Archives: 12/2009

Is Ayn Rand Good for the Cause of Liberty?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting column that asks whether Ayn Rand, the famous libertarian novelist and philosopher, is a net plus for the free-market movement. This seems like an odd question. After all, her books (especially Atlas Shrugged) have been hugely influential, exposing countless people to a libertarian message.

But the column’s author, Heather Wilhelm of the free-market Illinois Policy Institute, has a good point. Rand’s emphasis on individual freedom is laudable, but she makes herself an easy target by asserting that this requires über-individualism and leaves no room for altruism. Indeed, I’ll always remember being somewhat put off by the scene in Atlas Shrugged where one of protagonists rents, rather than lends, his car to a friend. And even though I’m rarely in a church, her insistence that atheism was a necessary component of her philosophy also struck me as odd (not to mention needlessly exclusionary).

From Wilhelm’s column:

Rand seems to be roaring back. Sales are surging—Brian Doherty, author of “Radicals for Capitalism” (2007), recently calculated that in one week in late August, “Atlas” sold “67 percent more copies than it did the same week a year before, and 114 percent more than that same week in 2007.” Two buzzed-about Rand biographies hit the shelves this fall, and an “Atlas” cable miniseries is reportedly in the works. Designer Ralph Lauren recently listed Rand as one of his favorite novelists, and CNBC host Rick Santelli, whose on-air antibailout rant inspired hundreds of “tea party” protests across the nation, admitted the same. “I know this may not sound very humanitarian,” he said, “but at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rand-er.”

…But in an age where hope, change and warm-hearted marketing clearly resonate, is revitalizing and glorifying Rand’s acerbic “virtue of selfishness” doing the free-market movement any good? Doubts are starting to emerge. Leonard Liggio, a respected figure in libertarian circles and a guest at Rand’s post-“Atlas Shrugged” New York get-togethers, sees value in Rand but admits she wasn’t a bridge builder. …Others, however, go further. “Rand has this extremist, intolerant, dogmatic antigovernment stance,” says Brink Lindsey of the libertarian Cato Institute, “and it pushes free-market supporters toward a purist, radical vision that undermines their capacity to get anything done.”

…How are free markets best “sold”? A more compelling approach flips Rand’s philosophy on its head, explaining how everyone, especially society’s neediest, benefits from economic liberty. It’s a compelling story about how freedom and prosperity can change lives for the better. And Ayn Rand is of little help in telling it.

As an economist, I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert, but Rand’s philosophy seems vulnerable. And her personal style apparently was less than perfect. But, returning to the main issue, surely Rand has been a net plus for the cause of liberty. I’m not a Randian (and am not even sure what that entails), but I have probably given copies of Atlas Shrugged to about 50 people over the years. Simply stated, the book is a very compelling introduction to the idea that government is corrupt, that it attracts (and benefits) corrupt people, and that redistributionism is a corrupt philosophy.

Have the Greens Failed?

Today’s question at “Politico Arena”:

“Have the greens failed?”

My response:

If the greens have failed, it’s not for lack of trying.  For years now, in everything from pre-school programs to “educational” ads aimed at adults, they’ve been “greenwashing” our brains.  In September the Wall Street Journal reported that the EPA was focusing on children:  ”Partnering with the Parent Teacher Organization, the agency earlier this month launched a cross-country tour of 6,000 schools to teach students about climate change and energy efficiency.”

Yet for all that effort, the public isn’t buying.  As Politico notes this morning:  ”The Pew Research Center found that by last January, global warming ’ranked at the bottom of the public’s list of policy priorities for the president and Congress this year.‘ “  And “Independent voters and Republicans ranked it last on a list of 20 priorities, while Democrats ranked it 16th.”  Meanwhile, “other polling suggests Americans are growing more skeptical of the science behind climate change, with those who blame human activity for global warming – 36 percent – falling 11 percentage points this year, according to Pew.”  And that was before “Climategate” came to light.

At bottom, the greens face three basic problems. First, by no means is the science of global warming “settled” – if anything, the fraud Climategate surfaced has settled that question. Second, even if global warming were a settled science, the contribution of human activity is anything but certain. And finally, most important, even if the answers to those two questions were clear, the costs – or benefits – of global warming are unknown, but the costs of the proposals promoted by the greens are astronomical.

