Mar 312009
 

Funny that this should come up twice in five minutes as I, in true holiday time-wasting fashion, scroll lazily through my feeds.

First up: Nicky Campbell calls Guido Fawkes a fascist on the radio (then, naturally, apologises). Guido doesn’t seem to mind too much – banter gets out of hand sometimes, no real offence meant, etc.

Next: I see via Megan McArdle that somebody called David Henderson has called President Obama’s administration fascist, and backed it up with a nice long quotation from The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society’s economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the “national interest”–that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.

So I’m reading this, and it’s making a fair bit of sense, and then I discover McArdle’s commentary. Usually, I think she’s pretty sensible, but she reacts to the ‘f-bomb’ as if somebody has suggested Obama is a genocide:

How is this helpful? Has clarifying the distinction between fascism and socialism really added to most peoples’ understanding of what the Obama administration is doing? All this does is drag the specter of Hitler into the conversation. And the problem with Hitler was not his industrial policy–I mean, okay, fine, Hitler’s industrial policy bad, right, but I could forgive him for that, you know? The thing that really bothers me about Hitler was the genocide. And I’m about as sure as I can be that Obama has no plans to round up millions of people, put them in camps, and find various creative ways to torture them to death.

Now, I hold no brief for Hitler, obviously (and boy does it irritate me that I have to clarify that), but wouldn’t it be nice if reasonable people could hold a discussion about him or – less inflammatory by far – the concept of fascism without sensitive, politically-correct, knee-jerkers trying to shut down the debate with their hysterical reactions?

This word ‘fascist’ has been so overused as a generalised insult for those with whom the user disagrees politically that it holds virtually no meaning in standard conversation these days except ‘a very bad, mean person.’ Oh, how facile. And when some poor brave soul attempts to deploy it under the banner of its real characteristics – as David Henderson has done – he is accused of comparing Obama to Hitler and therefore stultifying the debate.

I have a different opinion of what stultifies debate and that is: telling people that making a distinction between socialism, fascism, and current economic trends is unhelpful. Refusing to contemplate what fascism actually is because limited minds can’t think past its colloquial usage. And shutting down a perfectly legitimate fucking discussion because obviously the only thing ‘fascist’ means is ‘a mean, bad person like Hitler.’

Well, you know what? We’ve all got something in common with Hitler. Many people like dogs and enjoy contemplating nice watercolors. Many people speak German. Many people dislike smoking and praise the efficiency of the Volkswagen. And just like Hitler wasn’t the only person ever in the history of the world to do those things, he’s likewise not the only fascist.

So can we shut the fuck up about ‘fascist’ meaning ‘bad like Hitler’ and engage the concept on its own terms, please?

Mar 302009
 

Dr David Starkey has opened his trap about the injustice done to poor Henry VIII by the concentration of modern female historians on his wives, to the exclusion of his powerful accomplishments in the realm of politics and religion.

But he warned that the “soap opera” of Henry’s personal life should come second to the political consequences of his rule, such as the Reformation and the break with Rome.

Dr Starkey went further, by saying that modern attempts to paint many women in history as “power players” was to falsify the facts.

Many years ago, when I still taught history, I used to tell my students that almost everything that ‘power players’ did was motivated by money, power, or land. With Henry VIII, it tended to be all three, although as in a sense they’re more or less three sides of the same coin, this is not particularly noteworthy.

In fact, very little of what Henry VIII did is particularly noteworth – and the break with Rome is not one of those things. The English Church, under the direction of the monarch, had broken with Rome already on a number of occasions. The refusal of William II to fill vacant bishoprics (so that the Crown could continue to collect their revenues) resulted in the exile of the Archbishop of Canterbury and William’s excommunication; Henry II’s spat with Thomas Becket meant that half of the priestly class of England joined Becket in exile and, of course, Henry was excommunicated; John’s stubbornness about Stephen Langton mean that the poor archbish couldn’t even get into England, let alone go into exile, and John’s excommunication and the subsequent Interdict laid on the nation lasted for some years. During all of these periods, the monarch and people of England were ‘broken’ from Rome, and in the case of John, many of the people even supported his position. Henry VIII’s quarrel with Rome rather pales in comparison, and the basis of his break was neither theological nor procedural: he wanted the Church’s revenues, and he wanted to be ultimate court of appeal on both religious and civil matters. The 39 Articles were hardly un-Catholic, and most of what he incorporated from Luther’s theological protest was later adopted by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation anyway. The true Reformation in England happened after Henry VIII’s death, under his son Edward VI and his second daughter Elizabeth I.

