enormous ennui. Don finds a purpose in life in the attempt of a libertarian group to get like-minded people to move to North Dakota and then vote to secede from the Union. Vying with Don for the role of protagonist (the “apron” as the novel calls it, for various good reasons) is Lorna, a high-class madam who unexpectedly (but reasonably, as Irwin makes it appear) follows Don to North Dakota and becomes a libertarian activist. A third interesting person is Mackey, a dropout from a Catholic seminary who in place of formal religion has adopted classic libertarian ideas, and a desire to live up to them.

Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town.

The plot takes us all the way through the secession campaign, and I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how it turns out. Along the way, there are many arguments for and about libertarian ideas, arguments that most libertarians have encountered before, but probably not in so clever and attractive a guise. And this may be the place to record what Irwin told me about the genesis of his story:

I've always wanted to write a novel, but I wanted to have something to say. I love Plato's dialogues for their ability to raise questions and expose how little we know. I'm an accidental libertarian. I just didn't care much about politics or political philosophy until I was well into my 30s. I just wanted to be left alone, and it was becoming more and more clear to me that the government wasn't leaving me alone. I read [Robert] Nozick and others. Only much later did I read the novels of Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged made a big impression on me. For all its faults, it's a great novel. I think you need to read it as being in the same genre as Brave New World and 1984. It's not meant to be completely realistic, but it conveys important ideas. So, along with Plato's dialogues, Atlas Shrugged is the main source of inspiration for Free Dakota. Readers will find plenty of allusions to Atlas Shrugged in Free Dakota.

That’s true, and charming. More remarkable is the novel’s wealth of libertarian ideas, and how easily Irwin gets us into and out of the arguments about them. Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre. The ordinary “novel of ideas” is all ideas and no novel — witness Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back (1951, 1966), a complete guide to free-enterprise capitalism, written by a good economic journalist. Time Will Run Back is one of the most intelligent books in the world, and one of the nicest. It’s even nice enough to offer a basic plot — a story about the conversion of a dictatorship into a libertarian society. But the plot doesn’t really matter, and neither do the characters. It’s only the arguments that count, and long before you reach the end, you’re ready for something else, such as a real novel.

Irwin’s book, however, is a real novel. You can read it without knowing anything about libertarian ideas and still get involved with the story and characters. And this is strange, considering the way in which Irwin, a professor of philosophy, says that his book developed: “I started with the exchange of ideas and added layers of detail concerning characters and settings in subsequent drafts. I had a basic idea for the plot but not a detailed outline, so I let it develop naturally.”

Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre.

I can think of no other literary work that was written in this manner — starting with the intellectual debates, and adding the details later — that still succeeded in recommending itself as a novel, as opposed to a series of essays. The vitality of Irwin’s story can result from only one source — a sustained interest in the varieties of human life and character. That’s why the plot could “develop naturally” and not mechanically.

There’s another unusual thing about Irwin’s narration, and I believe it has something to do with the “naturalness” of the book. In a normal novel, one learns a great deal about the youth, education, career choices, dietary preferences, and other features of the major characters. One often learns these things soon after the characters come on stage. Irwin’s novel, by contrast, functions on a rigorously need-to-know basis. Most characters are hardly introduced at all; they just show up. Later, one finds out more about them, but seldom anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the movement of events.

This method never advertises itself; it’s simply a thing one begins to notice. It wouldn’t work in a story that tried to accomplish anything like a sociological survey, or depth psychology — but, come to think of it, it manages to preserve more of the alluring mysteriousness of the human mind than many a chapter of Henry James. And what one sees on the page is more realistic, more natural, in one definition of those terms, than the normal novelistic treatment. In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up, and if we’re interested in continuing the relationship, we learn enough about them to do that. The basis of Irwin’s tale might pompously be called the epistemology of normal life. Whatever you call it, it gives the book a good deal of its realism and credibility.

Something that Irwin told me suggests that for him, creating characters was a good deal like the experience of meeting people in normal life. We meet Person X, recognize similarities and differences between him and ourselves; then, perhaps, we establish further relationships, with the people he knows:

I started with the protagonist, Don Jenkins. Like me, he's an accidental libertarian, but there aren't too many similarities between us beyond that. . . . Most of the other characters developed in reaction to Don Jenkins. I would ask myself who Don would meet in a given situation and I would go with the images and ideas that occurred to me.

It’s a part of normal life to connect ourselves not just with real people but also with the people we meet in books. So it’s very natural for Irwin to add, “The diner owner, John Mackey, is inspired by Hugh Akston from Atlas Shrugged.” Readers who already know Hugh Akston will be interested, and I think amused, to see their old friend from a new perspective. But that’s the way the world really is; people change in interesting ways when we see them in new company.

