Tag: libertarianism

Ayn Rand Is In

Who would have thought? The Washington Post, which took two months to run a review of the two important new books about Ayn Rand that were published in October, now declares Ayn Rand to be “In” for 2010. Well, technically, in the paper’s annual New Year’s Day Out/In list, it declares “Twihards” (fans of the Twilight series, I take it) to be Out and “Randroids” to be In. But the splashy display in the print paper illustrates “Randroids” with a classic photo of Ayn Rand, the one that graces the cover of Barbara Branden’s biography The Passion of Ayn Rand.

Rand had a pretty good 2009, so it’s impressive that the Post thinks she’ll be bigger in 2010. 

While the renewed interest in Rand has been noticed everywhere from the Times Higher Education Supplement to the Wall Street Journal to the left-wing Campus Progress, William Kristol apparently missed it entirely. He wrote on December 29 about the revival of conservatism in response to the challenge of the Obama administration.

Of course, as conservatives, we also know many of the very best ideas are old ideas. And I’m struck by how many people are rediscovering Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit,” Irving Kristol’s “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” or Tocqueville’s account of soft despotism in “Democracy in America.”

There are great ideas to be found in that list of books. But as everyone but Kristol has noticed, the author who’s really being rediscovered in this first 18 months or so of financial crisis and government expansion is Ayn Rand. Consider the sales figures for the different books. In 2009 about 2000 copies of The Fatal Conceit were sold. (Kristol should have cited The Road to Serfdom, which sold 21,000, more than double its sales the year before and about six times its sales in 2007, before the financial crisis began.) About 20,000 copies of various editions of Democracy in America. And 300,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged, along with 95,000 copies of The Fountainhead and even 60,000 copies of Anthem. (Two Cheers for Capitalism is out of print, so its rediscoveries can’t be tracked by BookScan.) It’s clearly Ayn Rand who has gotten the most help from the Bush-Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke-Obama-Geithner-Bernanke policies of the past 18 months.

Note: In addition to the new books on Rand from two of the world’s greatest publishers, the revitalized Laissez Faire Books has just published, for the first time in book form, the lectures on Ayn Rand’s philosophy that Nathaniel Branden gave back in the 1960s. Known then as “The Basic Principles of Objectivism,” now published as The Vision of Ayn Rand, these lectures were instrumental in tying Rand’s fiction to philosophy, politics, and economics, and in creating one of the first organized libertarian movements. As I said in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand’s subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn’t change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may – and should – debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn’t that a time!

Neocons, Progressives, and the Impulse to Bully

Bart Hinkle makes some interesting observations in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the unfortunate similarities between neoconservatives and progressives. Progressives, he says (and of course they’re not really for progress, so they might better be called left-liberals), spent the Bush years criticizing “bullying,” “heavy-handed meddling,” and even “neoconservative theories of social engineering.” They preferred “soft power.”

Yet turn the subject to domestic policy, and what happens? Progressives eagerly embrace the use of coercive hard power to achieve their aims. Force industry to adopt a cumbersome cap-and-trade policy to reduce carbon emissions? Check. Force the country to adopt a health care “public option”? Check. Threaten people with fines and even prison to impose an individual mandate? Check.

So much for the concern about “social engineering” and well-intentioned but “heavy-handed meddling.” When it comes to domestic policy, progressives are just as eager as neocons are to embrace “expansive dreams” and “gargantuan plans.” Just as hopelessly romantic about what the threat of force can achieve. And just as arrogant about the rightness of wielding it.

After some more critical analysis of the inconsistency of the left, Hinkle concludes:

Of course, everything that has just been said about progressives could be turned with equal validity against conservatives of the talk-radio right – many of whom think Americans should push the rest of the world around, but leave one another the heck alone.

If only there were an alternative to heavy-handed liberals and heavy-handed conservatives…

Market Liberalism at the Washington Post

Three years ago a Washington Post editorial conceded: “Sometimes libertarians deserve to win an argument.”

