Getting Ready for October 21

 | 

For a long time,  I’ve been reporting on the apocalyptic prophecies of Family Radio, the group that identified May 21, 2011, as the date for the manifestation of Christ and the rapture of God's elect. When that date passed without either the Rapture or the great earthquake that Family Radio’s founder and chief, Harold Camping, had predicted, it was a big news story. It got enormous attention around the world. As I’ve been saying, this was actually a significant event, not just a media event, because it provided the best chance we’ll probably ever have of seeing what occurs when prophecy conclusively fails for a large group of people.

What followed May 21 was a process familiar to students of apocalyptic history — the spiritualization of the failed prophecy. Camping, who at first seemed stunned by the complete normality of May 21, soon decided that the earthquake had actually occurred, but it had been a spiritual earthquake, signaling an invisible and wholly spiritual Last Judgment. According to him, the enrollment of the elect had been completed; all that remained was the final elimination of the non-elect, which would take place, as he had previously prophesied, on October 21, 2011, when the physical universe would be totally destroyed. God's activity would thus be visible on October 21 as it should have been on May 21. Camping suggested that the remaining months of Family Radio’s existence would be devoted to quiet cultivation of the spiritual lives of the elect, not the attempted conversion of persons irrevocably condemned.

Already, however, there was strong evidence that many, if not most, of the people at Family Radio's headquarters in Oakland, California were dissenters from the official message. Most broadcasts on the worldwide radio network had ignored Camping's distinctive doctrines and predictions. Many broadcasts were devoted to presentations that contradicted his doomsday prophecies — discussions of health maintenance, provision for old age, long-term strategies for child rearing, care for the environment, and so forth.

Camping’s new emphasis appeared to satisfy both the believers and the nonbelievers within the organization. The former could continue to believe whatever he said; the latter could go about their normal business, unworried about the need to convert anyone to his unusual ideas. Family Radio’s website withdrew all direct mention of Camping's endtime books and pamphlets, although it continued, and continues, to run a link to his quaint answer to the question, “What Happened on May 21?

Yes, we got a few details wrong about the second coming, or the total collapse of the financial system, or the destruction of the middle class, or the coming of global warming (which used to be global cooling), but thank the Maker that the Message still got out.

Then, on June 9, Camping, age 89, suffered a stroke. He was hospitalized, and his Monday through Friday live broadcasts ceased. Virtually the only Campingite voice on Family Radio was that of an epigone, one Chris McCann, who kept preaching the party line about May 21 and October 21, though without Camping’s goofy panache. In a recorded talk that FR broadcast on August 12 (one of a series of talks that is still going on), McCann said of the apocalypse of May 21, “In some small degree it didn’t happen.”

In August, Family Radio’s monthly direct-mail fundraising letter quoted listeners who thanked FR for its message, even though May 21 didn’t turn out to be exactly what they had been led to anticipate. “I am not disappointed with anyone at Family Radio," one listener said. "I believe all intentions were good.” The letter betrayed no visible embarrassment on FR's part. But the September letter didn't mention May 21, or October 21, either. It contented itself with an understated request for support. So the stage was set for a full, though gradual, withdrawal from predictions and disconfirmations.

On September 20 came the news, delivered by website, that Camping had returned to his home, followed on September 27 by a recording of Camping’s own voice — firm and clear, only a little slurred, and precisely the same in reasoning and intention as his pre-stroke explanations of what had occurred and will occur in 2011.

In this new message, Camping reasserted the idea that October 21 will see the end of the physical universe. The elect will survive; the non-elect (everyone not saved by May 21) will perish eternally. His one addition came in response to a question of urgent concern among his remaining followers: what will happen to the unsaved members of our families?

Camping had already established the doctrine that only 200,000,000 people, out of the billions who have ever inhabited this planet, are among the elect. Now he offered consolation to people about to be deprived of their families and friends. He said it is likely that there will be no violence on October 21: “Probably there will be no pain. . . . They will quietly die and that will be the end of their stories.”

“The end," he went on, "is going to come very, very quietly, probably during the next month, probably by October 21.” Lest you mistake “probably” as a concession to uncertainty, he also said, “I am very convinced that all the elect will go to be with the Lord in a very few weeks.” Regrettably, however, from the point of view of his own credibility, he recurred to an idea that he had been preaching before his stroke — his explanation of why God had let him go so wrong about May 21. There were a lot of things, he said, that “we” didn’t understand, but it was good that God had withheld the full truth; it was good that God had let Camping declare, in the most dogmatic terms, that there would be a literal cataclysm on May 21 — because if he hadn't, the rest of his message wouldn't have aroused much interest.

Here is the unconscious cynicism that religious and secular prophets so often display. Yes, we got a few details wrong about the second coming, or the total collapse of the financial system, or the destruction of the middle class, or the coming of global warming (which used to be global cooling), but thank the Maker that the Message still got out. So please keep trusting and respecting us, the people uniquely qualified to convey such Messages.

I will continue to report on events at Family Radio. My current, highly fallible prediction is that within a few months after October 21, Mr. McCann will vanish from the broadcast schedule, the greatness of Mr. Camping will be institutionally recalled, but not his teachings, and Family Radio will return to a more or less typical Christianity — unrepentant, unconfessed, and unwilling to remember the great events of 2011. Such is the way of this sinful world.




Share This


Enron, Solyndra, and Double Standards

 | 

In the wake of the Solyndra debacle, no less than the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association — one Rhone Resch — opined, “It’s going to be very similar to Enron’s legacy in the oil and gas industry” (though he quickly added, “Just in the sense of a history that flared out fairly quickly and fairly publicly”). Enron, we all recall, was the energy company that hit the wall after misleading investors with fraudulent financial reports.

Pace Resch, I think that the comparison between Solyndra and Enron is a false analogy. It overlooks their salient differences. First and foremost, when Enron went bust, it didn’t burn the American taxpayer, which Solyndra most assuredly did. It had nearly a half billion bucks in guaranteed loans, which the taxpayer must now cover.

Second, while Solyndra’s CEO was a major supporter of Obama, as Enron’s was of Bush, when Enron’s CEO called the White House for help, he got none; but when Solyndra’s head called his buddy in the White House, he got plenty.

Third, the mainstream media trumpeted the Enron fiasco for months, using it as a handy cudgel with which to bash Bush; but the media have been virtually silent about the Solyndra mess, even in the face of the Solyndra execs pleading the Fifth before a congressional committee trying to investigate the mess.

Fourth, it is doubtful that Hollywood will make a movie about Solyndra, as it did with Enron (The Smartest Guys in the Room), indicting both the industry and the president. The Green neo-socialists — aka Watermelons — are much too worshipful of both the solar industry and Obama.




Share This


Thoughts on “Hayekian Insights for Trying Economic Times”

 | 

Following a recent panel at the Cato Institute commemorating the publication of a new edition of F.A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, Arnold Kling brought to my attention a recent essay on Hayek by Bruce Caldwell. On the panel, Caldwell provided a thorough and concise refutation of George Soros’s blatant misreading of Hayek. Naturally, I sought Caldwell's essay out.

In this work, “Ten (Mostly) Hayekian Insights for Trying Economic Times,” Caldwell seeks to “identify 10 key themes to be found in the writings of Hayek and others in the tradition to which he belonged that may provide some insights into how we might respond to the current dilemmas that we face.” The essay is thought-provoking, and several points are worthy of further discussion.

Theme #1: The business cycle is a necessary and unavoidable concomitant of a free-market money-using economy.

Caldwell cites Austrian business cycle theory to proffer an explanation of the recent financial crisis:

Hayek’s theory offers a pretty good description of at least part of what happened in the latest meltdown, especially in terms of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policy and its effects on the housing sector. In Hayek’s theory, problems start when the market rate of interest is held too low for too long. This always politically popular policy leads to malinvestment — too many investment projects get started that cannot ultimately be sustained. When people realize what has happened, investment spending collapses and a recession begins. The dangers of a prolonged low-interest-rate regime in distorting how the various factors of production in the economy are allocated — what the Austrians call the structure of production — is something to take away from the theory, especially given the political popularity of such a policy.

My understanding of the Austrian business cycle theory is the same as Caldwell’s, but I characterize it a bit differently. As I understand it, a fiat monetary system creates money and then disperses it via banks — in the U.S., the 12 regional Fed banks — to selected customers and then out to the rest of the economy. When the flow waxes or wanes, the wave crests, and troughs move over various segments of the public, leading to higher or lower investment and consumption.

These monetary phenomena may not accord with the underlying realities of consumer demands. That mismatch can beget over- or underinvestment, thus creating a bubble and then the inevitable collapse. Commodity markets have evolved many mechanisms to reduce the severity of such fluctuations — including hedging, stockpiling, and alternative technologies.

Would a competitive money supply reduce the business cycle problem in a similar fashion? I recognize that the idea may be viewed as radical, but then many classical liberal concepts are seen as radical in our illiberal political environment.

Theme #2: The 1970s show why Keynesian economics was rejected.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Keynesian policies created their own backlash — a consequence of the economic calamities they begat.

When inflation began to appear in the late 1960s due to LBJ’s deficits, a precisely calibrated income tax surcharge designed to tamp down demand was imposed. Yet because it was viewed as temporary, it had no effect, and inflation continued to rise. This was the first signal that the machine metaphor might have been the wrong one.

Things got much worse in the 1970s as inflation turned into stagflation. The main lesson of the 1970s was that once inflation gets started, it is very difficult to get rid of it. To fight it, the government has to tighten up the economy. This in turn induces unemployment, and because the effect on inflation is not immediate, for a time both the unemployment rate and the inflation rate go up together.

Sadly, Keynesian economics was not rejected for long. We’re all Keynesians again — falling prey to government “stimulus” and scientistic fallacies. Government doesn’t need to “prime the pump.” Rather, we need a deregulatory stimulus to free the nation’s creative economic forces. As Wayne Crews, CEI’s vice president for policy, puts it:You don’t need to teach the grass to grow; simply move the rocks off of it!

Theme #3: Some regulation is necessary . . .

The comment by Caldwell that I most enjoyed at the Cato forum was his citing of Hayek’s response to Wassily Leontief’s furious attack on him, which essentially boiled down to, “How dare you criticize planning!” Hayek’s answer was that the question was not whether to plan or not, but rather, Who should plan for whom.

In his essay, Caldwell defines this distinction: “The sort of planning that Hayek favored was a general system of rules, one that would best enable individuals to carry out their own plans.” He adds, “For markets to work effectively, they must be embedded in a set of complementary social institutions.” Indeed, the regulatory disciplines of a competitive marketplace are generally far more effective than the regulatory disciplines of a politicized bureaucracy.

Theme #4: . . . but a lot of regulation is fraught with problems and will make matters worse.

Caldwell makes an important point about the speed and wisdom of bureaucrats:

The basic Austrian insight here is that entrepreneurs (including those who realize there is money to be made from devising ways of getting around regulations) are always forward-looking, while regulators and legislators are almost of necessity backward-looking.

While there might be a handful of individuals knowledgeable in the complexities of financial engineering, the likelihood that such individuals will find employment in a federal regulatory agency satisfying is nil.

And even if such wise individuals existed and were willing to toil away in government planning offices, their actions would still be hampered by the fact that no one else would know what they’re up to at any one time, and how long it would be before they would change course.

Regulation also inserts uncertainty. As Hayek put it, “the more the state ‘plans,’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” There was plentiful evidence of this in the recent downturn. In the fall of 2008, each announcement by the Fed and the Department of the Treasury, while meant to reassure the markets, produced more and more panic. It also froze people into inaction. One could imagine the decision-making process that took place in many people’s minds: “Should I hold onto my house that is underwater, in the hopes of a government bailout? Should I buy a car now that the prices are low or wait for some government program that will cause them to fall even lower? A stimulus plan is coming, and I don’t know what it will look like; probably best to delay all decision-making for now, to wait and see.”

