The Pains of Proflish

 | 

A student taking an advanced degree at a world-renowned institution sent me a news item about a math professor at Michigan State University who (allegedly, always allegedly) took off his clothes in the middle of class and ran around naked, shouting things like, “There is no f*cking God!”

No, I’m not going to claim those words as an invitation to comment on the linguistic habits of scientific atheists. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I could do that, but it would be wrong. But I’m not sure how wrong it would be to take it as a commentary on the linguistic habits of college professors (of the which I am one). It seems to me that during the past 30 years we’ve done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

I can’t say I was surprised by the news my fellow Watcher sent me. What did surprise me was the reported reactions of the professor’s class. (No, I didn’t mean “were the reported reactions”; I meant was; the number of the verb follows that of the subject, which is what, and which is singular.) “We were literally scared for our lives,” one student said. “The police took about 15 minutes to get here, and during this time he continued walking around screaming.” The complaint was echoed by another student: "It took them more than 15 minutes to arrive. It could have turned into something very bad if he had a weapon on him. It was pretty infuriating to have to wait that long." And that second student wasn’t even in the professor’s presence; the professor was out in the hall, by that time, and the student was in a classroom.

The fact that the troubled pedagogue was naked didn’t seem to have allayed these young people’s fears. And as for the 15 minutes: I’m no fan of the police, but look at your watch and picture yourself getting a call, leaving your office, traveling across one of the nation’s largest college campuses, locating the place where an incident is taking place, clambering upstairs, and confronting some nut who’s running around naked . . . Now look at your watch again. Think you could make it in 15 minutes? Think that somebody has a right to complain bitterly at this complete abdication of police responsibility? Think that you and I and a bunch of fit young college kids concerned with a naked, middle-aged man possess a right to have cops show up in less than 15 minutes?

I think I’d rather take off my clothes and run around like a maniac than to utter the complaints of those college students.

But if you’re thinking just about words, and not about guts, the worst part of this report is the eight words that say, “The professor’s name has not yet been released.” Not released by whom? And why not? Everybody on the scene knew who he was. Their reactions were reported at length. A blurry picture of his apprehension was included in the news report. So why not his name?

During the past 30 years we professors have done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

Pity? Perhaps. But this pity, this verbal delicacy and restraint, is by no means evenly distributed. If Joe Blow from Kokomo has a fight with his girlfriend, gets a little drunk, drives down the street, and gets nailed by a passing cop, no one will withhold his name from publicity — or his mugshot either, in some jurisdictions.

The day after the scary incident, anonymous students identified the professor as a certain John McCarthy. The day after that, the really loony thing happened. An article about the affair appeared in the MSU student newspaper. You can tell MSU standards of journalism by contemplating the following sentence, which is about the weekly meeting of the “steering committee” of the university’s president: “At the Steering Committee meeting Tuesday, the conversation turned to mathematics professor John McCarthy, which students said he had a mental breakdown during a class Monday.”

“Which students said he had a mental breakdown . . .” OMG — now we know what kind of grammar MSU is teaching.

Well, let’s see what intellectual level MSU’s president is operating on. For other people, the serious issue introduced by the professor’s actions might be, “Did MSU know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does MSU have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?” But that was not the issue that President Anna K. Simon wished to discuss. For her, we learn, “an incident Monday brings in to [sic] question the impact and role of social media.”

Huh? As far as I can make out from Simon’s murky remarks, murkily reported, the problem is information control: “’The complication of social media, with everyone with a camera and a cell phone, is one that we continue to struggle with in terms of information because the event would not, under (normal) circumstances, trigger one set of alerts,’ Simon said. ‘There’s also the need for more crisp communication about what the outcome was. Whether that would have controlled some of the rumors, tweets and other things, I’m not quite sure.’”

Did Michigan State know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does Michigan State have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?

Let’s look at this in another way. Suppose you’re concerned about the quality of some public institution. You want to find out whether there’s any quality control. You learn that a teacher, policeman, bureaucrat, or other publicly employed personality, may have done something egregiously stupid and wrong, and perhaps illegal, while exercising his or her official duties. She’s said to have told her students to vote for Obama. He’s said to have beaten a homeless person for “resisting” some “order.” She’s accused of making a “questionable” transfer of city funds. He allegedly takes off his clothes in front of his students and runs around screaming.

You’d like more facts. But how long do you have to spend just trying to confirm this person’s name? A week? A month? Three months? Forever? Unless there’s a miracle, the information control artists will keep you from knowing what it is until virtually everyone has forgotten the episode — and then the data will be stored in a closed file, no longer accessible to the public. In the meantime, you will be informed that personnel regulations do not allow release of that information, or, pending possible legal action, the city cannot comment on this case, or some other nonsense that never applies to a normal person in a normal job (or didn’t, until the “standards” of “public service” bureaucracies spread into big private companies). And, to top it off, some CEO will entertain the media by looking at her navel and meditating about how tough the times are, what with all these cameras and phones and computers around, ready to convey the truth to anyone online . . .

So what do you think? What are we supposed to say about that? What are we able to say, since if we do comment we can always be told that we do not have all the facts?

The chair of John McCarthy’s department presumably has all the facts. These facts lead him to be concerned “about the way some people made jokes about the incident. An incident like this often teaches us who we are and what we represent. I hope we can all use what transpired after this incident to reflect on our values and our role as members of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world.”

Gosh, don’t you feel guilty? Your making jokes about a figure of authority at an institution that strives to be among the best of the world has hurt the feelings of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world. Or something.

But to continue with college professors, which I can easily do, considering that I am one, have you been following the curious case of Professor Amy Bishop? She’s the one who was recently convicted of killing three of her colleagues and wounding three others at a meeting of the Biology Department at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. That happened in 2010, and there were plenty of witnesses, because she didn’t manage to kill them all, but it took two and a half years to convict her. I don’t know why, except that it may have something to do with the cultural and verbal universe in which she lived.

Perhaps the EEOC is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health.”

In 1986, in Massachusetts, where’s she’s from, she killed her brother Seth with a shotgun, then went to a local auto dealership and tried to commandeer a car so she could escape. Apparently because of her family’s ties to the local power structure, she wasn’t even questioned about the shooting for 11 days. Then it was called an “accident.” Eight years later, she was implicated in an attempt to pipe bomb an academic supervisor in Boston. He had suggested she was “mentally unstable.” Four months after the attempted bombing, investigators finally showed up at her house. She was uncooperative, and the investigation was inconclusive. It went away. Seven years later, she was arrested after assaulting a woman in a fight over a high chair at an International House of Pancakes in Peabody, MA. She was sentenced to probation and an anger management class (which she probably didn’t take). In the restaurant, she had yelled, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Amy Bishop!”

Now she gets to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where she is known as “difficult” by “some.” A good piece of reporting tells the story. Bishop didn’t publish very much; she listed her children as first and second authors on one of her publications; a student filed a grievance against her; she was detested by almost everyone.

Then, as our reporter says — and this is the cream of the jest:

In September 2009 Bishop filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Someone on her departmental tenure committee had called her "crazy" in her tenure review, and would not retract the statement when an administrator gave him a chance to back down. The anonymous professor maintained that Bishop's unstable mental health was apparent on their first meeting.

The EEOC is still looking into that complaint.

I have been unable to learn whether the federal agency is still looking into it. Perhaps it is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health,” or, in plain terms, insane, bonkers, off her rocker, completely gone, in the zone, out of her skull, a desperate lunatic, and otherwise, well, crazy, or if she is, whether anyone should have said it.

A Martian appears in your kitchen and tells you that the folks back on the slopes of Olympus Mons have been following the Amy Bishop story on their nightly news. He wants to know what is so weird and touchy about that word crazy. He wants to know how somebody who uses it in its clearest and most self-evident application could possibly be investigated by a government of 300 million people (which presumably ought to have other things on its mind), because the word might have been discriminatory against the woman who killed four people. What words would you use to explain this?

Maybe you wouldn’t be able to find them, but we professors would — or at least keep anyone else from doing so.

On October 2, I was watching a CNN segment about why more security wasn’t provided to our diplomatic installation in Benghazi, when it was obvious that the place might be in danger from fanatic Muslims. The interviewer asked a professor — or someone who talked so much like a professor that he should immediately be given tenure — what he thought about all the warnings that came in, and apparently were not adequately heeded. Well, he said, “you have to parse the different kinds of violence that were taking place.”

That was his response.

What would you have to do to interpret that for your Martian friend?

I suppose you would start by noting that the key word was “parse.” In normal English, “parse” means to identify the grammatical functions of the words in a sentence. But in Proflish, the professor tongue, which is the status language of planet earth, the language to which all other languages aspire, “parse” means anything you want it to mean. In this case, it appears to mean something like “look at.”

Well, says the Martian, why can’t he just say “look at”?

That’s sort of a puzzler, but I can think of two, related reasons. One, he would be understood immediately, and that is not the goal of anyone speaking Proflish. Two, he would reveal the fact that he is saying nothing. Suppose I do look at or inspect various kinds of violence. Suppose I go further, and distinguish one kind of violence from another. So what? That isn’t enough. I haven’t really said anything. But a word like parse will keep everyone, or at least the interviewer, impressed with me. And that’s the point of talking, see? Ya see?

Yes, says the Martian. I’m parsing it all.


Editor's Note: Word Watch will comment on the presidential and vice presidential debates after the disease has run its course.



Share This


Sticking It to Wall Street

 | 

Hardly a day goes by without President Obama blaming our economic woes on the "failed policies of the past." He has made Wall Street reform a top priority. In contrast to the George Bush economic delinquency that abandoned Main Street, his policies will stick it to Wall Street. He will (allegedly) prevent the financial shocks of credit bubbles and real estate booms. Ever-watchful of deceptive mortgage lenders, he will hold them and all other greedy plutocrats accountable for their financial shenanigans.

In truth, the policies of the past engendered regulations that were ignored, unimplemented, unenforced, and, more recently, applied against the wrong people. This travesty was compounded by politicians, regulators, and DOJ lawyers who failed as well. They failed miserably, yet suffered no consequences. Only the people whom regulations were supposed to protect suffered. But this time, as he campaigns for reelection, Mr. Obama tells us, incessantly, he has our back.

The policies that created the too-big-to-fail banks and the scurrilous practices that collapsed the housing market were enacted in the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was responsible for the 1999 reversal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had previously separated retail and investment banking. Its repeal legalized the formation of today's giant banking conglomerates. Rubin's successor, Lawrence Summers, then gave us the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), which exempted derivatives from regulation.

With energy derivatives, Enron went on to perpetrate the largest corporate fraud in history. With collateralized debt obligations, giant banking conglomerates (Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.) went on to become giant contributors to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Robert Rubin went on to earn over $126 million at Citigroup for a tenure spanning the company's Enron involvement and "merga-mania" phase and proceeding to its near bankruptcy in 2008. This was around the time when candidate Obama began blaming President Bush for the financial crisis. Obama went on to form an economic team led by people who helped create the crisis — economic geniuses such as Rubin protégésLawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. As Washington Postwriter Steven Pearlstein put it: “The ultimate irony, of course, is that just as Rubin and Co. at Citi were being bailed out by the Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama was getting set to announce a new economic team drawn almost entirely from Rubin acolytes.”

As an attorney, Obama represented "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water.

What qualified Obama to assemble a team that would, supposedly, stick it to Wall Street? As the Washington Examiner discovered in its 'The Obama You Don't Know” exposé, it was also during the Clinton years that Obama developed his knowledge of real estate and finance. In the early 1990s, heleft the community organizing business for the housing market — as an attorney representing "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water. This experience no doubt proved invaluable when, as president, he led our nation's efforts to recover from "the worst financial disaster since the Depression" — by selecting and relying on the very people who caused the disaster.

Geithner, who became Obama's treasury secretary, was recruited from the New York Federal Reserve Bank, where, as chairman, he was the principal government official responsible for regulating Citigroup. After years of doing nothing to deter the antics that almost bankrupted that firm, he helped forge a deal (with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, another Rubin colleague) that stuck it to taxpayers: a $45 billion bailout with an additional $306 billion guarantee against toxic assets.

Unfortunately, Geithner wasn't the only regulator asleep at the switch. All of them were. All of the 18 or so financial regulatory agencies charged with protecting us from Wall Street's sordid schemes failed abysmally. And they did so despite repeated warnings by the Bush administration, from April 2001 throughDecember 2007. At least the Bush administration suspected the coming crisis.

Maybe the regulators thought that Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank,the nation's top Wall Street watchdogs, would actually bark. But this fatuous duo thwarted the Bush attempts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Under their feckless supervision, the capital inadequacies of the two government-backed mortgage giants crippled the housing market. And as homeowners and the real estate industry lost trillions of dollars, Barney Frank took it upon himself to cause further damage. In July 2008, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock was selling for $10.25 a share and $9.00 a share, respectively (down from $60 and $67, in January), the ever-vigilant Barney proclaimed, “I think they are in good shape going forward.” How did this ringing endorsement pay off for the many thousands who subsequently scarfed up these stocks? Today, they are selling for about $.25 a share.

For his signature Wall Street reform law, president Obama turned to Messrs Dodd and Frank, entrusting the two who didn't prevent the last crisis with preventing the next one. In a just world, they would have been impeached for the harm caused by their feckless oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But in Obama's world of social justice and economic fairness, they stuck it to us with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — an oppressive 2,300 page regulatory monstrosity that exacerbates the dominance of the "too-big-to-fail" oligopoly, reduces the competitiveness of smaller banks, and passes its immense compliance costs on to consumers. And it exempts from regulation — wait for it — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

Obama brays at the Bush trickle-down policies, but the benefits of Dodd-Frank are illusory, especially to Middle America, which remains stuck in the nightmare of Obama's regulatory trickle down: a stagnant economy, horrific unemployment, and the specter of a returning recession. Regulators are paid obscenely high salaries to protect supposedly powerless investors, bank account holders, and consumers from the wrongdoings of banks and financial institutions. Yet the latter have, in the main, gone unharmed, and so have the regulators. While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

If the bailout wasn’t reward enough for risky Wall Street practices, immunity from prosecution will make up the difference. After over three years of relentless investigation, Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force has not convicted a single Wall Street miscreant of a single crime, even the imaginary crimes that regulators like to invent. Instead of the stereotypical wolves of Wall Street, Eric Holder has chosen to go after the likes of a Connecticut women who allegedly conducted a gifting table Ponzi Scheme, and a Nevada group accused of trying to control condominium home owners’ associations. Scrambling to comply with Dodd-Frank regulations, big banks are firing, not high level executives likely to commit widespread fraud, but thousands of low-level employeeswith jobs far removed from significant transactional crime. For example, Wells Fargo recently fired a 68-year-old customer service representative after discovering that he had been convicted of using a fake dime in a laundromat in 1963. Meanwhile, the legal fees for lawsuits against executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which received over $150 billion in taxpayer bailout money) now exceed $109 million. Those fees are paid by — again, wait for it — the taxpayers.

The banking oligarchy is doing quite well under President Obama. So too is his ever-expanding regulatory leviathan. The rest of us are left to struggle through the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. It is a struggle exacerbated by stifling regulations, unprecedented compliance costs, and the knowledge that none of the people responsible for the financial crisis (certainly corrupt Wall Street executives, but also incompetent politicians and inept regulators) are in jail. All the sticking has been to us. Still, as the election approaches, many believe that Obama is the right man for the job. They fear Mitt Romney, who wants less regulation. Obama, of course, demands still more — especially after the shock that his Dodd-Frank reforms failed to prevent the MF Global and JP Morgan scandals. Evidently, he needs four more years to deal with Wall Street. Perhaps his supporters believe that, with his brilliant legal mind, he will find enough laws to do so. After all, he got the slumlord off with a $50 fine.




Share This


The Shape of Things to Come

 | 

On August 1, the City of San Bernardino, California, filed for protection under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Chapter 9 is designed for municipalities and other local governments; the federal government can’t declare bankruptcy. At least that’s what most bankruptcy experts claim.

City officials gave media outlets the same explanations that CEOs of bankrupt companies often do: the mayor explained that the City would continue to meet its payroll and pay essential bills. He said that the main reason the City was seeking bankruptcy protection was to prevent lawsuits from being filed by a couple of angry creditors.

Asked to explain the cause of the crisis, San Bernardino officials passed the buck. They said that, because of budget shortfalls at the federal and state level, California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature had made changes to vehicle tax money and redevelopment agencies that stripped local governments of hundreds of millions in state funding.

One of the most destructive qualities of statism is its tendency to turn good intentions into disastrous results.

This was true. But not everyone accepted the official explanations as the whole truth. Some conspiracy-minded sorts hinted darkly about criminal wrongdoing in City offices. Others looked through San Bernardino’s filing and pointed to one of its largest creditors: the City owed the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) some $143 million in unfunded pension obligations.

For its part, CalPERS claimed that San Bernardino was using a misleading “actuarial” calculation of its obligation and actually owed something closer to $320 million.

Now, that was a fiscal emergency.

San Bernardino also drew media attention because it was the third California city in as many months to file for bankruptcy protection. In June, Stockton had sought bankruptcy protection because it couldn’t come to agreement with its employee unions on a plan to close the $26-million gap in its general fund; in July, the ski-resort town of Mammoth Lakes had filed bankruptcy (its story was slightly different, though; the Mammoth Lakes meltdown was triggered by a court judgment the town couldn't pay).

