I don’t often watch CBS’s 60 Minutes, but when I do, I want to see something as fun as Dave Grohl sauntering through New Orleans in a jazz parade while wearing an ABBA t-shirt.
I don’t often watch CBS’s 60 Minutes, but when I do, I want to see something as fun as Dave Grohl sauntering through New Orleans in a jazz parade while wearing an ABBA t-shirt.
When my friend James Gill and I get the chance, we sit down and he grills me. It’s all improv; I prepare nothing. And he channels the usual knee-jerk progressivism that lies about like a fog in American political culture. And blows it my way. I try to fan it off.
This one came out better than most. It starts off rocky. Jim’s barrage of assertions are so enormous and loaded that it could take a book to unpack the assumptions, and find what facts there may be littered in the murk. But once we get going, I make some halfway decent points. Those progressives who bother to listen and watch might see, at the very least, where I’m coming from, what I expect, and the view I have of the world.
I have no personal interest in marijuana. Can’t smoke it; don’t want to eat it.
But the idea of persecuting people for their simple pleasures strikes me as obviously unjust, and bespeaks of a busy-bodyism that I loathe.
Besides, the first obvious failure of Progressivism was Prohibition. The attempt to destroy America’s alcohol culture was mostly a disaster, and cost many, many innocent lives, and helped criminalize whole classes of people, including but not limited to the reactively ruthless supplier sector. Prohibition is called the “Noble Experiment,” but I deny to it any nobility — just as I deny to communists their comfy moral cushion that their favored forms of forced cooperation is “a good idea at heart” or “in theory.” Just as “sharing” that entails theft is evil, so, too, is “protection” that entails persecution.
Jacob Sullum, in his recent Reason Hit&Run piece, notes that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is the sole U.S. Senator to support marijuana decriminalization. My trouble with Merkley’s support is twofold:
1. He says that “both sides” of the debate have good arguments, while ultimately siding with decriminalization. In the context of Prohibition and the War on Drugs, I believe that this is utter nonsense. All my life I’ve heard the “case” against legal recreational drugs. It all rests on the goofy premise that, since one can ruin one’s life by over- or misuse of some drug, it is the business of “society” or “the state” to ruin the lives of dealers and users to prevent them from . . . ruining their lives. Yeah, right. It’s a brain-dead argument that thinks that coercion running counter to the normal division of responsibility (every person responsible first, for himself or herself) can end in more personal responsibility.
2. He’s so hesitant. Politicians are such cowards, unless they think they have a groundswell of tribal anger on their side. Have a little backbone!
Sullum ably addresses this problem, and Merkley’s singular status on the subject:
On the face of it, Merkley’s status as the Senate’s sole legalizer is puzzling, since recent polls indicate that somewhere between 48 percent (CBS News) and 58 percent (Gallup) of Americans think marijuana should be legal. You would think that more than 1 percent of the U.S. Senate would agree by now. The picture is similar in the House, where many members seem to agree with Roberts and Alexander that states should be free to legalize marijuana but very few are prepared to say it’s a good idea.
Legislators are much less shy about taking controversial positions on other contentious issues. When it comes to, say, abortion or gun control, there are plenty of senators and representatives on both sides of the debate, even though they are bound to alienate many voters by taking a stand. But on the subject of marijuana, politicians seem terrified of saying anything that could be portrayed as soft on drugs, even when dealing with reforms, such as legalizing medical use, that have had solid majority support for years. Presumably that’s because they think prohibitionists are more passionate than legalizers and therefore more likely to vote based on this issue. The only way to really test that hypothesis would be to follow Merkley’s lead and see what happens.
But he may be off in his conjecture. I think the reason is not one of prohibitionists’ passion, but of endemic statism. Both pro- and anti-abortion positions have a strong component of The State As Savior mentality, endemic, in their different ways, left and right in America. Gun control is a tribal issue for liberals, and one for conservative gun proponents as well. But marijuana decriminalization just seems too . . . individualistic.