Over and over again, we encounter examples of people basing their decisions on trying to guess what the government is going to do. Contrast this with what happens in well-functioning markets, where people make their decisions principally by looking at changes in market prices, prices that reflect underlying scarcities.

Indeed, government bureaucrats have no means to convey information as effectively as prices can.

Theme #5: The economy is an essentially complex phenomenon for which precise forecasting — on which the construction of rational policy depends — is ruled out.

Exactly — and when we put all our eggs in the same basket, the results of errors are magnified. “[T]he things that we actually do know all concern limitations on our knowledge and on our ability to formulate and carry out rational policy,” Caldwell notes; and continues:

This does not mean that policymakers cannot get things right when it comes to managing the economy as a whole. It is just that sometimes stabilization policy stabilizes the economy, and sometimes it destabilizes it, and we usually can’t tell in advance — and sometimes not even in retrospect — which scenario is unfolding or has unfolded.

Theme #6: In any complex social order, any action may have both good and bad unintended consequences.

One reason for optimism is the fact that the term “unintended consequences” has entered the public policy debate. Perhaps the fallacies of central planning are becoming clearer?

The bad side of unintended consequences is that many attempts to impose our will on the complex adaptive system that is the economy cause things to happen that were not part of our original intention. For example, as everyone recognizes, a market system does not satisfy our longings for “social justice.” In response, well-intentioned people — or those with interests who can play on the sentiments of the well-intentioned — naturally seek to make adjustments in a market system so as to produce more desirable results. Unfortunately, time and again, history has demonstrated that . . . all sorts of pernicious effects will occur that were not part of the original intention.

As I’ve argued before, during the Great Depression, people wisely distrusted big business, so they turned to big government — which had never been tried in peacetime — as a more attractive option. Today neither is trusted, which improves the odds for a more realistic comparative assessment of markets vs. government.

Theme #7: Basic economic reasoning captures what we can know and say about the essentially complex phenomenon that we call the economy.

Following Hayek, Caldwell describes the market economy as a mechanism for the efficient allocation of scarce goods. He is pleased that "basic insights about the workings" of the market are now built into economic education:

These tools allow us to talk about the fundamental fact of scarcity, the choices that scarcity makes necessary, the costs of choice, and the ways to push back against scarcity, at which point the notions of the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, the productivity of capital, and the gains from trade are introduced. If one adds to these the concepts of elasticity of demand and supply, and some basic intuitions about market structures, one can explain a lot about the world, as anyone who has ever taught an introductory economics course knows.

Here I have some major disagreements. I find the view of economics as a system for efficiently allocating scarce goods, a view that Caldwell seems to favor, overly static. I prefer the Coasian view of the market as a set of institutions for lowering the transaction costs of voluntary exchanges. In this regard, I’m influenced by Joseph Schumpeter, who noted:

A system — any system, economic or other — that at every given point of time fully utilizes its possibilities to the best advantage may yet in the long run be inferior to a system that does so at no given point of time, because the latter’s failure to do so may be a condition for the level or speed of long-run performance.

I recall my own undergraduate one-year course in economics. When presented with the positive-sum nature of exchange driven only by self-interest, I asked, “Why wouldn’t the party that held both items in a given transfer just stop the transaction at that moment?" Most transfers involve a period when one party holds both items and at that (possibly brief) moment, short-term self-interest would entice that party to not complete the transaction and singularly benefit. My professor didn’t understand my concern, and only years later did I come to understand that markets “work” because both parties hope to engage in future transactions. If they default once, they will face either cultural or legal sanctions and will at least find it hard to identify future transaction partners. That is, before a world of voluntary exchanges can occur, institutions (cultural or legal sanctions, an expectation of future exchanges) must exist — institutions that discipline transfers. (In a priori probabilistic terms introduced by Ronald Coase, the transaction costs must have been reduced earlier to make such transfers mutually advantageous.

Of course, when I asked my question, economics professors had no interest in or understanding of the role of institutions in lowering transaction costs, of making markets possible. And often they still don't have that interest or understanding. Most people trying to understand why markets exist are unaware of the evolution of the institutions that make voluntary exchange viable. Naiveté about “markets” has led to “market socialism” and “market mechanisms” and other collectivist beliefs that markets can be created from whole cloth by means of top-down political planning. Consider, for example, the various emission trading systems that are now being proposed. The late Warren Nutter aptly noted: “Markets without property rights are a grand illusion.” He was discussing the mechanical attempts in Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain to replicate markets, but the principle is true elsewhere.

Unfortunately, modern economics is often based on static equilibrium models designed to be solved rather than to resemble reality. Coase became a nonperson in the economics profession (as did most Austrians), in large part because he kept asking embarrassing questions of this sort.

Theme #8: Demands for social justice can be satisfied.

I believe that this was Hayek’s biggest mistake.

Somewhat controversially in the eyes of certain Austrians and libertarians, Hayek argued that in a society that had reached the general level of wealth that Britain or the US had achieved, “there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody,” and also that the state should “assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision.”

Granted, Hayek’s concept of a “safety net” was quite minimal in comparison to that of our modern welfare state, but to argue for it in the first place leads inevitably to unsustainable middle-class entitlements. We may not be able to avoid such policies altogether, but to endorse them is to endorse the instability of the welfare-regulatory state. Hayek struggled with this dilemma; I do not think he ever resolved it. (This may be the reason that, in a previous Cato panel, Richard Epstein argued that Hayek never overcame his social democratic roots.)

Theme #9: Freely adjusting market prices helps solve the knowledge problem and allow social coordination (the basic Hayekian insight).

Here I agree completely. I consider Hayek's “The Use of Knowledge in Society” the most important essay in economics. The idea embodied in that work was the essence of the market calculus debate between von Mises and Hayek on one side and Lerner, Lange, and Kornai on the other. Caldwell offers a good summation of Hayek’s view.

The question that must be solved in constructing a rational economic order in such a world is: How can we use the knowledge that is dispersed among millions of fallible market agents so as to achieve some level of social coordination and cooperation?

Hayek’s answer was that a market system with freely adjusting market-determined prices is, when embedded within an appropriate institutional structure, a marvelous mechanism for coordinating human action.

Unfortunately, many modern economists — including some self-avowed “free market” economists — have ignored Hayek’s view on this topic, as the vogue for Pigouvian taxes and quotas illustrates.

Theme #10: The basic "public choice" idea is true: more often than not, government cures are not only worse than the disease, but lead to further disease.

I largely agree with Caldwell’s valuation of public choice economics in helping to explain why government grows and rarely recedes.

Public choice theorists believe that politicians, like everyone else, act in their own self-interest. If consumers maximize utility, firms maximize profits, and politicians maximize votes, what do bureaucrats maximize? The answer is troubling: Bureaucrats have an incentive to maximize the size of the bureaucracy under their control.

However, I find that public choice focuses too heavily on economic motivations, without taking other factors into account. Public policy is a two-tier process that includes both economic and ideological interest groups. Public choice thinkers tend to ignore the motivations of the latter, even though their influence is often much greater than that of business people or other economically motivated groups.

Bruce Yandle’s “Baptists and bootleggers” paradigm illustrates how economic and ideological groups often interact to pursue shared agendas. One group — the Baptists — advocates prohibition on moral grounds, while another unrelated group — the bootleggers — profits from the extralegal opportunities created by policies resulting from the former’s moral crusade. There has, however, been too little attention paid to the ideological groups.

Much of publicpolicy is driven by ideological groups crafting narratives that effectively link their favorite policies with core social values. Aaron Wildavsky and Mary Douglas argued that people respond to a policy by a quick decision as to whether that policy advances or threatens their core values. That decision will be influenced by the narratives communicated about policy.

Today’s “Baptists” are often environmental, labor, “consumer,” “human rights” groups advocating government intervention in the economy to advance some feel-good cause. To date, free market advocates have been far less effective than the left in crafting narratives that persuade a majority of people that classical liberal policies advance core values — whether these be equality, fairness, order, or security — better than do statist ones.

In conclusion, I should note two questions that I believe Hayek neglected to explore adequately. The first is: why do so many bad policies evolve and survive? (Granted, Hayek's “The Atavism of Socialism” essay deals with that theme to some extent.) The other question is: how could Hayek's own ideas be implemented? His focus on “What do we know and how do we know it?” was crucial, but more attention to “How do we change it?” would have been valuable.

Hayek did have a change agenda — one I agree with — but he did not clarify sufficiently what we could do to bring that about. His recommendation to fight the war of ideas is necessary, but not sufficient. Still, few others have done as much as Hayek, whose work I consider critical in the battle for the future of civilization.

ldquo;free market




Share This


Making Sauerkraut

 | 

Last spring, I took advantage of low cabbage prices and the still cool temperatures in the cellar to make my biannual batch of sauerkraut. I spent a pleasant hour turning ten dollars in raw materials into 50 dollars worth of kraut. Making the kraut requires hand mixing of salt, cabbage, onions, etc., a process that always makes me think of John Locke and property.

Locke’s Second Treatise talks about the individual taking raw, worthless land (as in America) and converting it into property if “he had mixed his labor with it and joined it to something of his own and thereby made it his property.” Locke undoubtedly knew that the word “property” comes from the Latin proprius and means “one’s own” or part of the very person himself. Locke (and Ayn Rand) felt that property was that which the individual needed to earn a living and avoid being a slave.

In Locke’s time, raw forest and prairie abounded and was worthless. Productive farmland was needed to make a living by most people — hence his emphasis on the effect of work on raw land. Nowadays, farmland in much of the U.S. is reverting to forest, but there has emerged plenty of raw material open to anyone for exploitation — an innovative business idea, and possibly a vague theoretical concept that could be turned into a brilliant invention or, as in my case, cheap cabbage to make sauerkraut. No matter what the raw material, adding labor makes it become the property, a part of the very substance, of whoever found and developed the unexploited potential.

Property in this Lockean sense seems to be restricted to things that an individual develops, evolves, or uses and are part of how he makes a living, what he thinks, or how he fits in with others. The property owner, personally involved in the production and enjoyment of his property, becomes so closely identified with the object that it becomes almost indistinguishable from himself. It’s only a small leap to see that the lived life of the individual also develops from raw potential.

I’ll illustrate this framework with my personal circumstances. My education and training, work history, experience, and business contacts are my formal means of making a living. My home, automobile, the books and computers that I use to entertain myself are certainly my property. My thoughts and dreams, the videos that I make, my conversations, the articles that I write, my family, friends, and my civic life (serving on several voluntary boards, etc.) — in short, the stuff that constitutes my daily lived experience, was either conjured out of nothing by focused work or grew out during a long quiet life. All this must be reckoned among my properties. I consider the customs, habits and hopes that can be construed as features of a moral life as part of my being and so my property as well.

But there is the second sense of “property” that is more troubling for me. As a result of working hard and living frugally I’ve accumulated unexpended work as savings and pensions that are invested in various financial instruments. I’d like to reflect on how this form of property, which I’ll call “investments,” differs from the property of my day-to-day lived life.

Let’s say that I buy 100 shares of some large corporation. Was my involvement anything more than doing some research on that stock and putting it into my online stock account? Is this investment really embedded in my life? The corporation was started many years ago by individual owners who made it their property and embedded in their lives. Ownership was eventually divided among an ever enlarging circle of partners, share holders, and lenders. It’s now divided in a million ways, but very few of the present owners either understand or have the information necessary to make good business decisions. Most are not critically dependent on this one stock and see it only as an accounting entry in a properly diversified portfolio.

This company has in fact become a public-private partnership run by an incestuous gang of managers and directors, all cooperating with government officials and forming a kind of nomenklatura. It typically plays fast and loose with ethical business practices, sponsors ad hoc laws to restrict competition, obfuscates losses, makes money with which it handsomely rewards the in-group, buys politicians, and keeps the stockholders placid.