Welcome to the late stages of American statism. Government and quasi-governmental agencies battling in bankruptcy court. Political rhetoric piling high. Bureaucrats talking evasively about where tens or hundreds of millions of dollars have gone.

* * *

On July 26, San Bernardino’s Interim City Manager, Andrea Miller, and Director of Finance, Jason Simpson, delivered to the mayor and city council a report called the Budgetary Analysis and Recommendations for Budget Stabilization. The report lays out the City’s problems and various possible solutions — including several that might have avoided bankruptcy. It’s a dense and important document, a harbinger of trouble ahead for spendthrift municipalities and states.

At the start, the report notes:

The City of San Bernardino has been affected by the serious economic recession as have other cities and has taken steps over the last several years to reduce costs. Nevertheless, costs continue to outpace revenue due to increased operational expenses and significant rapid declines in property tax revenues as a result of a drop in property values and decline in sales tax revenue. Deficits of major proportions are projected in all five years of the forecast created as part of this project. To ensure basic operational service levels are maintained and anticipated cash flow requirements are met, steps will be needed immediately to reduce costs. . . . If these measures do not achieve immediate and substantial cost savings, then the City will have to explore other alternatives to deal with its fiscal crisis.

They didn’t. And, less than a week later, the city council decided to declare bankruptcy.

A quick side note: I’ve read Miller and Simpson’s report numerous times in the preparation of this piece; and, each time I read through it, I’m more impressed. It’s an honest assessment of how a municipal government (or, by extension, any government) can stumble into insolvency, despite the best intentions of several generations of leadership — including leadership that fancied itself reform-minded. Indeed, one of the most destructive qualities of statism is its tendency to turn good intentions into disastrous results. That tendency is on full display in the San Bernardino story.

While the report does take off on some tangents of bureaucratic jargon, most of its 49 pages are a fairly common-sense narrative of what happened. And what needs to be done to get the City back on an even financial footing.

This is how the report describes San Bernardino’s financial circumstances:

Reserves in the General Fund were exhausted years ago, reserves in the internal service funds were also depleted and the City has encumbered itself with various debt obligations and labor agreements putting additional and unnecessary risk on the General Fund.

The City has declared numerous fiscal emergencies based on fiscal circumstances and has negotiated and imposed concessions of $10 million per year and has reduced the workforce by 20% over the past 4 years. Yet, the City is still facing the possibility of insolvency due to a variety of issues including accounting errors, deficit spending, lack of revenue growth, and increases in pension and debt costs. . . .

Over the past several years, the City has utilized General Fund reserves, asset sales and one time revenues to maintain City services. To address the projected deficits in previous fiscal years, the City has reduced positions, negotiated compensation reductions, and implemented new revenue measures. Unfortunately, the decline in taxable sales and property values over the last several years has resulted in revenue losses of $10 to $16 million annually.

In other words, it had used the usual one-time, off-budget legerdemain and accounting gimmicks that spendthrift governments — and spendthrift people — instinctively employ when they expect some future windfall to make everything okay. In San Bernardino’s case, the one-time tricks had been played . . . and there was no windfall coming.

According to the report, for the 2012–13 fiscal year, the City’s expenditures would exceed revenues by $45 million. And that annual shortfall would only increase over time.

The report lays out some of the most critical financial weaknesses facing the City:

  • Because the City has used reserve funds to balance previous budgets, there are no reserves in place to balance current and future budgets.
  • Budget choices made in previous years have left the City with high capital lease balances for equipment — and no effective way to refinance or otherwise resolve those expenses.
  • Because of the loss of federal and state redevelopment funds, the City has insufficient economic development programs in place to project stronger tax revenues in the future.
  • Since the City has a current deficit in its General Fund, it does not have sufficient unrestricted cash available to pay its ongoing obligations.
  • The City has an unemployment rate above state and county averages.
  • The City has an unusually high ratio of public safety costs to overall General Fund revenues.
  • The City’s expenses were over budget in FY 2011–12 and would be massively more so in 2012–13 and following.
  • The City’s failure to complete its FY 2010–11 budget audit on time delayed necessary budget reductions, further depleting cash.
  • The starting General Fund balance has been erroneously stated for each the previous two fiscal years.

In mid-July, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office announced that it was involved in a multi-agency criminal investigation of the City government. The sheriff’s announcement didn’t indicate whether the investigation was related directly to the City’s bankruptcy filing. It referred to “allegations of criminal activity within departments of the San Bernardino city government” and confirmed that it would focus on those General Fund balances, which had been “erroneously stated.”

And, then, the hardest truth: “It is atypical practice for cities to have adopted [sensible] budget policies” like these. That may be the biggest problem that the United States faces today.

But the City’s financial problems aren’t (or aren’t entirely) the result of malfeasance. Many of its problems are structural. San Bernardino’s population is approximately 211,000; that number has been increasing rapidly since the 1970s. Because the City is a bedroom community and has never had a substantial commercial or industrial base, its population growth has outpaced growth of tax revenues needed to provide essential services.

According to the report, the largest employers in the City — in roughly descending order — are local government agencies, California State University San Bernardino, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and San Bernardino Community Hospital. The common thread? There’re all either government agencies or government-dependent entities, relying directly or indirectly on public money for the majority of the revenues.

* * *

An important strategy for avoiding structural budget deficits is to adopt a budget philosophy that can serve as a meaningful framework for maintaining financial discipline.

This may sound elementary: Reporting on a government entity’s finances clearly and for public discussion is a way for the fiduciary responsibilities of elected officials and executive managers to be understood by the public and organization. But many government entities have become so decadent that they no longer look at financial reporting in that way.

The San Bernardino report describes some “best practices” in public-entity financial management:

  • Structurally Balanced Budget. The annual budgets for all City funds should be structurally balanced throughout the budget process. Ongoing revenue should be equal to or exceed operating expenditures in both the proposed and adopted budgets. If a structural imbalance occurs, a plan should be developed and implemented to bring the budget back into structural balance.
  • Multi-Year Financial Forecasting. To ensure that current budget decisions consider future financial implications, a five-year financial forecast should be utilized by the staff and Council. The annual General Fund proposed budget balancing plan should be presented and discussed in context of the five-year forecast. Any revisions to the proposed budget should include an analysis of the impact on the forecast out years.
  • Use of One-Time Resources. One-time resources (e.g., revenue spikes, budget savings, sale of property, and similar nonrecurring revenue) should not be used for current or new ongoing operating expenses. Examples of appropriate uses of one-time resources include rebuilding reserves, retiring debt early, making capital expenditures (without significant operating and maintenance costs), and other nonrecurring expenditures.
  • Established Reserves. San Bernardino has multiple funds, based on different revenue sources and requirements. Because there are risks (both known and unknown), it is important that reserve levels in all funds be maintained as a hedge against such risks. Without proper reserves, there can be major disruptions in services when unforeseen financial demands emerge, requiring immediate attention.
  • Debt Issuance. A municipality should not issue long-term (over one year) debt to support ongoing operating costs (other than debt service) unless such debt issuance achieves net operating cost savings and such savings are verified by appropriate independent analysis. All debt issuances shall identify the method of repayment (or have a dedicated revenue source) without an impact to operations.
  • Employee Compensation. Negotiations for employee compensation should continue to consider total compensation bargaining concepts and focus on all personnel services cost changes (e.g., step increases and the cost of benefit increases). Compensation costs should be included in the five-year financial forecast to ascertain affordability to the municipality, within context of expected revenues.

Summing up these points, the report concludes:

To resolve its structural budget deficit and prevent a recurrence in the future, the City needs to adopt a budget philosophy similar to the measures above to help elected and appointed officials maintain the financial discipline crucial to a growing community like San Bernardino.

And, then, the hardest truth: “It is atypical practice for cities to have adopted budget policies” like these.

That may be the biggest problem that the United States faces today.

* * *

For decades, the City of San Bernardino — like many of its residents — counted on rising real estate prices to subsidize the shortfalls in its day-to-day operations. For the City, these subsidies took the form of sharply increasing property tax revenues; the rising revenues allowed the City’s senior officials to grow sloppy.

Warren Buffett has a famous quote that’s relevant to this sloppiness (though it pains me some to quote such a chiseling crony capitalist): “It’s only when the tide goes outthat you discover who’s been swimming naked.” When the southern California real estate market collapsed, the tide went out. And San Bernardino was caught without its shorts.

The report takes a hard look at the City’s prospects for regaining some of the property revenues it lost to the collapsing California real estate bubble:

There are actually two bottoms for housing. The first is new home sales, housing starts and residential investment. The second is sale prices. Sometimes these can happen years apart.

Calculaterisk.com [an economics web site cited by one of the City’s property tax consultants] reports that the first housing bottom was spread over a few years from 2009 until 2011. They believe the second bottom, prices, hit in March 2012. This doesn’t mean prices will increase significantly any time soon. Usually, toward the end of a housing bust, normal prices mostly move sideways for a few more years. Real prices adjusted for inflation could even decline for another 2 or 3 years. . . .

Because we do not anticipate much growth with housing new starts or employment in the near future . . . we should assume construction-related permit activity will also be flat or possibly continue with its decline. Permit activity within most California cities has been very volatile with trends pointing to decreasing activity.

This is an interesting and useful discussion of cycles in the real estate market. But it hints at one of the many problems that come when a government agency tries to “time” a market. If San Bernardino’s consultants are right and a real estate market has a two-part bottom — and if those two parts occur years apart — predicting trends in property tax revenues at or near the bottoms is practically impossible.

In the end, all the report could conclude is: “The rate of revenue growth has not been sufficient to meet the contractual and debt obligations of the City.”

* * *

Every financial crisis — whether it involves a municipality, a company or a family — has two parts: expenses that are too high and revenues that are too low. The drop in property tax revenues was only half the reason for San Bernardino’s lurching deficit. The other half was the City’s expenses. And expenses are the thing bankrupt entities of any sort have to address first when they’re trying to emerge from their crises.

Here’s how the report describes San Bernardino’s expenses:

Roughly half of the annual deficit is attributed to unfunded liabilities in City Retiree Health, Workers’ Compensation and General Liability accounts.

The remaining half is attributed to increasing operational costs and the end of employee concessions. As early as FY 2009–10, expenditures exceeded revenues and the City had begun to utilize prior year fund balances to avoid service cuts or delays in projects. Because expenditures continue to exceed revenues, fund balances have been depleted and have reached a critical point in 2012–13 where the City will begin the year with an actual deficit and significant cash flow constraints.

Put into perspective, this projected deficit in 2012–2013 represents almost 38% of the General Fund budget for that year. The remaining fund balances cannot pay for ongoing operating costs and large sustained reductions will be required. Reducing ongoing expenses must largely come from ongoing reductions in personnel costs since these costs represent about 75% of total General Fund expenditures. Of the personnel costs in the General Fund about 78% are for public safety.

City of San Bernardino Public Safety and Fire expenditures consume the majority of the budget, some 73% of the General Fund in FY 2011–12. And personnel costs in total account for about 85% of the General Fund.

When the southern California real estate market collapsed, the tide went out. And San Bernardino was caught without its shorts.

“Public Safety” is, of course, bureaucratese for “police.” The problem that San Bernardino and other bankrupt local governments face is that the most essential service they provide citizens is police and law enforcement. Everything else — education, parks, growth management plans, performing arts centers, and sports stadiums — pales in comparison to keeping cops on the streets. And crime to a minimum.

Here’s the report’s suggestion for cutting the cost of law enforcement in the City:

To substantially reduce costs in the public safety services, the City will need to reduce staffing, or seek out contract opportunities for the City’s Police Department to provide services to adjacent communities. In recent years, several municipal police departments have provided services to others under contracts for service. In fact, its common place for public safety departments to share dispatch services.

This is an important point to consider for the future of local governments. Cities, at least smaller ones, may not be the most efficient mechanism for financing law enforcement. As the report suggests, a regional law-enforcement infrastructure may be more cost-effective. This suggestion won’t sit well with many mayors and city councils, since their authority over the local constabulary is often their strongest source of political power.

But, when a bankrupt city like San Bernardino has three-quarters or more of its financially unsustainable budget dedicated to “public safety” expenses, it has abdicated the political power that comes with being the boss of the cops.

* * *

The San Bernardino report notes that “reductions to the expenditure side of the budget are not going to produce the level of savings that will be needed to balance the budget.” And, to boost revenues, it suggests increases in or additions of the following municipal taxes:

  • Real Property Transfer Tax
  • Utility User Tax
  • Sales Tax
  • Transient Occupancy Tax
  • 911 Communications Fee
  • Fees for Recovering Paramedic Costs

With bureaucratic resentment, the report notes that “all would require voter approval.”

In the meantime, the City has to find other, more immediate, ways to raise money. In this effort, the report circles back to an idea that it’s already admitted is bad for the City’s long-term fiscal health. Even though the report warns against paying for ongoing expenses with one-time transactions, the authors can’t ignore the quick money available from privatizing real estate:

Currently the City [owns] 294 parcels with total book value of $300 million and a likely sale estimate of less than $100 million dollars. Given the City’s 18% of the property assessment, the sale of these parcels would generate roughly $18 million dollars. The City may also wish to explore selling or leasing some of the parcels at below-market rates in order to incentivize developers and other business interests to spur additional economic development and development-related revenues.

Selling assets doesn’t improve the financial prospects of a city — or a business, or an individual — in the long-term. But insolvent entities don’t have the luxury of making the long term a priority. They need to survive the near term. So, they sell things.

The report tries to inject some wisdom into the breathless discussion of raising taxes and selling off real estate. On these matters, it concludes:

. . . the pursuit of new revenue sources and/or increasing existing revenues is a strategy that can no longer be ignored. However, seeking to increase revenues that are subject to large fluctuations should not be treated as a cure-all. As was the case with revenue received during the real estate boom, some increased revenue could be short-lived.

Therein lies the problem. Governments at any level are rarely able to see past the short-term. Even — or especially — when their press releases talk about the importance of long-term vision, statist entities rarely have it. Twenty years ago, hundreds of books and thousands of articles were written about the long-term vision of Japan’s mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry. How the mighty have fallen. MITI doesn’t exist any more.

* * *

All of this discussion is really just a warm-up act for the 800-pound gorilla at the center of San Bernardino’s problems: the expanding amount of money required to maintain the pensions owed to retired City employees. Here’s how the report describes this issue:

. . . the City is faced with increasing pension costs, as CalPERS adjusted the investment returns increasing retirement costs to all its members starting in FY 2013.

The City’s costs for employee retirement have increased from $1 million in FY 2006/07 to nearly $1.9 million in FY 2011/12. By FY 2013/14 the annual cost will be over $2.2 million. To put this into perspective, the City was spending about 9% of its General Fund budget on retirement costs in FY 2006/07. In FY 2011/12 it will need to spend 13% of the budget on those costs, and by FY 2015/16 it will require 15% of the budget for retirement obligations. [This] is basically an overhead cost over which the City has little control over in the short term.

California law grants CalPERS extraordinary powers (essentially, taxing powers) by which it can demand payments from cities, counties, schools districts, etc, if it runs short of the money needed to meet its defined-benefit pension distributions. Kind of like a cash call to members of business partnership.

This creates a great deal of moral hazard. The San Bernardino report describes this in painful detail:

To address growing public safety pension obligations, the City issued pension obligation bonds (POBs) in 2005. This is a common strategy to reduce unfunded liabilities through the issuance of fixed-rate bonds. . . . the City’s annual pension costs were reduced by $2 million after the issuance of the bonds. However, at the time of the issuance of bonds and subsequent deposit of bond proceeds into the City’s public safety account, CalPERS lost a significant amount of its pension portfolio. The market losses have negatively impacted the City beyond the losses of its deposited funds and have completely reserved all the saving realized from the issuance of POBs.

So, CalPERS’s shoddy investments negated any advantage for the City in issuing pension bonds. The City is still responsible for paying back its bonds…and CalPERS can demand additional money from the City to make up for CalPERS’s bad investments.

It’s as if you refinance your home mortgage to get a lower interest rate. But, after agreeing to the refi, the bank reneges and raises your interest rate back to where it was before and then increases the principal amount of your loan because it lost money on an investment scheme involving Greek bonds.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of books and thousands of articles were written about the long-term vision of Japan’s mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Today, MITI no longer exists.

CalPERS divides the payments that it demands — which it calls “rates” but which aren’t “rates” in any insurance or actuarial sense — into two parts: employee rates and employer rates. According to the San Bernardino report:

It has been a common practice for San Bernardino and many other agencies to pay both parts of the rates. However, recently the City was able to negotiate with the employee groups for all new hires after October 2011 to pay the full employee share. . . . The City could negotiate with current employees to pay all or a portion of the employee share. Further, the City could negotiate any level of sharing with its employees and is not limited to [traditional formulas]. Some cities are planning for [their employees to pay] a greater share of PERS costs than what has commonly been referred to as the “employee share.”

This is an overlooked point. CalPERS can raise the “rates” it demands from local governments as much as it needs to; and those local governments can simply pass CalPERS’s higher demands onto their workers. Or file bankruptcy.

In the years leading up to its bankruptcy filing, San Bernardino did what conventional wisdom suggested for getting its pension obligations in order. It negotiated a “two-tier” retirement benefit program wherein newly-hired employees receive a smaller retirement benefit than more senior employees. But the effects of these new deals are still years away. According to the report:

Savings under this program will build with workforce turnover, as employees under the current system retire and are replaced by employees at the new rate. Therefore, initial cost reductions are minimal but savings to the City in the long term will be significant.