In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up.

Almost as natural is another comment from the author about the images and ideas in his story: “Some of these changed in subsequent drafts, of course.” Free Dakota is natural in its method but well meditated in its execution. It’s a work of libertarian thought and action that libertarians will warmly welcome.


Editor's Note: Review of "Free Dakota," by William Irwin. Roundfire, 2016. 203 pages.



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Internal Deliberations

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PIGS: Only the Ruins Remain

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As I write this, I am in Rome. From this city, an empire once ruled a large part of the world. During its intellectually better days, Rome, building on the achievements of Greece, provided a way of perceiving the universe that distinguished human beings from animals and raised them from barbaric life to civilization. Greece and Rome showed humanity a way to reason and to understand causality.

Greece and Rome started an approach that could release humanity from quivering before the unknown, mysterious, and unpredictable forces of nature and the priest. In the late middle ages, Italy contributed enormously to the Renaissance and thus to the succeeding eras of massive, unprecedented material progress in the history of humanity. Geniuses such as Leonardo and Michelangelo lived here.

Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right.

In today’s world, a common narrative is that Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain — acronymically known as the PIGS — are freewheeling societies that provide a lot of personal freedom. They may not be rolling in money, but according to the narrative, their people seem actually to enjoy their lives, as compared with the workaholic North Americans. Their fashions attract people from around the world. Their public squares attract crowds of young people early in the evenings, arriving after their siestas and still partying in the mornings. PIGS countries are known for their deep social cohesion and close-knit families. It is believed that people there are social, and care for one another.

Scratch the surface, and the reality is very different.

Greece just voted “no” to reducing its dependence on free stuff. Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right. After many talks with people over the month since my arrival in Italy, I am struggling to recall anyone who may have suggested that it was not his right to expect Germans to keep on paying his bills.

PIGS are third-world countries in many ways and would be considered so, were they not proximal to northern Europe. Graffiti is everywhere. Public spaces are extremely dirty. There are always long line-ups at train stations and banks to get service, which is usually impolite and unhelpful. If you annoy an Italian auntie — who somehow assumes a superior position — every issue will be blown out of proportion. Even non-issues will crop up and then blow up.

A situation that is created by emotions cannot be undone by reason. You must know how to de-escalate, emotionally.

When I arrived late at night to the sprawling airport of Milan, there was no one at the information counters. In fact there was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up. Why weren’t they manning service counters? There was no ATM machine available — all were locked behind walls for the night.

Two millennia after the construction of the Coliseum, it gets far more visitors every day than it did when it was built. Cities are packed with tourists of all kinds, from museum visitors to northern Europeans on beach vacations. Museums, heritage sites, and so forth collect huge amounts of money. But what I experienced when I arrived at Milan airport — with no one to help — stood true even during daytime visits to historical sites. I usually saw no one monitoring the safety of historically precious things at the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, and the museums I visited. People who were supposed to act as guards mostly stood outside the buildings, smoking and chatting away.

There was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up.

People in PIGS countries suffer from a massive victim mentality, which by itself is enough of a vice to undo any civilization. On Bloomberg they seem to blame their plight on Germany, but if you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor; Germany is too far away. Italians express displeasure about all things Spanish and Greek, Greeks about all things Turkish, Turks about things Armenian, and vice versa. The individual here is never wrong. Even questions about who created which kind of art, who invented the alcoholic drink Anis or the Greek-Turkish desserts can lead to disturbing confrontations and embarrassed faces among people who look well educated. An outsider shudders at their small-minded nationalism.

Pickpocketing is rampant in PIGS countries. Two weeks ago, my passport, money, camera, etc. were stolen from my bag while I watched the allocation of the platform of my train, right under CCTV cameras. Within minutes I was at the police station to complain. The people there all kept their seats, made me fill out a form, and waved me off. They had no interest in wasting time by going through the CCTV recording. Of course I missed my train, and the officials to whom I showed my ticket and the police report had no interest in helping me take the next one, despite knowing full well that all my money was gone.

In my subsequent conversations with people, they always assumed that the thieves were gypsies. If you are an African, a gypsy, or a Muslim you should not expect to get a job in these places. I have absolutely no sympathy for people who, having been given a better chance, should have exploited it, but did not. Where these particular people came from was far worse than the PIGS countries are. They should have been more grateful. Still, I find it strange that these groups cannot be granted opportunities and must always be looked down upon. Most people who would have been assimilated in North America remain outsiders and get blamed by those with a victim mentality. In my case, the thieves were likely white, Italian males; I saw one of them, and that was what he was.