“Gee, thanks,” I wrote at the time. ”I’m glad libertarian arguments against over-regulation made sense to the editorial writer in this case. But I’m disappointed in the suggestion that this is a rare occasion.” After all, libertarians and Post editorial writers no doubt agree on a lot of basic principles – private property, markets, the rule of law, limited constitutional government, religious toleration, equality under the law, a society based on merit and contract not status, free speech, free trade, individual rights, peace – though of course we disagree a lot over just how closely public policy should adhere to such principles.

And indeed, the three editorials in Sunday’s Post demonstrate some of the market-liberal values that libertarians and Post editorial writers share. A strikingly good lead editorial, “Redefining human rights,” raps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for saying that the Obama administration would “see human rights in a broad context,” in which “oppression of want – want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact” – would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. “That is why,” Ms. Clinton said, “the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda” would be “supporting democracy” and “fostering development.” The Post sternly warns:

This is indeed an important change in U.S. human rights policy – but the idea behind it is pure 20th century. Ms. Clinton’s lumping of economic and social “rights” with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked. In fact, as U.S. diplomats used to tirelessly respond, rights of liberty – for free expression and religion, for example – are unique in that they are both natural and universal; they will exist so long as governments do not suppress them. Health care, shelter and education are desirable social services, but they depend on resources that governments may or may not possess. These are fundamentally different goods, and one cannot substitute for another.

Precisely (though we probably disagree about whether it is desirable for such services to be provided by government)! A second editorial deplores flaws in the criminal justice system that continue to send innocent people to jail, including two men who were released this month after spending more than 25 years in prison. It’s a topic that Cato media fellow Radley Balko has been covering regularly. And finally, an editorial on the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust case against chipmaker Intel. The Post is by no means as critical of antitrust law as libertarians often are, but it does warn that “the agency’s actions are aggressive and potentially worrisome.” And it concludes, more cautiously than I would, but still by noting that consumers have been prospering during this alleged anti-consumer behavior:

The chip market is highly concentrated, and Intel has long been the dominant force. Yet year after year, consumers have benefited from more powerful and cheaper computers. The FTC is right to keep a close eye on the industry and on Intel, in particular, but it must use its power wisely and with restraint. 

As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote,” the United States is “a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes.” Despite all the assaults on liberty of the past decade, that’s a point that politicians and pundits should keep in mind. And editorials like these remind us that the ideas of individual rights, the rule of law, and competitive markets are still widely held.

Rick Santorum and Limited Government?

santorumScary news today from Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker: despite losing his reelection bid in 2006, former senator Rick Santorum is still thinking about running for president. He tells Parker that he represents the Ronald Reagan issue trinity: the economy, national security and social conservatism. And he’s the limited-government guy:

Both pro-life and pro-traditional family, Santorum is an irritant to many. But he insists that such labels oversimplify. Being pro-life and pro-family ultimately mean being pro-limited government.

When you have strong families and respect for life, he says, “the requirements of government are less. You can have lower taxes and limited government.”

But Santorum is no Reaganite when it comes to freedom and limited government. He told NPR in 2005:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.” Andrew Sullivan directed our attention to a television interview in which the senator from the home state of Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson denounced America’s Founding idea of “the pursuit of happiness.” If you watch the video, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

Parker says that Santorum is “sometimes referred to as the conscience of Senate Republicans.” Really? By whom? Surely not by Reaganites, or by people who believe in limited government.

Palmer and Cowen on the Nature of Liberty

Two leading libertarian thinkers, Tom Palmer and Tyler Cowen, discussed Palmer’s new book, Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice, at a recent Cato Book Forum. You can see the video or download a podcast here.

Two years ago, Cowen and Palmer were among the contributors to a Cato Unbound colloquy on the past and future of libertarianism. Cowen was interviewed for Cato’s Daily Podcast and expressed a more critical view of the concept of “negative liberties” than classical liberals typically do. A few days later, in another Daily Podcast, Palmer took on what he considers the coercive confusions of “positive liberty” and defended the necessity of “negative liberty” to a free society.

