Three Good Books

 | 

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.



Share This


What Football Teaches about a Planned Economy

 | 

The growing gap between the poor and the rich (at least the very rich) is reason for concern. With wealth concentration at the top, and an apparently shrinking middle class, no nation can thrive economically, politically, or culturally. But the path forward is not through a centrally managed economy. An economy controlled by the government cannot eliminate economic disparity. If you don’t believe me, look at professional football.

This weekend we saw the divisional playoff round unfold. On the AFC side of the playoff bracket every team that appeared in the divisional round last year appeared this year, and three of the four teams — Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, and Denver Broncos — have been playoff regulars for more than a decade. A similar story is told on the NFC side. The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were once again in the second round of the playoffs, and each is a storied franchise with regular appearances in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks made their second appearance in three years, and the Atlanta Falcons made their third trip in a row to the playoffs — their fourth in five years.

The winners from this weekend further illustrate the idea that the best teams in the NFL remain relatively the same over time. The 49ers, seeking their sixth Super Bowl appearance, are in the NFC championship game for the second year in a row. The AFC championship game is a repeat from last year and it is the third time in four years the Ravens and Patriots have faced one another in the championship game.

We should not expect this sort of regularity in professional football, and we should see more parity — if centrally planned economies work as expected.

Professional football is a centrally planned economy, with rules to help the worst teams and keep the best ones from always winning. Two of these rules are especially obvious and powerful.

First, the worse a team is, the better draft picks it gets. It is thus, theoretically, able to improve at a faster rate than the teams that pick behind it.

Second, there is a salary cap that keeps teams from spending as much as they might on players. This keeps the most talented players from concentrating in the biggest markets, such as sometimes happens with the Yankees or Red Sox in baseball, where there is no salary cap. In football every team has the same amount of money to spend on players.

In the planned football economy, we should see a more random playoff picture year to year, but instead the gap between successful teams and unsuccessful teams is growing.

In football, then, we should see a more random playoff picture year to year, but instead we get regularity. Such teams as the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs find it difficult to win consistently — and the gap between successful teams and unsuccessful teams is growing. The reason: rules may not be crucial, so long as they are applied fairly. If rules are applied fairly, the better-run organizations will come out ahead on a regular basis. They will separate themselves from the pack. There will be aberrations, but over time, the best will win more regularly.

This little sports experiment indicates that if a centrally managed economy is installed, and rules applied fairly, there will still be winners and losers, and there will still be a disparity between the haves and have-nots. After all, the Dallas Cowboys are worth over $2 billion and the Jacksonville Jaguars just sold for $760 million. And this in a league that has rules aimed at producing competitive and economic parity.

But what we know of politics and business is that the rules don’t always get applied fairly. The more money and power one has, the more access and leverage one can get within the political apparatus. Just ask the National Rifle Association or AIG. Thus, it becomes paradoxical to think that government policy, shaped as it is by lobbyists and special interests, will be equitable and fair. Turning to government to fix economic disparity is turning to the proxy for those at the top of the economic food chain. Those who want the government to intervene in the economy to correct economic disparities miss this paradox.

We have seen the government play favorites during the 2008–09 Wall Street bailouts. We have seen it play favorites in the subsidization of companies such as Tesla and Fisker (makers of $100,000 electric sports cars). Smaller banks, and companies without political influence, are left to sink or swim on their own, while larger ones, and ones that promote a government policy, are naturally aided by the government and use it to maintain an advantage.

Ideally we would see a free market solution adopted because people recognized the paradox and the futility of relying on the government. But a wholesale remake of the political economy is likely not going to take place. This isn’t to say that people are right to compromise their principles, but like a good quarterback, people tend simply to take what the defense will give them and enjoy small victories along the way.

The only feasible solution to this problem is to have simple, transparent government policies for regulations and taxes. The complexity of the tax code and the policies regulating business make it nearly impossible for anyone without a team of attorneys and accountants to chart a successful path. The federal tax code alone is so complicated that it’s not clear whether the fiscal cliff bargain raised or lowered taxes.

If simplicity and transparency were instituted, however, anyone who cared to pay attention would be qualified to do so, thus making it far more likely that the rules would be fairly written and fairly applied. The average citizen would no longer be at the mercy of politicians or pundits when struggling to decipher what the government had actually done.

Of course, simplicity and transparency would not generate economic equality either; but that's not the goal. Inequality is going to exist. Our primary concern ought to be with inequality generated, or exacerbated, by government intervention.




Share This


In the Land of Blind Men

 | 

I, like you, have become accustomed to the hypocrisies of collectivists established in politics and the popular culture. Examples are legion, but here are two that have stuck with me:

  • Sen. John Kerry, who once called Americans who avoid high taxes “traitors,” showed all the integrity you’d expect from a gigolo by docking his rich wife’s multi-million-dollar yacht in Rhode Island instead of his native Massachusetts to avoid paying some $500,000 in sales tax and other fees in the Bay State.
  • More recently, the past-his-expiration-date pop singer Bruce Springsteen grasped desperately at street credibility by claiming spiritual kinship with the Occupy Wall Street movement in between jaunts across the pond to watch his daughter jump horses in front of the Queen of England.

There’s a hardened cynicism to these charlatans that I can almost respect. They’re like the Soviet Union’s porcine apparatchiks, mumbling allegiance to the proletariat during the week before speeding off to their dachas for weekends of vodka, caviar, and ritzy mistresses. Decadent men, stewing in the karmic juices of false words and incoherent lives.