What is significant about Henry VIII is that, as part of his megalomania, he rode roughshod over the constitution of England and the traditional liberties of its people as enshrined in Magna Carta. His show trials rivalled Stalin’s and his prosecution of people under treason laws for slights against his amour propre made a mockery of justice. His execution of the Duke of Buckingham for no other crime than being a rival prince of the blood, and his subsequent seizure of the Duke’s ancestral lands (ever wondered about Buckingham Palace?), whilst nevertheless moaning on and on about the sanctity of his conscience, show him to have been a despot and tyrant of the highest order.

Even these dubious accomplishments, however, are not unique to Henry VIII; his father did the same thing.

What is unique about Henry VIII is that he alone of all English monarchs, including the wicked John, the inept Edward II, and the evil-uncle Richard III, beheaded his wives. Everything else he did falls, if you will, into the ordinary realms of monarchical naughtiness. Grasping, greedy, power-hungry – well, fair enough. But double uxoricide? That, my friends, was unprecedented, and has never happened since. It’s the kind of behaviour one might expect from a Mithridates, not from a crowned monarch of a Christian nation, a Defender of the Faith with an exquisitely acute conscience. Is it any wonder historians, whatever is between their legs, focus on that?

I reckon that Henrician history isn’t feminised so much as it is centred on the only thing that makes Henry VIII actually interesting. Apart from his torrid love-life, he’s really a rather run-of-the-mill king.

Starkey does say one peculiar thing, though:

He also stressed his comments were not a “value statement” about how he thought the world should be, but argued: “It is a great impertinence to impose our values on the past. It instantly reduces the people of the past from real people to mere straw men and women in our struggles.”

Using the past to inform our own time is kinda what we study history for; while it may be ‘impertinent’ to impose our values on the people of the past, it is the height of arrogance to argue that we must not employ history as a rhetorical tool in our own struggles. Although I don’t like it, and I resent the use of history that politicians make to prop up their own stupidities, to insist otherwise is to diminish its importance, and the study of history is embattled enough already without historians adding to the claims of irrelevance it has to overcome.

Mar 302009
 

It is an oft-cited fact that, in the United States, one is completely free to say whatever one pleases with two exceptions: one may be prosecuted for shouting ‘Fire!’ in an enclosed space – if there is no fire and if damage to person or property results; one may be prosecuted for stating one’s intent to harm the President – but only if credible evidence is uncovered that suggests one’s intent was in earnest (otherwise, those wish-fulfilling fantasists who made that documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush would have been thrown in prison for the duration of his presidency).

My understanding of freedom of speech in Britain is a bit different. Lacking a codified Constitution like the United States’, this whole freedom-of-expression thing has long been a part of tradition, common law, and more recently, human rights legislation. But the caveats on it seem to come thicker and faster than those in the US. For example, one is not permitted to advocate the abolition of the monarchy in print.

(Or so I’m told. I never would have known this had, several years ago, I not encountered a leaflet taped to a bus stop that did exactly that; a nearby genuine British person shook his head sorrowfully and opined that it really ought to be taken down before it got somebody into trouble.)

One is also not permitted any speech which is an incitement to violence. Nor, it seems, any speech which is an incitement to hatred. I quote this article in full because, although it is from The Sun, it is clear, concise, and fascinating:

A BID to halt legislation banning gay jokes which stir up hatred was defeated yesterday.

MPs from all parties tried to include a defence of “free speech” into the Bill which makes it a criminal offence to incite hatred over sexual orientation.

But their attempt was defeated in a Commons vote by 328 to 174.