And, at base, that’s neither conservative nor progressive. So it doesn’t fit in with politicians’ usual narrative voice and mythic stance. It’s basically a libertarian position, and that makes people who enter politics uncomfortable, because government these days assumes a great deal of power and a very small commitment to freedom.
In an addendum, Sullum takes up the case of Patty Murray, one of the two women senators from my state. She has expressed some vaguely “I am with my fellow state voters” sentiments about legal marijuana. But she’s more hesitant and cautious than her Oregon counterpart, she doesn’t count, yet, as a full supporter.
She just seems like another coward to m. And a progressive who distrusts freedom. But, even if compelled by the votes of her fellow Evergreen State citizenry, at least she’s less of a coward than most on Capitol Hill. Maybe there is hope for this airhead in tennis shoes yet.
Again, I have no personal interest in marijuana. But I support justice and the division of responsibility of a free society. So all drugs must be decriminalized. The war must stop.
The general picture I received from reading Currency Wars, by James Rickards, looks like this:
The world’s trade policies are run by leaders who stand in a circle, each holding a firearm. All of the major players then point their guns at their own heads, screaming, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
Politicians and media people applaud wildly.
It’s the world leaders who point at others and shoot that we call bad players.
But they all seem nuts to me.
A. Man is a tribal animal.*
B. I hate tribalism; I’m an individualist.†
C. I am not a man.‡
* Humans instinctively think and act in in-group/out-group fashion. The Friend/Enemy distinction is the most important distinction any person makes; where that distinction is widely drawn in the same way constitutes a culture, or perhaps nation. In-group love feeds off of out-group hate; fear of the out-group nurtures trust in the in-group. Liberalism grew to deal with this elementary and dangerous aspect of human nature. Modern liberals have found a way around this: they hate conservatives as the ultimate out-group.
† There are of course many meanings to “individualism” and “individualist.” I define individualism — my individualism, the classical liberal individualism — as the simultaneous method of focusing on individual action and behavior as the primary building block of all social systems (without denying emergent properties to those systems) and the norming of individual autonomy as a key to moral growth and human betterment. It is at base anti-tribal not in being against clans and tribes, but in being against tribal agendas as trumping and deciding what individuals may do. Individualism is the extension of the Law of the Stranger, and is a systematic regulation of deciding where coercion may be applied in assigning people to any possible out-group.
‡ Considering the low standards of the human, all-too-human, not finding inspiration in phrases like “man up” and “be a man” is hardly radical. In an age of the Last Man, and his low-level egoisms and altruisms, the Individual might laugh off suggestions of the Over-man, but hey: he’s gotten over being merely a man.
It is possible, of course, for a woman to transcend such old norms, too. All one has to do is meet a competent woman professional, or a confident married mother homeschooling her children, and you may see a fine example of an over-woman. A woman “so over” her tribal inheritance. But, alas, the modal Last Man, today, is either a welfare mom or a “mangina.” Servility is the lot of the average person in a welfare state — the servility of the kept pet. The kind who always votes for “her party.”
It is time for White Fang to Go Dingo.
Those of us who learn on our own to think for ourselves do not require immersion into the work of writers who relentlessly promote “rationality” and “reason.” We accept it as bedrock. We move on.
That is my usual explanation to my friends who admire Ayn Rand, or who went through an “Ayn Rand phase,” or were once or (alas) are now self-describing as a “student of Objecctivism.” She was of little use to me. I read her “too late” for her work to have an impact.
I waited until I was 22 before I opened the pages of The Fountainhead. I had read, the year before, the essays making up The Virtue of Selfishness. I liked the novel. But I was not blown away. I grew leery of the essays. But it took me a while to see her central error.
I had already discovered the “pro-liberty” novels I needed in my teens: The Once and Future King, Titus Groan, Brave New World and others. As for philosophy, I had read Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and as much as I could find out about anarchism in my backwater locale before I found and devoured Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which did indeed “blow my mind.” But I did not come to any big conclusions about political philosophy for several years, until after I had read more, including some economics.