Long-term solutions for near-term problems — the opposite of what a prudent financial manager should propose. In the meantime, the City was still desperate to cut costs. Immediately.

As California’s local governments downsize their employee bases, even slightly, a shrinking number of remaining employees end up paying CalPERS “rates” to support the pension demands of a growing number of retirees. This system is not sustainable. In fact, it’s a bubble . . . if not a Ponzi scheme.

Some senior elected officials in California — including, to his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown — have started to discuss “pension reform” as a pressing issue for the state. But their talk remains rather academic; in the real world, for San Bernardino, annual pension costs have grown from $1 million in FY 2006-07 to $2.2 million in FY 2012-13. That’s a shocking increase in a sunk cost — and one that’s not affected by anything the City does today, including layoffs, restructurings, assets sales, etc.

As the report notes: “costs are increasing at rapid rates significantly beyond increases in revenue and are no longer affordable to most public agencies.”

* * *

So, downsizing local government workforces is a Gordian knot.

The layoff program used by most local governments and public agencies in California is referred to as the “Golden Handshake,” made available under the California Public Employees Retirement Law (Gov. Code, 20903). The Golden Handshake, also as known as the “CalPERS Two Years Additional Service Credit” benefit, requires a local government to provide two additional years of service credit for the calculation of pension benefits to “employees who retire during a designated window period because of imminent demotions, mandatory transfers or layoffs.” While it can provide some short-term savings, this arrangement adds to a city’s future retirement costs and limits management flexibility. For example, the Golden Handshake requires an employer to establish a “window period of at least 90 days and no more than 180 days” to solicit early retirees.

This is a kind of madness. Cities on the verge of bankruptcy don’t have six months to wait for workers to come forward for early retirement. So CalPERS’s union rules end up being largely irrelevant in the circumstances where action is needed, like the ravings against “greedy corporations” of a 30-year-old graduate student at a bottom-tier university.

As the San Bernardino report notes:

The cost-effectiveness of these programs must be examined within the context of an aging workforce. . . . the program [must] be carefully managed to ensure that the option is only offered in instances where a financial justification exists. If that is not the case, the City could be put itself in a situation where additional layoffs are needed to pay for early retirements.

That last line reads like something out of George Orwell. Or: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Out of this Orwellian muck, the City has to keep streets open and police on them. The essential elements, to most people, of the social contract. So, for the foreseeable future, local governments like San Bernardino will be faced with firing some workers . . . or firing more. Faced with an existential threat to the notion of “city” itself. As the report concludes:

The revenue forecast shows that significantly lower costs will be required for the foreseeable future. During this period of time, it has been noted the that Council, residents and businesses in the City expect and deserve a well well-maintained street network, nice manicured parks, cultural opportunities, well-maintained neighborhoods, in addition to fundamental public safety services. The challenge to the City will be to identify what it can afford and how that relates to the type of community services it wants to provide.

Indeed.

* * *

These problems are only going to get worse in the coming years. As the federal government reaches the limits of its borrowing capacity, it will be forced to cut back on block grants and other disbursements to the states. As the states have to deal with these cuts — and structural problems of their own — they’ll cut payments to cities and counties.

And the cities and counties will go bankrupt.

Even in bankruptcy, California’s cities and counties won’t be able to correct their economic models without restructuring the pensions that they promised public employees in more prosperous (or what seemed like more prosperous) times. According to a February 2012 Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research report, public-employee pension spending in California grew an average of 11.4% a year between 1999 and 2010. That’s twice as fast as spending growth for essential budget items like public safety, health and sanitation.

These problems aren’t limited to California. As Reuters recently noted:

CalPERS has long argued that pension contributions cannot be touched even in a bankruptcy. But firms that insure municipal bonds have strenuously objected to the idea that pension payments should come ahead of bond payments. The outcome of how CalPERS and bondholders are treated as creditors . . . and whether CalPERS receives preferential treatment . . . will have broad implications for local governments around the country.

In the weeks since its bankruptcy filing, San Bernardino has slogged along. It made payroll in August and September. Miller and Simpson are still in their jobs, trying to keep things running in some semblance of order.

The City plans to layoff more employees and shut down libraries and has reduced its annual shortfall from about $45 million to $7 or $8 million. But this still isn’t sustainable.

The multi-agency criminal investigation hasn’t produced any results. Yet. Some locals say that it has more to do with political theater (specifically, a feud between San Bernardino’s mayor and city attorney) than any prosecutable crimes.

Even in bankruptcy, California’s cities and counties won’t be able to correct their economic models without restructuring the pensions that they promised public employees.

The real battle remains between San Bernardino and CalPERS. And this is a battle that neither side seems particularly interested in joining. The City, like many bankrupt debtors, seems to believe that the longer it delays a resolution of the money it owes CalPERS, the lower the final number will be. CalPERS, on the other hand, seems to be concerned that the San Bernardino bankruptcy will expose it as another of Warren Buffett’s naked swimmers. Or, more in line with its haughty history, an emperor with no clothes.

CalPERS lawyers can cite statute and weep well-rehearsed tears over pabulum like “fairness” and “austerity” but they can’t get blood — or $320 million — from a turnip.

And the City of San Bernardino is merely the first of many turnips ahead.




Share This


Civil Noncompliance

 | 

As a piano technician I come across many unusual requests, but none so bizarre as one I received some time ago from a man whom I’ll call Mr. Green. Could I, he asked, strip the ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano?

I was appalled. Applying ivory to piano keys is a fine art. The ivory on each key is two separate pieces that have been color matched, cut, and glued together so carefully that there is no visible seam, then clamped exactly over a special wafer of cloth impregnated with white pigment that gives the translucent ivory a white, lustrous hue. To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous. It would be like asking me to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. I asked Mr. Green why he wanted me to perform this sacrilege.

His answer was the law demanded it. After searching all over North America, Green had found precisely the right piano for his concert pianist wife. It was located in Canada’s province of British Columbia. As he made arrangements to have it shipped to his home in Connecticut, he learned that the piano would not be allowed into the United States because the ivory of its keys is prohibited by a law that bans the importation of ivory. Hence the need to remove the ivory from the keys.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “The piano was made in 1970, twenty years before the ban came into effect. Surely there is an exception for things made before the ban was adopted?”

“I can’t find out about that, it’s really crazy,” he sputtered. “I’ve called and called. I’m going out of my mind, I’m not getting any sleep. It’s a nightmare.”

Unable to get any straight or useful answer from U.S. Customs, he had retained a customs broker, who wasn’t able to find a way around the problem, either. The seller of the piano had, for his part, contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which supposedly administers the ban, and had received only a vague and equivocal response. If there was a way of applying for an exception, it was buried so deep in the bowels of bureaucracy as to be inaccessible to human beings. At his wit’s end, Green decided to have the ivory stripped off the keys, ship the piano to Connecticut, and then have the keys recovered with plastic.

The Death of Common Sense

The problem Mr. Green faced is familiar. The accumulated weight of regulation today is so great that we bump into its inane and counterproductive demands all the time. Author Phillip Howard focused on this problem in his 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. “Modern law,” he says, “has not protected us from stupidity and caprice, but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society.” His book surveys the mountain of regulations that “crushes our goals and deadens our spirits.”

To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous, like asking someone to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Social scientists have also noticed the issue. Their research into the many ways that laws go awry has prompted them to formulate the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” This generalization, first popularized by sociologist Robert Merton in 1936, ranks along with death and taxes as one of the few certainties of social life. It holds that every government effort to improve life has unexpected and harmful side effects. In many cases, these harmful effects are so severe as to defeat the original purpose of the law.

The ban on ivory is a good illustration of this dysfunctional pattern. From a distance, the problem seemed simple. Poachers kill elephants for their tusks, thus reducing the numbers of elephants — and, in certain areas, possibly driving them to extinction. The theory was that a law against the importation of ivory would deprive poachers of their market, and the killing of elephants would stop.

Alas, the world is always more complicated than it seems to those who make laws. Now, poaching and overhunting of elephants still takes place, but thanks to scarcity the practice is more lucrative than ever. Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

But this is only part of the problem. Some African countries have too many elephants. These beasts overgraze and destroy the habitat in wildlife preserves, threatening plant and animal species with extinction. In these cases, wildlife experts recommend culling elephants to reduce their numbers. In other places where elephant population is too high, these animals destroy crops of poor farmers. This problem is managed by cooperative arrangements that cull some elephants, and reimburse farmers for crop losses with money gained from selling tusks of the culled animals. A ban on ivory undercuts these arrangements and thus encourages farmers to kill them secretly.

Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

Another point that the ban does not take into account is that ivory has positive, non-substitutable human uses. Piano and organ keys are a case in point. Plastic piano key tops do not give the same feel as ivory. When dry, they are too “sticky,” not allowing the fingertips to slide from note to note. When wet with perspiration, plastic key tops become too slippery. A total ban on ivory, then, means that musical performances at the highest level are compromised.

These are just a few of the complexities that the law against the importation of ivory overlooks. Distant publics and shallow-minded legislators suppose that such a law is like a meat axe, and that one swing will fix, simply and finally, the problem they have in mind. But in its actual operation, it is more like a grenade, doing damage in many different directions that no one could predict when it is first put into effect. That the ivory ban would require the sacrilege of stripping ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano illustrates the kind of unanticipated, harmful side effects that come with every law.

Democratic Dead End

How do we fix this problem of laws that make a mockery of common sense? One answer might be to use the democratic process. That’s what the civics books recommend: if you don’t like a law, then you write a letter to the editor, or to your congressman. This advice might have made sense in an age of small government and few laws, but it is painfully unrealistic today. The mass of regulations now in place represents the accumulation of many decades of lobbying, coalition-building, administrative interpretation, and judicial precedent. The idea that an individual could even be noticed in this quagmire, let alone clear it up, is fanciful.

Furthermore, the democratic process gave us these laws. Politicians promised them as the solutions to problems. Sure, they ignored the harmful side effects, but this is the way the system works. The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, to gather kudos from a shallow media and curry favor with single-minded pressure groups. Politics has become theatre, where the politician-actor struts upon the stage playing the hero, and the audience applauds his performance.

The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, and to curry favor with single-minded pressure groups.

Thus, within democratic politics, there is no way of stemming the tide of shortsighted laws. If you go to the legislators and point out that a certain law has backfired, they are not going to repeal it. Lawmakers passed the ban on ivory in order to look good. They are hardly going to agree to offend the environmental pressure groups by reversing themselves (Headline: “Senator Endorses Slaying of Elephants”). If the politicians do anything, they will pass additional laws to try to fix the problems they caused with the first law — giving rise, of course, to more unintended consequences.

In the Tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Is there nothing that we can do to counteract foolish and destructive laws?

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau elaborated the principle of civil disobedience, the idea that it is right for an individual to disobey an unjust law. Though a familiar concept for abolitionists and others who objected to government power on religious grounds, Thoreau's work proved revolutionary in separating civil disobedience from specific religious traditions, allowing men to appeal not to any higher power, but to the reason of his fellow man. Following in Thoreau’s footsteps, Mohandas Gandhi developed civil disobedience into a method of political reform. With his mass protests in South Africa and India, Gandhi showed the world that law need not be treated as a god. When laws contradict our sense of morality and decency, it is right to disobey them. Later, Martin Luther King, another of Thoreau’s disciples, grounded the American civil rights movement on the same principle.

Civil disobedience points the way to a tactics of reform, but it will not itself address the problem of overregulation. Civil disobedience is a tactic of mass protest. It assumes a single, objectionable law so prominent that large numbers of people can be marshaled to demonstrate in the streets against it.

The problem we face with law in the modern state is that there are tens of thousands of silly regulations, and no single one merits a high-profile campaign. To take Mr. Green’s case, imagine the difficulties we would have in trying to attract crowds, and the media, to a “piano-importing protest” at a U.S. customs check point on the Canadian border. To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances. I call it “civil noncompliance.” Its aim is to counter a destructive law by finding a quiet way to evade it. This was what I used to counter the unjust effect of the law on ivory importation affecting Mr. Green.

To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances.

My sister and I drove to Canada for a round of golf. While she played, I visited the home of the seller, took the piano apart, removed the keys and put them in a cardboard box which I put in the back of my station wagon. Then I put the piano back together, ready to be shipped to Mr. Green in the ordinary way, sans ivory. I picked up my sister at the golf course, and drove to the border.

The U.S. customs agent was friendly. What was the purpose of our visit to Canada?

“We played golf.”

“How did you do?”

I said, “Don’t ask!”

He laughed and waved us through. The next day I shipped the keys to Mr. Green, to be put back in the piano when it arrived. Travesty avoided!

The Polite Reform

By calling the tactic “civil” noncompliance, I mean to emphasize the element of social responsibility. I do not advocate disobeying laws just because one can get away with it. One must have a helpful, socially constructive purpose in mind. For example, you shouldn’t run red lights as a general practice. Even if there were no policemen to notice it, that behavior would be both rude and dangerous; that is, uncivil. But if you were driving an injured child to the emergency room late at night when no other cars were about, driving through the red light would be an act of civil noncompliance.

By using the term “noncompliance,” I mean to emphasize that this is a polite disobedience. It is not confrontational, and certainly never violent. Civil noncompliance does not presume a battle with government officials enforcing the law. The idea is to be unnoticed by them, or to receive their tacit support in avoiding a regulation’s requirements. The idea that officials may be willing to “look the other way” is an unusual point, for we are accustomed to portray bureaucrats as rigid, power-mad enforcers who enjoy making life difficult for ordinary people. There are undoubtedly some in this category, but most government employees are ordinary human beings who want to be friendly and helpful.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies.

I’m sure readers can cite cases of officials who helped them evade some destructive regulation. My favorite episode took place years ago in Peru when, as a student, I was applying for a residency visa. After filling out the form, I went to the cashier, who said the charge would be $1,800! Of course I couldn’t pay this astronomical fee (which had been set with oil company executives in mind). I was directed to the head of the agency. After hearing my plight, he looked at my form.

“Since you’re not 21 years old, you only have to pay the fee for a minor of age, which is $25.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid I’m over 21,” I replied. “My birthday was—”

“You don’t understand,” he said firmly. “Look here,” he tapped his finger on the form. “See, you’re not 21.”

I finally got it through my thick skull that he was trying to help me. “Oh, yes. I see. Right! Thank you!”

He called over to the cashier and told her, “Es menor de edad.”

She nodded and told me the charge was $25.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies in the tactics of civil noncompliance. In fact, sometimes they can be the leaders. Take the case of wolves in Idaho. The state’s environmentalists, hunters, and ranchers had worked out a modus vivendi for dealing with wolves, a system that involved compensation for ranchers who lose stock to wolves, and some hunting to cull the wolf population. This system ran afoul of the federal courts and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 2010 banned wolf hunting in Idaho. That decision no doubt made urban treehuggers happy, but it thoroughly disgusted Idahoans. In response, Idaho governor Butch Otter practiced civil non-compliance: he ordered state officials to stop investigating wolf kills.

A Quiet Revolution

Civil noncompliance is more than a strategy for getting by in an age of over-regulation. It affords an avenue for remaking social governance along new lines.

The political approach to addressing problems and managing social life is running out of steam. Generations ago, idealists believed that politics held the key to building a new society. Candidates, parties, and revolutionary movements — from communists to progressives, fascists to democratic socialists — were energized by the conviction that control of government would give them the power to set the country on the path to their dreamed-of Utopia.

No informed person now looks at politics in this way. Government today is more like an ineffectual goo, a spreading blob of noise and hypocrisy that can be neither directed nor reformed. Journalist Jonathan Rauch made this point in his 1994 book Demosclerosis (revised and expanded in1999 as Government’s End; Why Washington Stopped Working): “Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients, but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

It is also clear that the system cannot be overthrown. At bottom, the public wants big government. Yes, most people are aware that government fails miserably time after time, and they realize that most of the politicians who make the laws are shortsighted and hypocritical (when not downright corrupt). Nevertheless, the public clings to government as an object of worship. Government fills the human longing to believe in a higher power that cares for us, a God-like force that can answer our prayers in troubled times. Government also fills the need for heroes to worship, for famous figures the public can ooh and aah over. Finally, politics provides the excitement of competition for a nation of bored, media-hungry couch potatoes. To get an idea how difficult it would be to do away with big government, imagine trying to abolish God, Santa Claus, and the Super Bowl all at once.

We will have the show of politics, then. We will have candidates promising, lawmakers denouncing, and pressure groups nagging. But as civil noncompliance is increasingly practiced, this posturing will have less effect on the real world. The end point — Utopia, if you will — would be a society where politicians provide entertainment with their posturing, passing laws that promise this and prohibit that. Meanwhile citizens quietly ignore these laws in their daily lives and do what is right and helpful.

Such sensible times may yet be far off. But as I drove away from the customs checkpoint with those ivory piano keys rattling in the back of my car, I thought, I have seen the future, and it works!




Share This


Taking Aim

 | 

What I would like to talk about today is two themes that come together. The first is what is wrong with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the second is what’s wrong with Independence Institute President Jon Caldara.

Michael Bloomberg has created a faux grassroots organization called “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.” Financially, it is by far the economic center of the gun prohibition movement in this country today. It is very wealthy and employs lots and lots of lobbyists in DC and in state capitals around the country. George Soros put some money in it as well; they’ve got some bucks.