Listen to them both and buy the book.

Update: Here’s a portion of Palmer’s talk that focuses on the rule of law:

Palmer and Cowen on Libertarianism

On Tuesday I hosted a Book Forum for Tom Palmer’s new book, Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice. You can see the video here. I thought Tyler Cowen’s comments were very astute, so I reproduce an abridged version here:

The first question is, “What do I, as a reader, see as the essential unity or unities in the book?” And I see really two. The first is I see this as a construction and articulation of a vision of what I call reasonable libertarianism. I think we’re in a world right now that is growing very partisan and very rabid, and a lot of things which are called libertarian in the Libertarian Party, or what you might call the Lew Rockwell / Ron Paul camp, are to my eye not exactly where libertarianism should be, and I think Tom has been a very brave and articulate advocate of a reasonable libertarianism. And if I ask myself, “Does the book succeed in this endeavor?” I would say, “Yes.”

The second unity in the book, I think, has to do with the last thirty years of world history. I know in the United States now there is less liberty. But overall, the world as a whole, over the last thirty years, has seen more movement towards more liberty than perhaps in any other period of human history. And I suspect most of these movements toward liberty will last. So there have been these movements towards liberty, and they have been motivated, in part, by ideas. The question arises, which are the ideas that have been the important ones for this last thirty years? And I view Tom’s book, whether he intended it as such or not, as a kind of guide to which have been the important ideas driving the last thirty years. And a lot of the book goes back into history pretty far – the eighteenth century, the Levellers, debates over natural rights – and I think precisely because it takes this broader perspective it is one of the best guides – maybe the best guide – to what have been the most important ideas driving the last thirty years (as opposed to the misleading ideas or the dead-end ideas). So that’s my take on the essential unities.

Another question you might ask about a collection of essays is, “Which of them did I like best?” I thought about this for a while, and I have two nominations. The first one is “Twenty Myths about Markets,” which is the essay on economics. I don’t know any piece by an economist that does such a good job of poking holes in a lot of economic fallacies and just laying out what you hear so often. You would think an economist would have written this long ago, but to the best of my knowledge, not.

The other favorite little piece of mine is called “Six Facts about Iraq,” which  explains from Tom’s point of view – and Tom has been there a number of times – what’s going on in Iraq and why. It is only a few pages long, but I felt that I got a better sense of Iraq reading this short piece than almost anything else I’ve come across.

I’m not sure exactly what’s the common element between the two I liked best – they both start with a number – but I think the ones I liked best reminded me the most of Tom when he is talking. I had the sense of Tom being locked in a room, and forced to address a question, and not being allowed to leave until he had given his bottom line approach. And I think what he’s very good at through out the book is just getting directly to the point.

There’s more to Tyler’s comments, and lots more from both of them in response to questions, so check out the video.

SandelTV on Libertarianism

An episode of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s fantastic television series Justice takes up libertarian political philosophy.  Now, up front: this series is a minor miracle and, if this were a classical philosophy thought experiment, I’d trade all my cherished original comic pages to see this show supplant Dancing with the Stars in the Zeitgeist. Sandel gives as reasonably sympathetic a summary of the libertarian view of rights as anyone could expect in the time he’s got.  But you also end up watching long stretches and thinking: Yes, great, an A-list Harvard philosopher can smack around undergraduates with inchoate libertarian instincts; good for him. Even this spectacularly thoughtful forum is not really capable of giving the competing ideas under discussion a suitably thorough airing.  This is not—God forbid—another tedious kvetch about either media or academic bias, as Sandel is clearly trying to give a philosophy with which he’s out of sympathy equal time.  But it does suggest a reason to open-source the conversation.  Anyone want to take up particular points on YouTube?  Ping me on Twitter as @normative; at my obnoxious sole discretion, I’ll circulate the strong ones.