Such companies can be vindicated to some extent. They cause big things to happen; large projects get built, and markets remain tranquil. The accusation of greed (one of the seven deadly sins) makes no sense when directed at these impersonal entities. Corporations are at once property and also hold property, and those property rights must be respected. Analytically, corporations are fungible, that is, can be bought and sold on a whim (try to sell my professional status on the stock market). It is individuals, not corporations, that hold the spoon; these companies are surprisingly vulnerable to changes in public tastes.

From my perspective, investments have evolved naturally in a normal free-market economy as the main insurance we have against age and illness. Stocks and bonds (and a Social Security check, if I can cut a chunk out of the pig’s ass as it waddles past) are necessary for a time when I can no longer earn a living by using my Lockean property. My CPA points out that wealth is important, not because it allows the individual to do nothing, but because it allows the individual to make better decisions. Investments do affect the owner in good ways.

But it irks me that I have no choice but to invest in such Juggernauts (an apt metaphor for ponderous objects of worship that sometimes crushed their devotees). I’m alienated from these investments; their methods and effects do not reflect my moral and intellectual values. They often operate against the commonweal and employ arbitrary political power that is foreign to my nature. They are impersonal and therefore amoral. Their investments are often mysterious, chaotic, and irrational. They are unprincipled, untethered from moral codes.

How can I deal with my disquiet?

I could follow news events regarding my holdings and sell my stock when I see something that particularly irks me. Boycotts can be employed when corporations cross some ill-defined moral line. I can vote or run against politicians who take money or do favors for corporations. Corporations won’t hire anarchists like me, so working on the inside is not an option.

In short, I can’t do very much. It's not the least bit like making sauerkraut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          




Share This


All-American Johnny and the Educators

 | 

The debate over Johnny and the American educators goes on. Who’s more to blame for the problems in our public schools? The star maverick educator Michelle Rhee said the other night on a talk show she could see students getting paid for a good performance. The conservative education professionals simply say that “Johnny,” meaning most of the public school students, has to do better, to make our schools better. Parents say that educators will have to teach him better to make our schools better. Educators are beating up Johnny in the press to make their accusation strong. He needs to get real (which is as strong as their language gets). Ordinary lay folk know things aren’t right in America’s public schools. Some powerful politicians are demanding our schools be the best in the world.

We don’t need to be in an international contest. We have a lot to do here at home. “High schools are the downfall of American school reform,” said Jack Jennings, President of the D.C. Center on Education Policy. This disclosure pointed the finger. Educators knew the problem was this deep. They kept the scandal this buried. The public high schools in America number 27,000, and they have on their rolls millions of students; and 7,000 drop out every day. Administrators don’t know what to do about the high schools.

Powerful politicians are also making us accept over 100,000-plus foreign students from Latin America and Asia in our schools, who depress the test scores. They have trouble with the tests in English, and sometimes with discipline. Johnny is in a classroom of noisy students from many cultures and can’t get serious about paying attention when the teacher is busy keeping order in the class. Johnny doesn’t get rigorous tutoring at home and study discipline. He doesn’t score well on tests, which is not totally his fault.

Our high schools can’t do better when they’re like this, forced to be politically correct. Is this why Johnny doesn’t like being taught with “them”? Donal O’Shea, Dean of Faculty, Mount Holyoke College, and author of The Poincare Conjecture (referring to the formidable topological theorem the western world has been trying to prove for 100 years) dropped another bomb on American education in his March 2007 Forbes essay, saying that in 1985, of the million students who received bachelor’s degrees that year, only 16,000 majored in math or statistics. More disturbing, of the 1.4 million who received bachelor’s degrees in 2004, only 13,300 majored in math or statistics. More and more of our high schools are letting their students graduate with little or no science and math and serious humanities education. Graduates who go to college anyway mostly are woefully weak.

The public high schools in have on their rolls millions of students; and 7,000 drop out every day.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that Johnny should read more. Although no one of his stature should have to say that reading is serious, it's clear that Johnny has to do much more reading to improve his articulation and language crafts — the kind of reading that doesn't always register on standardized tests. Harvard educated actor Matt Damon recently told a reporter, “We’re tying teacher salaries to how well kids are performing on tests; that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order [thinking].” He may be right, not only about tests in English but also about tests in math-based subjects. President Obama and his advisers put education on their plate the first thing in 2008, recognizing that the high schools were shockingly unhealthy, especially in the math and science departments. His team selected STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — to do the job. The team promised high school students who go for these subjects that they would be richly rewarded upon graduation from college as a STEM major. They’ll enjoy the good life, a professional career, prestige, and security all their lives. The team was romantic. Yet mathematics is the most important subject — and not just for STEM subjects, but for all the other disciplines too. Mathematics is the yeast in all of them. No subject can grow, get strong, become precise without it. Every subject has to establish its foundation on sturdy logic to survive. Mathematics is logic in its supreme form.

Johnny doesn’t know this about math. He is taught math in school as a set of mechanical exercises, found in a “manual,” a textbook, filled with them. The textbook is dully and poorly written. The author isn’t well-read, and doesn’t have to be. The book is written to sell to the state’s textbook adoption committee. Publishers fight hard to win the contract, which is quite big if the state is big and buys one math textbook to be used by all its high school algebra students. Johnny can’t comprehend this “adopted” textbook; the “whizzes” in class don’t read it either, but understand what the math formulas and the “mechanical writings” are saying. The mechanical math geeks are educators’ darlings. They test brilliantly and are “inventive” and become gadgeteers.

Johnny is taught math in school as a set of mechanical exercises, found in a “manual,” a textbook that is dully and poorly written.

Test-driven educators need to see students less than as machines, but more, particularly teens, as fragile souls always in need of constant anchoring. The horrors they can commit! Think of the 1999 Columbine High (Colorado) massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two male seniors (a front page story), and even the 2005 brouhaha at Monta Vista High (Culpertino, California) of Asian and white students over who’s best in math. Some whites at the school moved out of town. (Front page story, “The New White Flight”!) Teens easily crack under pressure. If only they were disciplined to channel their energy to better use, they would make high school a healthier world and also ensure that our pride and joy — the 18 of the 20 best universities in the world that are American — retain their strength. Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School said there are 750,000 foreign college students in American colleges. But then he said, “We have to do something about our secondary education.”

Remember that the 750,000 foreign students don’t have the cultural wherewithal to create brilliant American writing. That task belongs to Johnny, and he shouldn’t be thrown away. If he's not a math geek, Johnny still may learn how to contribute to American letters, which aren't brilliant enough.

The annual State Regents Exams for New York high school seniors reveal why educators should get real. The exams demand that to be college-ready each senior score at least 80 in math (last year many failed to solve the simplest of quadratic equations) and 75 in English Language Arts (two essays have to be written). The high school graduating rate for 2009 was 77%, but only 41% of the class was prepared for college. The two-year college was the only hope of many of the graduates not prepared for four-year college. Poor inner-city Johnny has it the worst — nothing, nobody to help him hope for a good score on the impossible tests; and no hope that the education system will take an interest in him.

Miracles do happen. A New York inner-city Johnny was picked to star in a Walmart ad that takes place in a school library. Johnny glows as he’s helped with his reading by a retired, lawyerly, grandfatherly looking gentleman smiling like one with the patience of Job. The ad runs twice nightly on the PBS “Tavis Smiley Show.” Thanks to Walmart for telling inner-city Johnny across America that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The ’hood does have rich soil worth cultivating. Will other big businesses come in and help other overwhelmed students? Remember that the great English novelist Charles Dickens was born dirt-poor.

By the way, no one at our 18 most hallowed universities proved the Poincare Conjecture. Last year, a reclusive Russian mathematician, Gregori Perelman, proved it but refused the Clay Institute’s $1,000,000 prize. This caliber of confident mathematician tends to be shy, and to have other baggage, such as being incomprehensible at points in his lectures. One can’t expect the high school geek math teacher to be less handicapped. He mumbles at the blackboard. So Johnny’s best shot is to do a lot of good reading with a dictionary to get verbal competence and confidence in writing. That would be quite an achievement — more of an achievement than a brilliant score on a math test.




Share This


Liberty's Leading Ladies

 | 

John Blundell has just released a book designed to acquaint Americans with a fascinating, though largely unknown, part of their history — the role of women in maintaining (indeed, helping very significantly to create) America's tradition of individual liberty. His book is a series of introductions to 22 women who did important things for liberty.

The women are, in chronological order: Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C. J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher. Twenty-two women. How many of them do you know?

Most Americans will recognize Washington, Stanton, Stowe, and maybe Adams. Libertarians will recognize Paterson, Rand, Lane, and Friedman — maybe Jane Jacobs too. People interested in abolition and the progress of black people in America will add Sojourner Truth, Madam Walker, and others to their list. Conservatives will welcome Luce and others. But all of them deserve to be known to everyone who is interested in American achievement and American character, as well as American ideas about individual freedom.

Few of these women were libertarians in the contemporary American sense. The libertarian movement (first intellectual, then political) is best dated from the 1920s. But all of them had something important to do with ideas and practices of liberty with which libertarians will proudly acknowledge a connection.

Blundell is to be congratulated for presenting a broad spectrum of interests and occupations. The most obvious occupation for an advocate of liberty is that of writer, and there are many professional writers represented: Stowe, Paterson, Rand, Lane, Caldwell, Luce . . . But business people are also prominent in this book. Who can exceed the personal interest and allure of such businesswomen as Madam Walker, one of America's great black entrepreneurs, or Vivien Kellems, the great anti-tax crusader?

Who wouldn't want to know more about these dynamic individuals? Blundell's format limits him to about ten pages for each; but once you know these people exist, you can read more about them, and he offers suggestions for further reading.

I'm not an unskeptical audience, about anything. So I would quarrel with some of Blundell's judgments, one of which in particular I wish he would rethink: the high value he places on Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (1943). Lane was a good writer, sometimes a writer of genius, but Discovery is a poor book — wandering, disorganized, self-contradictory, circular in logic, chronically wrong about historical fact.  If you want to see Lane to advantage, read Free Land (1938) or Give Me Liberty (1936). You'll find those books rewarding, and (something different) you'll like their author.

Such animadversions are, however, beside the point. Blundell’s project seems to me exactly right. The women he discusses are full of personality, full of vitality, full of fascination for any intelligent reader. It’s a disgrace that, as Blundell observes, so few people, so few libertarians, know much about them (with the exception of Ayn Rand). Blundell’s discussions are of exactly the right length and kind to stimulate interest. The book can be read at one sitting, as I read it, or at occasional moments in a busy week. In either case, it will entertain and inform. It’s a particularly good candidate for a Christmas gift to intelligent friends, libertarian or not. I would like to see it in the hands of young women, because young people right now are under great pressure to conform and become anything but vivid, eccentric, complex, vital, creative, or libertarian. And that’s no way to live.


Editor's Note: Review of "Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History," by John Blundell. New York: Algora, 2011. 220 pages.



Share This


The Anti-Drug Argument for Legalization

 | 

In an early 2011 episode of the libertarian TV show “Stossel,” John Stossel debated Ann Coulter about ending the War on Drugs. At one point Coulter exclaimed in a tone of shocked outrage that Stossel could not possibly be serious in saying that legalization would lead to a decrease in drug abuse. Here I want to argue precisely that point.

It is possible for someone to believe that nobody should ever do drugs but also to support the libertarian proposal for ending the Drug War and legalizing all recreational drugs. The two positions are fully consistent, because both legalization and the end to widespread drug addiction will flow naturally from a psychological and philosophical shift toward a culture of more personal responsibility and away from a culture of irresponsibility. The cause of most drug addiction can be traced to irresponsibility, and irresponsibility is the psychological precondition of the welfare state. This explains why the drug subculture is dominated by the Left. We libertarians can silence some of our most vocal opponents if we undermine the alliance between the anti-drugs movement and the statist War on Drugs. This essay is one step toward achieving that goal.