But it’s not exactly what it seems. There are 12 people who got their names off this list of supposedly “Mayors against illegal guns.” These mayors said, “I never signed up for this; you just put my name on this without asking me. Or you told me his group is against illegal guns. Well, there are not too many people for illegal guns, so I signed up. It turns out you’re just against guns in general.”

There are another 19 mayors, actual members of “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” who now have left office because of felony convictions or because they are under indictment or because charges are pending or because they had to resign and the prosecutor was nice and didn’t bring a case. With 19 identified criminals in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Michael Bloomberg’s organization has a much higher crime rate then do people who have permits to carry handguns for their own protection.

In the interest of truth and advertising, the proper way to refer to this group is “Illegal Mayors Against Guns.”

But I would say they have done one important service. There are a lot of people who wonder if there is an afterlife or not. How could you ever know for sure? Well, one mayor who was in this group and genuinely signed up for it passed away, and yet afterwards “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” was distributing letters from him lobbying on the gun issue — anti-gun letters signed by this deceased mayor. So if there any doubt, well, doesn’t that prove there is an afterlife?

I’m not sure if writing anti-gun letters is the ideal way to spend it. Probably this mayor enjoyed it.

What we consistently see out of Michael Bloomberg and his crowd, including in their attempts to exploit the recent murders in Aurora and Wisconsin, and really every day, is undifferentiated hostility towards gun ownership and especially toward people who own firearms for protection.

With 19 identified criminals in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Michael Bloomberg’s organization has a much higher crime rate then do people who have permits to carry handguns for their own protection.

This is rather hypocritical because when Michael Bloomberg says people shouldn’t have guns for protection, he must have his fingers crossed or he has a mental reservation. Apparently if you can get an entire New York police security detail carrying machine guns to accompany you every second, that’s OK. Because after all, he isn’t personally owning a gun for protection. So maybe he feels there is some kind of difference there.

And they put out these terrible malicious, libels against people — like when they say the only reason the person would own an AR-15 rifle is because they want to be a mass murderer.

What a horrible thing to say about the literally millions of Americans who have made the AR-15 the most popular, best-selling rifle in the United States of America, and what a malicious falsehood to say about our police who frequently carry an AR-15 in their squad cars for those circumstances where they might need a rifle for backup.

Neither the Americans who use their AR-15 for target shooting, for home defense, for hunting game up to the size of deer (it’s not powerful enough for anything larger than that), nor the police who use AR-15s, want to harm a lot of people. They have these firearms for legitimate purposes and especially for protecting themselves and other people.

At the Independence Institute, in our legal work on the gun issue, we almost always file joint amicus briefs with police organizations. We represented a huge coalition of police organizations in the Supreme Court amicus briefs we filed in Heller and McDonald.

Just last week in Woollard v.Gallagher, in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, our amicus brief was filed not only for the Independence Institute but also for the two major organizations which train law enforcement in firearms use. These are the policemen who are the trainers for all the rest of the police: the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Association and the International Association Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors.

What we consistently say with the police is that there is one key principle which has two manifestations. One is that guns in the wrong hands are very dangerous, and so we need strong laws to try to keep guns out from the wrong hands; and if they get in the wrong hands we need strong laws to punish misuse and to put misusers away so they can no longer endanger innocents.

The second part of the principle is that guns in the right hands protect public safety. They help the police to protect people; they help civilians protect each other; they sometimes civilians help protect the police. So we are also in need of strong laws to make sure there are guns in the right hands, to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to purchase, own, use, and carry firearms.

Forty years ago there were virtually no gun laws of any sort in Colorado or in most of the United States. The reason the gun debate in this country has finally settled down after four decades, as it also has in Colorado, especially after Columbine, is that we’ve come to a Colorado consensus and a national consensus based on a common sense. We have added a lot of laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands and we have added a lot of laws to protect the rights of law-abiding people.

Because of the right to carry law, Jeannie Assam, a church volunteer, was lawfully carrying a handgun. She stopped the killer.

The most important of these laws in Colorado, which is the same thing we are supporting in the Woollard case in Maryland (Maryland being one of the nine holdout states on this issue), is the right to carry. Colorado’s right to carry law was written by the County Sheriffs of Colorado. It insures that a law-abiding adult who passes a fingerprint-based background check and a safety training class can obtain a permit to carry a handgun for lawful protection.

That’s our single most important post-Columbine reform. At the Independence Institute we worked on this issue for a decade to make it become law, and what a difference it’s already made.

You know what happened in December 2007 when an evildoer went into the sanctuary of the New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs. Seven thousand people were there. He had already murdered four people, two in Denver, two people in a parking lot, and he went in there intent on mass murder. Because of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, because of the right to carry law, Jeannie Assam, a church volunteer, was lawfully carrying a handgun. She stopped the killer. Pastor Brady Boyd said she saved over a hundred lives that day.

We want laws like that everywhere in the country. We have them in 41 states. Maryland is coming soon. It is essential that the right to bear arms be protected nationally, as all national civil rights should be.

Another thing we are going to be promoting very much at the Independence Institute is stronger laws on mental health. There are lots of ways government spending can be cut, starting with corporate welfare, which is illegal by four different clauses of Colorado constitution. We should cut every penny that goes toward corporate welfare and spend it on proper government services.

At the next session of the legislature we are going to explain the importance of better funding for mental health services — not only because of sensational crimes like in Aurora, but also because of the many homicides that happen and that never get camera crews from other continents out here. In Colorado and around the country there are so many murders perpetrated by people who are seriously mentally ill — people who 30 years ago or 50 years ago would have properly been institutionalized, but today there are no beds for them and no support system. We want to change that. We want to take money out of the hands of corporate welfare, away from special interests and put the money into the community interest of a better, stronger system of mental health in Colorado.

So that’s what’s wrong with Michael Bloomberg on the gun issue, but let me tell you what’s wrong with Jon Caldara, our president at the Independence Institute. In his opening remarks today he referred to the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms we’re celebrating at this party as the “perks of adulthood.” That’s fine to characterize alcohol and tobacco in those terms, but it’s not right on the firearms side.

Let me tell you about two different places in the world. One is Western Australia. There was a study done of aborigines in Western Australia who were in prison for felonies. One group of the imprisoned criminals had misused guns in a crime. The second group also had guns; but they had never misused a gun against a human being.

What was the difference between the two groups? The criminals who never misused a gun against a person had been taught about guns by an older authority figure such as father or an uncle. They had learned about shooting sports and acquired an attitude of treating guns with responsibility. They saw guns as something you use to shoot some game but not something you use to try to harm an innocent person.

Another study comes from Rochester, New York, on the other side of the world. They did a longitudinal study to try to find the 16-year-olds who are the most likely to become juvenile delinquents and then criminals. This means they didn’t study girls at all. If you want to study crime, and you have only so many people you can study, you focus on the males; that’s just a sociological fact. They tracked these young people over the years.

The youths who at 16 illegally owned a gun (maybe they bought a handgun from somebody on the street) had in future years a very high rate of being arrested for serious crimes, including gun crimes. The youths who at 16 legally owned a gun (say they had a shotgun that their parents given them, or went hunting with their dads or rifle shooting with their uncles), they had essentially no crime of any type. So how young people are socialized about guns is hugely important in future outcomes.

Now contrary to this socialization that some of the young people in Western Australia and in Rochester had is the desensitization that comes through too much of our media, particularly television entertainment and movies. The people who produce these horrible grotesque pornographic celebrations of violence, like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, will tell you, “Oh, it doesn’t affect people; movies and TV have no influence on people.”

I’m sure that’s true for the large majority of folks. But if you say that what is on television has no effect on what people do, isn’t it kind of odd that they sell advertising? What a waste of money that must be, because apparently what you see never affects what you do.

How strange it is that these movies and TV shows have sold product placements. Where they say “Oh, if Coca-Cola pays us some money, we will have a character drinking a Coca-Cola.” But apparently on the other hand what the people see on TV and the movies never has any effect on them.

Likewise, in the ongoing culture war against smoking, you’re not supposed to show characters smoking in a movie that young people are going to see. So the producers do think that what people see does have an effect.

So now Hollywood says “We are going to make sure that when a 15 year old goes to a movie he is never going to see somebody lighting up a cigarette, but he is going to see mass violence and gun misuse.”

We’re not for censorship at the Independence Institute. But we are for counter-programming and that’s part of what the ATF Party is about. It is about introducing some of you to shooting sports, giving others the opportunity to participate more often, and hoping that all of you go out and introduce your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors and especially some young people you know to responsible shooting. Which is, as you know, a culture of safety, responsibility, self-control, self-discipline — of so many things that exemplify exactly what’s right about America.

Youths who at 16 illegally owned a gun had in future years a very high gun crime rate. But those who legally owned a gun at 16 committed few crimes of any type.

Some of the things that we are handing out today come from our friends at the NRA. Founded in 1871, the NRA is America’s oldest civil rights organization, and one of America’s oldest mass educational organizations as well. They’ve been teaching people about shooting safety and responsibility, with a special focus on young people, ever since 1871. So there are lots of materials you can take with you.

One of those I especially recommended is the NRA Qualification Program. It’s about the size of a magazine and it shows how you can practice and improve your gun proficiency on your own, whether you like air guns or sporting clays or .22 caliber rifles or revolvers or whatever. The Qualification Program has courses of target shooting you can go through and earn yourself these cool little patches and medals as you work your way up in proficiency. It’s a self-paced thing, so everybody can do it and we encourage you to do it yourself and hope you introduce as many people to it as possible.

On the gun issue we are not only on the pro-choice side; we are on the pro-life side as well. What we are doing on ATF day and what we do every day at the Independence Institute is to fight for those life-saving values of safety, responsibility and American constitutional rights.

We are not just protecting rights in Colorado; in the long term, we are making sure that those rights are protected nationally, as we did in the McDonald case.

We look forward to the day when even the people in the most oppressed parts of the United States — under the sweltering heel of Michael Bloomberg — will regain their rights to smoke a cigarette or a cigar, to drink a Big Gulp soda, and to own and carry a handgun for lawful protection, because it is a civil right of every American.

Thank you.


Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a speech given at the Independence Institute’s 10th annual Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms Party. The ATF Party speeches were broadcast on C-SPAN.



Share This


Fighting Uphill

 | 

Shortly after winding down his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman lamented the lack of outside-of-the-box thinking in his party. "Gone are the days when the Republican Party used to put forward big, bold, visionary stuff," Huntsman explained during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe. He continued, "I see zero evidence of people getting out there and addressing the economic deficit, which is a national security problem, for heaven's sake."

Huntsman suggested that a "third party movement or some alternative voice," which he hopes will "put forward new ideas," could force the GOP's hand. Of course, the suggestion is a nonstarter for most Republicans. Even with the rise of the Tea Party movement, the thinking for many is that it is better to work inside the GOP.

While it seems that Huntsman has decided to stick with the Republican Party, Gary Johnson, who served as Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, has taken a very different path in his bid for the presidency.

In many ways, Johnson is what many Republican voters want in a presidential candidate. He is a proven fiscal conservative. The Cato Institute gave him high marks on economic policy during his two terms in New Mexico. In a white paper on Johnson’s fiscal record, the Club for Growth, an influential DC-based organization promoting free market policies, noted his strong support for cutting taxes and spending, pointing out that he “earn[ed] the title ‘Governor No’ after 742 total vetoes of bills over two terms.”

While other candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination were talking about tepid spending cuts, Johnson said that he will submit a budget to Congress that would cut federal spending 43% in his first year. He wants to scale back regulations that are harming the economy while promoting free trade and school choice, and reforming crippling entitlement programs.

Yet despite his free market principles and proven record of cutting the size of government, frequently using his line-item veto power as governor to cut millions in spending, Johnson’s candidacy was not taken seriously by Republican voters and the media. Johnson appeared in only two of 18 Republican presidential debates and forums, many of which required candidates to reach certain polling requirements for inclusion. He did manage one of the more memorable quotes of this part of the process. Answering a question about Obama’s job record during a GOP debate in Orlando, Johnson humorously explained that his “next door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.”

Despite his free market principles, Johnson’s candidacy was not taken seriously by Republican voters and the media.

Efforts to be included in more debates were unsuccessful, despite Johnson’s campaign noting that several polling firms used to determine invitations did not even include him in their surveys of the race. Another problem for Johnson was Ron Paul’s candidacy for the GOP nomination, which took primary voters that could have helped him gain more attention.

Unable to gain traction as a Republican, Johnson decided to run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination in December. Johnson made the rounds at various Libertarian state conventions, winning most straw polls and gaining a small amount of media attention. In May, Johnson easily won the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, taking 70% of the delegates. His handpicked running mate, Judge Jim Gray, won a close race against R. Lee Wrights for the party's vice presidential nod.

While there was an upbeat atmosphere after the convention, the Johnson-Gray ticket is facing problems similar to those that have plagued previous Libertarian presidential campaigns — a lack of money and resources.

An advisor to Johnson’s campaign, who asked not to be named, explained that the campaign is “bringing in around $50,000 per week,” which he said is a much higher pace than before the switch to the Libertarian Party. At the point the campaign is “well past the $1 million mark.”

There are obviously other hurdles beyond money. According to the Johnson advisor, the campaign should appear on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, though he notes that Democrats and Republicans are trying to create trouble in Michigan and Pennsylvania. One of the major hurdles for third-party candidates had been Oklahoma, which has the worst ballot access law in the country. But by securing the Americans Elect line in the Sooner State, Johnson’s campaign has reached a milestone unattained by other recent Libertarian campaigns.

Another goal for Johnson’s campaign is inclusion in the presidential debates. Past Libertarian Party presidential candidates made noise about appearing in these all-important debates, but were ultimately unsuccessful. In order to appear in the presidential and vice presidential debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates requires that a third-party campaign receive at least 15% of the vote from at least five national polls.

There is an avalanche of polling data right now coming from battleground states, but Johnson’s name only appears in a handful of them. His name is more difficult to locate in national surveys. Johnson’s supporters have called on firms, loudly and often, to include their candidate in their polling, but have seen very limited success. However, Rasmussen Reports, a polling firm that slants toward the Republican Party, measured Johnson nationally against President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, finding that he brings only 1% of the vote. Johnson’s favorability rating is also underwater, with 16% having a favorable view of him and 20% holding an unfavorable view. The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the 63% of voters who have no opinion of Johnson, presumably because they have never heard of him.

With polls showing very close races in Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, there is a chance that the Johnson vote could make up the difference between President Obama and Romney.

Asked about the debates and the lack of polls including Johnson, a campaign source played coy, not wanting to give away strategy, but added that he expects Johnson to be included in the debates “by the end of September.”

With the discussion on polling, the source also noted that the campaign strategy will be to focus on states in the west, some of which have been more amenable to libertarian positions. Included in the “first-tier states” on which the Johnson campaign will focus their efforts are Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon. With polls showing very close races in Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, there is a chance that the Johnson vote could make up the difference between President Obama and Romney.

This is a fact that Libertarians know all too well. According to a statement released earlier this month, the Libertarian Party noted that “Governor Johnson’s poll numbers — and his votes this November — may be the critical factor in “Tipping Point” or battleground states like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado — where Obama and Romney are 1% to 6% apart.”

But Johnson’s argument all along is that he will “pull votes” away from both Romney and President Obama. Johnson and supporters argue that, while many conservatives are not happy with the Republican nominee on fiscal issues and RomneyCare, there is a faction of liberals who are frustrated with Obama on the further deterioration of civil liberties and what they see as a continuation of George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

For now, at least, Republicans do not seem too worried about Johnson’s effect on their nominee. Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based talk show host and editor of RedState.com, largely agrees with Johnson’s theory. “I think he will pull roughly equally from them, but I think he'll pull slightly more from Barack Obama than Mitt Romney,” wrote Erickson via email. “The overwhelming majority of people who want to beat Barack Obama recognize that a third party election is not going to happen this year and they want Obama gone.”

"He could really resonate by pushing a message about how both of the major parties really are about big business and not entrepreneurs. But that message isn't getting out right now.”

Erickson believes that a number of “socially left” voters may view Johnson as an acceptable protest vote against President Obama and Romney. But nonetheless he thinks that Johnson’s influence on the race will be limited. He explains that the lack of media attention will prevent Johnson from “expanding on that base of traditional third party support.”

There are ways that Johnson could build on his support, says Erickson. “I think he could really resonate by pushing a message about how both of the major parties really are about big business and not entrepreneurs. But that message isn't getting out right now.”

The view from Libertarian Party activists is mostly encouraging. One longtime member explained that Johnson’s campaign is the best the party has seen, but conceded that the bar is set low. He explained that he would like to see Johnson tailor his message more to states he is visiting, noting, “Voters in more socially conservative states are not going to express interest in gay marriage.”

A similar criticism was found from an independent voter sympathetic to Johnson’s message. “I feel like they spend more time talking about marijuana than anything else,” he said. “With all the problems we have, it's weed that he seems concerned with.”

Though many other Libertarian activists expressed contentment with Johnson’s message of personal and economic liberty, they were more direct in their criticism of interactions with campaign staff and coordinators. Communication breakdowns and a lack of experience among many volunteers were the most frequent concerns.

“My main problem with them has been communication and event planning with state parties,” explained a frustrated party member. While they understand the criticism, campaign sources explain that they do not have sufficient funds to hire professionals and have to rely on inexperienced part-time volunteers, many of whom work hard with limited resources at their disposal.