If you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor.

Compared with people in the US and Canada, people in Latin countries tend to be more apathetic toward their work (and more keen on partying), to spend more of what they have (and hence be more prone to indebtedness), and to be more tribal (and hence not really to care much about others, outside the tribe). Utter lack of respect for basic rules (as in driving, for example) does not necessarily translate into more freedom in society.

I am not sure how close PIGS families are, but how they do their jobs and how they look after their public spaces demonstrates a total lack of social cohesion. Rampant smoking and dislike for work does not show much about happy lives. It must be hard to spend your waking hours doing what you hate. Often pleasure-centeredness and neverending partying are nothing but an escape from what is regarded as the drudgery of normal existence.

So I am not sure whether the people of PIGS are as happy as the common narrative indicates. On the contrary, I believe that those who think the problems of the PIGS are merely about their debt look only at the surface. The problem of PIGS is the problem of their culture. They have lost reason. Leonardo da Vinci and the great Greco-Roman philosophers would feel completely out of place in their homelands today.




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Now and Ever Shall Be

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Why the West Went Ahead of the Rest

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What makes societies poor and what makes them rich? What makes a certain society accumulate wealth, create complex social relationships and productive institutions, minimize conflicts, and build a creative, happy population? On the other hand, what makes a society either fail to produce a surplus or quickly dissipate it or misuse it for self-destructive purposes, leaving the populace in chronic conflict and wretchedness?

For reasons unfathomable to an external, rational observer, many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence. The observer may keep saying that all such a society needs is a few minor institutional adjustments — in education, law, democracy, free-market economics, or property rights — and it will be on a rapid upward path. To his dismay, this proves impossible. If the expected institutional adjustments are made, the situation often gets worse and, ironically, the people’s predicament becomes even more institutionalized.

Considering the various reasons why European civilization went so far ahead of the rest is perhaps the best way to isolate the ingredients that make for a successful civilization. This isn’t, however, an easy task.

Guns, germs, steel, and six killer applications

In Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond says that environmental differences — not intellectual, moral, or genetic ones — created certain opportunities and necessities for social evolution that led to the superiority of the West. Westerners were early in settling down to an agrarian economy, perhaps because they had more access than other peoples to suitable plants and animals. Agriculture created food surpluses, freeing some people for activities other than mere sustenance. Specialization allowed them to build different competencies — guns, steel, and tools — thus amplifying positive feedback loops. The large Eurasian landmass allowed them to exchange innovations. Access to better domesticated animals gave Westerners advantages in farming, and then in warfare and transportation. The close proximity of humans and animals gradually increased humans’ resistance to germs, giving them huge unexpected advantages in overseas adventures. By themselves, these are small matters, but over centuries, compounding with positive feedbacks, they put the West well ahead of the rest. That is Diamond’s argument.

Many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence.

Taking a different perspective — and not necessarily contradicting Diamond — another author, Niall Ferguson, in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, argues that beginning in the 15th century, a few small parts of the western end of Europe developed six powerful new concepts or what he calls “killer applications”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. These “applications” allowed western Europe to surge past all competitors in the East. According to Ferguson, economic competition and political fragmentation fostered capitalism and innovation, both between and within states. Property-owning democracy gave landowners a voice in government. Modern medicine cured diseases and prolonged lives. An industrial revolution, supported by a work ethic and a savings ethic, provided mass-produced goods and sustained innovations. Together, the “killer applications” made the West the preeminent civilization. The contrast between the West and the Rest is evident in many historical examples. While, for instance, Prussia separated church and state and encouraged education based on scientific enquiry, creating a predilection for open enquiry and a scientific attitude, immediately to the east of Prussia religious laws forbade the study of science.

Diamond identifies a plausible, geographical cause of the greatness of the West, while Ferguson makes no attempt to show why the killer applications originated and sustained themselves in that part of the world and not others. But let us move forward in history. All the ingredients that the two authors mention — guns, steel, and the killer applications — have been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries. Given increasingly easier movement and transportation, environmental limitations of the weaker societies should not have been too material. So why did the others fail? Why are so many societies still stuck in low and middle income traps? Japan is the rare large non-Western society that has broken the income trap, but even there cultural oppression is still the norm. Why has even the West started to falter?