I hate “recreational” drugs, and I do not think that anyone should use them. But I firmly believe that recreational drugs of every type should be legalized. I could argue that drug use is a victimless crime, or that human beings own their own bodies and have the right to do to themselves whatever they wish. I could argue that the War on Drugs is racist because it targets substances commonly used by members of racial minorities. But such arguments have been made many times before. Libertarian thinktanks such as the Cato Institute have already produced ample empirical evidence showing that legalization does not correlate with drug abuse. I have no need to repeat this evidence. My argument is different. I am going to argue that legalization, if accompanied by a psychological and philosophical shift towards a culture of personal responsibility, would lead to a long-term widespread decrease in drug abuse.

If the foes of drug use are so sure that it is an evil, then why are they so afraid of their inability to persuade consenting adults to abstain from drugs?

Legalization might cause a temporary spike in drug use, as curious Americans would be tempted to experiment. Then again, there might not be a major spike, because despite the War on Drugs, most Americans have already experimented. But even if there were a spike it would not last long. The rational, intelligent American public would soon learn, or reaffirm its current conviction, that drug use is self-destructive and stupid. Indeed, if the foes of drug use are so sure that it is an evil, then why are they so afraid of their inability to persuade consenting adults to abstain from drugs? The truth, of course, is that their arguments are too obvious to be necessary for rational people. Human goodness and happiness depend upon reasoning and reason’s ability to perceive reality accurately; mind-altering drugs impede this process.

I have seen firsthand how drugs can ruin lives and how difficult it can be to quit once someone becomes addicted. I will proudly state that within the past two years I have been able to quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Without providing any detailed horror-story anecdotes, I think that it is widely known that alcohol makes people stupid and aggressive, that cigarettes are a deadly, lung-destroying poison, that drugs cause people to lose their grip on reality, and that hard drugs are physically self-destructive and can ruin lives in any number of ways. There can be some debate about whether or not moderate, infrequent recreational drug use is a bad thing (although I think that it is), but there is no question that habitual drug abuse, in other words drug addiction, is both physically and psychologically poisonous. Drugs are a mess, and every sane person knows it.

The question, for me and other drug-haters, is: how to get people to stop using drugs? One possible approach is to outlaw them. This policy has undeniably failed, as drug use of every kind is rampant, despite the government’s best efforts to eliminate it. But if you can’t force people not to do drugs, then what can you do?

A more sophisticated and refined approach would look at the reasons why people choose to do drugs, and would fight the choice to use drugs at its source. People become drug addicts because they make a choice to be weak-willed, lazy, and irresponsible. A drug, after all, is a substance that functions by going between you and reality, so that your experience of reality becomes more pleasant than it would have been sober. The drug does not change reality; it merely changes the chemicals in your brain. It is undeniable that sober reality is the reality that objectively exists in the physical world, and drug-experienced reality is a fictional reality which does not actually exist. Therefore, in a sense, drugs are the ultimate subjectivism and solipsism, in which you choose to cope with the problems in your life not by facing reality soberly and seeking to improve it, but by choosing to change your brain so that you will not feel the pain of your problems any more, so that you won’t have to be aware of what is really going on. The tremendous appeal of drugs is their usefulness for escapism.

I suspect that addiction is usually more psychological than physical, because every human being has the power to quit doing drugs at any time if he makes a genuine choice to do so. Although there are many drugs that have withdrawal symptoms of sickness and agony, rare indeed is the drug that will actually kill you if you stop abusing it, and sobriety is beneficial to one’s health. Addiction comes from the mind, not from the body. What, then, is the nature of an addiction?

The cause of most drug addiction is pain and suffering. A drug addiction is merely a manifestation of the sadness inherent in the condition of being human. Pleasure, wealth, friendship, love, romance, and happiness are not given to humans; we have to work for them. When we make mistakes we lose what we want. The fight to be happy is difficult and messy and full of misery and horror. A person can, however, cope with the human condition responsibly by choosing to face and try to improve reality. This means that he assumes responsibility for both success and failure; he accepts the rewards for good choices and the punishments for bad ones. Alternatively a person can choose the irresponsible choice of abandoning reality, not trying to make things better, and trying to hide from or escape from sorrow.

The essence of irresponsibility is seeking to break the causal connection between the choices you make and what happens in your life. Drugs are addictive because they are uniquely useful for living life irresponsibly. They kill your awareness of your life and blind you to the punishments for your choices. Drugs are as popular as they are because everyone experiences the pain of the problems in life. But this pain evolved as nature’s way of motivating people to solve their problems.

The problem with addiction is not merely that you use the drug constantly and it damages your physical health. It is that a human being becomes ethical by thinking and making choices, and drugs make the drug user’s choices for him or her. The essence of personal responsibility is taking responsibility for your choices and not easy shortcuts around doing the work that is necessary in order to be happy. Drug addiction is fundamentally irresponsible, not merely because it is a lazy way to cope with problems, and not merely because it impairs the ability to choose, but because it is easy and tempting for drug users to blame their actions on the drug, shifting causation away from themselves. That is the core of irresponsibility.

Government acts upon the body politic like a drug, blinding the people to reality.

The issue of whether a person chooses to live responsibly or irresponsibly is at the heart not only of the issue of drug addiction, but also the issue of which form of government to choose. Drug use is a personal manifestation of irresponsibility, but a political manifestation of irresponsibility is socialism. An irresponsible government will hide from society’s problems and use any quick-fix snake oil it can imagine to make people think that it is doing the right thing, without ever actually addressing the causes of society’s problems and trying to fix them. The irresponsible person blames his problems on something else and looks to external saviors to solve his problems instead of taking responsibility and solving his problems himself. The modern-liberal voter looks to government to make his choices for him and give him wealth instead of creating wealth for himself. Government, in short, acts upon the body politic like a drug, blinding the people to reality. The more we rely upon government to live our lives for us, the more we lose control and the farther we fall from the condition of being able to solve our own problems.

Because drug abuse and big government are two manifestations of the same irresponsible attitude towards life, it is no coincidence that the drug culture is permeated by the modern-liberal or socialist Left. On the other hand, a culture of personal responsibility, such as is embodied by the libertarian political philosophy, would militate against the problem of drug addiction.

Personal responsibility is inconsistent with using government to force people to behave ethically regarding activity that does no violence to others. We libertarians must make a stand for legalization, but we should fight this battle not for the sake of drug addicts, but for freedom as a matter of principle, supported by rational arguments for individual responsibility.

Many drug foes seems incapable of grasping the notion that you can persuade a reasoning mind to choose sobriety freely. Perhaps this is because the anti-drug interest groups have shown not one iota of understanding of how to talk to people about drugs. Instead of running anti-drug ad campaigns that treat people like rational adults, the anti-drug groups (usually in conjunction with government agencies) ads designed to scare or guilt-trip people into quitting drugs. People who have chosen to use drugs as a way to cope with reality are already more afraid of facing reality than they are of death, and they have chosen to be irresponsible. So appealing to the fear of death and the guilt of letting down your loved ones is a silly strategy. A manipulative emotional trick never has the same impact as persuasive reasoning. The proper anti-drugs approach is to convince people rationally.

Happy people are far more difficult to rule than sad, depressed, miserable people with drug-addled brains.

It is notable that when a special interest group wants people to behave in a certain way, but lacks any well-reasoned arguments, it petitions government to pass a law to coercive obedience. Some fools actually may believe that people know better than to do drugs but are too weak to resist temptation and therefore need the government to force them to choose sobriety. Only weaklings and cowards would buy this argument. The government has no special knowledge of the dangers of drugs, no knowledge that the American people lack, nor does it possess a magic wand to make drugs any less appealing. The most effective anti-drug strategy is rational persuasion in a free, legalized society.

When the government forces you to do something that you aren’t persuaded you should do, it is treating you like a child — and the condition of being a child is precisely the condition of not assuming responsibility for yourself, the very condition that leads to drug addiction in the first place. Legalization would send a message that we as a people need to take responsibility for our own choices. It is the best thing the government could do to combat drugs. Rampant drug abuse and the War on Drugs would both be killed by a cultural shift towards personal responsibility. Happy people are far more difficult to rule than sad, depressed, miserable people with drug-addled brains. If society changes so that people are happier and more satisfied with their lives, the power of the government will be vastly curtailed.

If the socialists and the anti-drug warriors actually wanted to solve the drug problem, marijuana would be legal today. Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol. It is the opposite of a gateway drug; it is merely a convenient means of experimentation for curious people making the transition from child to adult. Over the long term, legalized pot would decrease hard drug use. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on the state to do the rational thing and legalize marijuana.

At this juncture, the libertarian movement should try to have it both ways: we have already gained significant popularity by appealing to drug users who want drugs to be legalized, but we could also gain a loyal following among drug haters. We should preach that our path of social and political self-responsibility is the way best suited to sober, clear-headed, rational adults. We can thereby attract to our ranks many of the people whose lives have been ruined by drugs and who are looking desperately for an escape from the drug-induced carnage. But because responsible adults are more likely to support free market capitalism than people who are irresponsible and immature, I think that libertarianism can only triumph with the support of sober voters. One might wonder why the many voters who abuse illegal drugs do not swarm the polls and vote libertarian politicians into elected office. My explanation is simple: voters with drug-addled brains are too lazy and irresponsible to become political activists, even though they stand to gain the most from legalization.

Right now the anti-drug, anti-legalization lobby is a powerful foe of libertarianism. The anti-drug activists are passionate and fanatical because they understand the evil of drugs and take inspiration from the virtue of sobriety. But so do I, and my hatred of drug abuse does not make me think that the horrors of the Drug War are in any way justified. If we could chip away at the link between the anti-drug movement and the anti-legalization movement, libertarianism would lose some of its most zealous opponents (perhaps including Ann Coulter and conservatives like her). We should try to persuade some of the anti-drug advocates to abandon the prohibitionists and back legalization as the clever solution to America’s drug addiction problem.




Share This


Counterproductive

 | 

President Obama makes speech after insistent speech about his remedies for our country's economic and fiscal distress. Does he really think that this demagogic overexposure does more to build than to destroy confidence?

The president should remain silent while learning basic economics. Then another — but quite different — speech might do some good.




Share This


Classic Problem, Classic Films

 | 

The topic of this essay is a broad issue in moral philosophy: conflicts of loyalty, specifically, loyalty in war. My “texts” are four classic movies about World War II.

Let us start with some conceptual analysis of the central concept: loyalty. “Loyalty” means devotion to or consistent support of something. Loyalty is correlated with duty: to feel loyalty is to feel you have a duty to support something. But it connotes more than just adherence, it connotes the willingness to sacrifice one’s own good for the sake of the other.

The things to which a person can be said to be loyal of course include other people, either singly or in groups (such as families, friendship circles, gangs, companies, clans, tribes, nations, or ethnic groups). A person can also be loyal to a belief system (such as an idea or concept, a theory, an ideology, a religion, or a cause). My hunch is that when one is loyal to a belief system, it is usually because it is derived from or associated with a person or group with whom he feels personal loyalty. For example, an Irishman’s loyalty to the cause of Irish independence would, I suspect, derive from his strong identification with Irish family and friends. But I won’t pursue that theory here.

W.D. Ross’ view has the unwieldy moniker “Multiple-rule deontologism,” though it is simply common sense put forward in a highly abstract way.

Because a person is typically related to a variety of other people and groups in a variety of ways, loyalties often conflict. My loyalty to my friend may conflict with self-interest (loyalty to oneself, so to speak), or my loyalty to other friends. My loyalty to my family may conflict with my loyalty to the country, or for that matter my loyalty to my lover. The permutations here are endless.