What does the future hold for Gary Johnson? He knows the odds are overwhelmingly against him this year, but that is not stopping him from looking ahead. During a recent campaign event in Texas, Johnson said that he would again seek the Libertarian Party nomination in four years. It is far too early to predict whether or not party members would be open to the idea, but Johnson’s message is appeasing most libertarians. But whether or not he can attract new members — and new voters, which is the end goal — is a question that will not be answered until November.


Editor's Note: Disclosure statement: Pye worked as a state director for Gary Johnson from February to June of 2012.



Share This


Irreconcilable Differences

 | 

Like their counterparts on the statist Left, social conservatives use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

In America, the contemporary political Right essentially consists of two factions. Ordinarily one is called social conservative and the other libertarian, though a more accurate way of distinguishing them would be to describe the former as big-government conservative and the latter as small-government conservative.

The only thing that brings the two together — into the marriage of convenience that unites the Right today — is a shared opposition to the statist Left. The Obama administration has kept them together as perhaps nothing else could. It may be all that prevents them from getting their long-overdue divorce. Once Romney is elected, if that indeed happens, all the counseling in the world won’t be enough to save this marriage.

As far back as the ’80s, President Reagan seemed to understand that this was strictly a shotgun wedding. Those who opposed Communist expansionism had to stick together to win the Cold War. There must always be a grand cause — an archenemy to defeat. At the moment, Barack Obama fits the bill.

I, very frankly, am getting tired of being told that I must vote for whichever unprincipled empty suit the Republican Party has chosen to carry its baton. Mitt Romney is particularly hollow. He seems willing to say anything, do anything, pander to anybody, betray anybody to get elected. As the aim is clearly only to wrest power away from the Democrats, this seems to be acceptable to the GOP, which has surrendered all but the flimsiest pretense that it has any principles whatever.

This probably suits big-government conservatives just fine. They are all about power, power, and more power, totally in the thrall of the delusion that if they just get enough of it, they can hang onto it forever. Their small-government counterparts, on the other hand, may just want to think again. How can it further our principles to trust in a party that has none?

We are being told that the Obama administration is a threat to America of apocalyptic proportions. But it hasn’t stopped so-called social conservatives from playing chicken with the rest of us on their favorite issues. To gain the blessing of the GOP establishment, candidate Romney must, for example, voice support for the Federal Marriage Amendment: a poison pill if there ever was one. Its passage would violate at least three, and possibly four, existing constitutional amendments. It would, essentially, make the Constitution contradict itself, thereby weakening it and accelerating its eventual destruction.

So we already know that Mitt Romney cannot be taken seriously. Even before getting the chance to take the oath of office for the presidency, he has as much as admitted that he would damage it. One cannot “preserve, protect, and defend” something that one has indicated a willingness to help destroy.

Romney’s claim to champion small government is also dubious, considering the fact that while he was governor of Massachusetts, he raised taxes every year. Oh, he called them other things — “tax-fees,” the closing of loopholes on an internet sales tax, new laws permitting local governments to hike business property taxes, and a new tax penalty soaking both individuals and small businesses. He claims to be an economic conservative, but that claim can attain credibility only if big-government devotees on the political Right manage to drain the term of meaning in the way they have drained “social conservative.” Defining what any sort of a conservative he is seems a lot like determining what “is” is: an interesting parlor game.

I suppose part of my problem with “social conservatives” is their apparent unwillingness to think through what they mean by using that term to describe themselves. I frequently ask friends who call themselves that to explain it to me. The hostility this evokes is puzzling. It appears that they’re not sure what they mean, and they don’t like having their confusion exposed.

I’m perfectly willing to explain, to anyone who asks, why I call myself a libertarian, or a small-government conservative. I see little sense in using a term — repeatedly — to describe myself, but becoming resentful when asked to elaborate. Social conservatives seem to claim that name not as a descriptor but as a dog-whistle. Like their counterparts on the statist Left, they use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

“Either you are giving your opinion of yourself,” I tell them, “or you are saying something about your philosophy of government. I don’t care about your opinion of yourself . . . that’s your concern, not mine. I may or may not share it, and it’s rather narcissistic of you to assume it interests me as much as it does you.”

If, on the other hand, they are saying something about their philosophy of government — that force should be used, by the state, to make other people comply with their views about how people’s lives ought to be lived — then that is of tremendous concern to me. But I would prefer they drop the self-congratulatory veneer and simply call themselves what they are: advocates of big government. For if they do believe that government should do such things, the task is impossible unless government is big and intrusive. Other than serving as a smokescreen, the term “social conservative” accomplishes nothing, because it reveals nothing. If language does not reveal, then it serves no meaningful purpose.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

But there's another bad thing to mention. The GOP's lack of clear purpose leads its opposition into further intellectual laziness and moral decay. Instead of the parties' improving each other and, by extension, the country — the very reason the two-party system is supposed to exist — everyone gets dragged down. It’s a race to the bottom all the way.

Libertarians and true small-government conservatives are telling the truth about the cause of our national demise and what must be done about it. Big-government conservatives — whatever they want to call themselves — are lying about it. That many of them believe that lie can be chiefly attributed to their lack of willingness to examine whether it’s true. But when one side in a conflict tells the truth and the other lies, there should indeed be a decisive winner and loser.

Truth is not such a relative matter after all. “Social conservatives” fervently claim to believe that. Too bad their behavior so often says something altogether different.




Share This


Prostitution and Coercion

 | 

I was recently thinking about why prostitution is illegal. As a libertarian I think that it should be legal, as an extension of people’s absolute right to own their own bodies. But many Americans disagree. If there is a rational, persuasive argument against the legalization of prostitutes (or “sex workers,” as they should be called) it is that a need for money would coerce poor women into becoming sex workers and selling their bodies. Poor women who need money to buy food and pay bills would feel economic pressure to become sex workers, this argument goes, so we need to protect them from coercion by denying them the opportunity to sell their bodies.

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism. The coercion argument goes far beyond the issue of prostitution; it is crucial for the integrity of libertarian theory that we have a definitive refutation to offer the public. This essay presents two strategies for refuting the coercion argument. I will focus on sex work to develop my ideas, but my arguments extend by analogy to every application of the coercion myth.

Assume that there is a poor woman (or man) who cannot pay utility bills and grocery bills and healthcare bills, and does not want to sell her body, but if she becomes a sex worker will earn enough money to pay the bills. Is this coercion? There are two approaches to arguing that it is not. The first approach is to argue, as a matter of deductive logic, that economic pressure can never amount to coercion, and therefore this scenario does not satisfy the definition of “coercion.” The second approach is to argue that economic pressure can be coercion but that capitalism is better than socialism at preventing the situation in which a poor woman has to do work she hates in order to have enough money. This involves showing why libertarian economic policy will create an abundance of economic opportunity for American working-class women.

In the remainder of this essay I will offer my thoughts on how to use each approach, focusing on the analytical approach first and the empirical approach second. I will argue that economic pressure is not and can never be coercion, because economic pressure does not fit the definition of “coercion.”

What is coercion? My 1998 Oxford Dictionary of Current English identifies it as the noun form of the verb “coerce,” which it defines as “persuade or restrain by force.” Dictionary.com defines “coercion” as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.” A serious question is whether coercion requires, by definition, physical force or the threat of it. I don’t feel it’s necessary to answer that question. I think a good common-sense definition of coercion is “threats of physical force or psychological intimidation that pressure someone into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”

The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

To make my point, permit me to present what academic philosophers call a “thought experiment.” Imagine an English sailor in the late 1700s who is marooned on a desert island after his ship was blasted apart by cannon fire from a pirate attack. This person washes ashore, explores the island, and finds that he is the only human there. There are some animals and plants and trees, and some land that he thinks could be farmed. This sailor faces a choice. Either he hunts for animals or farms vegetables and perhaps gets enough food to support his life, or he starves and dies. He could choose to seek food, which would require doing a lot of sweaty labor, or he could choose to be lazy and sit around and wait and eventually die. Work or death is the choice that he faces.

Few people would say he was coerced into working the job of hunter or farmer. Why? Because the thing that forces him to work is the nature of reality and the circumstances of the desert island. Coercion is typically regarded as an action, as something that one person does to another person to force the latter to conform to the former’s wishes. Where there is only one person there can be no coercion. Reality can be such that you must do something or face an unpleasant punishment, such as hard work, but reality has no mind capable of intentions and therefore has no intent to pressure you to obey some sort of scheme or plan.

It seems counterintuitive to say that reality coerces you, or that the aspect of reality called a desert island coerced you. It is the nature of reality, of humanity in the state of nature, that you work or die. If the sailor resents being forced to work by the human need for food, in a situation where it is obviously reality itself that poses this requirement, then he is rebelling against reality and the nature of human life. The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

This sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “worker’s rage,” a rage that most people feel sometimes and some people feel most of the time — a fear-fueled hatred of the fact that material success requires hard work and entails the risk of failure. I think that many socialists are motivated at a deep psychological level by the feeling that a strong socialist government could somehow create a magical utopia where there is no risk of failure or any need to do work in order to enjoy material comforts. Money and capitalism have come to symbolize the need to do work in order to survive. But as the desert island thought experiment suggests, the “work or die” condition of human existence is the result of humanity in the state of nature. It cannot be the result of capitalism if it exists someplace where there is no economic system. Thus “work or die” is perfectly natural; it is the condition of humans in the state of nature. The actual cause of worker’s rage is reality and not capitalism.

But now let us change the scenario slightly. Suppose that two sailors are shipwrecked on an otherwise desert island. One sailor, let’s call him John, finds a plot of land and sows some fast-growing fruit seeds and produces an orchard (or, for simplicity's sake, let's say a crop) of edible fruit. This sailor also builds a fence around his land, topped with sharp spikes. This fence cannot be scaled without serious risk of death. The second sailor, James, just sits on the beach, doing nothing but watching the waves.

Now James faces the same situation that the sailor in the first thought experiment faced: either he works or he dies of starvation. The new wrinkle is that if John were to give some of his fruit to James, then James would have a third option, to eat John’s fruit, not work, and not starve to death. Let us assume that James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says “no” and refuses to open the gate to his fence to let James in. Has John coerced James?

Here, for reasons similar to those of the first hypothetical, it's difficult to say that John has done anything to James that constitutes “coercion.” In the first place, there isn’t anything that John wants James to do. Therefore there is no intent or plan of John for James to conform to. We can hardly say that John coerced James into doing something when there is nothing that John wanted James to do.

The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

In the second place, if James dies from starvation, it will not have been John who killed him. Everything bad that could happen to James (such as starvation), will have been caused by the island, by the circumstances of not having an abundance of free food waiting to be taken, and by James’ own decision not to work. There is no threat from John directed at James, and any harm that befalls James will not have been caused by John. James’ death by starvation will have been caused by his own decision, combined with the nature of reality and of human beings, and the laws of physics and biology. Of course, John can prevent James’ death by giving him free fruit, but if he doesn't, he has still not taken any direct action toward him, so it can’t truly be said that John caused anything that happened to James.

“Ah, but John built that fence, and in so doing he murdered James!” the hardened socialist will say. If you don’t believe that anyone would seriously claim that the protection of private property constitutes coercion against the poor, let me inform you that the Robert Hale essay used precisely that argument.

My reply is that, in the first place, coercion requires the use of force or threats, at the very least to reduce freedom of choice. James’ freedom of choice has not been reduced. He is free to hunt, farm, sit on the beach, or do anything else he wants to do. John has done nothing to interfere with James’ freedom. Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.” That is what the government does when it gives orders to be enforced by the police and the army. John's staying behind his fence, farming and minding his own business, while James does whatever he wants on the other side of the fence looks nothing like coercion. John is not doing anything at all to James, and therefore is not “coercing” him.

The only thing that John prevents James from doing is invading his land and stealing his fruit — actions that are not properly within James’ scope of freedom. It strains credulity to think that protecting property that you have the right to own is coercion against people who try to steal it from you. If James were to steal John’s fruit, then James would be feeding off John as a parasite, and John would become James’ slave. James would be using force to steal from John. John’s attempt to prevent him from doing so, by building a fence, is not the aggressive initiation of force; it is merely self-defense. Self-defense protects the defender’s own freedom of action; it in no way pressures or controls the attacker. As can be seen from this example, James’ freedom of action and his ability to survive are in no way impeded. The only thing the fence does is prevent James from stealing from John. Even if John had fruit to spare, which he could give to James without missing it, the fact remains that John has done nothing to control or pressure James. If James cuts a hole in the fence and steals fruit from John, then one might say that James used violent force to coerce John into growing fruit for James to eat, and that James is trying to force John to stand between James and reality so that James can escape from the fact of having to work or starve. But it is reality and the desert island that punish James for his lazy choices.

John faced a risky situation. If he had chosen to reap his crop too late in the summer, a tropical storm might have wiped it out and condemned him to death. James wants to avoid the risks of having to make such choices. He wants to steal the bounty of John’s good choices, acting on the ground that John does not need all the fruit, but he himself does. This is robbery. For John to build a wall to prevent James from robbing him does not force James to make any of the choices available to him. The fence merely prevents James from exploiting John’s choices. Thus, John’s fence cannot reasonably be interpreted as a form of coercion.

Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.”

Now consider a third thought experiment. Assume that John and James are both stranded on the island, and that John has grown crops and built a fence, while James lies on the beach and enjoys the cool breeze in his hair. James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says "no." But now, with this third and final fact pattern, let us assume that John tells James that he would be willing to give him some of his fruit if in exchange for it James would be willing to do something for him. Here at last we have some elements that suggest the possibility of coercion: John has some purpose or intent that he wants James to fulfill, and James can avoid death by starvation, at least for a few days, if John gives him that fruit. The socialist would say that John has the power to coerce James with the threat of not giving him the fruit, and therefore John can pressure James into doing what James does not want to do. This is the heart of the coercion argument.

But let us look more closely. John does not want James to obey him blindly. John is proposing a trade whereby James does something for John (some sort of sex work, let us assume), and in exchange John gives something of value to James. This would be a free trade of value for value. John does not really want James to “obey.” He wants James to make a rational economic decision in which he gives John something of value to John, in exchange for something of value to James. When a baker gives twenty pizzas to a mechanic and receives a bicycle repair in return, both sides receive something that they wanted or needed more than the things that they traded away, so both sides end up happy. In a free trade both sides are always better off, at least in the sense that they always get what they want or what they choose, because if you don’t think you will be better off from making a trade you simply walk away from it.

But the socialist says that James cannot simply walk away. He says that James has no other choice than to make this deal, because John is the only farmer on the island and so owns all the fruit, and James might die if he refused John’s terms. But if we look at the scenario carefully, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed from the first and second scenarios. What will kill James is the desert island and starvation, not John; there is no aggressive physical force used by John against James. James is free to go off to another part of the island and build his own farm, and John is not restricting any of James’ abilities, with the single exception of his ability to steal. John owes nothing of his fruit to James. He would therefore be fully justified in not giving any of it to him.

Having established that James has no right to John’s fruit, we can see that it is good for James that John offers to trade some fruit in exchange for some work. Unless John chooses to give some of his fruit to James, there is no reason why James should be entitled to any of John’s fruit, so it is perfectly right and ethical for James to have to come up with some value he can give to John in order to make John freely and voluntarily give some of his fruit to James. It simply isn’t true that John is threatening James or trying to intimidate James, because James’ danger of starvation is caused by the island and not by John, and John is not doing anything to prevent James from going off and doing anything he wants, including starting his own farm.

Capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life.

Whether or not there is “unequal bargaining power,” as socialist lawyers like to say, is irrelevant. The fact remains that John has every right to make a proposal that James is free to accept or reject. John is free to accept or reject James’ request, and James is free to accept John’s offer or reject it and face the consequences of the dangers of life on planet Earth.

James’ freedom to choose is real and substantial. The socialists say in a capitalist system a poor person’s freedom illusory. Actually, however, capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life. This freedom benefits everyone, rich and poor alike. When the socialists say that James’ alternative to accepting John’s offer is death, what they mean is that they don’t want James to have to do the work and take the risk of starting his own farm. They want to use their guns to tear down John’s fence and let James steal from John so that James won’t have to face risk and make choices, as is proper for a human being trying to cope with the harsh problems of life on earth.

My inquiry thus far has been about whether John is coercing James, not whether John should give James charity voluntarily and out of compassion. Obviously he should; in most cases it is a sin to let other people die, especially if you can help them without putting yourself in danger and they have not committed any morally repugnant crimes. And in a real market economy there is always competition, so no businessman can ever have the kind of monopoly on trade that John does. But I stand by the arguments presented above, which show that John’s offer of money for sex is not coercion. Leftists equate the mugger’s “your money or your life” with the employer’s “work for me on my terms or I won’t pay you, in which case you might starve.” The difference is that the former is a threat of murder, whereas the latter is merely the expression of “work or die,” a reiteration of the natural condition of human life. To say that in practical terms the cases are identical is to ignore every word I wrote in this essay. And where there is no threat there can be no “coercion.”

I will now shift gears and present the second approach to refuting the coercion myth, which is the empirical factual approach. This approach allows that economic pressure might be coercion, but libertarianism would actually produce less economic pressure than statism and would therefore be preferable.