Campaigners had said the Bill would limit freedom of expression. Some comedians even claimed it could lead to them being prosecuted.

Critics of the Government’s move included Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson, who said it could stifle creativity for writers and comedians.

But ministers said if the “free speech” amendment was accepted it could provide a loophole for people wishing to incite hatred.

Now, a ban on speech that incites violence is possibly understandable, though I don’t agree with it. But there is a material difference between violence – initiation of force against another’s bodily integrity – and hatred, which is an emotion or state of mind. I grant that hatred may lead to violence; I grant that there are certainly crimes motivated by hatred. But to outlaw speech that incites hatred is equivalent to outlawing speech that incites boredom, or frustration, or joy – these are states of mind, and those who hold them can never be proven guilty of doing so, for how does one prove the possession of an emotion or state of mind except through the actions that betray it? And the action of initiating force against another person’s bodily integrity is already illegal.

It was already a crime to incite violence, regardless of whether the speaker participated in the violence himself; now it is a crime to incite an emotion, regardless of whether the speaker holds it himself. These laws make the speaker, regardless of intent or participation, responsible for the feelings and actions of others.

And, giving the situation some thought, I begin to realise that there is no better way, really, to force the citizenry to change, if not its views, then at least its expression of them. In the glory days, when we were free to say what we thought as long as we did not act on it, we relied on social ostracism to eradicate the airing of distasteful views. Social ostracism is a powerful tool, but not, it seems, powerful enough, for there were still some eccentrics wandering round spouting bigotry in contravention of all behavioural norms. Caring nothing for the opinions of society, therefore, they must be made to fear legal sanction for their unpleasantness instead. And this has been done very cleverly indeed. If the law were made against expression one’s own hatred, well, there would be martyrs to it everywhere, for to take on oneself the penalty of an unjust law has in it something of nobility, however repugnant the views for which one is willing to accept punishment. But because the law censures you for what others do, it is much more sinister, and much more nebulous, and much more difficult to stand against bravely.

And so we shut our mouths and keep our opinions to ourselves, not because we dislike the idea of going to prison for our own actions, but because we fear the prospect of going to prison for the actions of others.

How is this justice? How is this freedom? How is it possible that, in a civilised society, we are answerable at law for the opinions and behaviours of individuals not ourselves, over whom we have no provable influence and certainly no control? Each of us has, if not legally, at least morally a responsibility to avoid sins of omission; if I witness a mugging, I have a duty, it can be argued, to try to stop it, or to assist the victim. But if a mugging happens out of my sight and hearing and knowledge, I cannot be held accountable for omitting to help. On the other hand, it seems that if the mugger overheard me on the Tube telling a joke about homosexuals, or saying wistfully that Jews deserve to be robbed, I am as responsible for that crime as the mugger himself, if he can finger me as the one who incited his behaviour. Even if he doesn’t mug his victim, but merely spits and calls the victim an unkind name, I am made a criminal, even if the action that damns me happened out of my sight and hearing and knowledge.

Who knows what our stray remarks may lead others to do? And while most of us recognise the justice of being imprisoned for our own behaviour, very few of us see it in being punished for someone else’s. Therefore we remain silent.

But ministers said if the “free speech” amendment was accepted it could provide a loophole for people wishing to incite hatred.

Free speech is a loophole in the minds of our ministers. Rather than being a right which the government must not infringe, it is a loose end to be sewn up. We are only free to speak that which is not prohibited at the whim of each successive Parliament. We are made criminals not only by what others do, but by what others might do. This government has achieved what enemies of freedom have advocated for decades: each man is truly his brother’s keeper, and will pay the price for his brother’s folly.

Mar 252009
 

…if you will, a piece of legislation that contains the following provisions:

(a) Prohibited Activities- A participant in an approved national service position under this subtitle may not engage in the following activities:

‘(1) Attempting to influence legislation.

‘(2) Organizing or engaging in protests, petitions, boycotts, or strikes.

‘(3) Assisting, promoting, or deterring union organizing.

‘(4) Impairing existing contracts for services or collective bargaining agreements.