Now, different ethical theories analyze moral phenomena in different ways. Perhaps the best known ethical theories are utilitarianism, ethical egoism, and natural rights ethics.

Both egoism and utilitarianism tie the moral rightness of an act (or anything else, such as an institution or a rule) solely to whether it leads to the best results. They differ about whom those best consequences are intended for: is it just for the person acting (egoism), or for everyone affected (utilitarianism)?

Natural rights theory is one of a variety of theories that tie the rightness of acts to things other than consequences, such as the motives or character of the agent. Specifically, natural rights ethics holds that your act is right if it flows from your rights and doesn’t violate the rights of others.

Each of these moral perspectives has its uses. For analyzing whether the country ought to enact a new law, say, utilitarianism is the obvious tool. For analyzing whether you ought to engage in a business, ethical egoism is a useful tool. To analyze whether a controversial business practice is just, natural rights ethics is probably the best instrument.

But for analyzing situations in which people act from conflicting loyalties, no better tool is at hand than an ethical theory put forward most clearly and compellingly by the subtle and sophisticated moral philosopher W.D. Ross. In the literature Ross’ view has the unwieldy moniker “Multiple-rule deontologism,” though I have always regarded it as simply common sense put forward in a highly abstract way.

In his view, in morally puzzling situations, we are faced with conflicting prima facie duties, and must determine from among them which one is our actual duty in the context. For example, suppose I am trying to decide whether to leave my wife after an unhappy marriage of many years. I have to sort through my obligations to my wife (whom I chose to marry and therefore to whom I have an obligation), to my children (whom we brought into the world and therefore to whom I owe something), and of course myself. In Ross’ perspective, the exact nature of the relationships you have had (and their specific histories) is what is crucial in determining your actual duty, and not (as in egoism) just your duty to promote your own welfare or (as in utilitarianism) your duty to promote the welfare of the human race impartially considered.

An important feature of Ross’ theory is that even when one prima facie duty overrides the others in a given situation, and hence constitutes the actual duty in that situation, the other duties are in truth none the less still duties, so as conditions change, one of them may override the others in turn. This gives his theory a dynamic aspect missing in many other ethical perspectives.

I think that Ross’ theory is a sadly neglected tool in the philosophy of film. I want to use it to analyze conflicts of loyalty in war movies.

More than any other ethically challenging situation, war raises issues about loyalties to others in conflict with the basic human imperative of survival, as well as conflicts between the general obligation to others to do them no harm and the imperative to kill the enemy. I will examine World War II movies, because WWII is generally considered the 20th-century war in which American involvement was most morally justified. This enables us to focus more on the personal than on the political struggles of the characters involved.

Let’s consider first a fine film starring two grossly underrated actors, The Enemy Below. This film tells the story of one particular small naval battle — a battle between an American destroyer and a German submarine — in the South Atlantic Ocean. The battle is shown as a kind of chess match between the two captains, both seasoned veterans. The US ship, the USS Haynes, discovers the U-boat as the sub is trying to make it to a rendezvous with a German merchant raider. The American commander, Capt. Murrell (Robert Mitchum) is trying to gain the full loyalty of his crew, who know about him only that his last ship was sunk. The German commander, Capt. Von Stolberg (Kurd or “Curt” Jurgens), has had his crew for a long time, and they are fully loyal to him.

An early part of the battle tips us off to Murrell’s (and Von Stolberg’s) capabilities. The American destroyer sights the German U-boat and closes in on it. But the U-boat escapes. Instead of pursuing it further, Murrell breaks off the attack and slows the movement of his own ship. His number one, Lt. Ware (David Hedison), asks him what he is doing. Murrell explains that he is trying to gauge his opponent. He explains that he gives the German captain so many minutes to reach a safe depth, level out and spot the destroyer, realize it is open to attack, and let loose a volley of torpedoes.

The crew watches in amazement as two torpedoes zip by harmlessly.

We cut to the sub, and see Von Stolberg, who after diving and leveling, does indeed realize the destroyer is open to attack, and remarks to his own number one, Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel) that the destroyer’s captain is either clever or foolish. Just as Murrell anticipated, Von Stolberg decides to test Murrell, and fires the torpedoes. Up above, Murrell, after waiting an appropriate amount of time, barks out the order to turn the ship sharply and increase the engines to full. The crew watches in amazement as two torpedoes zip by harmlessly. Von Stolberg now realizes that Murrell is clever, as the destroyer goes on the attack. It is clear to both captains they are up against able opponents, and the battle is joined. As Von Stolberg remarks, “This American captain is no amateur. Well, neither am I.”

In the end, after an extended battle of the ships’ crews and the captains’ wills, both captains make fatal errors and both errors are exploited by the opponent. The result is that both see their ships go down — a most un-Hollywood-like ending.

But as interesting as the naval chess match is to watch, the fascination of the movie comes in learning the personalities of the two warriors. In neither case is the motivation for such fierce fighting either some kind of extreme ideological commitment or exaggerated patriotism. In both cases the commitment is to their job and above all to their crews, whose deaths (should they occur) would be on their hands. In neither case do the other prima facie obligations — such as to friends, country, or humanity in general — disappear, and in another context, another prima facie duty will return as the actual one.

We see this repeatedly in various scenes and dialogical exchanges in the film. For instance, when asked by Ware what he thinks his foe is like, Murrell replies, “I have no idea what he is, what he thinks. I don’t want to know the man I am trying to destroy.” One is tempted to shout at the screen, “Just so!” When you are in the standard battle situation, you are under a general obligation to fight for your country. But your specific obligation, the first loyalty, is to those whom you command, and the foe — while understood to still be human — must only be the foe.

In a scene in the sub, after enduring an intense depth-charging run, one that makes the gung-ho and devout Nazi sailor Kunz want to surrender, there is this exchange:

            Von Stolberg: “Mueller, what is the condition of the ship?”

            Mueller: “We have not been hurt.”

            Kunz: “But we cannot escape!”

            Von Stolberg: “It will be your privilege to die for the New Germany.”

Von Stolberg’s sarcasm makes it clear he has contempt for the kind of men who wanted the war but can’t deal with what it entails. The loyalty is with those for whose lives you are responsible, not some abstract ideology.

Or consider the exchange between Doc and Murrell. The exchange occurs after Murrell has explained why he switched from the Merchant Marine to the Navy. In a powerful scene — one to which few actors besides the restrained Robert Mitchum could do justice — Murrell explains that he resolved to fight subs after the ship he was on was torpedoed by one, and he had to watch as the half of the ship — the half upon which was his newly-married wife! — sink rapidly to the bottom of the ocean.

Doctor: “Well, in time we’ll all get back to our stuff again. The war will get swallowed up, and seem like it never happened.”

Murrell: “Yes, but it won’t be the same as it was. We won’t have the feeling of permanency that we had before. We’ve learned a hard truth.”

Doctor: “How do you mean?”

Murrell: “That there is no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off a snake, and it grows another one. You cut that one off, and you find another. You can’t kill it, because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it’s part of us; we’re all men.

This dialog, which Mitchum delivers in a manner-of-fact, unemotional way, is the sort of dialog that would tempt a lesser actor to chew the scenery. Not Mitchum.

This scene brings up an interesting question. The viewer may wonder about the role revenge may be playing in Murrell’s actions. Now, it is one of the strengths of Rossian moral theory that it can explain a pervasive feature of our ordinary moral lives that is not easy to explain by other moral theories. I am referring here to loyalty toward the dead.

For example, let’s suppose that my parents (while alive) treated me with just the normal care and concern that parents typically render towards their children. My loyalty would be expected, even though they are dead, in such matters as giving them an appropriate funeral and carrying out their final wishes as expressed in their wills. These obligations are not explained by future consequences (for me in particular or humanity in general), or by the “natural rights” of the deceased — they’re dead! — but by our past mutual history as a family.

Von Stolberg’s sarcasm makes it clear he has contempt for the kind of men who wanted the war but can’t deal with what it entails.

But while seeing his wife die after a torpedo attack may explain Murrell's choice to seek duty on a destroyer, his demeanor and words make it clear that it is in no way impelling him to destroy this sub. He is no Ahab, for he has no history with that sub or its (at this point unknown) commander that would create such a desire for revenge.

It is clear in the film — from this and other scenes — where the loyalties of the protagonists lie. Von Stolberg makes clear his contempt for the Nazis and what they have wrought. He fights as a professional soldier for his country, but his first loyalty is to his crew. This Murrell understands, and respects, as shown in another scene. As the sub is being depth-charged savagely, and the crew is getting disheartened and beginning to panic, Von Stolberg puts a record on the PA system — a rousing song that the German U-boat cadets learn at their academy. He demands that the crew join him in singing it. They do, and begin to recover their courage. Up above, the destroyer’s sonar picks up the sounds, and Ware expresses wonder (for in playing the music, the sub is making it easier for the destroyer to locate it). Murrell immediately understands what the other captain is doing, and expresses admiration even as he returns to the attack.

Another insight into how the key protagonists in the movies view their loyalties comes near the end. Von Stolberg has gotten most of his men off the doomed sub, as Murrell has his. Murrell spots the German captain for the first time, and wonders why he hasn’t abandoned ship. Von Stolberg replies that his friend and number one is badly wounded. It is clear that the German’s duty to his crew is discharged by having them abandon their ship, which will sink at any moment. But he feels he has to risk his life for this man, and doesn’t expect his crew to do the same, precisely because the sailor was his long-time friend, not theirs. In this new context, Von Stolberg‘s prima facie loyalty to his friend has become his actual duty. This is a moral calculation that Murrell understands, and he helps in the rescue. In this contest, Murrell’s prima facie duty to humanity has become his actual duty.

At the end of the movie, the two captains converse side by side. Their ending dialog is telling:

Von Stolberg: “I should have died many times, Captain, but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault.”

Captain Murrell: “I didn’t know. Next time I won’t throw you the rope.”

Von Stolberg: “I think you will.”

The Enemy Below is a superb action war movie. The director (and himself a fine actor) Dick Powell put in an enormous amount of effort on making it look realistic. It is filmed in color, and the display of naval action (such as the maneuvers of the ships, the depth charge firings, and so on) has a palpable realism. The film absolutely rightly won an Oscar for Best Effects. The support acting is excellent, especially David Hedison as Lt. Ware, as well as Theodore Bikel as Capt. Von Stolberg’s number one and good friend Heinie Schwaffer. Also excellent is Russell Collins as Doc. But the two leads are just superb. Mitchum at his best (as he is here) was one of the best in film, despite his never having won an Oscar, and Jurgens (who was nominated for a Best Foreign Actor BAFTA award for his performance) was a renowned actor in both Germany and the United States.

The second film is a much-neglected gem, Decision Before Dawn. The movie is about the last phase of WWII, during which the Russian Army is about to enter Germany from the east, while the Allied Army is poised to attack across the Rhine. Germany by this time has had its major cities pulverized by Allied bombing, and the country faces massive shortages.

The American military command expects that the Germans will fight bitterly to defend their soil, and has set up an intelligence unit near the border to identify German POWs who are potentially willing to go back into Germany and spy for the Americans. The intelligence unit is headed by Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill).

Devlin identifies two promising potential agents, given the code names “Tiger” (Hans Christian Blech) and “Happy” (Oskar Werner). We learn that these are quite different people with quite distinct motives.

Tiger is an outright egoist. Before the war he was a circus worker and a petty thief, and was drafted into combat. He is willing to go along with the Americans — or let them think he will — in exchange for better treatment. And, as all the other characters in the movie know, he returned from his last assignment alone — meaning that his partner was either captured or killed.

