Topic: Political Philosophy

A Brave Heart for Atlas Shrugged

Randall Wallace’s script for the movie Atlas Shrugged is 129 pages long, according to an interview in Script magazine. That seems pretty short for such a massive novel. According to one TV critic, “On a two-hour movie, the average screenplay runs 120 pages. Maybe 125. For ‘A Few Good Men,’ [the famously dialogue-heavy] Aaron Sorkin’s weighed in at 149. For ‘Schindler’s List,’ on which he did a final ‘dialogue polish’: 183 pages.” I don’t think they’re going to include John Galt’s Speech.

Wallace says he has finished the screenplay, and it’s been “greenlit” by the studio. Angelina Jolie has been signed to play Dagny Taggart, and the movie may be in theaters next summer.

Wallace was nominated for an Oscar for his script for Braveheart, another movie popular with many libertarians. He first read the novel when his son at Duke University recommended it. Wallace gave his son C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which suggests some interesting dinner-table conversations. (He’s also writing a screenplay for Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.)

Wallace found a familiar theme in Atlas Shrugged:

The assertion that change occurs when heroic individuals are willing to stand up–and further, that people in the herd want to be heroic individuals but aren’t encouraged to do so until they find a leader worth following–is very much in Braveheart, and it’s something thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche.

Wallace himself does not claim to be an Objectivist or a libertarian. He seems to be more enamored with the idea of great ideas than with the ideas themselves. And many fans of Atlas Shrugged are going to be skeptical that you can capture its essence in two hours. But I think Wallace is correct to say that a movie is not a book on screen. It has to be a creative work in its own medium. If it works well, it will introduce the ideas and the book to millions of new readers.

Wallace may direct the movie as well. The New York Times tells the story of the 35-year struggle to bring Atlas Shrugged to the big screen, with key roles played by Godfather producer Albert Ruddy and Objectivist businessman John Aglialoro. Script magazine is here, but the Wallace interview is not online.

What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal? The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader?)

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening – nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts – but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

McCain says GOP is Corrupt

Last night in the Republican presidential debate, Sen. John McCain said, in response to Mitt Romney’s criticism of McCain-Feingold:  ”Is there anyone who believes there’s not enough money washing around money in politics, which has corrupted our own party?

His “we have enough money in politics” argument has become a standard defense of McCain-Feingold. The idea here is that while McCain-Feingold may have restricted spending on politics, there is still “enough” money in politics. But McCain characteristically misses the point. In a free society, the question is not whether citizens collectively produce “enough” spending on politics. It is rather whether they are free to spend on politics as they wish. McCain-Feingold abridged political liberties even if Sen. McCain believes we have “enough” political speech left over. 

McCain’s charge that the GOP is corrupt also recalls the debates surrounding McCain-Feingold. The Senator then charged the entire Senate with corruption, but when Sen. McConnell challenged him to name a single corrupt individual, he could not. Now McCain thinks the GOP itself was corrupted by money in politics. That seems like a strange way to appeal for the votes of active Republicans. But Sen. McCain should be required to say exactly how campaign finance corrupted the entire Republican party.  

Lobbying Reform Reformed

The Politico offers an article about House Democrats and their effort to legislate about lobbying. The Senate passed a lobbying bill in January.

The road to the Senate bill included a struggle over the disclosure of funding for grassroots lobbying. Groups like the National Rifle Association or the National Right to Life Committee sometimes pay firms to communicate with citizens and urge them to contact their members of Congress on issues of concern to the group. The usual “reform groups” wanted the Senate to force disclosure of the sums spent mobilizing public opinion in this way. The Senate left disclosure out of their bill.

The effort to mandate disclosure resumed when the House took up lobbying reform. We held a forum on the topic that can be seen here. It now appears that the mandated disclosure will not appear in House version of the bill though it may be offered as an amendment.

The grassroots lobbying disclosure effort looked a lot like normal politics. The new majorities in Congress were (on the whole) Democratic and liberal, the groups that would be forced to disclosure their political activities were (on the whole) Republican and conservative. The new powers-that-be were apparently looking at ways to harass and perhaps discourage speech they did not like. As I said, normal politics.

Why has mandated disclosure apparently failed? A leader of one of the targeted groups told me that she hoped Speaker Pelosi would include the mandate in the lobbying reform bill. This leader believed the Speaker and her party would end up with a political black eye from the fight. Perhaps Speaker Pelosi agreed in the end.

For now, at least.

Barney Frank, the Occasional Libertarian

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, gave a resoundingly libertarian interview to NPR’s “All Things Considered” Friday evening. Frank has introduced a bill to repeal last year’s ban on online gambling. As he did in this 2003 Cato Policy Forum, he made his argument in libertarian terms. From the Nexis transcript:

ROBERT SIEGEL: First of all, what is your motive here? Is it libertarian? Is it to achieve more revenues for the government by taxing activity? What is it?

Rep. FRANK: It’s libertarian. I am appalled at the notion that the government tells adults that they cannot do certain things with their own money on their own time in ways that do not harm anybody else because other people disapproved of them. …

But my motive is overwhelmingly that I just don’t want to see the government telling people what to do….

SIEGEL: How much money would taxing Internet gambling bring in to the federal government?

Rep. FRANK: Well, in the bill I am - not a lot - I really want to make it very clear, that’s not my major focal point here. Potentially this could be a useful source of revenue just like any other business. But I do want to stress, my main motivation here is that I do think I should mind my own business and I want to deal with the environment, and I want to deal with economic problems, and I want to deal with poverty and all these other things. But I spend a lot of energy trying to protect people from other people. I have none left for protecting people from themselves.