Before political philosophy, I confronted religion. Also without Ayn Rand’s help.
I started, in a sense, with C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, which, as a Christian, I judged dishonest, and moved on to consider a wide array of ideas. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man was a bit of a challenge, in that I learned a lot from the book, but came to disapprove of its basic modus: attacking low-level exponents of a philosophy (the textbook writers who annoyed him so much) without addressing that philosophy’s high-level theorists (Ogden, Richards, Ayer, Stevenson). Surely that was a form of intellectual dishonesty as well.
So I by the time I was 20 I was reading existentialists and Walter Kauffmann and C.S. Peirce and many others. I had put aside Heidegger. I had bracketed Husserl. I was thinking for myself. By 22 I had moved from a sort of Millian liberalism to something like a full-blown libertarianism, without any input from Rand.
Hence my jesting status as a member of the Null Rand League. I am one of those individualists — rare in my generation — who has not been influenced by Ayn Rand directly, except in the negative, and whose intellectual inheritance comes from other sources. I had read Lysander Spooner and Auberon Herbert and Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises before I ever read one word of Ayn Rand. (I had also read Marx, Schumacher, Wilson and many, many others of an anti-libertarian stripe.)
And when I did finally get to The Fountainhead (and only because a cute girl I knew had read it), I was impressed with parts of it, and creeped out by a few things as well. (I have written about this before.) As for her philosophy at large, I have many problems with it. (Also written about elsewhere.) So I simply am not the go-to person to write a level-headed reappraisal of Rand. I have never been bitten by the bug. I have never had to recover, or fight it off to any great extent.
So Charles Murray’s recent piece on the subject is worth consulting. I have no problem with it. And I do have many friends who would concur. Though he does not float one idea I have often heard — that her best work of fiction was her first.
But, once again, I have read neither We, the Living, nor Atlas Shrugged. I cannot even stomach a foray into the much shorter Anthem.
This conclusion to Murray’s review seems spot on:
Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.
The “greed is good” theme that progressives revile so much in Rand is, to the extent it is there, of course idiotic. Greed is the excess of acquisitiveness, which is a necessity; despising profit and the profit motive is for witless ninnies. But the excess of a virtue is not virtuous. It is the definition of vice. Even suggesting that greed is good is folly.
But hey: Rand extolled what she called “selfishness” more often than greed. And redefined it, and balled it all up, too, in the process. But give her her due.
So it is good to see an interpretation on the utopian element in Atlas Shrugged interpreted in a way more in line with the moral and political philosophy of Bastiat and Spencer than with what we might think of as Ayn Rand’s.
Whatever she wrote about the subject, I didn’t need her to tell me. I worked out my thoughts on utopianism by reading Nozick, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and many other books, and by confronting economic theory and the realities of history . . . on my own, without one one guide to call “hero” or “master.”
What classical liberals call the market order — and what many people just make do with as “the free society” — is about reciprocity, not equality.
Further, the governmental institutions of such a society should not be based on the family, but should enable families and other voluntary, peaceful organizations to coexist. Neither of George Lakoff‘s competing family paradigms, right-wing “paternalism” or left-wing “maternalism” — nor the Abel-to-raise-Cain “fraternalism” of the French Revolution — should be idealized for great-society governance.
The “family” paradigm of the State, or civil society, is dangerous.
What we want are the standards that treat strangers not as family members, but as non-threats. That is, the stranger is not your brother, or sister, worth special concern. But neither should he or she be assumed to be The Enemy. The non-familial other must not be automatically regarded as an out-group usurper — unless the stranger actually starts usurping.
So, to repeat, the standard for the free society must not be family-based, but merely civilized. Allow for the stranger. Do not immediately include the stranger in intimate society.
In other words: a middle ground. Between social inclusion and social exclusion lies the just indifference and toleration and forbearance we give to unknown but sometimes quite nearby others. This middle ground is where manners should have its most important governing role.