In contrast, Happy acts out of a sense that the war needs to be ended, for the good of all sides, not least of all for the good of the German people, who are suffering on a massive scale in what is clearly a losing cause — suffering for the stubborn pride of a few high military men. His resolve in this comes from seeing a fellow POW killed by other German prisoners for expressing the thought that Germany was losing the war.

Helping train Happy for his espionage work is a young Frenchwoman, Monique (Dominique Blanchar). Despite her understandable hatred of the Germans, she finds herself attracted to Happy.

The central drama of the film gets started when Devlin is told that a certain German general wants to negotiate the surrender of his entire command. Because of the high stakes in this operation, Devlin selects an American, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart) to accompany Tiger and Happy in the mission. Tiger is generally suspected by everyone (again because he returned from his last mission alone), but he is chosen because he knows the area. Happy is assigned the task of locating the 11th Panzer Corps, because it may block the defection.

One of the strengths of Rossian moral theory that it can explain our loyalty toward the dead.

Rennick, like most of the Americans, generally suspects all the Germans in the training facility, since they are all — let’s be blunt — Germans. Worse yet, they are traitors. Even worse yet, they are traitorous German spies. As a narrator intones at the opening of the movie,

Of all the questions left unanswered by the last war, and probably any war, one comes back constantly to my mind. Why does a spy risk his life? For what possible reason . . . If the spy wins, he’s ignored. If he loses, he’s shot.

This brings up a fascinating feature of the flick: the viewer — no matter what his nationality — typically has a visceral, instinctive aversion to the traitor, no matter how well-motivated the treachery. We are instinctively revolted by treachery to the tribe, as we are to incest or touching the dead. This puts us in Rennick’s position of distrusting the sincere Happy.

The three agents are dropped behind enemy lines into Germany, and split up, with Rennick and Tiger making their way to a safe house, while Happy goes in search of the Panzer unit. Along the way, Happy and the viewer meet a variety of Germans. Some are clearly weary of the war, but one — a superficially friendly Waffen SS courier who is still a devout Nazi — poses a major risk to him.

As luck would have it, Happy (who is posing as a medic trying to return to his unit) is commandeered to take care of the colonel who is in charge of the very Panzer unit Happy was assigned to locate.

After treating the colonel, Happy sets off with the information to the safe house. He is by now being sought by the Gestapo, and almost gets captured, but manages to join the others. During this time, Rennick and Tiger discover that the general who was thinking of surrendering is now in a hospital guarded by the SS, so the unit will not be surrendering after all.

The film moves to a tense denouement, as the German spies and their American control — with important information but an inoperable radio — have to try to swim across a river to the American-controlled side. Tiger attempts to flee, and Rennick shoots him. Happy and Rennick swim halfway across the river to an island, but as they move to swim to the other side, the Germans discover them and start shooting. Happy, unable to make the swim, creates a diversion and allows himself to be captured, ensuring that Rennick can swim across to safety.

Happy is shot as a deserter. Rennick is faced with a cognitive conflict, arising from his attitude towards the enemy: his life was saved by one of the very traitorous Germans he despised so profoundly.

A bigger conflict lies in the heart of Happy. In agreeing to spy on the Nazi army, he has to put aside loyalty to the government for which he fought, and embrace a higher loyalty to his country and what is truly good for its people. This seems clear to the viewer from the start, but not to the American soldiers in the film, who condemn the “turncoat” Germans uniformly, with a reflexive loathing of those who would work against their country’s government (wrongly equating a country’s government with the country itself).

In the end, in doing his true duty, Happy pays with his life. His act of self-sacrifice grows out of his feeling of loyalty to the American officer who risked his life to accompany him on his mission.

This film is outstanding on every level. Visually, it has an uncanny verisimilitude. It was filmed on location in Wurzburg, where rubble still clogged the streets at the time of filming. (The German audience must have been especially struck by this film.) The movie was nominated for a Golden Globe, for Best Cinematography (in Black and White).

The dialogue is no less gritty than the setting, and the characters are true to life — no comic-book heroes here. The fighting scenes are quite convincing as well. Indeed, the movie was based loosely on real life: the Allied intelligence services did in fact employ German POWs to re-enter Germany as Allied agents.

The direction by famed European director Anatole Litvak is spot on. He gets fine performances from all the cast. Litvak was nominated by the Directors’ Guild of America for its Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures award, and the film was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Film Editing.

The viewer — no matter what his nationality — typically has a visceral, instinctive aversion to the traitor, no matter how well-motivated the treachery.

But the acting deserves special praise. Gary Merrill was always an outstanding actor — who can forget his superb support roles in the classic war film 12 O’clock High and the equally classic “woman’s movie” (as the studio categorized it), All About Eve, both truly great films? He is excellent here as Col. Devlin, the commander in charge of the operation. Also worth noting was Hildegard Knef as Hilde, the desperate German bar girl, and Dominique Blanchar as Monique, the French aide to the intelligence unit who finds herself falling in love with Happy. Also worth noting is Wilfred Seyferth’s performance as the Waffen SS courier Heinz Scholtz.

The three lead actors are especially fine. Richard Basehart played the American agent Lt. Dick Rennick, who accompanies the two German volunteer spies. Hans Christian Blech is perfect is perfect as the cynical Sgt. Rudolf Barth (“Tiger”). Most outstanding is the lead, a very young Oskar Werner as Cpl. Karl Maurer (“Happy”). Werner was an excellent visual actor, and his gift for conveying facially his character’s thoughts and emotions was superbly used in this film.

The third film is the remarkable recent German movie, John Rabe. The movie is based on the amazing true story of the eponymous hero, a German businessman who was instrumental in saving over 200,000 Chinese civilians during the conquest and occupation of Nanking (now Nanjing) in 1937–38, often and rightly referred to as “The Rape of Nanking.” (The reader may wish to read my earlier review of an outstanding documentary on the subject, Nanking, that appeared in the August 2008 Liberty, pp. 44-45.)

John Rabe was the head of the Nanking factory of the German multinational corporation Siemens’. (Siemens was a major player in providing pre-war China with electric power and telecom services). Rabe, we need to note well, was a committed Nazi. As the Japanese started their invasion of China in the 1937, he was of course sympathetic to them, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany had grown politically close, especially after von Ribbentrop became military attaché in 1934, and the Anti-Comintern Pact was signed in 1936. (When Japan invaded China — and China signed a military pact with the Soviet Union — in 1937, Hitler finally turned his back on China and sided with Japan completely.)

But as the actual Japanese military — as opposed to whatever idealized military Rabe envisioned — moved in, he saw how horrifyingly vicious they were. The Imperial Japanese Army at the time was governed by the Bushido code of warrior honor, which viewed it as the duty of a true warrior to die in combat rather than to surrender. That perspective had a dark side, however: it virtually guaranteed that whenever the Japanese Army won a battle, the victors would view surrendering soldiers (and the prostrate populace) with contempt, and consider them deserving of whatever cruelty the victors cared to inflict.

At the opening of the film, we meet John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) and Dora (Dagmar Manzel), his beloved wife. They have lived in Nanking (then China’s capital city) for about 30 years. Rabe has come to love the country, and is reluctant to leave, but retirement looms. However, during his farewell party, the Japanese begin their attack, with their planes indiscriminately bombing the city. Rabe opens the factory gates so the workers and their families can come in and get some protection. In a striking — not to say jarring — scene, the employees stop the Japanese air strikes by spreading a huge Nazi flag above their heads.

The next morning, the most important foreigners remaining in the city get together to discuss what can be done to help the hapless citizenry. Here we meet the other central figures in the story. Dr. Rosen (Daniel Bruhl), a German Jewish diplomat, points out that Shanghai, which faced a similar attack, set up a “safety zone.” Valerie Dupres (Anne Consigny) — a fictional character loosely based on a real person — who is the head of a Chinese women’s college in Nanking, proposes that Rabe lead the committee for setting up the zone, in large part because she sagely realizes that his affiliation with the Nazi party can be useful in dealing with the Japanese. Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who doesn’t like Rabe precisely because of his Nazi sympathies, is reluctant to agree.

In a striking — not to say jarring — scene, the employees stop the Japanese air strikes by spreading a huge Nazi flag above their heads.

The following day, Rabe is supposed to leave with his wife on the return trip to Germany. Nevertheless, he has decided to stay to help the Chinese, and watches his wife leave on the ship. As it leaves, however, it is attacked by Japanese planes, and Rabe fears that his wife is dead. In the face of his personal sorrow, he commits to setting up the safety zone.

In one key scene, we see the conflicts that Rabe feels mirrored in a Japanese officer. In this scene, the Japanese have captured a large number of Chinese soldiers defending Nanking. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, the head of a lesser branch of Japanese nobility and a career military officer, orders the mass execution of the Chinese “captives” — a term covering not merely the POWs but any and all civilians. (In fact, it may have been his assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a political extremist, who actually gave the order, with Asaka only tacitly consenting).

A young Japanese major dissents timidly, but is immediately slapped down, and the massacre commences. (After the war, Asaka was lucky to escape prosecution for the war crimes committed under his command, when General MacArthur decided for political reasons to grant immunity to all of the Imperial family). It is obvious to the viewer that the young major is conflicted by his duty to follow orders (imperative in any military organization, but especially so in a viciously authoritarian one) and his more general duty to behave in a humane way toward POWs and non-combatants. There are universal rules that morally supersede military orders, some codified in the Geneva Conventions. I will return to this point shortly.

As the soldiers and then much of the general populace get murdered by a Japanese army driven mad by power and bloodlust, civilians pour into the safety zone that the Rabe-led committee had managed to set up.

The film vividly portrays a number of horrific events, including one in which Mme. Dupres refuses to allow the Japanese (who have found a group of Chinese soldiers hiding on the grounds of the Girl’s College) to take 20 of the young women along for sexual exploitation, and subsequently has to endure the sound of POWs being machine-gunned in reprisal. In another scene, while Rabe is negotiating with the Japanese commanders, his driver is hauled off and decapitated as part of a killing contest between two Japanese officers.

As the brutal occupation grinds on, an improbable friendship forms between Wilson and Rabe, leading to some lighter scenes of their drinking and singing songs (one of which mocks Hitler). During the committee’s Christmas celebration, Rabe faints — he has received an unmarked package containing his favorite cake, tipping him off to the fact that his wife is alive. Wilson discovers that Rabe is diabetic, and saves his life by procuring some insulin from the Japanese enemy he detests.

In the new year, the situation becomes grave. Rabe uses the last of his savings to help buy rice for the refugees, and discovers that the reason the supplies of rice are being used up so rapidly is that the Girl’s College is hiding some Chinese soldiers. Rabe and the rest of the committee realize that if the Japanese discover this, they will close the zone and likely kill all the people protected there.

This leads to the denouement, in which the Japanese decide to march into the protected zone. But Rabe is tipped off by the young Japanese major, and the Japanese troops who march in find that the committee and the Chinese civilians have formed human shields to protect the POWs. Japanese tanks are brought in, but before shots are fired, the Japanese discover that international journalists and diplomats have just returned to the city, and the Japanese are forced to back down.

The film ironically ends more happily than its real-life hero. The film ends with Rabe being taken to the harbor for his return to Germany. He is cheered by the Chinese as he reunites with his wife. In actuality, Rabe did return to Germany with his wife but was immediately arrested by the Gestapo, precisely for bringing the Japanese atrocities to the world’s attention. He was released after the war, but — unbelievably — his request for “de-Nazification” was initially denied by the British authorities. In 1950, he died poor and unremarked. Only in 1997 did he receive belated recognition for his humane and honorable work when the Chinese moved his remains to the Nanking Memorial Hall. And finally, in 1993, the German government got around to acknowledging his decency and bravery.

As the soldiers and then much of the general populace get murdered by a Japanese army driven mad by power and bloodlust, civilians pour into the safety zone.