The first step is to frame the question properly, in this way: assuming that economic pressure is coercion, which is the economic system that produces the least economic coercion and the most economic freedom? Is it the capitalist libertarian system, which would legalize prostitution, or is it the socialist, protectionist, statist system, which criminalizes prostitution and uses either central planning or a welfare state? Also, assuming that neither capitalism nor socialism has the ability to erase all poverty (poverty being, after all, a relative term), the question is not which system will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The logic of this argument must begin with a key observation. Even if prostitution is illegal, poverty will still put pressure on poor women to become sex workers. Criminalization makes prostitution more dangerous and therefore a less attractive choice, but it does not completely prevent poverty from coercing women into becoming sex workers. The widespread existence of sex workers in America proves just how ineffective the ban is. Therefore, whether or not prostitution is illegal doesn’t factor heavily into this analysis; the crucially important question is whether capitalism or socialism is more efficient at creating jobs for poor women.

So long as poverty exists and sex work is a way to make money, there will be economic pressure for women to become sex workers, so one might think that legalization of prostitution would necessarily increase coercion. But libertarianism is not the reason why sex work is repulsive to some women — or why it frequently pays well. That has its roots in human nature and the nature of sexuality. Assuming that the availability of other jobs is the best way to decrease economic pressure, it is perfectly reasonable to examine libertarianism and statism to try to determine which one would be better at providing more choices for women. We can say that a system in which most poor women are not forced to become sex workers is one that is not generally coercive.

The question is not whether it is capitalism or socialism which will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The explanation for why, under laissez-faire capitalism, there will be more opportunities for the poor than under socialism is that in a capitalist system the entrepreneurs and business owners depend on the skill, talent, intelligence, and hard work of their employees in order to compete. The manager can’t do everything, so if the employees do a bad job, the business fails. Thus, management must always be searching for people who will do a good job, and seeking them wherever they may be found. An employee who is smart and works very hard is valuable. Employers will hunt for and abundantly reward productive employees. If a poor woman chooses to work hard and be a good employee, under capitalism she is likely to find a non-sex-work employer who will hire her. The public education system traps the poor in poverty by giving bad educations to children who can’t afford private schools; but privatization of education, using a voucher system, can solve this problem, and we can assume this as a feature of the libertarian system we are considering. We can also assume that wealthy people would support banks willing to give student loans to well-qualified poor people in order to develop the workforce necessary to compete with rivals.

More wealth in an economy and a higher average standard of living create more opportunities and career choices for everyone, including poor women. Capitalism is simply more efficient at producing wealth than statism, because it is better at providing the incentives that motivate people to be productive. Because free-market capitalism will create more career choices for poor women than statism, they will actually feel less economic pressure in a libertarian society than they would under socialism. Banning prostitution, on the other hand, simply eliminates a way to make money. A ban does nothing to solve the problem of poverty or to reduce the pressure to take unpleasant jobs.

One variation of the coercion argument is that a woman might choose to become a sex worker, but she would not want to if she had a choice (or, to be more precise, if she had money), and therefore the government should make her choice for her. This argument claims that protectionism actually increases freedom by giving people the situations that they would have chosen if they had been free to choose. But no one's choices can be predicted; the human mind is too complex for that. The only way to know what choice someone would make is to give her the freedom to choose, then see what choice she ends up making.

Outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills.

If a woman (or, again, a man) is horrified by the idea of becoming a sex worker, in a libertarian society she would be free to seek another job and persuade some employer that she would be a good worker and should be hired. F.A. Hayek's famous argument in The Road To Serfdom is that when people face a difficult choice (such as whether to become a sex worker or else have money trouble), they often want the state to eliminate this choice; but if the state destroys their freedom to choose, it has not eliminated the problem of a difficult choice. It has merely made that choice for the people instead of letting each person choose for herself. The poor woman who does not want to become a sex worker but who faces money problems must sometimes make a difficult choice, but outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills. It merely deprives women of the possibility of becoming sex workers if they wish.

There would probably be a sharp increase in sex work if prostitution were legalized. But there is no reason to assume that such an increase would be caused by coercion, not by the freedom accorded to women who would view sex work as comparatively easy money. There are some human beings who view sex as a physical act devoid of emotional or spiritual significance and who would view sex work and washing dishes as comparable. The idea that no woman could possibly want to become a sex worker is rooted in a very conservative, old-fashioned religious ideology. The state has no right to take the religious views of some people and force them upon others, particularly in light of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Looking beyond prostitution to broader issues of coercion, it is also worth remembering Hayek’s classic argument that when government makes people’s choices for them, there is but one authority that everyone must depend on, whereas in free-market competition there are hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of sales and deals happening constantly. The government has the power to coerce you by using its guns to force you to obey, but no capitalist can own every business or control every job. A worker under capitalism always has options and choices. If a woman faces poverty and hates the prospect of becoming a sex worker she is free to seek another job, and if one employer refuses to hire her then she can apply for positions with fifty others. The number of employers it is feasible for any one person to seek employment from, and the costs and sacrifices that any person must make in order to find a job, are real factors, real, empirical questions that vary for each individual. Some people may need to move to find a job, or to make other adjustments in their lives, just as they often do when seeking a spouse, getting an education, and so forth. Generally, however, in competitive capitalism there will be many more choices than in a socialist system.

To conclude: economic pressure is not coercion, but even if it were, libertarianism would produce less coercion than statism. Opposing arguments are common in American culture, especially among leftist or Marxist intellectuals and people influenced by them. The coercion argument is the foundation of many socialist illusions. It is the justification for laws that attempt to protect people from the tough choices that they would feel pressured to make in a free market. The truth is, however, that when the government tries to protect us by eliminating our freedom, that action is coercion. Libertarian capitalism, in which people can make whatever choice they want, is freedom, and freedom is a good thing. I hope that this essay’s framework — a double-barreled shotgun approach to refuting the coercion myth, with one barrel comprised of analytical deduction and another barrel coming from empirical fact — is a step in the right direction on the path toward replacing the state’s coercion with the people’s freedom.




Share This


Liberty Against Anarchy

 | 

Surveying the efforts of Free State Project immigrants to New Hampshire to “turn the state into a real-life Libertopia,” Mother Jones (September/October 2011) concluded that there was a “problem with attempting to create a libertarian utopia: No one — least of all libertarians [themselves] — can agree on what it looks like.” You see, some libertarians want even such basic government functions as the police “converted into purely voluntary organizations,” while others simply “believe the problem is too much government, not the existence of government itself.”

"‘Tis news to thee," a libertarian Prospero might respond. But while the debate of anarchism vs. limited government has long divided the movement, champions of a social theory should be able to explain to others what practice it logically leads to.

This was one of the issues that I would have liked to have discussed with Roy A. Childs, Jr. Childs (1949–1992) was a libertarian activist and essayist, known and loved by countless other libertarians — and readers of Liberty. Roy wasn’t the first person to make the case for “free market anarchism” — he was just the most articulate. (On anarchism before Roy, see R.W. Bradford, “In the Beginning, There Were Anarchists,” Liberty, June 1999.) Roy's untimely death ended any possible correspondence. But I continue to think of Roy, and I continue to want to write him as I do here.

* * *

Dear Roy,

We had “met” only once — in 1991, when you returned my phone message . . . at 2:42 AM. You very courteously asked your fellow New Yorker if you’d caught him “at a bad time.” Alas, I remember only two other things about that conversation: some disappointment when you told me you never received the mailed copy of my “Leonard Peikoff vs. Philosophy,”1 but great joy that I was actually speaking with Roy Childs.

I’m writing now to respond to what has become almost the locus classicus of contemporary libertarian anarchism: your 1969 “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.”2 For many, it was their introduction to — and entrance into — the advocacy of the “establishment of competing agencies of defense.” You yourself eventually abandoned anarchism but never rebutted the essay in detail.3 That is what I will now do, because all the “anarcho-capitalist” polemics since have been little more than its echoes.

You came right out with it: a “monopoly” government limited to retaliatory force could not continue as a “monopoly” government without initiating force, thereby violating that limit, its animating principle. Your foundational argument:

The quickest way of showing why it must either initiate force or cease being a government is the following: Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or a business colleague has established. Now, if he succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use of threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation — in short, free market anarchism.

“Suppose” — bull’s-eye. The fault in this thought experiment is a supposition that has no real-world referent. When confronted with any violent action of a citizen, including the self-proclaimed “use of retaliation” by anarchists, the policeman — i.e., the “night watchman” minarchist state — can’t just mystically intuit whether that force is offensive or defensive. His only course (if he is to remain a rights-enforcing entity) is to proceed with a standard investigation. When anarchists (if they are to remain anarchists) object to this “interference,” there can be no doubt what they are asserting: that a police investigation of a possible initiation of force is itself an initiation of force. With that, we have abandoned any hope of a legal system. It is an argument against, not the “monopolization” of the police function, but the police function itself: the assertion holds even if the “police” in question are themselves an anarchist “agency of defense.” The proper, sufficient answer: a police investigation of a possible initiation of force is no more obviously a coercive act than a possible initiation of force is a noncoercive act.

If anyone requires a Sanchez-and-Jimenez sketch, fine: the police encounter Sanchez dragging a bound Jimenez down the street. When questioned, Sanchez retorts, “Laissez-nous faire— leave us alone! All you need to know is that this man initiated force against me and I am now retaliating. I will presently imprison him in my basement.” Meanwhile, Jimenez is screaming that he’s being kidnapped. Now, is anyone going to insist that it’s an initiation of force for the police to take both into custody? Why — because this is a “private” matter between Sanchez and Jimenez? Private, “marketplace” matters are nonviolent (e.g., economic, religious, sexual, artistic) relationships between consenting adults, which is why coercion against them is said to “initiate” force. When two parties are trading fire instead of goods or ideas, privacy has fled the scene.

Simply “being rational” is not a substitute for police investigation, trial by jury, and the other features of a legal system that is universal and therefore impartial.

Consequently, even though a private firm (e.g., a bodyguard service) may advertise “protection” or “defense,” its first punch or shot becomes that “violent action of a citizen.” Yes, there is peace and mutual agreement — a private, capitalistic relationship — between you and your “friend or a business colleague,” but not between you two “retaliation”-seekers and those “aggressors.”

Logically, Roy, this “Q.E.D.” has no point of purchase. It is nothing more than a floating abstraction — a cloudy concept.4

Anarchism as a revolt against nature

Failure to distinguish what can and cannot be private has been central to most of the controversies surrounding “free market anarchism.”

Consider your response to one of Ayn Rand’s objections to it. She had written, “The use of physical force — even its retaliatory use — cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.” What you made of this is truly remarkable, demanding it be quoted in full. In your reply to Rand, you wrote:

This contradicts your epistemological and ethical position. Man’s mind — which means: the mind of the individual human being — is capable of knowing reality, and man is capable of coming to conclusions on the basis of his rational judgment and acting on the basis of his rational self-interest. You imply, without stating it, that if an individual decides to use retaliation, that that [sic] decision is somehow subjective and arbitrary. Rather, supposedly the individual should leave such a decision up to government which is — what? Collective and therefore objective? This is illogical. If man is not capable of making these decisions, then he isn’t capable of making them, and no government made up of men is capable of making them, either. By what epistemological criterion is an individual’s action classified as “arbitrary,” while that of a group of individuals is somehow “objective”?

Rather, I assert that an individual must judge, and evaluate the facts of reality in accordance with logic and by the standard of his own rational self-interest. Are you here claiming that man’s mind is not capable of knowing reality? That men must not judge, or act on the basis of their rational self-interest and perception of the facts of reality? To claim this is to smash the root of the Objectivist philosophy: the validity of reason, and the ability and right of man to think and judge for himself.

I am not, of course, claiming that a man must always personally use retaliation against those who initiate such [force] against him — he has the right, though not the obligation, to delegate that right to any legitimate agency. I am merely criticizing your faulty logic.

Sorry, but this is a parody of Rand’s writings on independent judgment and its corollary, individual liberty. The issue is not Sanchez’s deciding the next line of his poem or what color to paint his house. Here the “right of man to think and judge for himself” translates into Sanchez’s deciding how he’ll use force against Jimenez’s life, liberty, and property — again, hardly a private, “personal” matter. No coherent concept of liberty grants a man the “freedom” to do to others whatever he wants — even if he issues a two-minute statement assuring the public that what he did was based on his own “self-interest and perception of the facts.” (But if Sanchez does have that “freedom,” does Jimenez have it, too?)

Individual liberty is a social responsibility.

Simply “being rational” is not a substitute for police investigation, trial by jury, and the other features of a legal system that is universal and therefore impartial. Sanchez’s being “objective” (i.e., disinterested) regarding a conflict to which he’s a party is a flat-out contradiction — and another misrepresentation of a Randian concept.

I’m struck by the irony in your presenting the case against limited government as an attempt to correct an error, a “contradiction,” within Objectivism. Consider this exchange from the original (1936) version of Rand's novel We the Living:

Andrei: “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods.”

Kira: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.”

Andrei: “Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn’t it?”

Kira: “Not at all. Admirable. If you’re right. But are you right?”

This is often adduced as an example of Rand’s possible early flirtation with Nietzsche, though the closer comparison would be with Max Stirner, whose version of “egoism” posited that “the” (each?) individual retains “even the power over life and death.” Declaring that “we owe each other nothing,” he included murder as an acceptable act under his anarchism.5

Your anarchism, while purportedly rejecting coercion, also rested on the notion that “the” (each?) individual has a right to use force against others if one believes one is right — with no responsibility to prove anything to anyone else. Said notion is an element of the Stirnerite paradigm of me-subjectivism, the sacrifice of others to oneself, and anarchism, which is as anti-Objectivist as the Marxist paradigm of we-subjectivism, the sacrifice of oneself to others, and statism. This false dichotomy stands in opposition to Rand’s philosophy of objectivity, the value of each individual, and limited government. In the 1959 edition, Rand excised that foreign element, removing it from the body of Objectivism. With your "Open Letter" to Rand, you reintroduced it — with the same ethical premise leading to the same political practice.

In The Fountainhead, Rand's hero, Howard Roark, declared: “I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom . . .” Thank you, Mr. Roark: “Individual liberty” is a social responsibility. This equation has always been regarded as an abominable contradiction by those for whom privacy must obtain without context — the hobgoblin of “market anarchist” minds. Just as the egalitarian wishes to extend equality from the political realm to the socio-economic one, the anarchist wants to take privacy in the opposite direction. And just as the egalitarian condemns limited government as “economic royalism,” the anarchist condemns it as “law-and-order socialism.” But force, as we’ve seen, is no more anyone’s private business than wealth is everyone’s equal right. Roy, your confusion on this point exemplified, not refuted, Rand’s insight that self-styled “anarcho-capitalists” actually accept the “basic premise of the modern statists — who see no difference between the functions of government and the functions of industry, between force and production, and who advocate government ownership of business — [and merely] take the other side of the same coin and declare that since competition [i.e., privatization] is so beneficial to business, it should also be applied to government.”

A multitude of agencies acting on warring valuations of force is not peaceful cooperation under the rule of law, but armed struggle to establish a rule of law.

Unlike the institutions of civil society (e.g., a church), political society (subsuming everyone) is not a conventional, contractual union, whose private morality doesn’t constrain those who don’t join. It is the natural order we are born into, and its natural laws governing the use of force are not “products” or “services” one is free to reject. Is anybody is going to contend that it’s a contradiction to say individuals may do as they choose and must obey the noncoercion principle — that is, in effect to affirm that liberty really does entail the “freedom” and “privacy” to use force however one wishes? If not, it is not a contradiction for a public (“monopoly”) morality to have a public institution. It is precisely the socialization of law — the monolithic imposition of the noncoercion principle — that conversely creates the privatization of everything else.

(Consequently, when a man initiates force, he doesn’t just incur a “debt which he must repay to the victim,” as you said, but a debt that he also owes to society for breaking its laws. Crime cannot be a private matter between the assailant and his victims — or their “heirs.”)

Anarcho-anticapitalism

To repeat: you say, “There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation.” Why? Morally, we’ve seen that these “competing agencies” would no less than a “monopoly” government “initiate force” as anarchists themselves conceive it. So why would there be such “agencies” practically? Because the withdrawing of the policeman would allow them to arise? Only in the way it would allow all manner of “agencies” to arise. When the rights-enforcing policeman goes, he takes the market with him. There is no longer the universal administration of laws against aggression, the framework of a free market. The resultant anarchy is no more capitalist than communist, no more Rothbardian than Bakuninite . . . or Stirnerite or majoritarian or theocratic or anything else. What happens among a multitude of “agencies” (and nonaligned individuals) acting on warring valuations of force is not peaceful cooperation under the rule of law, but armed struggle to establish a rule of law (of whatever kind) — not market competition, but martial combat.6

The projection that most “agencies” would provide only “protection, defense and retaliation” assumes that almost all of the population had turned libertarian, a conversion evidently effected by the mere elimination of limited government. If we’re making armchair pronouncements, how much more breath does it take to proclaim that in the absence of the rights-enforcing policeman everyone will turn libertarian, thus nullifying any need for even those “agencies”?

Actually, Roy, you came pretty close to doing just that. In "The Nature of Government" (in The Virtue of Selfishness), Rand had posed a scenario:

Mr. Smith, a customer of Government [i.e., Protection Agency] A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

And you countered:

Unfortunately, though this poses as a convincing argument, it is a straw man, and is about as accurate a picture of the institutions pictured by free market anarchists as would be my setting up Nazi Germany as an historical example of an Objectivist society.

The main question to ask at this point is this: do you think that it would be in the rational self-interest of either agency to allow this to happen, this fighting out conflicts in the streets, which is what you imply? No? Then what view of human nature does it presuppose to assume that such would happen anyway?