So how do they respond to all of this? Politico cites Greenpeace executive director Phil Radford: “ ‘Obama’s problem is not his position on the climate issue but, rather, his will,’ says Radford. ’The question is how much the president will lead.’ Americans have ‘overlearned’ the lessons of Kyoto, where President Bill Clinton agreed to a treaty that he never submitted for ratification because it faced near-unanimous rejection in the Senate, Radford said. ’They’re using that as a reason to hide behind Congress instead of to lead Congress.’”

There you have it. It’s all a matter of will – indeed, of belief. The president needs simply to will this through, the people (and Congress) be damned. We, the anointed, know what’s right, what needs to be done. Is it any wonder that the greens are failing, at least where the people can still be heard?

Latest REAL ID Deadline Will Pass Without a Blip

Via the ACLU blog, there’s no chance that the Department of Homeland Security will interfere with Americans’ travel when its latest deadline for REAL ID compliance passes at the end of this month. As happened with the original deadline for states to implement the national ID, DHS will give out waivers to recalcitrant states instead of carrying out the threat of refusing to accept travelers’ IDs at airports.

States were required by Tuesday to request a waiver from DHS showing that they had met certain milestones for REAL ID compliance. But according to NextGov, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and three U.S. territories have not asked for a waiver.

Supporters of a REAL ID revival bill called “PASS ID” want to use this end-of-year impasse to hustle their bill through Congress (the way REAL ID was originally passed). But the impasse is fake, and states can do what they want.

“Should Congress not act before it adjourns this year, DHS has planned for contingencies related to REAL ID implementation, including extending the deadline as a last resort,” said a DHS spokesman.

Defining ‘Isolationism’ Down

No se puedeNo se puede!

There is no greater bogeyman in official Washington than isolationism.  If you’ve seen a newspaper this morning, you might be fretting that isolationism has taken over the country.  But you’d be wrong.

The source of today’s panic over isolationism is the same one that wound us up back in 2006: a Pew survey[.pdf] that asks voters whether “The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”  If you think that’s right, in Pew’s view, you’re an isolationist.

As I complained in the San Diego Union-Tribune back in 2006, this is baloney.  For this to be true, internationalism would be defined such that its adherents believe “the U.S. should not mind its own business internationally and should not let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”  Maybe we should try to push them around or direct their affairs ourselves.

As Walter McDougall has pointed out, there is a strong tradition of American isolation, but no real tradition of American isolationism.  The very term “isolationist” was coined by none other than Alfred Thayer Mahan, an avid American imperialist and adviser to one of America’s most militaristic and vicious presidents, Teddy Roosevelt.

The simple fact is that we possess a unique geographic and political position in the international system.  We’re surrounded by two big moats and two weak, friendly neighbors.  It’s really a terrific situation.  Compare this to, say, France or Germany in the 19th century.  Our relatively benign position allowed the American founders to draw up a liberal constitution and institute a weak central government in lieu of a Bismarckian (or worse) European state.  American isolation is a blessing.

Since the end of the 19th century, a variety of political figures have, for reasons of nationalism and domestic politics, as well as permissive international conditions, set busily about squandering the benefits of isolation.  Today, we take it upon ourselves to administer huge swaths of the globe.  The code word for the American imperial assumption today is “leadership.”  But the fact remains that we’re isolated.  People who want to leverage that reality to our benefit don’t warrant the epithet “isolationists.”

A Victory for Property Rights

Ilya Shapiro warns us that the U.S. Supreme Court probably will not uphold property rights in a case involving Florida beachfront property.  But property rights did receive an unexpected boost in New York yesterday, where an appeals court overturned a taking for the benefit of Columbia University.

Reports the New York Times:

A New York appeals court ruled Thursday that the state could not use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University to obtain parts of a 17-acre site in Upper Manhattan, setting back plans for a satellite campus at a time of discord over government power to acquire property.

In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.

The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the “scheme was hatched,” using terms like “sophistry” and “idiocy” in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.

The $6.3 billion expansion plan is not dead; an appeal has been promised, and Columbia still controls most of the land. But at a time when the government’s use of eminent domain on behalf of private interests has become increasingly controversial, the ruling was a boon for opponents.

