Thursday, January 31st, 2008
There is a "meme" floating around that has the following instructions...
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
The book is Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand. This book has been the beginning of free market thinking for many people. One of its essays, "The Wreckage of the Consensus," contains an argument against conscription that was very influential when the Nixon Administration was debating the idea of ending the draft. The three sentences described by the meme above come from another essay, "The Property Status of Airwaves." They are:
It is the proper task of government to protect individual rights and, as part of it, to formulate the laws by which these rights are to be implemented and adjudicated. It is the government's responsibility to define the application of individual rights to a given sphere of activity—to define (i.e., to identify), not to create, invent, donate, or expropriate. The question of defining the application of property rights has arisen frequently, in the wake of major scientific discoveries or inventions, such as the question of oil rights, vertical space rights, etc.
There is much to commend in this account. The best thing about it is that she believes that government's task in defining is about identifying rights, not inventing them.
More recently, though, I have begun to doubt that her overall framework here is right. If we could be certain that this is what government would in fact do, I might well agree with her. But when we empower government to act, it receives the power which it may or may not use for the ends for which it was granted.
In his younger days, Murray Rothbard was invited into Ayn Rand's circle to see if he and his group would fit in. They clashed over the fact that Murray's wife was a Christian. But their ideas also clashed at the point of minarchism versus anarchism. Rothbard thought that the free market should also be the provider of defense services. His mention of competition in this sphere brought the remark from Rand, "You mean like in a civil war?" Well, I hope not. But I think that the ideas behind this are more workable than I once thought.
Our current level of civilization is at a much higher level of organization in many spheres. You remove government from the equation and there are many more ways of redressing wrongs than we have ever had. I don't know how we get there. I think the dismantling has to be somewhat even, so that you don't remove protections from one party without removing them from another.
I think much deregulation has done this. The social "safety net" and laws of Incorporation were a package deal from the early 20th century. Corporations would be able to grow and take risks that would create some chaos that would be balanced by help to those who had been displaced. Now I am of the opinion that both forms of intervention were wrong. But I think we have forgotten history here. Individuals who have been displaced were displaced by forces that were empowered by government intervention. This is not the laissez-faire jungle they have failed to thrive in, but an interventionist nightmare.
Government is popular because it holds the guilty accountable for their crimes, which makes life less precarious for the rest of us. But it can just as easily protect the guilty (or negligent) from accountability. The worst debacles have likely happened because the guilty knew they would get off with much lighter sentences than reality would allow in a true laissez-faire system.
As much as this theory has put me at odds with much of Rand's thought, I think much of it was driven by her suggestion that when things go terribly wrong and everyone is crying out for government to do something, that we always ask what intervention gave rise to the problem in the first place.
I also think that until we know how to work back from what we have, Rand's account of what the government ought to be doing is a good one. But the fact that a government formed in order to do the functions she describes ends up doing something worse, by her own admission, than anarchy, is itself a reason to consider market anarchy.
Voluntaryism is the real unknown ideal.
I tag Confessing Evangelical, The Kibitzer, Lizard Blizzard (not something I'd order at Dairy Queen), Hubris of Jeff, and Scyldings in the Mead-Hall. (HT: Father Hollywood)
5:44 pm Pacific Standard Time
Friday, January 25th, 2008
When I read Steven Toulmin's Cosmopolis, I was intrigued by his discussion of how the modern age was focused on the timeless, and how the postmodern era was witnessing a return to the timely. I had a strong bias toward the timeless myself, and Toulmin's discussion challenged me to at least ponder whether this was all to the good.
A consideration of two of my favorite writers reminded me of how these modes are not always in opposition to each other.
I once was looking at some volumes of the collected works of G.K. Chesterton. There were several volumes of his columns from The Illustrated London News. Before I pulled one down to look at it, I thought, "I wish they had made a selection of his best works, instead of including all of this." I was soon kicking myself for thinking so. Chesterton managed to make comments on the events of the day that could interest a reader of any time period. Now I wanted all the volumes. (I chose the one that had the description of how Sherlock Holmes was not a real logician, but "an ideal logician imagined by an illogical person." It reminds me of the line "Al Gore is an old person's idea of a young person.") When I read The Everlasting Man, I am even more struck by Chesterton's abilities. He speaks of anthropological findings, and manages, though he is writing in 1925, to choose evidence that will still be at the center of the discussion eighty years later. So many writers would end up wasting their time discussing hoaxes or theories that would soon be discredited. But Chesterton's writing is still fresh today.