By “anyway,” did you in fact mean “ever”? So, if all sides — if all people — are veritable embodiments of “rational self-interest” (which, for Objectivism, is an ethic, not an instinct), why even “picture” institutions whose very existence would be a testament that some men are not angels?

To the degree you didn’t dismiss the issue, you wrote only:

Obviously, there are a number of ways in which such ferocious confrontations can be avoided by rational businessmen: there could be contracts or "treaties" between the competing agencies providing for the peaceful ironing out of disputes, etc., just to mention one simplistic way. Do you see people as being so blind that this would not occur to them?

Fundamental breakdowns in mutual consent will be handled by . . . mutual consent. Perhaps now we should just concede your point: if only “rational businessmen” will be involved, why indeed assume that such confrontations would happen “anyway”?

That said, we must note that elsewhere in the letter you yourself assume the possibility of “defense agency” clashes:

Now, if the new agency should in fact initiate the use of force, then the former "government"-turned-marketplace-agency would of course have the right to retaliate against those individuals who performed the act. But, likewise, so would the new institution be able to use retaliation against the former "government" if that should initiate force.

All that’s needed is for those acts of aggression to occur simultaneously and we have a conflict more harrowing than the one Rand imagined.

You should have judged her scenario by the standard you began with: if each of the “agencies” — Police A and Police B — is a “truly marketplace institution,” why is anyone obligated to recognize either? We are free to reject the services of a private butcher or baker or LED-maker, so why can’t we reject those of a “private policeman”? But if this entity doesn’t obey our (including Mr. Jones’) demand to be left alone, how is he a private anything? To belabor the obvious: “private policeman” is a contradiction, “public policeman” a redundancy.

Instead, you continued to view the impasse mostly psychologically. Addressing Rand, you said:

One legitimate answer to your allegations is this: since you are, in effect, asking “what happens when the agencies decide to act irrationally?” allow me to ask the far more potent question: “What happens when your government acts irrationally?” — which is at least possible. And which is more likely, in addition, to occur: the violation of rights by a bureaucrat or politician who got his job by fooling people in elections, which are nothing but community-wide opinion-mongering contests (which are, presumably, a rational and objective manner of selecting the best people for a job), or the violation of rights by a hard-nosed businessman, who has had to earn his position? So your objection against competing agencies is even more effective against your own “limited government.”

This somehow fails to notice that in your opening thought experiment such “irrationality” — the refusal to recognize the authority of another “police” body — is the very origin of the first anarchist “agency” (whose viability is supposedly confirmed by the experiment's plot point [“b”] where the government police force doesn’t return this “irrationality”). But what it really misses is that the conflicts between the innumerable Smiths and Joneses will be ones not mostly of “irrationality” (of whatever type), but fundamentally of different concepts of justice whenno one concept is codified as law, which (rather than universal rationality and the “absence of the initiation of force”) is the essence of anarchism. What’s left for an “answer” is the claim that a public officeholder under limited government would be more likely to violate rights than a “hard-nosed businessman” anarchist because the former puts himself up for election, whereas the latter puts himself up . . . for sale.

Childs talks about “governments” as if there were no difference between Nazi Germany and an Objectivist society, i.e., between tyranny and government per se.

That would be crazy enough if it were true, but what’s actually crazier is that it’s not. Think about it: Is he for sale? Why does he have to “earn” his position? Certainly not because there’s still a policeman around to enforce competition, i.e., to protect the people’s right to take their money where they want. The only “competition” between such “businessmen” will be over who steals those people’s wealth. When the policeman withdraws, the millionaire’s money becomes paper and his gold a target. Just as egalitarianism doesn’t establish equality in the socioeconomic realm but does destroy it in the political realm, so anarchism doesn’t establish private enterprise in the political realm but does destroy it in the socioeconomic realm.7

Your assumption here — the capitalist economy will survive without a capitalist government — is one that is in fact shared by some leftist critics of “free market anarchism,” e.g., Mark Paul: a “rich man’s anarchy.”8 We should recall Engels’ January 24, 1872, letter to Theodor Cuno, where he (purportedly) contrasts the Marxist position with that of Bakunin: “[He says] the state above all must be abolished; then capital will go to hell of itself. We [say] the contrary.” Ultimately, these are merely contrary characterizations of the same means to the same end. Any abolition of limited government — statist or “anarchist” — will reap only astrongman’s despotism.

What is the “market”?

It’s not too hard to see how confusion over what constitutes the “market” arises. When a government denationalizes medicine, we say there is now a “free market in medicine.” So, we develop a formula: Where the state isn’t, the market is. Well, then wouldn’t 0% state be 100% market, i.e., “free market anarchism”?

No. As stated, the free market exists, not in the absence of all government, but in the presence of limited government — the rights-enforcing policeman. Political society is the primary, the yin whose conception — formation — outlines the yang of civil society. Several points in the letter evinced your failure to understand this:

  • “There is such a thing as the division of labor, the free market — and that can provide all the food man needs. So too with protection against aggression.”
  • “There is nothing particularly difficult about [understanding the prohibition of the initiation of force], and no reason why the free market could not evolve institutions around this concept of justice.”
  • “You would not argue that since there are needs for objective laws in the production of steel, therefore the government should take over that activity. Why do you argue it in the case of protection, defense and retaliation?”

The free market cannot provide protection against aggression because there is no such market until government provides protection against aggression; only then can a free (as opposed to black, underground, vulnerable-to-sundry-sources-of-coercion) market provide food and man’s other socioeconomic needs. The free market cannot “evolve” an institution of retaliatory force because there must first be such an institution to permit that market. Thus, government does not “take over” (from an “anarcho-capitalist” Eden?) protection, defense, and retaliation; its universal performance of these — and only these — is what defines the “free market.”

Just as egalitarianism treats socioeconomic products and services — i.e., what we don’t have a right to — as political rights, so anarchism treats political rights — protection, defense, and retaliation — as “services which . . . can be offered [or denied] on a market at a price.”9

Disputes and conflicts

There were a few other points that I might as well address, such as:

Another interesting argument against your position is this: there is now anarchy between citizens of different countries, i.e., between, say, a Canadian citizen on one side of the Canadian-American border and an American citizen on the other. There is, to be more precise, no single government which presides over both of them. If there is a need for government to settle disputes among individuals, as you state, then you should look at the logical implications of your argument: is there not then a need for a super-government to resolve disputes among governments? Of course the implications of this are obvious: theoretically, the ultimate end of this process of piling government on top of government is a government for the entire universe. And the practical end, for the moment, is at the very least world government.

We are talking about the need for a “given territory” to have a single government to ban coercion. “[D]isputes among individuals” — crimes — are investigated in the jurisdiction where they occurred. This would be meaningless under “free market anarchism,” whose whole premise is that no territory should be the jurisdiction of anyone or anything. There is now no anarchy between nations because there is no territory between nations — only borders. As for “disputes among governments,” what discord did you imagine limited governments would have? Even in our time, what intolerable “disputes” have occurred between the Canadian and American governments?

You continued:

Also, you should be aware of the fact that just as conflicts could conceivably arise between such market agencies, so could they arise between governments — which is called war, and is a thousand times more terrible. Making a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area doesn't do anything to eliminate such conflicts, of course. It merely makes them more awesome, more destructive, and increases the number of innocent bystanders who are harmed immensely. Is this desirable?

As pointed out, market agencies are entities between whom there is no possibility of violence, e.g., McDonald’s and Burger King. Entities between whom such “conflicts” are conceivable are not actual market competitors, but potential martial combatants. Despite your semantic protest that the “theory which we [anarchists] advocate is not called ‘competing governments’ … since a government is a coercive monopoly,” this possibility of “conflicts” (i.e., the “ferocious confrontations” you denied earlier) among anarchist groups parallels the political relationship among states (hence your comparison), not the economic relationship among businesses — anarcho-government, not “anarcho-capitalism.” Indeed, it was only your narrow and out-of-focus definition of the “market” — absence of all “monopoly” — that allowed you to apply that term to a state of civil war.

Are we to believe that war is the health of any state? Whatever happened to “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”?

How then did you maintain that the elimination of “monopoly” governments alone would end all war — by defining war as that which occurs only “between governments”? At the very least, “[m]aking a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area” prevents jurisdictional armed battles within that area. But talk about not recognizing the “logical implications” of one’s own argument: with your assertion that “market protection agencies could perform more efficiently the same service as is supposedly provided by ‘government,’” you were actually telling us that it’s the military “conflicts” of these anarchists that would prove to be “more awesome, more destructive” — or did you seriously believe their mercenary forces would pursue “efficiency” with less destruction?10 By the way, notice how now you are talking about “governments” as if there were no difference between Nazi Germany and an Objectivist society, i.e., between tyranny and government per se — the frozen-abstraction fallacy. Are we to believe that war is the health of any state? Whatever happened to “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”? Since goods will cross the borders of limited governments, what other feature of minarchism is so intrinsically militaristic as to favor the adoption of anarchism (whose “conflicts” you simply didn’t label war)?

Indeed, by the end of the letter you were reduced to the mantra that government is government is statism:

And there is the major issue of the destructiveness of the state itself. No one can evade the fact that, historically, the state is a blood-thirsty monster, which has been responsible for more violence, bloodshed and hatred than any other institution known to man. Your approach to the matter is not yet radical, not yet fundamental: it is the existence of the state itself which must be challenged by the new radicals . . .

This is the only alternative to continuing centuries of statism, with all quibbling only over the degree of the evil we will tolerate.

This merely magnifies the false dichotomy discussed before: Marx or Stirner, socialization of production or “privatization” of force, statism (“world government”) or anarchism. But limited government is the logical opposite of unlimited government, and a “degree of evil” isn’t what separates the protection of rights from their violation, i.e., Rand and stopping Sanchez’s dragging off Jimenez from Marx and the liquidation of millions. And yet your either-or appears to be at the heart of it, doesn’t it, Roy? If the “free market” can’t provide the “services” of protection and retaliation, doesn’t that undercut the argument that capitalism can provide for “all of men’s needs”? — that seems to be the worry. And won’t only anarchism (with no stateat all) guarantee a sterile society in which the spore of statismcan never germinate? — that seems to be the reassurance. This is yet another example of what happens to political philosophy when definition and context simply aren’t addressed.

(And “historically,” the anarchy of the epoch before the rise of the nation-state was itself violent, bloody, and hateful enough to utterly negate its appeal as an alternative to [even somewhat] limited government, e.g., Thomas Sowell on the legacy of 19th-century liberalism: “The last great war to ravage the whole continent of Europe ended 85 years earlier, at Waterloo — and such horrors were considered permanently behind us.”11)

Political philosophy per se relates to another claim in the letter. Basically, you felt you were no more obligated to detail the workings of anarchy’s political society than Rand was those of minarchy’s civil society:

I do not intend to undertake a full “model” of a free market anarchist society, since I, like yourself, truly cannot discuss things that way. I am not a social planner and again, like yourself, do not spend my time inventing Utopias.

This confuses political philosophy (whose very purpose is to model — to explicate — political society) with “central planning” (the socialist state’s conceit for its coercing of civil society). As Friedrich Hayek and others have explained, no one can fruitfully discuss what would best serve the socioeconomic needs of a population because no man (or relative handful of men) can supply the requisite omniscience, viz., the calculation of an almost infinite number of factors past, present, and future (which is why, in contrast, Hayek speaks of the market’s coordination of information as a “discovery process”). But philosophy doesn’t demand omniscience. “Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed,” Leonard Peikoff writes, “deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era”12 — i.e., a set of common facts that require only observation and abstraction. This is why a single philosopher can generate a hundred rational principles but a hundred bureaucrats cannot generate a single rational price. It is why conservative anti-“rationalism” is appropriate towards socialist “central planning” but not liberal political philosophy — and that is why we reject both conservatism (which, ultimately, believes that men are incapable of abstracting from concretes — like beasts) and socialism (which, again, believes that some men are capable of knowing all concretes — like gods), and embrace classical liberalism. With it, we plan (i.e., align with natural law) a political society that doesn’t “plan” civil society.

This is why a single philosopher can generate a hundred rational principles but a hundred bureaucrats cannot generate a single rational price.

The fact is, you were not “talking about principles whose practical applications should be clear.” Again, anarchism qua anarchism can say only that there will be no “monopoly” government, no one law; the proposition of consequent universal noncoercion (i.e., the “free market”) is without foundation. Eventually, you conceded all this when, in your recantation of anarchism, you acknowledged the intellectual deficit signified by your having “never written anything about how free market anarchism would work.” It was evidently the forever-fluid nature of this ideal that ultimately crystallized your conviction that “anarchism functions in the libertarian movement precisely as does Marxism in the international socialist movement: as an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it.”13

Check your premises

Roy, while it failed to prove its case, your letter to Ayn Rand succeeded in one vital way: it encouraged people to critically review, rather than passively accept, what she presented as a comprehensive philosophy “for living on earth” — something that cannot be appreciated enough given the cultish elements that sprang up around (and still cling to) Objectivism. It inspired my own questioning of Rand’s propositions, including even the noncoercion principle itself.14 Think about that: one can never — in any context — initiate force? Wouldn’t that make noncoercion a Kantian categorical imperative, as opposed to an Objectivist contextual principle? And if emergencies constitute an “exceptional” context, what would constitute an emergency situation for a government — the inability to raise a sufficient volunteer army in the face of a blitzkrieg? “Even so, this would not give the rest of the population a right to the lives of the country’s young men.” OK, why not?15 Objectivism will go nowhere if it cannot answer the questions it raises.

You ended: “Let us walk forward into the sunlight, Miss Rand. You belong with us.” Roy, you walked forward no matter who did or didn’t join you.

Yours in reason,

Barry Loberfeld

 

Notes
1. http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/philosophy.html.
2. http://www.isil.org/ayn-rand/childs-open-letter.html.
3. “Anarchist Illusions” in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr. (1994) is the introductory fragment of a never-continued work.
4. The thought experiment clouds your own (implicit) premise, which is that a limited government, even if it protected contracts and retrieved stolen goods perfectly, would still, as a “monopoly,” have to initiate force to suppress “competition” with these “services.” Instead, it raises an entirely different issue: what happens when we don’t have a government that in any way defends individual rights? Whether by neglect or direct violation, a failure to protect rights at all is not what we generally mean by “limited government.” Rebellion against such failure does not lead inexorably to rebellion against government per se (see AMERICAN REVOLUTION), and people’s having to take the law into their own hands is not a “night watchman” state, but a state of anarchy.
5. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/max-stirner/.
6. In It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand (1971, pp.166–69), Jerome Tuccille related how he “went off to address a class of left-wing anarchists at Hunter College in New York City.” He mentions that “there to lend me moral support was a grouplet of right-wing libertarians.” At one point, a member of this “grouplet” asked these “left-wing anarchists” a question:
“I just want to know one thing. If we were living in an anarchist society and you people had your commune organized the way you wanted it, what would you do about private-property owners who didn’t threaten you in any way? Suppose there was a capitalist community five miles away that left you alone and minded its own business — would you co-exist with it or would you try to suppress it?”
Perhaps it was a reaction against the anarcho-capitalist and his little market place, perhaps they really meant it; I have no way of knowing for sure. But to this question there was a universal outcry from the class at large:
“We’d come in and kick shit out of you, man!”
“We’d beat your ass in!”
“We’d rip you off, baby! Just like that!”
I slowly started to gather my paraphernalia.
If these folks didn’t “forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults” (as Robert Nozick put it), they wouldn’t be left-wingers — they’d be capitalists. (“[P]erhaps they really meant it” — unbelievable. But note that the interlocutor came prepared; his question is from John Henry Mackay’s The Anarchists: A Picture of Civilization at the Close of the Nineteenth Century [1891].)
7. Hence the absurdity of affirming that anarchy’s citizens “would of course have the right” to do anything. Rights would be universally guaranteed neither formally nor practically; self-control of person and property would be determined solely by one’s luck in repelling predators. The old statists of the Left called the market a “jungle,” and the new anarchists of the Right call the jungle a “market.”
And how would one “be able to use” retaliation? Under minarchy, one is “able” to go to church, for instance, because there is governmental protection of, but not interference with, this activity. Without that protection, what practically guarantees that one is “able to use retaliation” without being stopped by anyone, including the party one alleges one is “retaliating” against? And morally, why should one “be able to use retaliation” without governmental interference — a question that returns us to my answer to your original thought experiment.
8. “Seducing the Left: The Third Party That Wants YOU,” Mother Jones, May 1980.
9. Your full statement: “We [anarchists] most emphatically do not accept the basic premise of modern statists, and do not confuse force and production. We merely recognize protection, defense and retaliation for what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price.” The very invocation of scarcity confuses force — retaliatory and aggressive — with production, since scarcity is an attribute of all human action. By this reasoning, we must also recognize assassination-for-hire (à la Murder, Inc.) and other “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” for “what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price.”
10. Then again, you also said: “Note that what is in question is not whether or not, in fact, any free market agency of protection, defense or retaliation is more efficient than the former ‘government.’ The point is that whether it is more efficient or not can only be decided by individuals acting according to their rational self-interest and on the basis of their rational judgment.” All right, so which in fact will the “free market agency” pursue with unmatched capability: (a) the objective implications of the noncoercion principle (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, assembly), or (b) the subjective “consumer preferences” of its clients — unless, as noted, it sees its greatest profit in (c) the plundering of its subjects?
11. Compassion versus Guilt, 1987, p. 238.
12. “Fact and Value,” The Intellectual Activist, 5:1, May 1989. Though “Leonard Peikoff vs. Philosophy” is critical of the essay, Peikoff is correct on this point.
13. Liberty Against Power, p. 181.
14. That questioning appeared in this very journal in June 1999. A version can be found at http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/anarchy.html.
15. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/draft.html. Rand doesn’t say; she just states that a lack of "volunteers in the face of foreign aggression" has never happened in a free (“or even semi-free”) society, the implication being that therefore it would never happen. So, first she concedes the possibility of a situation and proscribes one alternative that could be taken in it, only to then virtually deny the possibility, rendering the proscription moot.