‘(5) Engaging in partisan political activities, or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office.

‘(6) Participating in, or endorsing, events or activities that are likely to include advocacy for or against political parties, political platforms, political candidates, proposed legislation, or elected officials.

‘(7) Engaging in religious instruction, conducting worship services, providing instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship, constructing or operating facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship, maintaining facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship, or engaging in any form of religious proselytization.

Pretty fucking horrifying, no? What on earth, I can hear you wondering, is an ‘approved national service position,’ and what about it makes it necessary for law-makers to remove from its holders freedom of association, the right to petition the government, the franchise, and the right to practise a religion?

Well, my dears, I shall tell you: it’s our old friend Compulsory Volunteering, passed in the US House yesterday in a bill called Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, or, cutely, simply GIVE.

The text of this bill is, like all the pieces of loo roll that pass for legislation in Washington DC, so abstruse that in my current germ-weakened state, I can make neither head nor tail of most of it. The bit quoted above, however, seems pretty straightforward. How, in the name of all that is holy, can Congress justify denying FOUR fundamental, Constitutional rights from people who are taking part in national ‘service’?

And please, no bombarding me with reasonableness. I’m sure that ‘activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office’ isn’t intended to mean voting, but fuck me if I can think of a more archetypal example of an activity designed to influence the outcome of an election.

As it happens, the GIVE Act (what a stupid fucking name) is something of an amendment to other national ‘service’ acts passed in other decades by other asshat Congresses, and there is already an organisation, the Corporation for National and Community Service (its website has a .gov domain and everything!) that administers this crap. They’ve been really quick on the ball to express an opinion of GIVE (something the MSM, I note, have largely overlooked):

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed the most significant overhaul and expansion of national service programs in 16 years, acting on President Obama’s call to increase service opportunities for Americans of all ages to help address the economic crisis and usher in a new era of service and responsibility for our nation.

“Service is a fundamental American value, in every neighborhood and every community,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. “With President Obama’s leadership and support, today the House took a key step toward launching a new era of service that will rebuild and strengthen our country for years to come.”

“The American spirit is one of giving back – to our neighbors, our communities, and our nation. All across this country, citizens are devoting their time, skills, and resources to make our country a better place. And through the GIVE Act, we can nurture that spirit of selflessness, leveraging both individuals and organizations to achieve national goals,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the House Education Committee’s Ranking Republican member.

“At this time of economic crisis, there is a convergence of a great need to help our neighbors and a great appetite by Americans to serve,” said the Corporation’s Board Chair Alan Solomont. “Service can be a solution to many of our nation’s toughest challenges. We are grateful to the House for passing this bipartisan legislation to expand high-quality service opportunities for Americans of all ages.”

Is this some kind of bad prank? On the one hand, we’ve got Reps. George Miller and ‘Buck’ McKeon (may their loins rot) claiming service as a fundamental American value (since when?); on the other, we’ve got Alan Solomont praising the House for offering Americans more ‘high-quality service opportunities.’ What the fuck? Replace the words ‘service opportunities’ with the word ‘toaster’ and you get a sentence that makes a hell of a lot more sense.

I suppose my main points are these: (1) this Act has a stupid name, (2) this Act cancels out fundamental freedoms in the name of service to the common good, (3) this never would have passed if it weren’t for the fucking joke of a community organiser running the nation these days, and most importantly (4) what the US does, Britain quickly imitates. We go to war in Iraq – you go to war in Iraq. We pass illiberal laws to ‘deal with’ the ‘terrorist threat’ – you pass illiberal laws to deal with the terrorist threat. We stimulate our economy with fuckloads of debt – you stimulate your economy with fuckloads of debt. Our mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming – your mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming. We press our citizens into rightless compulsory voluntary servitude… you get the idea.

I shouldn’t wonder if there’s not something similar knocking around in Parliament right now, waiting for its five minutes’ worth of debate before being rammed into law by a maniacal, overpowerful, unelected, self-important, self-destructive executive.