In between those segments, Frank said that we allow lots of things over the Internet–like wine sales–that are appropriate for adults but not for children. And he said that conservatives want to ban things they think are immoral, and liberals want to ban things they think are “just tacky.”

It’s good to hear an elected official use the word libertarian, and use it correctly, and apply it to issues. Would that more of his colleagues would do so. I’m reminded that seven years ago I did a libertarian rating of Congress. Frank did better than most Democrats, and indeed better than most Republicans (including 7 of the 11 members of the Republican Liberty Caucus Advisory Board). But he voted to restrict steel imports, restrict gun sales and gun shows, and implement the restrictive “Know Your Customer” bank regulations, and he opposed a tax cut. So his commitment to not telling what people to do with their own lives and their own money seems limited.

This year, as Financial Services chairman, he’s demonstrating his interventionist tendencies as well as his sometime libertarian instincts. He wants to push all workers into government health care, to regulate corporate decisions about executive compensation, to put more obstacles in the way of free trade across national borders, to keep Wal-Mart from creating an internal bank clearinghouse to hold down its costs. Not to mention expanding anti-discrimination rules to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Frank told another journalist:

“In a number of areas, I am a libertarian,” Frank said. “I think that John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a great statement, and I was just rereading it.

“I believe that people should be allowed to read and gamble and ride motorcycles and do a lot of things that other people might not want to let them do.”

Would that the Republicans who once took Congress on the promise of “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money” also reread (or read) “On Liberty” and take its message to heart. And would that Barney Frank come to realize that adults should also be free to spend the money they earn as they choose and to decide what contracts, with foreign businesses or local job applicants, they will enter into.

Libertarian Radicals

At the new Encyclopedia Britannica blog I ask whether Brian Doherty, in his Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, can have it both ways:

Doherty makes two claims about libertarianism that may seem to be in tension: First, as the title proclaims:”The most significant thing about libertarianism, the element that distinguishes its unique place in modern American thought, is that it is radical. It takes insights about justice and order and the fight between liberty and power farther and deeper than most standard American liberals, patriots, or Jeffersonians.”

But he also says:

“Libertarians can believe, with some justification, that we are in some sense already living in their world….We are not living in Karl Marx’s world….We live in a world energized and shaped by the beliefs of Marx’s political-economic rivals and enemies–the classical liberals, the thinkers who believed a harmony of interests is manifest in unrestricted markets, that free trade can prevent war and make us all richer, that decentralized private property ownership helps create a spontaneous order of rich variety.”

I think he can. And while you’re at the Britannica site, check out my entry on libertarianism.

If Inequality Is Okay, Let’s Redistribute Anyway

In an outstanding post, Alex Tabarrok explains how the changing economic and technological conditions that helped Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling become a billionaire lead to inequality without apparent injustice.

Matthew Yglesias’s reply puzzled me:

Insofar as this is a large part of the inequality story, it does tend to undercut highly moralized objections to the right [to be] so darn rich. Rowling isn’t doing anything wrong to get so rich. But on the other hand, insofar as this story is right, it also seems to me that the primary pragmatic worries one might have about pro-equality measures likewise tend to melt away. If the very best in a range of fields are just bound to reap enormous windfall earnings under current technological conditions then it seems unlikely that tax measures aimed at limiting the size of those windfalls would significantly deter anyone from doing their work. One doubts Rowling set about down this path because she thought it stood any reasonable chance of making her a billionaire.

I am confused. If Alex’s account “tends to undercut” the moralized objection to wealth inequality generated by superstar effects, then it also tends to undercut a large part of the motivation for wealth-equalizing confiscation and redistribution, namely, so-called “distributive justice.” Despite his misguided insistence in referring to a sum created by millions of voluntary acts of exchange as a “windfall,” Matt has, it seems, conceded that Rowling’s riches have been justly earned–that the process by which all this money got “distributed” to her is fair. So there is no question of exploitation, injustice, cause for redress, etc. Nevertheless, Matt would like us to know that should political elites decide to confiscate a good portion of Rowling’s fortune anyway, despite the fact that she owns it justly, this policy may not actually be self-undermining in the long run. But then, what is the point of this kind of “pro-equality” redistribution once it is agreed that there was no moral objection to the prior distribution? I’m sure Matt has something in mind, and I hope he’ll share it.

In any case, regarding the “pragmatic” case for taxing superstars, in The Winner Takes-All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that huge payouts for superstars induce inefficient overinvestment in their fields. The point of taxing superstars, on this account, is precisely to limit entry into superstar fields and to channel human capital investment that will otherwise be wasted in the largely futile attempt to become NBA players or Hollywood screen legends into more socially productive uses. Frank and Cook acknowledge that this may result in a reduced supply of excellence in certain fields, but argue that this loss is more than offset by more mundane economic gains from increased efficiency in the allocation of skills to people. Even if we don’t get the best rock stars, we’ll still have good rock stars, and we’ll have fewer people wasting productive years trying to be rock stars. And lower levels of inequality!

Now, I don’t know about Rowling’s motivations in particular, but Frank and Cook’s argument – the most sophisticated case I’m aware of for raising taxing on superstars – seems to me to undercut Matt’s general point. If Matt would like to change his argument to “Sure, by sticking it to big-money authors we might not have gotten Harry Potter, but we would have gotten offsetting returns from increased output among schoolteachers and lawyers, and a decrease in inequality,” then I’ll be happy to argue against that instead. As it stands, his current argument seems wrong both as a matter of morality and a matter of pragmatism.