Share This


Defending Capitalism against Ayn Rand

 | 

The titles that Ayn Rand assigned to the three parts of Atlas Shrugged proclaim her insistence that logical contradictions cannot exist in reality. By contrast, the title of the magnum opus of the ultimate charlatan in Atlas Shrugged, Simon Pritchett, is The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. Francisco d’Anconia and Hugh Akston explain to Dagny Taggart that whenever someone thinks he has encountered a contradiction, he must check his premises, and he will find that one of them is wrong (I.9, 7, 10).1

In this essay, I will follow d’Anconia’s and Akston’s advice. I will show that a fundamental contradiction pervades Atlas Shrugged because Rand failed to check her premises. She thought that the heroes she created were exemplars of pure, uncorrupted capitalism. In fact, the heroes she created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist. I will also show that this contradiction is extremely fortunate because it illuminates why capitalism is the most efficient and humane economic system ever implemented.

Rand often emphasized the importance of a person’s “sense of life” and of art as its expression (e.g., Rand 1975: 31, 33, 44). She defined her sense of life and its artistic expression most clearly in an essay she wrote on Victor Hugo (1975: 153–61). In it she said, “Victor Hugo is the greatest novelist in world literature” because his characters are “a race of giants,” who are not concerned with “penny ante.” “‘Grandeur’ is the one word that names the leitmotif . . . of all of Hugo’s novels — and of his sense of life.”

The heroes Rand created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand created heroes who embodied her sense of life and described how such heroes would fulfill their heroic natures if they engaged in economic activities. She thought that the sum of their economic activities and interactions provides a template of what laissez-faire capitalism would be like. She was wrong. When the heroes who embody her sense of life engage in economic activities, they function like Communist administrators, not capitalist businessmen.2

To paraphrase Rand, “Grandeur is the one word that names” the sense of life of Communist economies. They had no concern with anything “penny ante.” In the 1980s, when the economy of the Soviet Union was disintegrating, it was producing between 1.5 and two times more steel and cement than the United States and generating more electricity; it also had 2.5 times more machine tools. However, buttons, clothespins, babies’ pacifiers, and thermometers were always extremely difficult to find in the Soviet Union (Shmelev and Popov 1989: 82, 132, 144). Toilet paper and toilet seats were such rare and precious commodities that when McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Moscow, in 1990, its employees had to guard its restrooms to prevent customers stealing toilet paper and toilet seats (Goldman 1991: 166). The Soviet Union’s heroic economy also did not provide contraceptives or a single practical guide to contraception. As a result, Soviet women averaged at least four legal abortions during their lives; and the average was higher in the non-Muslim regions of the Soviet Union. In addition, large numbers of illegal abortions were performed. Anesthetics could be obtained only by a large bribe (Feshbach and Friendly 1992: 208–9).

In Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the villain, Ellsworth Toohey, completely destroys Catherine Halsey’s soul, and the visible sign of her corruption is that her mouth has adapted to giving orders, “not big orders or cruel orders; just mean little ones — about plumbing and disinfectants” (IV.10). Toohey has turned her into the opposite of a Communist. The Communists gave big, cruel orders and had no concern with mean little considerations. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are heroic because, like Communist bureaucrats, they produce or maintain impressive products, not mean little ones. It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of “penny ante” products, such as disposable baby diapers, menstrual tampons, or dependable contraceptives. But these distinctively 20th-century inventions improved the quality of life immeasurably by freeing people from preoccupation with brute, animal existence.

Most services would be included among “mean little” occupations. The Communists’ heroic obsession with production caused them to ignore services, which, with a few exceptions, they did not even include in their gross domestic product statistics. In fact, Marxists always used the term “the means of production” as a synonym for “the economy.” In modern capitalist countries, most businesspeople provide services. With one exception that I will discuss below, the only service that a hero in Atlas Shrugged provides is running railroads. This is clearly not a “mean little” occupation, and it was one of the few services that the Soviet Union included in its gross domestic product statistics (weight of freight times kilometers carried).

Moreover, Rand ignored all services in her representation of history (1963: 10–57) as a battle between Attila and the Witch Doctor and their antithesis, the Producer. Indeed, her practice of using “industrialist” as a synonym for businessperson excludes businesspeople who produce “penny ante” products, along with those who provide services. In his long speech in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt (i.e., Ayn Rand) says, “Productiveness is your acceptance of morality . . . productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of . . .  shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values;” and, “the industrialists, the conquerors of matter” “have produced all the wonders of humanity’s brief summer” (III.7).

It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of disposable diapers, tampons, or dependable contraceptives.

It is true that the great philosopher Hugh Akston owns a diner and cooks its food, which he does with extraordinary skill, making “the best-cooked food she [Dagny] had ever tasted” (I.10). However, Rand does not let this fact affect her conceptualization of productive work when Galt tells Dagny, “We take nothing but the lowliest jobs and we produce by the effort of our muscles” (III.1).3

In her short story “The Simplest Thing in the World” (1975: 173-85), Rand depicts a writer of fiction who cannot make a living because he has the same sense of life as Rand. The writer decides he has to create the type of story that will sell: “a simple, human story,” which consists of “lousy bromides.” “It mustn’t have any meaning,” and its characters must be petty because “[s]mall people are safe.” However, he is incapable of writing such a story. Every time he tries, his sense of life thwarts his conscious efforts, and he starts composing a story about heroes. The reason, as Rand explains in her introduction, is that his “sense of life directs . . . and controls his creative imagination.” To exemplify this fact, he begins to write “a story about a middle-aged millionaire who tries to seduce a poor young working girl.” He is “a big tycoon who owns a whole slew of five-and tens [i.e., discount stores].” But the author cannot write this story. As he develops the story in his mind, his sense of life makes him forget about the girl and transform the villain into a hero. As part of the transformation, he says to himself, “to hell with the five-and-ten!” The hero now builds ships because he is driven by “a great devotion to a goal.” He is motivated by “a great driving energy . . . the principle of creation itself. It’s what makes everything in the world. Dams and skyscrapers and transatlantic cables.” “[H]e wants to work — not to make money, just to work, just to fight” (emphasis added). So, an author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be; not even Sam Walton, who founded Walmart and built it into the company with the greatest revenue of any company in the world.

Because the Soviets had the same sense of life as the author in this short story (i.e., the same as Rand), they were extremely proud of the enormous hydroelectric dams they built, and their retailing was horribly inefficient. In the Soviet Union, people had to wait in long lines for any purchase. If someone had time to spare, he would wait in a line to buy something he did not need, in order to barter it with someone who had waited in another line to buy something else. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it set all records for number of customers: 40,000 to 50,000 a day, even though its food cost twice as much as the food in state-run cafeterias. It had twenty-seven cash registers. In Communist countries, the length of a line of customers showed how valuable the merchandise was at the end of that line. So, McDonald’s had to have ushers to tell customers not to go to the longest line (Goldman 1991: 166–7; Blackman 1990).

The opening of this first McDonald’s — an event that, as much as any other, marked the end of Communism — illustrates another serious defect in Communist-Objectivist ideals. A small notice in a Soviet newspaper drew 27,000 applicants for jobs as counter clerks, even though the anticipated salary was only average by Soviet standards. Those who were chosen had to be trained to smile at customers and speak politely to them. Their training was so successful that customers could not believe that the clerks were Soviet-raised Russians (Blackman 1990; Goldman 1991: 166–7).

An author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be.

Rand used “grocery clerk” to symbolize the antithesis of her ideal (1964: viii; 1975: 84). In her first novel, We the Living, when the heroine, Kira, sees her future lover Leo for the first time,she observes that “[h]is mouth . . . was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it.” However, Leo says to Kira, with bitter humor, “I’m nothing like what you think I am. I’ve always wanted to be a Soviet clerk who sells soap and smiles at customers” (I.4). Again, Rand reversed Communism and capitalism. Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

When Nathaniel Branden was the official Objectivist expert on psychology, he wrote, “[P]roductive work is the process through which a man achieves that sense of control over his life which is the precondition of his being able fully to enjoy the other values possible to him … [P]roductive . . . achievements lead to pride” (“Self-Esteem: Part IV,”The Objectivist, June 1967). Branden, as he himself later realized, was exaggerating. But he was exaggerating a truth. A feeling of control over one’s life and pride in productive achievements are certainly wonderful feelings. They can derive directly from the type of work done by Communist administrators and the heroes of Rand’s novels, especially if, like Howard Roark, they have an uncapitalist indifference to money and accept only those projects that appeal to them. However, a feeling of control over one’s life and pride in achievements do not follow directly from the type of work that most people in a capitalist society do: salesmen, accountants, insurance brokers, bank clerks, and manufacturers of “penny ante” products, like clothespins and underpants.

Nearly all readers of Rand’s novels, even those who disagree with her philosophy, recognize that she was a brilliant novelist. But not even her brilliance as a novelist could have made a gripping, inspirational novel about the work that is done in distinctively capitalist occupations, occupations that do not exist in Communist countries, such as advertising or being a real estate agent. In fact, the first jobs of the odious Wesley Mouch were in advertising (Atlas II.6).

Let us consider briefly the novelist whom Rand (1975: 119) regarded as the best of the naturalists, Sinclair Lewis. When Lewis wanted to write novels about admirable protagonists, he made them a dedicated research scientist (Martin Arrowsmith) and the president of a car company (Sam Dodsworth), who began his career as assistant manager of production. When Lewis wanted a pathetic protagonist, he made him a real estate agent (George Babbitt). Babbitt, like Dodsworth, is successful at his work. But Lewis says in the first chapter that Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry;” and he “detested the grind of the real estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them.”

The discussion so far illuminates a crucial benefit of the love of money. It entices people into occupations that they may not find interesting or inspiring, but are socially necessary; and it exerts constant pressure on business owners to provide what the public wants, not what they enjoy doing.

In all of Rand’s novels, only one business owner completely embodies the capitalist ethos. That is the press tycoon Gail Wynand, in The Fountainhead, who becomes fabulously rich through selfless service to the public, by providing it with what it wants: a lowbrow, sentimental, lurid newspaper. As he says (IV.11), he has led a life of “[s]elflessness in the absolute sense.” He “erased [his] ego out of existence” by following the principle, “Give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.” However, according to Rand, Wynand is guilty of the most horrible sin in her moral universe: betraying himself.

Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

Wynand’s opposite is Nathaniel Taggart, in Atlas Shrugged, who is supposed to be the archetypal capitalist. As Dagny recalls (I.8), “He said that he envied only one of his competitors, the one who said, ‘The public be damned!’” Nothing could be more antithetical to the motivation of a successful business owner in a capitalist society. This is the ethos of the head of a production unit in a Communist economy, who derives exhilaration and pride from productive achievement without regard to providing the public with what it wants.

Rand’s story “The Simplest Thing in the World” is an excellent illustration of this point. It assumes that an author with Rand’s sense of life is compelled to create a protagonist who does not work for money and therefore chooses to build ships instead of discount stores. This contrast is factually accurate. Someone motivated by money would not consider shipbuilding as a business career since, in economically advanced countries, shipbuilders can stay in business only by means of tariff protection or government subsidies or both. But he would certainly consider the business of discount stores, since they have proved to be the most profitable (i.e., socially useful) branch of retailing.

The economic role of money in constantly driving economic participants to provide the public with what it wants is related to an admirable moral attribute of the free market. It is completely democratic and non-coercive; no one can interfere with other people spending their money on what they want. In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” (1967: 17, 20) Rand showed that she was fully aware of this fundamental attribute of capitalism (the italics are Rand’s):

[T]he works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines. But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read.

The tribal mentalities attack this principle . . . by a question such as: “Why should Elvis Presley make more money than Einstein?” The answer is: Because men work in order to support and enjoy their own lives — and if many men find value in Elvis Presley, they are entitled to spend their money on their own pleasure.

It is the Gail Wynands who provide true-confessions magazines and Elvis Presley CDs.

At this point, many readers will object that Ayn Rand appreciated the value of money. She ended Atlas Shrugged with its hero tracing the sign of the dollar in space, made a gold dollar sign Atlantis’ “coat of arms, its trademark, its beacon” (III.1), and herself often wore a gold dollar sign pinned to her dress.

Yet in The Fountainhead, Toohey asks Peter Keating about Roark (II. 4), “Does he like money;” and Keating replies No. But long before that, the reader has learned that Roark’s abnormal indifference to money is one of the essential characteristics that make him the hero of this novel. Indeed, in “The Simplest Thing in the World,” Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sometimes has her heroes claim that their goal is to make money. At the opening of the John Galt Line, which is by far the greatest achievement of both Dagny and Hank Rearden (I.8), a reporter asks Dagny her “motive in building that Line.” She answers, “the profit which I expect to make.” Another reporter cautions her, “That’s the wrong thing to say.” But she repeats it. Yet before her trip begins, she looks at the crowd that has gathered and notices that they are there, not because these people expect to make a profit, but “because the sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others.” The description of the ride on the John Galt Line is the most exhilarating fiction writing I can recall reading; and I have read a great deal of narrative fiction, in ancient Greek, Latin, English, and French. For Dagny, “It was the greatest sensation of existence; not to trust, but to know.” “She felt the sweep of an emotion which she could not contain, as of something bursting upward.” And what about the engine drivers? Every one of them who was available volunteered to drive the train despite persistent warnings of danger. Surely, they were not motivated by money.

At least in their economic interactions, money should be the primary consideration of the heroes of a novel that ends with the dollar sign traced in the air. In Part I, Chapter 1, Dagny’s parasitical brother James says to her, “I don’t like Hank Rearden.” Dagny replies, “I do. But what does that matter, one way or another? We need rails and he is the only one who can give them to us.” James Taggart, typically of him, replies, “You have no sense of the human element at all.” This conversation crystallizes capitalist and uncapitalist mentalities.

Nevertheless, the economic decisions of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are constantly motivated by the human element. That is true even of the one major character in Atlas Shrugged who is a pure capitalist, Midas Mulligan. He says he joined the strike because of a vision, in which he “saw the bright face and the eyes of young Rearden . . . lying at the foot of an altar . . . and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes” (III.1). In Part II, Chapter 3, Francisco asks Rearden: did you want the rail you made for the John Galt Line used by your equals, like Ellis Wyatt, and by men such as Eddie Willers, who do not match your ability but who “equal your moral integrity” and “riding on your rail — give a moment’s silent thanks”? Rearden answers Yes. Francisco then asks, “Did you want to see it used by whining rotters?” Rearden answers, “I’d blast that rail first.” Francisco then explains that by "whining rotter" he means “any man who proclaims his right to a single penny of another man’s effort.” But no economy, whether socialist or capitalist, could function for one day if producers acted in this way. In Part II, Chapter 10, Dagny says that Nathaniel Taggart, supposedly the archetypical capitalist, “couldn’t have worked with people like these passengers. He couldn’t have run trains for them.” But no one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

No one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

I will conclude with the most frequently quoted explanation of why the market is the most effective means of providing people with what they want. It is by Adam Smith, in Book I, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest. We address ourselves . . . to their self-love.” Butchers, brewers, and bakers had a very low priority in Communist countries. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it had to train its own butchers (Goldman 1991: 166). It is also unimaginable for an Ayn Rand hero to be a butcher, brewer, or baker. The self-interest and self-love that induces people to become butchers, brewers, and bakers and to perform those jobs well is totally different from the heroic self-love of Rand’s heroes. It is an unheroic desire to support themselves and their families in comfort and security.

In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” Ayn Rand showed that she understood as well as Smith why love of money is wonderfully socially beneficial. In her fiction, however, her anti-capitalist sense of life obliterated that knowledge.

***

Footnotes
1. I cite passages in Rand’s novels by the part of the novel in which they occur and the chapter in that part. I do not cite page numbers because there are many editions, and each has different pagination from the others.
2. I write “Communist” with a capital “C” to indicate a member of a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. Many people have championed a communist society (with a small “c”), beginning with the first two extant projections of an ideal society: Plato’s Republic and Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, both from the 4th century BC.
3. Several of the heroes provide services while they are in Galt’s Gulch. But these jobs are merely stopgaps until they return to the world and use their talents again in their real work.

Bibliography
Blackman, Ann 1990: “Moscow’s Big Mak Attack.” Time (February 5).
Feshbach, Murray and Friendly, Alfred Jr. 1992: Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege. London: Aurum Press.
Goldman, Marshall 1991: What Went Wrong with Perestroika. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Rand, Ayn 1963: For the New Intellectual. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1964: The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1967: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1975: The Romantic Manifesto, revised edition. New York: Signet.
Shmelev, Nikolai and Popov, Vladimir 1989: The Turning Point: Revitalizing the Soviet Economy, translated by Michele A. Berdy. New York: Doubleday.


Editor's Note: This article is part of a much longer monograph with the same title. It can be obtained from the author at stevenfarron@gmail.com.



Share This
Syndicate content

© 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.