These people are freaks

 stupid-heads, US-bashing  Comments Off on These people are freaks
Mar 202009
 

Harvard’s conference on Law and Mind Sciences, entitled ‘The free market mindset: history, psychology, and consequences.’ Via the Cato Institute. Especially this bit:

• 2:35 – 3:00: Jaime Napier, “ The Palliative Function of Ideology”:
In this research, we drew on system-justification theory and the notion that conservative ideology serves a palliative function to explain why conservatives are happier than liberals. Specifically, in three studies using nationally representative data from the United States and nine additional countries, we found that right-wing (vs. left-wing) orientation is indeed associated with greater subjective well-being and that the relation between political orientation and subjective well-being is mediated by the rationalization of inequality. In our third study, we found that increasing economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative hedonic effects of economic inequality.

Or maybe it’s because they spend less of their time bitching. *shrug*

H/T Samizdata.net.

Mar 172009
 

Over on the Devil’s gold post, commenter Revolution Harry questions fellow commenter Ian B’s assertion that ‘getting more stuff is a Good Thing':

Economic growth on its own is fine, though I take issue with your idea that ‘getting more stuff is a good thing’. Depends on the ‘stuff’.

Ian B’s riposte is a thing of sheerest beauty:

No it doesn’t. People getting more of what they want is a Good Thing, period. If you have more stuff than you want, fine, get rid of it or even better give it to me. If you think there is some kind objective method of deciding what stuff people should have, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to have stuff that others decide they shouldn’t have, then I think that’s reprehensible.

Getting more stuff is what the western world and free markets are all about. Stuff is great.

I concur wholeheartedly: Stuff is great.

I must say also that the discussion taking place over that particular post is possibly one of the most interesting I’ve read in a good long while. I highly recommend it.

My own view of ‘money’ has always been extraordinarily simplistic. As I understand it (and please, no flaming: I admit in advance to ignorance and silliness), this is sort of where money comes from:

I make baskets. You make shoes. We decide, mutually, that two of my baskets are worth one pair of your shoes. When I need shoes, I give you baskets according to this formula, and the same holds true when you need baskets – you give me shoes.

Mordred breeds cows. You need Mordred’s cows to make your shoes; Mordred needs my baskets for feed. I give Mordred ten baskets; he gives you one cowskin; you give me five pairs of shoes. So far, so good.

But I don’t need all of these shoes, or at least not at the moment, and you need more cowskins than Mordred needs baskets from me. Not to mention that there’s also Lancelot the chicken-farmer, Guinevere the prostitute, and Gawain the lumberjack to add into the equation, which makes it all hopelessly complicated.

So together we agree upon a unit of substitution for all of this stuff, and call it a squeed. Every item we produce is worth so many squeeds – perhaps my basket is now worth 10sq. Now, however, I decide I’d quite like not only a pair of shoes, but also a half-hour with Guinevere. So I sell my baskets for 11sq – after all, I’m the only basket weaver in town – pocket my 1sq profit, and save it up to pay Guinevere 5sq for my half-hour on Thursday. Then Guinevere spends 3sq on a handful of eggs from Lancelot, and saves the remaining 2sq toward a nice pair of shoes.

The situation becomes even more complex, however. Supposing Mordred puts his prices up too, because he also fancies Guinevere and wants to purchase some of her time. Realising that she’s now in demand, she too can charge more. What if another basket-weaver arrives and sets up shop? Not everybody can weave baskets, true, but lots of people can be prostitutes – so Guinevere’s prices might come down again when Elaine comes onto the scene. All of these things change the value of my baskets, as well as how much my squeeds will buy me.

Finally, and most importantly, what is a squeed, and how many are there? If the supply is finite, it will recirculate stalely amongst the community and quickly accumulate in certain spots like scum on a pond; if it is possible to increase the supply, that too will affect squeedal value and the price of goods. Ideally, squeeds should be an item we can’t really use (why waste something useful?), and relatively rare, although not too rare; also, a squeed should be something we can get more of, but not easily. Gold is, therefore, a good substance from which to make squeeds.