I believe that the two authors, despite being mostly correct at certain levels, have not found the root cause of what made the West great. Ferguson does not even make the attempt. Diamond tries, but was likely blocked by political correctness, for he seems disinclined to explore moral or intellectual differences. As a result, he takes an exclusively materialist position. The Eurasian landmass is vast, and many different societies developed within it, with very different levels of sophistication. In what looks like post facto rationalization, Diamond fails to confront what would have been environmental opportunities for non-Western societies — warmer weather, for example — if they had been adequately exploited, as they have not been in many countries in the Middle East and Africa. One might even counterargue that it is hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Of course, my interest is not to criticize societies as such, but to look for the magic potion some have missed.

Steel and the killer applications: they didn’t work in the Rest

In Congo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone machetes (remember, “steel”) have been used to kill millions of people. Similar is the case of Soviet Russia, and Cambodia, where as much as 25% of the population was butchered efficiently, by the use of guns. In Mao’s China, love for steel was the jumping-off place for the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine that killed perhaps 50 million people, destroying capital built up over centuries.

It may even be hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Having fecklessly copied Western forms of governments, these people competed fiercely for political power, routinely expunging their opponents or sending them off to gulags. Later, when the Russian state officially reduced its influence in the economy, what people got were oligopolies. The state gave way, but the free market failed to assert itself. Contrary to popular belief in the West, backward societies have enthusiastically adopted Western legal and educational systems, as well as democracy. But this has usually provided a mere facade of sophistication imposed on tribal instincts and a strong belief in might-as-right.

In India, technology — operating through the internet — has been very effectively used to increase a belief in magic and fairies. When I was growing up, we were shy about discussing astrology and in admitting that we followed a ritualistic religion. Today, revisionism has been so outrageous that a large section of Indian society, particularly the so-called educated class, believes that India had spaceships and ultra-high technology thousands of years ago. Last year, one of the headlines in India’s national media was about the archeological department digging up an area to look for buried gold. What made anyone believe that gold might be lurking underneath? A god-man had a dream in which a king told him where the gold was. Somewhere in the minds of Indians there is an omnipresent deity, a faith so fixed and overpowering that it sets a certain way of thinking and looking at life, pre-empting other possibilities.

Poor societies often have very high levels of consumerism. Just visit the high-growth parts of Africa and Asia. Macau is now a much bigger sin city than Las Vegas. The majority of this world’s luxury goods are consumed by people from poor societies. In large parts of Africa and Asia, people prefer to buy expensive cars and Louis Vuitton bags, at the cost of sharing a room with several others. If you have been to Johannesburg, it is unlikely you were not awed by the number of very expensive cars on the streets.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual.

So, why have guns and steel and the killer applications not achieved the intended results in non-Western societies? Why have simple implementations of the free-market system not worked as they are supposed to work? Why has the system so often mutated into something completely opposite, something very corrupt? One might even suggest that enforcement of the killer applications has incapacitated the Rest from developing from within something extremely crucial, without which the applications don’t work and often become corrupted.

What did Diamond and Ferguson miss?

The magic potion

The groundwork for Western greatness was laid more than two millennia ago. Seed takes time to germinate, but that does not mean it isn’t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.

Recently in India I witnessed people negotiating for a young girl’s labor without her participation. The girl had absolutely no concept of her personal identity and hence none about her “rights.” She did not even have to give herself to her predicament; she didn’t know better any better. Today, as I write this, a teenage Jain girl is being driven around the city. She is throwing away money on the streets, which will be picked up by passersby, poor and rich. As an entry to the priesthood, this symbolises her renunciation of material life. Alas, she will have done this without really understanding the shallowness of temptations, ironically making her forever needing to fight against them. Much younger girls have been pushed into priesthood among the Jain, with virtually no possibility of an exit. A few years back one died after 45 days of continual fasting — she was not allowed to pull back from a pledge of a 100-day fast.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual. The individual becomes the sacrificial goat. No growth, no capacity to wonder, no possibility to image the infinite is possible where the individual lacks sanctity. Individualism does surface, but in very hypocritical ways.

Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

The magic potion that made the West great, the intellectual “application” that underpins everything else, is the recognition of the sanctity of the individual, and the means by which that understanding has seeped into all the nooks and corners of the West society — its philosophy, its governance, and its social structure. This was the seed that grew and made the West great. This is something that societies outside the West never had.

Reverence for individuality leads to reverence for reason. The person who comes to respect himself as an individual allows himself his own thoughts, feelings, and intelligence. Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

Ideas have power. They set our limitations, our imaginations, and our visions. The concept of the individual set the West on a totally different path, a path that led toward Diamond’s guns and steel and Ferguson’s killer applications.