“I feel unbelievable,” said Nicholas Sprayregen, the owner of several self-storage warehouses in the Manhattanville expansion area and one of two property owners who have refused to sell to the university. “I was always cautiously optimistic. But I was aware we were going against 50 years of unfair cases against property owners.”

New York state is not a particularly friendly venue to property rights, but the judges rightly saw through the claims made by state official to justify seizing property from a private person for the benefit of a private organization.  The ruling could be reversed, but nevertheless is an important affirmation that property rights warrant constitutional and legal protection even in New York.

Stifling Innovation by Subsidizing It

In 2007, the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program was created in the Department of Energy to support the development of advanced (i.e., “green”) technology vehicles. Last year Congress appropriated $7.5 billion to support a maximum of $25 billion in loans. So far, the subsidies have been dished out to Ford ($5.9 billion), Nissan ($1.6 billion), Tesla Motors ($465 million), and Fisker Automotive ($528 million).

Darryl Siry, a former official at Tesla, has written a piece for Wired that illuminates a fundamental problem with the government trying to pick winners and losers in the marketplace:

To the recipients the support is a vital and welcome boost. But this massive government intervention in private capital markets may have the unintended consequence of stifling innovation by reducing the flow of private capital into ventures that are not anointed by the DOE.

Private investors, such as venture capitalists, make investments based on perceived risk and expected financial returns. Companies with government backing are more attractive to investors because government support “amounts to free leverage for the venture capitalist’s bet” given that “the upside is multiplied and the downside remains the same since the most the equity investor can lose is the original investment.”

According to Siry:

The proposition is so irresistible that any reasonable person would prefer to back a company that has received a DOE loan or grant than a company that has not. It is this distortion of the market for private capital that will have a stifling effect on innovation, as private capital chases fewer deals and companies that do not have government backing have a harder time attracting private capital. This doesn’t mean deals won’t get done outside of the energy department’s umbrella, but it means fewer deals will be done and at worse terms.

Siry concludes that a solution to avoiding these market distortions would be to “cast the net more broadly” by giving subsidies to more companies. That’s where I part ways with his analysis. The real solution is to get the Department of Energy out of the subsidy business – and energy markets – altogether.

Iranian Thugs Take Crackdown Worldwide

Political repression is old news.   Thuggish regimes have been holding their citizens prisoner for centuries.  But Iran’s government now is borrowing an innovative Soviet and Nazi tactic:  targeting family members of dissenters, even those living in the U.S.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn’t stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.

Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.

“When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke,” said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.

Tehran’s leadership faces its biggest crisis since it first came to power in 1979, as Iranians at home and abroad attack its legitimacy in the wake of June’s allegedly rigged presidential vote. An opposition effort, the “Green Movement,” is gaining a global following of regular Iranians who say they never previously considered themselves activists.

The regime has been cracking down hard at home. And now, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows, it is extending that crackdown to Iranians abroad as well.

In recent months, Iran has been conducting a campaign of harassing and intimidating members of its diaspora world-wide – not just prominent dissidents – who criticize the regime, according to former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran’s elite security force, the Revolutionary Guard, with knowledge of the program.

Unfortunately, there is little the West can do.  Despite the seemingly common belief in hawkish circles that Washington merely need speak the word and other nations will obey,  there is no magic wand that President Obama can wave to democratize Iran.  And refusing to engage Iran over its nuclear program would do nothing to aid human rights activists while losing the admittedly faint hope of resolving the issue diplomatically.

However, there is reason for hope.  The crackdown bespeaks desperation.  The militarized regime continues to lose credibility, including religious backing.  Reports the New York Times:

Iran’s most senior cleric denounced the role of the volunteer militia force known as the Basij in the crackdown against protesters, saying the force’s actions were against religion and “in the path of Satan.”

The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, condemned the force in a statement posted on an opposition Web site, mowjcamp.com, decreeing that “the assailants have acted against religion and must pay blood money” to those who were wounded or to their families.

Ultimately, the Iranian people can count only on themselves to achieve freedom.  But people of good will around the world should offer their support in the continuing battle against tyranny.