On the other hand, gold is heavy, and the village over the hill uses it for roofing tiles. They might come and forcibly relieve us of the contents of our over-burdened pockets! Better to agree on an amount of gold to represent 1sq, create a worthless (to the other village) paper 1sq note, and keep all of the gold squeeds in a safe place, like under the mattress. As long as we always have enough gold to back up most of our paper squeeds, we should be fine.

And there, my friends, we must cease Bella’s Theory of Money, because we enter the world of fractional reserve banking, which is where my limited and child-like understanding of the monetary system ends. I hope you have enjoyed today’s episode of Arthurian Village Economics.

UPDATE: Ian B continues froody:

And thirdly, it is common to glibly say we’ve had enough growth now and we bally well ought to stop. Well, you might think you’ve got enough stuff, but I haven’t got enough stuff and the average subsistence farmer in Africa hasn’t got any fucking stuff at all, and it is reprehensible to tell him he can’t have any because of an imaginary infinitude on a misunderstood graph. We have vast potential for improving our productivity, absolutely vast. We’ve only been in the industrial revolution for about three centuries, not even that. There is shitloads left to discover and invent. How dare you tell people on the breadline they’re rich enough?

Mar 162009
 

Over at Don’s.

You remember Don, right? He does a pretty comprehensive job of it, I must say, picking up on such contentious, deeply-held prejudices of mine as ‘Jesus was no economist’ and ‘Human progress in the past 200 years has been outstanding.’

An amusing snippet:

I love the critique of Jesus’ understanding of economics and can only guess at the discussions on Team Libertarian which must have developed it.

“As a Christian and a Libertarian I am troubled. I have searched the gospels, and nowhere does it mention that deregulated free markets bring freedom by allocating resources efficiently or that cutting taxes generates more revenue as explained by the Laffer Curve”.

“Ah, that is because Jesus Christ had a pretty meagre understanding of economics, unlike Frederich von Hayek, Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan.”

That’s so completely me. (Actually, it is.)

He also suggests I spend less time reading Ayn Rand and more time reading the New Testament, so blogging will be light as I crack open my copy of koine and rediscover the underpinnings of Christian Socialism.

UPDATE: This whole ‘New Testament’ thing is proving riveting, and ideas are coming thick and fast. I might even write a sort of blog series called Libertarian Theology, explaining how Christianity and self-interest are entirely compatible and showing that Jesus was totally a libertarian. After that, perhaps I’ll embark on a Libertarian Theology: Islam, detailing the importance of the free market and the Laffer Curve in the early caliphates.

Marriage hell

 indolence  Comments Off on Marriage hell
Mar 152009
 

His Grace today quotes Michael Gove, Shadow Secretary for Schools, Children, and Nuclear Units on the subject of marriage:

Marriage is a constraint, it is a restriction on freedom, a corset or corral in which passions which would otherwise run free are subject to disciplines, and personal satisfaction is subordinated to social expectations.

Fuck me if he doesn’t make it sound really unappealing. No wonder nobody’s doing it any more…

Mar 152009
 

Atlas Shrugged is all over the blogs and the news recently, and with good reason. The authoritarians, statists, and socialists among us appear to clutch at every possible opportunity to ridicule the novel, and Rand herself, with the sort of viciousness that suggests they derive pleasure from being overtly nasty about a dead woman and her philosophy.

Their viciousness also suggests fear, or at the very least resentment, that Atlas Shrugged exposes the flaws in their ideology. Why else would they need to insult its author, misrepresent its message, and claim that it is poorly written? (Because, let’s face it – it’s not poorly written. Have these people ever cast a judgmental eye over, for example, Dan Brown? Jesus.)

The Guardian leapt upon the stick-pins-in-the-effigy-of-Rand bandwagon yesterday:

Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels.