But I’m troubled by the paste-eating stupidity of younger collectivists. They’re too dumb to be cynical, too oblivious to be decadent. And they aren’t worthy adversaries.

Consider one Will Doig, a featured essayist for the online magazine Salon.com. The callow Mr. Doig’s beat is “Dream City,” which the mandarins of “progressive” politics at Salon.com describe as follows:

How should we build the cities of our dreams? How do we create the urban spaces which reflect our values and the ways we want to live? In cities around the world, the future is being created now — and Will Doig will chronicle the most exciting and innovative ideas.

Presumptuous use of pronouns. In the immortal words of Tonto: “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” Or “our”? And these points keep coming up.

A recent Doig essay was titled and blurbed “When the 1 percent say no / Cities need public transit and affordable housing. But outdated laws make it easy for the wealthy to block progress.” I’m not going to fisk the entire thing — if you’re so inclined, you can read it yourself. But I do want to point out a few, instructive examples of its stupidity.

Both title and subtitle smack of search-engine optimization (SEO) — the Internet marketing discipline of writing in a way that increases a web page’s likely ranking on Google, Yahoo, etc. In a relatively short space come several phrases cherished by collectivists: “1%,” “public transit,” “affordable housing,” “outdated laws,” and, of course, “the wealthy.” These phrases have taken on totemic qualities — and have lost any real meaning to a broad audience. As George Orwell points out in “Politics and the English Language,” such clichés elicit emotional response in a few hearts but cease to mean any actual thing.

(A note: Doig probably did not write the title/subtitle himself. At most magazines, staff editors do that. That’s especially true when the titles are chock-full of SEO buzzwords.)

Mr. Dream City begins his essay by excoriating the burghers of Beverly Hills for using California’s environmental-impact laws to prevent a segment of subway from being burrowed under their homes.

Right off, Doig makes several lazy mistakes:

  • His characterization of Beverly Hills as an enclave of the wealthiest few is wrong. Most of the city’s residents are professionals, mid- to upper-level corporate managers, and small-business owners desperate enough for status to rent or buy homes in an overpriced — even by southern California standards — ZIP code. The 1% live closer to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Opposition to the subway in Los Angeles is not limited to the strivers in Beverly Hills. Property owners (both residential and commercial) in just about every affected neighborhood have objected to the nuisance of lengthy construction since the decades-old project’s earliest days. The focus on the latest stage of the fight shows considerable selection bias.
  • Doig shows a remarkable obliviousness to irony. The strivers of Beverly Hills are using the same tactics that environmentalist opponents of private-sector real estate development have been using in California for decades. As a man of the Left, Doig should recognize Alinsky tactics: the attorneys and VPs are making the state follow the same Kafkaesque rules that they have to follow.

This blindness to irony abounds in Doig’s essay. Some of his complaints sound more like Donald Trump or the owner of your local strip-mall than Le Corbusier:

The threat of lawsuits and endless public hearings have delayed the project. . . . public micromanagement has become such a problem that several cities are now trying to rein in the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd. “The current process does not work for anyone,” one urban design expert told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We want the Planning Commission to focus on big planning issues, not micro-design issues.”

Public micromanagement? Dude, who’s supposed to oversee public projects? Some urban design expert’s “we”? I, for one, don’t want Planning Commissions focusing on anything. In most situations, I’d like to see them abolished. Put all land in private hands and let the largest property-owners in an area decide among themselves whether they want to spend the millions — or billions — required to build a mass transit system.

Of course, Doig’s “we” is the same as Pauline Kael’s “anyone.” More a reflection of the limits of his worldview than a first-person, plural.

Dream City also fails to grok, or even acknowledge, the role of personal property rights in the social contract. You won’t find the word “property” anywhere in the essay. And, as Doig doesn’t understand personal property, he doesn’t understand takings — something that the founders of this country understood so well that they limited the government’s property-taking power in several ways.

Here’s as close as he comes to stumbling across the concept of takings:

. . . in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act gave anyone in that state the power to stymie development by questioning its eco-friendliness, a right that’s routinely abused. These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken “concerned citizens.” . . . Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions.

A “new norm” where citizens assume their opinions carry weight? The stupidity of these sentences is so thick the passage reads like Swift satire. Sadly, it’s not. But it is an almost complete inversion of the reality of the last 40 years, when bogus public interest groups have stymied the plans of individuals and private entities to develop their own property.

To be clear, precious Will: the “personal opinions” of “individual residents” should carry great weight, especially when those residents own the land under which “we” would like to dig a massive subway tunnel. They are an important check against “our” taking or doing things that diminish the value of personal property.

The column ends up butchering the writings of several left-wing economists who study risk theory. The goal seems to be to set “anti-development activism” in the context of bad economic policy. But it fails because Doig doesn’t realize that most “development” is carried out not by some collectivist “we” but by individual private-sector entities. Even in Dream Cities.

I do like one of his conclusions, though: “if a proposed development’s impact is unclear, it’s crucial to take into account not just its unforeseen negative effects, but its unforeseen positive ones, too.” I’ll break out that quote the next time enviro-hipster carpetbaggers come to my county to protest the development of an empty lot into a golf course.

Salon.com isn’t a serious political magazine. Its business model seems to be to launch the TV careers of left-wing talking heads whose rising media profiles will result in clicks and advertising revenue. Bon chance. If its talking heads are as oblivious as Will Doig, we won’t have Salon.com to kick around for very much longer.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



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

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