Some have noted a resemblance between John Rabe and Oskar Schindler (the subject of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). There are analogies, to be sure. Both Rabe and Schindler were real businessmen, both were initially drawn to the Nazi movement, and both in time became committed to saving the lives of at least some of the intended victims of the Axis war machine.

But there are some major relevant differences as well, the biggest being the presence of internal conflict of duties in the case of one character but not the other. Schindler was, from what I can tell, an opportunist who came to see the humanity of the victims of the Holocaust, and fought for some of them, but was never conflicted about it. In contrast, Rabe believed — yes, foolishly — that the Nazis were better than the viciously cruel Imperial Army. This absurd belief comes out in Rabe’s letter to Adolf Hitler:

To the Fuehrer of the German people, Chancellor Adolf Hitler: My Fuehrer, as a loyal party member and upstanding German, I turn to you in a time of great need. The Japanese Imperial troops conquered the city of Nanking on December 12, 1937. Since then I have witnessed atrocious crimes against civilians. Please help to end this catastrophe and make an appeal to our Japanese allies in the name of humanity. With a German salute — John Rabe

Here we see the conflict between Rabe's commitment to his country and his allegiance to people who had worked for him and among whom he had lived. Parallel to this is the conflict faced by the young Japanese major who, in spite of tremendous pressure to carry out unquestioningly the war crimes demanded by his commanders, first risked the good opinion of his superior officers by questioning the order to summarily execute unarmed POWs, then risked his life by tipping off Rabe about the imminent Japanese incursion.

In facing their conflicts, both Rabe and the major are rather like Sophocles’ Antigone. In the play, Antigone disobeys King Creon’s order that her dead brother Polynices (who had fought against Creon’s favorite, Eteocles and lost) be left unburied, for the animals to eat. Antigone buries her brother with her own hands, and when Creon demands an explanation for her breaking of the law, she replies that she is following a law older than that of kings. As she says, "Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man, / Could’st by a breath annul and override the immutable, unwritten laws of Heaven."

In saving the Chinese, Rabe and the young Japanese officer were obeying a higher and older law, one that demands that we protect the innocent, no matter what state alliances apply, and no matter what prior personal allegiances have been established.

This film is a fine piece of cinematic art. It was highly acclaimed in Germany, garnering seven “Lola” (German Film Award) nominations, and winning Lolas for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design. Besides winning the Lola for Best Actor, Ulrich Tukur also won the Bavarian Film Award for Best Actor, for his very impressive performance. But as popular as it was in Germany, the movie was, alas, shunned in Japan. Not one Japanese distributor could be found to show it. The Japanese, it must be admitted, to this day still have not come to grips with their often atrocious behavior in WWII.

As the brutal occupation grinds on, an improbable friendship forms between Wilson and Rabe, leading to some lighter scenes of their drinking and singing a song that mocks Hitler.

Tukur well deserved his awards, giving a powerful performance, at once restrained but revealing. Steve Buscemi is excellent in support (he was nominated for a Lola for Best Supporting Actor, a rare nomination for an American), playing the more emotionally open American doctor who worked with Rabe to save the Chinese. Florian Gallenberger, who wrote the screenplay, also did a superb job in directing the movie. And Jurgen Jurges did an outstanding job on the cinematography. At the time of filming, a lot of 1930s-era housing stock in Shanghai was being demolished for new high-rise buildings, and he was able to use footage of it in portraying the damage done by the Japanese bombing.

The final movie I want to take up is rightly characterized as a classic. It is one of David Lean’s many outstanding contributions to cinematic art: The Bridge on the River Kwai. Like John Rabe, Lean’s movie is based on historical reality, though (as we shall see) it is not as faithful to history as the Rabe movie.

The Bridge on the River Kwai starts with a unit of British POWs captured at the fall of Singapore, marching into a Japanese work camp in western Thailand. They march in whistling the rousing “Colonel Bogey March,” a popular British tune dating to the First World War. They are assembled in front of the camp’s commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

As the British march, we meet another character, US Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), who is helping bury a dead POW. We get a sense of his egoism and general skepticism about the war when he bribes the Japanese captain supervising him and his fellow grave-digger (an Australian named Weaver) with a cigarette lighter taken from one of the corpses, and intones over the grave

Here lies Corporal Herbert Thompson, serial number 01234567, valiant member of the King’s own, or Queen’s own, or something, who died of beriberi in the year of our Lord 1943. For the greater glory of . . . [pause] what did he die for? . . . I don’t mock the grave or the man. May he rest in peace. He got little enough of it while he was alive.

The British POWs are commanded by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Saito informs the British that they are to work on a bridge over the River Kwai for a railway line. He tells them that he will require all POWs, even the officers, to start work in the morning, Nicholson tells Saito that the Geneva Conventions forbid compelling officers to work, but that only makes Saito repeat his orders furiously.

The next morning, when the POWs assemble, the officers refuse to work. Saito at first threatens to shoot them, then backs down, leaving them in the scorching sun, then putting them in a punishment hut. Saito orders Nicholson to be put in “the oven,” a tiny iron hut that is exposed directly to the sun, where Nicholson stays without food or water, to break his will.

The British medical officer, Major Clipton (James Donald), an obviously reasonable, rational medical scientist, faced with two stubborn career military men following what they view as their military codes, attempts to negotiate — but Nicholson refuses all compromise. As all this is going on, the British soldiers are doing their best to passively resist — by feigning work and slyly sabotaging the project.

This leads to one of the great scenes in this great film. Saito, the Bushido-bound martinet, faces an even more code-bound martinet and the possible failure of his own project. He feels that such a failure would obligate him to commit actual suicide — Seppuku — in accord with Japanese tradition. At this point, Saito gives in, using the excuse of the anniversary of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War to release Nicholson and exempt the other officers from the actual construction work.

Nicholson reviews the status of the project, and finds it in shambles. To the surprise of his men, he says that he wants to build a “proper” bridge, i.e., one that will succeed in bearing the weight of railroad traffic. The officers and men clearly wonder aloud if this isn’t outright collaboration. But Nicholson replies that only by working as real soldiers on a real bridge will he be able to restore his men’s discipline, self-respect, and morale — all essential to surviving the harsh conditions imposed on them. He thus subordinates his loyalty toward military goals to loyalty toward his men.

At this point, three of the POWs — including Commander Shears — attempt an escape. Two are killed, but a wounded Shears manages to escape, and (with the help of some locals) manages to make it to safety. The movie focuses on Shears, who is recovering at a British Ceylonese hospital. Shears makes time with a gorgeous nurse and looks forward to shipping out to the US.

But Shears' plans are upset by the head of the British Special Forces in Ceylon, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Warden wants Shears to volunteer to accompany and guide a commando unit back to the POW camp to blow up the bridge. Shears, ever the egoist, informs Warden that in fact he (Shears) is not an officer, but an ordinary seaman who switched uniforms with the real Commander Shears after their ship had been sunk and Shears was killed — because the seaman knew that officers get better treatment in captivity. But Warden has already discovered this, and the US Navy has assigned the egoist to Warden’s command. “Shears” has no choice, so he “volunteers.”

One might suppose that Shears' agreeing to go on Warden’s commando mission would be a case of conflict (between his innate egoism and his loyalty to his country’s cause in the war), but it isn’t, really. His decision is easily explicable on egoistic principles. He has been unmasked; thus he faces return to the States and a mandatory court martial. Depending on how the trial goes — would the judges view him as having deserted? or as having allowed the real Shears to die? or maybe even having killed the real officer? — the seaman faces a long time in military prison, and maybe even execution. So he decides to take his chances on going along with the mission, which may result in his being exonerated, receiving an award, and retaining the simulated rank of Commander that the Navy has allowed Warden to offer the egoist. No, his conflict comes later.

We return to the POW camp and reach another interesting plot twist. In order to get the bridge done on time, Nicholson offers Saito to allow the British officers to do physical labor along with the enlisted men, if Saito allows the Japanese officers to do the same. This immediately arouses the careful viewer’s attention: wasn’t the protection of his men, including making sure that they were all treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, exactly the matter over which he fought Saito so fiercely? What strange shift in loyalties is going on in the man?

We now rejoin the commando team as it parachutes in, near the POW camp. One of the commandos is killed in the jump, but the other three — Shears, Warden, and a Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) — with the help of Thai villagers (almost all women) make it to the bridge. Warden is wounded along the way, and wants the others to leave him, but Shears insists they all push forward. When we see Shears pushing the mission forward, insisting that Warden be carried, we begin to realize that the egoist is beginning to transcend his egoism and become committed to the mission.

The group arrives at the bridge, and Warden sets up a plan. Shears and Joyce plant the explosives at night, and are to set them off in the morning, when a Japanese troop train is scheduled to pass over it.

Here we reach yet another plot turn. In the morning, the wiring to the explosives is visible, because the river lever has dropped during the night. As Nicholson and Saito are giving the project its final inspection, Nicholson sees the wires ands alerts Saito. As the train approaches, they try to stop the pending explosion. Joyce jumps out and kills Saito, and Nicholson calls out for help, meanwhile trying to prevent Joyce from reaching the detonator. Shears rushes across the river to help Joyce, but Japanese soldiers shoot both of them. It is in these ending moments, as he faces death to complete what he has now accepted as his mission, not just the mission he went along with, that we realize his loyalty has shifted completely.

Rabe was released after the war, but — unbelievably — his request for “de-Nazification” was initially denied by the British authorities.

Nicholson, recognizing Shears (“You!” he gasps) — and being thus implicitly rebuked by the sight of an egoist now committed to doing the right thing and fighting for the correct cause — at last also recognizes his duty as a British soldier. He cries out “What have I done?” as he tries to reach the detonator. On the cliff above, Warden fires his mortar, killing the two commandos and mortally wounding Nicholson, who manages to stagger over to and collapse upon the detonator. The bridge blows, taking with it the train.

The final scenes are equally compelling. Warden, who has to escape with the only remaining help he has, the Thai women, shouts at them that he had to do what he did and kill the young commandos — presumably, so that they wouldn’t be captured and forced to divulge information. The British doctor Clipton rushes out to see what has happened. As he surveys the carnage, he shakes his head and exclaims, in a voice choking with emotion, "Madness . . . Madness!” Madness, indeed — countless men were killed to build a “monument,” and more were killed to destroy it.

Now, there was some controversy about the film concerning its historical accuracy. The movie follows the book (The Bridge over the River Kwai, by French novelist Pierre Boulle, who is probably best known for his script for The Planet of the Apes) rather closely, though with one important difference that I will explore shortly. Yet the book itself was only loosely based on the real story of the Japanese Imperial Army’s construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway (also grimly named the Railway of Death) in 1942-43. The project — 260 miles of railway line connecting Bangkok and Rangoon, crossing the Mae Klong river — used primarily forced labor (called “Romusha” in Japanese). It cost the lives of upwards of 16,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 conscripted Indonesian and Malaysian laborers. The real bridge over the main river was first built out of wood, then out of steel, and was not destroyed until 1945, and then by Allied bombers, not commandos.

Moreover, there was a real British officer who worked to save the British POWs — Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Toosey. Toosey was a leader in the defense of Singapore, where he won the DSO for heroism. He refused an order to evacuate in order to remain with his men in captivity. By complaining against their mistreatment even at the cost of being beaten, and by negotiating cleverly, he was able to improve their living conditions. After the war he was a devoted exponent for helping the veteran far-eastern POWs.

Toosey was apparently little like the fictional Colonel Nicholson, and was certainly not a collaborator. In fact, he encouraged secret sabotage, such as deliberately mixing the cement improperly and infesting the wooden trestles with termites. The novelist Pierre Boulle, who had actually been a POW in Thailand, said that he based the character of Nicholson on his memories of a number of French officers who had collaborated with the Japanese.