Could this be because Rand’s wordy masterwork foretells the collapse of capitalism? That is indeed what happens in the book: machines break, production dwindles, society collapses into riot. And the novel knows exactly where to point the finger: it’s all the fault of big government, which is choking the free market under layers of anti-business law. Rand’s novel is also clear as to who can save us. Its hero, John Galt, is handsome and virile, a brilliant inventor, and the leader of a revolutionary vanguard composed of all the world’s great talents in industry and science, finance and the arts; eventually he will be joined by the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body “slender”, her daddy’s railroad the biggest the world has ever known. Soon, more and more of these “superior minds” abandon the “second-handers” – also known as “mediocrities”, “parasites” and “mindless hordes” – to join Galt in his mountain hideaway. When Galt and Dagny at long last get together, the sign of the almighty dollar is traced upon the earth.

Ha! That crazy Rand and her anti-government paranoia. We all know that big-government regulation is what saves us from the collapse of society – I mean, if there had been more regulation, we wouldn’t be in this banking crisis right now… And good grief, her characters? Handsome, beautiful, brilliant? Physical beauty is an accident of birth, and brilliance and success are the products of society, of course. Or one’s daddy. How dare such people withdraw their productive genius from the very society, however composed of mediocrities, to which it is owed?

(I begin to believe that Jenny Turner has not, in fact, read the novel.)

Crazy and, it seems, the recipient of her just desserts:

Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and final novel. After it, she devoted herself to what her fans consider her “philosophy”, and to building the movement she called objectivism, which was, briefly, a presence in 50s American culture before imploding in feuds. Rand was, at her height, quite a figure – bob-haired, Russian-accented, dressed in a cape with a dollar-sign brooch, smoking a cigarette in a long holder – “When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

Since Rand’s death in 1982 – from lung cancer – her heirs have carried the movement forward, with a growing presence in academia…

You see, not only was her ‘philosophy’ not a real philosophy (thus the derisive quotation marks around it), she was also one of those icky smokers. Ugh.

According to Noam Chomsky, Rand was “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But this is surely an overstatement, given that during Rand’s lifetime, personal muddle and inherent ridiculousness limited her capacity to do harm. Slavoj Zizek gets closer to it when he writes that, though artistically “worthless”, her work has a lastingly “subversive dimension”. By taking “capitalist ideology” to extreme conclusions, Rand shows up its “fantasmatic kernel” – the babyish fantasies of power without consequence that, one could argue, caused the banks to sink themselves in the sub-prime mess in the first place.

The question, then, isn’t so much why Rand now? It’s more whether Randianism can have a long-term future, now that capitalism no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself.

Aha, yes – I thought we’d get around to this. Unbridled free markets of the sort Rand advocated have failed; capitalism has made a fool of itself; her ideas are inherently ridiculous.

Would somebody mind please explaining to me why, after the disasters that were Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and the on-going jokes that are Cuba and Venezuela, people refuse to admit that the unfree, centrally planned market is ‘inherently ridiculous’ and ‘no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself’? Why do criticisms of failure apply to free markets at the merest hint of an economic downturn, but not to bizarre socialist experiments that result in actual, devastating economic collapse?

Here’s the odd thing: the Guardian published an article about Atlas Shrugged last Tuesday as well. A very different article indeed, entitled ‘Greed is good: a guide to radical individualism‘:

Rand and her books were the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocated the complete deregulation of business and finance and opposed any form of state welfare. She described her philosophy as “objectivism” or “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.

At its heart is a mystery story: about why so many of the world’s most brilliant brains are disappearing and about who invented a new kind of motor. It tells the tale of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, and their struggles as society collapses at the hands of an oppressive government and its parasitical bureaucrats. In the book, the best minds in terms of business, science and the arts are, in effect, on strike – the book was originally called The Strike. It espoused the essential Rand philosophy of “rational self-interest”.

Throughout her writing life, she promoted the idea expressed in the book: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”

That is a vastly more realistic summary. Anybody have phone numbers for Jenny Turner and Duncan Campbell? Perhaps we should introduce them to one another.

Maybe the discrepancy is more to do with the section of the paper in which they are writing. Campbell’s article is filed under News->World News->United States, while Turner’s appears in Culture->Books->The week in books. And as we all know, Rand’s novel as a piece of literature is ‘artistically worthless’. Why, even ‘very distinguished old butch dykes‘ who teach literature in the universities don’t acknowledge it! And so, because literature students, those paragons of intellect and utility, have not read it, it must be a fad.