Ayn Rand is another who could choose the right illustrations. One of her quotes recently had me laughing. She wrote an essay that was influential during the time the Nixon Administration was debating the merits of ending the draft. In the early part of the essay, she mentions unprincipled politicians. She said that if compromise was a way to political victory, then LBJ should have been victorious. He had all the necessary skills. But his consensus fell apart despite such skills. "If he could not make it, no amateur can." My favorite part comes in the next paragraph: "The practical efficacy of compromise is the first premise that Johnson's history should prompt people to check. And, I believe, a great many people are checking it. People, but not Republicans—or, at least, not all of them. Not those who are now pushing an unformed, soft-shelled thing like Romney to succeed where a pro has failed." [in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 222.] Romney? How did she know? Oh, yeah. Rand was talking about Mitt Romney's father. I don't know his political history, but the description is just brilliant: "an unformed soft-shelled thing." That's worth considering. But how interesting the way timely writing proves germane to the subject at hand.
6:07 pm Pacific Standard Time
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008
Journalist Norah Vincent decided to try an interesting experiment. It involved living as a man, instead of the woman she was born as, to see what the world of men looked like from the inside. Instead of the freedom of privilege she expected to find, she found unspoken constraints. Her account is alternatively enlightening and deeply supportive. This kind of work seems to be helpful toward the creation of a different feminist approach to the world, one shared by Camille Paglia, which recognizes that sex differences should be taken seriously. Legal equality does not mean sameness. And all differences are not the result of bad socialization.
A great npr interview can be found here. For a shorter treatment, click here.
I was raised in the evangelical church at a time when it was trying to come to terms with its failures in the previous generation. Sexual permissiveness had been taken for granted, so we were taught self-control, and it was not presented as extra credit.
In college I began to question not so much the conclusions, as the broader framework of the ethics. I had been taught conclusions from a number of Bible texts, but as I ran into more, I had to wonder whether the texts had not been used somewhat selectively. Were the rationales given for the moral injunctions really the right ones? You see, as important as the moral applications were, the morals themselves, along with the rationale given, painted a picture of the nature of human life. I knew that that picture was much better than many before it. But it was another thing to think that it was without error.
These suspicions did not primarily work as a license for me to go crazy. The main change for me was in how I regarded other men. I didn't feel like I needed to be a moral policeman. And insofar as I wanted to be able to make a case for a Biblical view of these matters, I wasn't going to take my agenda from the culture, even the contemporary church culture. (Though I do think the pastor I grew up under, Dr. John Huffman, spoke of these matters far better than most. As with G.K. Chesterton, Huffman was able to avoid casting opponents as enemies.) I do see big differences between men raised in the church and those who were not. Those raised in the church seem to be more likely to behave ethically in these areas than those who were not. But I don't think this is all pure gain. They also defer to women to a degree that could be harmful to the long-term health of the church. (I don't mostly mean that they defer to individual women, though that happens, too!) Institutionally, I'm sure that Phariseeism was a boon to Judaism, allowing many things to be conserved that were in danger of falling by the wayside. But it was also a destructive force.
Norah Vincent did not merely hang out with men, but she chose to hang out with working class men. The misconceptions that she walked into the project with were attitudes that would commonly be found in evangelical churches. I was grateful that she was able to cop to these, and then explain how what she learned changed her view of things. I think that many pastors could learn from this. Yes, they are men, too. But I think some of the early training changes how that works for them. And some of it involved social engineering calculated toward goals that may or may not match those of Scripture. Where they do match, I think they have much to offer, though they should do this with humility, and an awareness that they may not know exactly where their special strength shades off into special weakness. Likewise with those raised outside of the church. What was this aspect of life like with less interference? In some cases are we talking about a plant that the Father himself planted and intended to be cared for? I have few certainties here. But I think Vincent is good for getting a discussion started.
(Hat tip: Misty Irons)
3:48 pm Pacific Standard Time