Tag: william kristol

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!

Obama, American Nationalism, and the Weird Anti-Materialism of the Foreign Policy Elite

Matt Yglesias puts down the bloody shirt long enough to make the modest-on-its-face claim that “actions, not words, will clarify Obama’s foreign policy.”  I don’t think that’s quite right.

obamaIn one sense, of course, it is.  For the bean counters among us, the outcomes are the real metric: whether the United States remains the sole superpower on the planet; whether a diplomatic resolution can be reached with Iran; whether Obama can (assuming he has has any intention to) get our military out of Iraq; whether his spun-like-cotton-candy Afghanistan policy can stabilize that sorry land – these are the things we’ll be looking at.

But the more important thing in the short term for Obama is probably to slake the nearly-unquenchable thirst of the David Brookses of the world – and probably the American people – to have their identities stroked.  To take the most recent example, Brooks, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and the Foreign Policy Elite of whom they are avatars were in desperate need of a cold shower and a trip to the nearest confessional after Obama indulged them by unsheathing the Mighty and Awesome Totem of American nationalism – before a crowd of peacey Norwegians no less.   To take another example, witness the veritable panic, the hysterical and fluttering response to the imaginary Obama “apology tour” that didn’t exist and had no affect on anything in any event.

Indeed the Foreign Policy Elite is so captivated by the rhetoric, imagery, and perhaps most importantly the identity surrounding U.S. foreign policy it hardly has time to think seriously about the material realities.  There are of course examples where analysts simply misrepresent material reality – witness this ridiculous characterization of Obama’s boost in defense spending as an “assault” on the defense budget – but in general the foreign policy commentariat seems more interested in how American power makes them feel than it is on the outcomes it produces.  And witness the frenzy over the Oslo speech, the “apology tour” claptrap, or the whining about Obama’s restraint from calling on the Iranian people to start a revolution.

Charles Krauthammer, in a recent essay, went so far in the anti-materialist direction to claim that “decline is a choice.”  “Decline – or continued ascendancy – is in our hands.”   Of course, it isn’t always a choice, says Krauthammer.  The British had it coming, for example, but the crucial factors in Krauthammer’s telling weren’t imperial overextension and the relative waning of its latent power but rather “the civilizational suicide that was the two world wars, and the consequent physical and psychological exhaustion.”  Thus, nations decline in large part because of sapped will – perhaps this would be the foreign policy equivalent of the “mental recession” we heard about a year ago.  If this is right, keeping a careful eye on will-sapping things is more than a parlor game.

But of course Krauthammer’s charge that Obama is willfully precipitating American decline cannot be substantiated by reference to material factors, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that he takes aim primarily at Obama’s “demolition of the moral foundations of American dominance.”  Krauthammer’s central piece of evidence is telling:

In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.

Reading this, I was reminded of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s observation that

Ideally those responsible for international affairs ought to be able to understand and moderate the holy nationalism of their own country and to discern, even when disguised, the operations and limits of holy nationalism in rival countries as well as in third-party countries.

Unfortunately this may be too much to hope for.  There are serious cognitive difficulties involved.  Any nationalism inherently finds it hard to understand any other nationalism or even to want to understand it.  This is particularly true of holy nationalism.  Rejection of the other is part of the holiness.

All of this is enough to make you wonder then – if Obama wanted to, could he just keep the opinion columnists – and the American people – happy with a regular genuflection at the altar of American nationalism rather than by providing them with actual wars and actual crusading?  Would he if he could?

Gallup’s Conservatives and Libertarians

In today’s Washington Post, William Kristol exults:

The Gallup poll released Monday shows the public’s conservatism at a high-water mark. Some 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared with 36 percent who self-describe as moderates and 20 percent as liberals.

Gallup often asks people how they describe themselves. But sometimes they classify people according to the values they express. And when they do that, they find a healthy percentage of libertarians, as well as an unfortunate number of big-government “populists.”

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:

  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

Combining the responses to those two questions, Gallup found the ideological breakdown of the public shown below. With these two broad questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian.

libertarianchart

The word “libertarian” isn’t well known, so pollsters don’t find many people claiming to be libertarian. And usually they don’t ask. But a large portion of Americans hold generally libertarian views – views that might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, or as Gov. William Weld told the 1992 Republican National Convention, “I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom.” They don’t fit the red-blue paradigm, and they have their doubts about both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. They’re potentially a swing vote in elections. Background on the libertarian vote here.

And note here: If you tell people that “libertarian” means “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” 44 percent will accept the label.