Rand never pretended that her beliefs were easy ones to swallow; much of the novel revolves around the difficulty the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, have accepting it. They fight until they last possible second to succeed in a world which punishes them for their success, which demands the products of their success whilst at the same time requiring their self-sacrifice and destruction.

And to many people, I think, that is what the world seems to want these days. People rabbit on about social responsibility, reducing inequality, and eradicating poverty without ever acknowledging that the productivity and profit-motive they condemn are the very things which make global prosperity possible. And that’s not even taking into account those occasional types who seem to loathe the idea of prosperity! The human race has spent the last three thousand years fighting its way out of the filth and misery into which it was born to reach a state of being in which literally anything is possible. We had the minds to do it three thousand years ago; what we didn’t have, until the last couple of centuries, was the leisure to think. And people condemn thinking as bad, and progress as evil, because it leaves others behind. Sacrifice is preferable to gain; a low quality of life for all is preferable to a shitty quality of life for some.

And because ambition cannot be stopped – because the Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens of the world have not yet learned to withdraw their sanction – it must be stifled, through regulation and legislation, and everyone must be made to believe that freedom and movement and reckless, momentous change are frightening.

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

What these socialist murderers of their own posterity desire is for us all to sacrifice without reward, metaphorically to throw ourselves in front of a bus because it might save a stranger, to produce without incentive and achieve without reward, to see the good of our fellow man as better than and separate from our own good, to give without enjoyment and receive without gratitude, and to continue doing so until we reach the only possible state of equality that exists: death.

And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is the most depressing book ever written, because we will all keep fighting – none of us can withdraw sanction – and there is no Galt’s Gulch. And so we struggle on and watch as human achievement collapses around our ears, and on every side the blame is entirely our own.

‘If the things I said are true, who is the guiltiest man in this room tonight?’
‘I suppose–James Taggart?’
‘No, Mr Rearden, it is not James Taggart. But you must define the guilt and choose the man for yourself.’

Mar 142009
 

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, nor do I know whether it’s any sort of legitimate news article. But let’s assume for the moment that it is:

A North Carolina judge has ordered three children to attend public schools this fall because the homeschooling their mother has provided over the last four years needs to be “challenged.” The children, however, have tested above their grade levels – by as much as two years. The decision is raising eyebrows among homeschooling families, and one friend of the mother has launched a website to publicize the issue. The ruling was made by Judge Ned Mangum of Wake County, who was handling a divorce proceeding for Thomas and Venessa Mills.

Mangum said he made the determination on his guiding principle, “What’s in the best interest of the minor children,” and conceded it was putting his judgment in place of the mother’s.

On her website, family friend Robyn Williams said Mangum stated his decision was not ideologically or religiously motivated but that ordering the children into public schools would “challenge the ideas you’ve taught them.”

According to Williams’ website, the judge also ordered a mental health evaluation for the mother – but not the father – as part of the divorce proceedings, in what Williams described as an attack on the “mother’s conservative Christian beliefs.”

Here’s how I read this tale: mother takes children out of state education because state school is crap. Mother and father get divorced. Father wants children put back into state education. Judge handling divorce proceedings orders children to be put back into state education because ideas learned from mother (amongst them possibly conservative Christianity) need to be ‘challenged’.

This bothers me on multiple levels. On the one hand, I see the dangers inherent in filling children with dogma they’re discouraged from questioning. On the other hand, I see the dangers inherent in filling children with dogma they’re discouraged from questioning. The only difference between homeschooling and state schooling appears to be which dogma the poor creatures are forced to consume.

Not to mention that I thought North Carolina, a place very dear to my heart, was above this sort of stuff. Its judges, among whom I number one of my own family members, are not generally given to illiberal, heavy-handed pronouncements about how parents can and cannot educate their offspring. And this decision is a bit rich coming from this particular judge, whose daughter I used to teach – in a religious private school.

As the Devil would say, fucking hellski…