Without respect for reason (which cannot happen without the individual), killer applications can only be accepted on faith and belief, further complicating tribal instincts and confusing society even more, making people more irrational by burdening them with more beliefs. Only the rational individual has the capacity for moral behavior, for self-responsibility. If he sees himself as a part of a collective, he rationalizes his “immoral” behavior as something that works for the greater good. He then has no reason for self-reflection. He even lacks a true sense of wonder and mystery. And he has no balance. In such a case, killer applications cannot work in sync, except by default, and then only for a short period.

Training people to aspire for the highest might be similar in its immediate outcome to training them to sacrifice themselves for the larger good. But there is morality in the former. The latter crushes them or makes them hypocritical. The culture of discussion, of real discourse about ideas and philosophy, is alien to most societies outside the West. But knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate in either a person or a society that lacks this culture. Over centuries the net effect has been enormous.

People who have grown up recognizing others as individuals, as entities with their own wishes, inclinations, and free will, may have a problem understanding the possibility of anything else. But this recognition has been by far the biggest achievement of the West, something that most of the world is still grappling with. For those indoctrinated in other ways, there is so much adverse mental superstructure, so many invested emotions and unconscious motives, that getting to the recognition of the individual is an immensely difficult and challenging, almost impossible, job. I have spent decades painfully unburdening myself from the conditioning that many Western children are never really burdened with. Indeed I envy them.

But did the West not trade in slaves, colonize the rest of the world, and give minimal rights to the women in its own societies? Of course it did. But it is always a mistake to judge people of the past on the basis of what we know better. However gross and crude recognition of the individual was two millennia back, it was a path-breaking achievement. Alas, having failed to conceptualize the sanctity of the individual, billions around the world today still live no better lives than those of animals.

Individuality: the East did not get it; the West is losing it

The West’s chosen religion centered on a man born in a normal family, not among the kings. Perhaps Greek and Roman philosophy created an environment of rationality conducive to the emergence of Christ. The New Testament emphasised the idea of the individual. Its subliminal message is for the individual to take responsibility and grow. The emphasis in regard to salvation is on the individual, not the community. The locus of morality is the individual, not the society using the individual as a sacrificial goat.

One might argue that the concept of the individual came as a result of Protestant Christianity. Or perhaps Thomas Aquinas was the reason. But my view is that these were visible signs of the germination of a path-breaking idea. The idea of the sanctity of the individual had taken firm roots in the West long before the Reformation started.

The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West; and without a respect for the individual, and hence without a concept of reason, deeply embedded in a culture, the killer applications may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. They often mutate into something completely different and are used in very corrupt ways.

Islamic madrasas have a bad name for indoctrinating children. But this happens in most of the East, all the way to Japan. Children are destroyed from very early on. Through consistent humiliation, the force-feeding of facts, and various other means, their individuality is prevented from coming to the surface. Enforcing killer applications on such cultures merely burdens them with more beliefs and faiths, exhausting them emotionally and psychologically even more. No wonder suicide rates are so high in Japan and South Korea.

The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see.

This way of doing things cannot change until the societies of the East adopt the primacy and sanctity of the individual. Again, to a distant observer this may look easy, but there is a massive superstructure of beliefs and faith that must fall apart before individualism can be inculcated. Resistance within society and even within the individual will be huge. And before this, people will need to recognize the very concept of individualism. That is truly the biggest acquisition a society can make — seemingly easy for an outsider, but extraordinarily difficult for those who suffer from the lack of it. Centuries may be required for a society to develop an individualist culture.

The West’s emergence was no simple task. But now the West is retracing its steps.

Like termites, cultural-Marxist values have been eating the West from within. For several generations they have been changing the nature of Western civilization by slowly but insidiously discouraging self-responsibility and the concept of the individual. The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see. For these constrained minds, the ultimate utopia is a society in which everyone looks and behaves the same. Women see themselves as liberated only if they participate in the rat-race to break the so-called corporate glass ceiling, often contrary to their true desires or instincts. Lacking touch with their inner selves, they copy what others do, including sending their children to industrial daycares, to inculcate the ways of the collective. They exist in a trance. Ironically, with their own individuality destroyed, people then look for satisfaction through external sources and their chosen celebrities. Increasingly it is the vulgar elements — the Miley Cyruses and Kim Kardashians — that are chosen. This is no surprise. How can you see quality if you don’t have it within you? And you cannot have quality if there is no “you.” The suffocated voice of one’s individuality then asserts itself in corrupt ways through mindless materialism, a craving for power, and vicarious living. The six killer applications malfunction, the way they have in the East.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to understand why, despite globalization and free trade, the East has mostly imported the vulgar, collectivist elements of the West. What is lacking is the magic potion — the sanctity of the individual.

rsquo;t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.




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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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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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