Each person should not merely be allowed to favor his or her allies and clans and friends, but encouraged to do so. But those instances of inclusion must not be automatically construed so to exclude the outsider with force, bigotry or institutionalized persecution. The freedom of association that allows such a varied mix to flourish also requires non-inclusion, just not belligerent exclusion.
The equal application of the standard of justice is not equality as construed by today’s self-styled progressives. The classical republican virtue of the equal application of a universal standard allows for, indeed requires, reciprocal relations as the social norm. Not equality-as-identity, or as identical (or even comparable) allocations.
Now, the regime of contract that this enables is a kind of social equality — and that is all that Tocqueville meant when he wrote about the amazing “equality of conditions” in the America of 1835 — and is basically freedom as practically understood. This standard does not demand Christian charity to all comers. It demands the kind of commutative justice and limits to coercion that serve as the inherited commonsense morality of the Western tradition (and many Eastern traditions as well).
Distributive justice — “social justice,” with its advocates’ perverse love of a literal “equality” — has no place in the open society other than in voluntary associations. Which include families and clans and churches and synagogues as well as the local Rotary or Odd Fellows.
The motto for freedom-loving liberals (“libertarians”?) should not be “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but “liberty, reciprocity, civility.”
I wrote the forewords to both volumes of Laissez Faire Books’ ebook editions of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (I and II). Though this book is a much-admired classic, it astounds me how few people I meet have read it. Perhaps the challenge of the book wards them off. Perhaps the concept of “the tyranny of the majority,” floated in the first volume, and the chapter on the kind of tyranny that could grow in democracy, in the second, are, together, too much of a challenge for the tender ears of modern politically correct ideologues. Maybe the idea that a Frenchman in 1835 could not merely accurately predict, but acutely describe, the moral failures of the modern age is just too much.
And, while you are at it, take a look back in French history, when government “hope and change” ruined an economy, deeply crippling a culture, and brought on totalitarian state terror. Read Andrew Dickson White’s excellent discussion of fiat money inflation in France, during the revolutionary period. I wrote the foreword to that book, too.
My adventure in court, this morning, proved more than amusing.
The judge got a kick out of it, too. Smiles all around, until the end.
I went to plea mitigating circumstances, and inquired how the court’s educational task in fining me for “unlawful lane change” could serve a purpose, since, believe me, lessons learned. (Unexpectedly falling asleep, driving off the road, and totaling the car and walking out alive is a bracing experience, more than enough education for one day.) He offered me the standard deferment out, I rebuffed it, asking, instead, for a complete dismissal. There was some badinage. And the judge consulted the dour prosecutor, who had all the humanity of an autobot Bill O’Reilly simulacrum. (The prosecutor expressed surprise that I had not been cited with a negligent driving charge. I challenged the prosecutor’s logic about the plausibility of this hypothetical alternate citation, arguing that it would have been inapposite, since negligence seemed to me to imply moral culpability, which seemed a huge stretch in this case.)
I didn’t bother making the case that, on some private turnpikes, the owners of the roads don’t seek penalties so much as help people after accidents. In private enterprise, unlike under road socialism, the paternalistic impulse to discipline and punish is replaced by a more common-sense (and humane) standard. The reason for my reticence? A mitigation hearing seemed an inappropriate occasion to cry “Out of order? This court is out of order!”
The judge merely took $25 off the ticket. And went all serioso at the conclusion, when he gave a most implausible rationale for the fine — nonsensical, really. But government must be served, and the awesome dignity of traffic court must carry on. Or so say all reasonable men.
In the hall afterwards, a lawyer gave me a thumbs up, saying “good try.” More smiles at my quixotic legal gambit.
Aristotle: Man is the Rational Animal.
Freud: Man is the Rationalizing Animal.
Economists: Man is the Rationing Animal.
Technocrats: Man is just another animal to be rationed.