Again, there really was a Saito. But the real Saito — Risaburo Saito — was a Sergeant-Major who was only second in command of a POW camp. More importantly, the real Saito was viewed by the POWs as relatively reasonable and humane. In a war crimes trial, Toosey spoke in Saito’s defense, and the two formed a friendship.

However, while the film is not faithful to reality, I would contend that it is better off for not being that way. It is, after all, a fictional feature film, not a documentary. Specifically, the film departs from reality in a way that highlights the conflicts in the protagonist, helping us think about the source and nature of collaboration.

Normally, a person who collaborates in war does so out of simple egoism. By cooperating with the enemy, he typically furthers his self-interest: he gets better food, easier work, a place in the new power structure, or merely money (thirty pieces of silver, perhaps). But Nicholson clearly is not initially acting out of self-interest. His willingness to endure being boxed in “the oven” shows that.

No, Nicholson’s loyalty to his troops and his military code of conduct are what make him want to build a “proper” bridge as a way to keep discipline and morale up, which would help the men survive in a harsh environment. Although some of his officers wonder whether this is collaboration, Nicholson’s decision is reasonable.

Nevertheless, as the work progresses Nicholson loses his moral focus, as his loyalty shifts to the project itself, and his growing — what? friendship? mutual admiration? or simply partnership? — with Saito. The tip-off scene is when he and Saito are inspecting the completed project, and Nicholson starts musing about how one day the war will be over, and this project will be left as a kind of monument.

At this point, Nicholson's loyalty is shifting from his men to the man with whom he is collaborating, and possibly to himself — to concern for his later reputation, i.e., self-aggrandizement. The viewer sees this in the scene where Nicholson suddenly requires that his officers start working alongside the enlisted men — the very thing that, earlier, he had opposed so strongly that he was willing to be put in “the oven.” This morally indefensible shift in perspective leads him to help, at first, to expose the plan to destroy the bridge. Only towards the end, when the sight of the egoist Shears fighting for the right military objective shakes him to his senses, does Nicholson recover the proper moral perspective.

This scene was not in the book, which ends with the commandos trying to blow up the bridge but only succeeding in derailing the train; Nicholson has no hand in any of it. Boulle was not in favor of the change in plot — though he liked the movie on the whole — but I am convinced that Lean’s instinct was right. It creates two characters who are internally complex, with loyalties that shift subtly through the film, forcing us to try to understand their motives.

The critical acclaim for this film was unprecedented. It won Oscars for Best Picture (Sam Spiegel), Best Director (Lean), Best Actor (Guinness), Best Cinematography (Jack Hilyard), Best Music Score (Malcolm Arnold), Best Film Editing (Peter Taylor), and Best Writing/Screenplay (Pierre Boulle, with blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson added in 1984). Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Madness, indeed — countless men were killed to build a “monument,” and more were killed to destroy it.

Additionally, the film won BAFTA awards for Best British Film, Best British Actor (Guinness), Best British Screenplay (Boulle), and Best Film from Any Source. The film won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Best Motion Picture Director, and Best Motion Picture Actor (Drama) (Guinness). Again, Hayakawa was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Lean won the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. And the film score copped a Grammy.

All this critical acclaim was well deserved, in my view. The movie was one of only a comparative handful of movies — several of which are works by David Lean — that I would point to as working on all three levels on which a film can work: the philosophic, the literary, and the aesthetic. (I discussed this terminology in my review of The Lost City, in the December 2006 Liberty.) At the philosophic level, the level of ideas, the film is an interesting exploration of codes of military honor and the nature of collaboration with the enemy. At the literary level, the level of plot and character, the movie gives us some unforgettable images of characters, such as an inwardly weak Japanese martinet, an egoist out for survival in a brutal environment, and a morally flawed though strong officer. And at the aesthetic level, the level of the sight and sound of the work, you have really masterful cinematography and an unforgettable score.

Moreover, the acting just couldn’t get any better. Alec Guinness — always a favorite actor of Lean’s and appearing in most of his flicks — is just perfect as the hidebound Nicholson. Although Guinness was troubled by the project — he thought that the movie had an anti-British flavor — he gave a fine performance. In fact, he thought that the scene in which his character is released from the oven and staggers forward was the best acting in his career (he had modeled the movements on those of his son who was afflicted by polio).

And William Holden, who could play the egoist and reluctant warrior well (as shown in his other fine war pictures, Stalag 17 and The Bridges at Toko-Ri) was perfect in this flick.

Also noteworthy is the performance of Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, the commando squad leader. Warden portrays a martinet, but bereft of any inner conflicts. When he is wounded, he doesn’t want to be carried by the Thai women, because it endangers the mission. Ironically, it is the egoist Shears who forces him to accept help. At the end, he has no compunction about blowing up both Shears and Joyce, as the Thai women — who function in the scene as a kind of Greek chorus — stare at him in horror. He is totally focused on the mission, and feels no conflicts about anything he has to do to accomplish it.

But especially noteworthy in support is the performance by Sessue Hayakawa as the conflicted Saito, a character at once militaristic and vulnerable, even brittle.

A few comments about this historically fascinating actor are in order. Hayakawa was born Kintaro Hayakawa in Japan in 1889. He was the scion of a military man, and was groomed to become an officer in the Japanese Navy. But he ruptured his eardrum in a swimming dare as a teenager. This led his father to feel bitterly disappointed in him. He himself was led to feel a profound sense of shame before his father, and he attempted seppuku, stabbing himself in the abdomen 30 times. Had his father not broken down the door to the room in which he was attempting suicide and taken him to a hospital, he would have died. I suspect that this aspect of his personal background is what lends such credibility to Saito’s contemplation of the act in the movie.

Hayakawa, as a young adult, made his way to America in 1911, studying economics at the University of Chicago, but then getting into acting. He rapidly became a silent screen star. His pictures between the mid-1910s and the late 1920s were hugely popular, both in the U.S. and Europe, putting him in the same class as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolf Valentino. (In fact, Hayakawa often played the exotic lover, a role he explored before Valentino arrived on the scene.) At his peak in the 1920s, Hayakawa was clearing $2 million a year from his film work (helped by the fact that he was one of the first actors who formed his own production company). This stellar background in silent cinema made him a fine visual actor, though a restrained one (he attributed his restraint to his Zen training), which talent he used to great effect in this movie.

Hayakawa’s personal and professional life was full of conflict. After moving to America in disgrace, he made a brilliant early career in Hollywood, but with the rise of talkies (along with anti-Japanese sentiment in America) in the 1930s, he went abroad to work in theatre and film. Ironically, he was never really popular in Japan. His early performances as the exotic Asian lover didn’t suit the Japanese audiences, which were very eager to embrace everything American. Later in his career, these audiences — at that point rejecting America — rejected him as too Americanized.

He was in France in the late 1930s, filming a movie, and when the Germans occupied the country in 1940, he was essentially trapped there. Hayakawa didn’t just sit around and dream of past glories: he lived as a professional artist, selling his watercolor paintings, while also working with the Resistance, helping to save downed Allied airman. He proved his loyalty by his actions.

In the late 1940s, he was offered work again in Hollywood, starting with Humphrey Bogart’s production Tokyo Joe, and then Three Came Home, a film based on the true story of a woman held in a Japanese POW camp (with Hayakawa playing the camp commander).

His performance in Bridge on the River Kwai well deserved an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and he considered it his best acting in a career spanning 80 movies.

Let’s close by returning a comment I made earlier, when I said that the famous All About Eve was of a genre that Hollywood studios called “women’s movies.” But it was a great film — one that transcended a particular genre of entertainment to say things of great interest to people generally. War movies were (and are), like detective and action flicks, generally considered “Men’s Movies.” They are normally just a genre of entertaining movies aimed at a target audience. But when they work at their best, they too can transcend the genre to arrive at universal interest.

I contend that the four movies I have discussed are great and transcendent in this way. And at the core of them, what makes them fascinating is the way their protagonists sort through conflicting duties, of the kind that W.D. Ross well understood and analyzed. But in identifying these four films, I know I have only scratched the surface. The conflicts I have discussed are central to the storylines of many great films, and many great works of literature as well. This is, indeed, a very broad and deep subject.


Editor's Note: Films discussed: “The Enemy Below.” 20th Century Fox, 1957, 98 minutes. “Decision Before Dawn.” 20th Century Fox, 1951, 119 minutes. “John Rabe.” Hofmann & Voges Entertainment, Majestic Filmproduktion, 2009, 134 mins. “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Columbia Pictures, 1957, 161 mins.



Share This


Risky Business

 | 

There I was, minding my own business and rereading Emerson’s Nature (with the intent of writing something about how the Transcendentalists would reject out of hand today’s “green” cult) when I was interrupted by rhetoric so strikingly stupid I was compelled to put down the old book.

The president was on the television, babbling:

And when you look at what independent economists are saying about the American Jobs Act, my jobs plan, uniformly what they are saying is, this buys us insurance against a double-dip recession, and it almost certainly helps the economy grow and will put more people back to work, and that's what the American people want . . .

It’s excruciating to me how this affirmative action-borne halfwit misuses the word “insurance.” And this is more than just a semantic objection — the stupidity that statists show about matters of risk and insurance are a major reason America is stumbling toward bankruptcy.

I make my living writing about risk and insurance for professionals and interested laymen. It’s important stuff, a nexus of philosophy and finance. So it galls me particularly when some hack yammers about “insurance against . . . recession.” That’s like insurance against bad luck or unhappiness. There’s no such thing.

Insurance entails many elements but two are most important: risk identification and risk transfer. The first involves understanding and organizing the specific causes of loss that a person or entity faces in given circumstances. The second involves finding a counterparty willing — for a fee — to indemnify the person or entity against the losses that occur from those specific causes.

The point here is that no one, and no form of insurance, can eliminate risk. All that insurance does is move the risk around. Done well, it moves the risk in a way that makes economic sense to all parties involved.

The president believes that his latest spending spree is insurance. If so, who’s the person or entity identifying the risk? He? We? And who’s the counterparty agreeing to indemnify against the specific losses? They? A bunch of rich guys who aren’t Jeffrey Immelt?

The answer, of course, is nihil and null set. The American Jobs Act transfers nothing and insures against nothing. And I hazard the prediction that will accomplish nothing.

Hacks like Obama confuse the concepts “insurance” and “subsidy.” And this isn’t a new mistake for the president. Four years ago, when I reviewed his meager campaign document The Audacity of Hope for this magazine, I wrote:

Obama’s most tortured pages are the ones that deal with issues of risk and security in public policy. Like most statists, he has a weak understanding of risk theory.

“The bigger the pool of insured, the more risk is spread, the more coverage provided, and the lower the cost. Sometimes, though, we can’t buy insurance for certain risks on the marketplace — usually because companies find it unprofitable. Sometimes the insurance we get through our job isn’t enough, and we can’t afford to buy more on our own. Sometimes an unexpected tragedy strikes and it turns out we didn’t have enough insurance. For all these reasons, we ask the government to step in and create an insurance pool for us — a pool that includes all of the American people.” (177–78)

This passage makes Obama seem either ignorant or willfully misleading about risk allocation and insurance. . . . no [counterparty] — including the state — can “step in” and create a risk pool after a loss (in his words, a “tragedy”) has occurred. The purpose of risk pools is to gather resources before a loss occurs, so that they can be allocated when one does.

That part about stepping in and setting up risk pools after a loss is important. It’s essentially what Obama is doing now — arguing for more borrowed money to be spent “creating jobs” after high unemployment numbers have been reported.

This willful stupidity about risk and insurance explains much about Obama’s ineffectiveness as an executive. And I still wonder today what I did four years ago: do statist hacks believe in collectivism because they don’t understand risk and rewards? Or do they believe in collectivism first and then ignore risk because its rules contradict their halfwit pieties?




Share This

© Copyright 2013 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.