Category Archive: Philosophers
Comments Off on Most social scientists can’t predict the future. But this philosopher did.
When social scientists predict the future, they almost always get it wrong. Human behavior and social phenomena are just too complex to be predictable. But Alexis de Tocqueville was, to some degree, an exception. Besides being a great political philosopher, he was also a political prophet.
Discussions of Tocqueville’s prophetic prowess usually begin with his remarkable prediction in Democracy in America, more than 100 years before the Cold War, that “there are two great peoples on the earth today who, starting from different points, seem to advance toward the same goal: these are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.… each of them seems called by a secret design of Providence to hold the destinies of half the world in its hands one day.” Though the Cold War is over, continuing tensions between Russia and the United States show that Tocqueville’s prediction remains all-too-relevant.
What allowed Tocqueville to make such an impressive prediction, given that predicting social phenomena is notoriously difficult? An answer to this question may be in view if we consider a less well-known prediction that Tocqueville recorded in his Recollections.
The “Gloomy Prediction” of 1848
Tocqueville served as a legislator in France’s Chamber of Deputies prior to the Revolution of 1848. From this post, he observed an ominous decline in public morality and a corresponding increase in the number of fellow legislators who cared only to enjoy the emoluments of public office. From this, he concluded that “the time will come when the country will find itself once again divided between two great parties.”
He told his colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies that another revolution was brewing. What’s more, he said that they would be to blame if it happened. In an uncommonly courageous speech in the chamber on January 29, 1848, Tocqueville explained that the first, great French Revolution of 1789 happened fundamentally because France’s political leaders had become unworthy of holding power, and the leaders of 1848 were at risk of allowing another revolution to happen because they, too, were unworthy of their office.
On the one hand, the “public morality” of the French people had declined such that a severe bias against private property was now common. Later, when the revolution got underway, these embers of bias would be fanned into flames by socialist ideologues who took advantage of the growing envy of the masses. On the other hand, French politicians ignored this growing antipathy to private property and instead selfishly enjoyed the posh benefits of public office.
Tocqueville presented them with a clear warning: “My firm and profound conviction is this: that public morality is being degraded, and that the degradation of public morality will shortly, very shortly perhaps, bring down upon you new revolutions.… Will you allow it to take you by surprise?”
He called for the Chamber of Deputies to take action before a new revolution was upon them. But rather than taking preventative action, the legislators offered only platitudinous applause: “These gloomy predictions were received with ironical cheers from the majority.… The truth is that no one as yet believed seriously in the danger which I was prophesying, although we were so near the catastrophe.” The assembly did nothing. One legislator in the assembly remarked privately after Tocqueville’s speech that he was “a nasty little man” for trying to frighten the assembly with his disrespectful rhetoric.
Tocqueville as Political Prophet
Tocqueville was, of course, correct in his prediction. 1848 was the year of revolution in Europe, and about a month after Tocqueville’s speech, revolution came to France. To Tocqueville’s reputation as a great writer was added a reputation for political prognostication.
What allowed him to be, as he called himself, a “political prophet”? The answer seems to lie in the most distinctive feature of Tocqueville’s political philosophy: his emphasis on the habits of the mind and heart of a culture. By observing the “morals and opinions” of the French people of 1848, he was able to sense the drift of the country’s political life. As he said to his colleagues in his speech of January 1848, even though there were no tangible signs of revolution or riots, the spirit of revolution had “entered deeply into men’s minds.” The French people were “gradually forming opinions and ideas which are destined not only to upset this or that law, ministry, or even form of government but society itself.”
An Invitation to Consider Tocqueville’s Thought
There is a habit of dismissing Tocqueville’s wisdom as a political philosopher and poo-pooing his predictions as being unimpressive or wrong. But one wonders if this habit stems in part from a distaste for the gloominess of some of Tocqueville’s ideas, not unlike the distaste for Tocqueville’s gloomy prediction in the Chamber of Deputies.
The late 19th-century historian James Bryce, for example, asserted that Tocqueville’s “descriptions of democracy as displayed in America” were “no longer true” and in fact, in some respects, “they were never true.” Bryce regarded one of Tocqueville’s incorrect observations to be the threat of majority tyranny, which, he incorrectly said, “does not strike one as a serious evil in … America.” Theodore Roosevelt later cited Bryce approvingly on this topic, saying that Tocqueville’s warning about majority tyranny “may have been true then, although certainly not to the degree he insisted, but it is not true now.”
Tocqueville’s predictions should provoke us to consider his writing further. Yet the reader of his works needs to consider the possibility that Tocqueville may at times be right when we do not want him to be. Even Tocqueville himself seems to have a hard time believing his own prediction of the Revolution of 1848, but eventually the evidence drove him to deliver his warning to the Chamber of Deputies.
If the dangers to democracy that Tocqueville writes about are true, the natural response ought not to be to ignore them but instead to study them and to be wiser for it.
 See, for example, Joseph Epstein, Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (Eminent Lives, 2006), 4–5.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 395–396.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville (The Harvill Press, 1948), 10-14; ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 10.
 For more historical context surrounding this prediction, see Epstein, Tocqueville, chap. 8, and Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006), chap. 17.
 Tocqueville, Recollections, 67–69, 79–85.
 Ibid., 14.
 Epstein, Democracy’s Guide, 125.
 Tocqueville, Recollections, 16.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 12.
 James Bryce, The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1887).
 Theodore Roosevelt, “Introduction,” in Majority Rule and the Judiciary: An Examination of Current Proposals for Constitutional Change Affecting the Reflections of Courts to Legislation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 21-22.
 Tocqueville, Recollections, 16.
Comments Off on The king is dead, long live chaos! Why Hobbes was wrong and Burke was right.
The 17th and 18th centuries marked a turning point in Atlantic history that caused the Western world to move from governments run by absolute monarchs to governments run by and for the people. During the early modern period and the Enlightenment, many theorists attempted to undermine the belief that kings had the same power as parents had over their children, giving them an absolute right to absolute power. Two early and notable theorists, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, developed an ahistorical state of nature to demonstrate that God created equality among men at the beginning and that only through a social contract can anyone obtain a legitimate reason to rule.
Hobbes, Locke, and the Social Contract
Hobbes stripped inequality down to its most brutish element: strength. While some leaders would make a claim to rule based on superior strength, Hobbes declared that a weaker person could simply attack the stronger one while he slept, or band together with others to overcome him. Might did not justify inequality.
To create a reason to initiate a society, he painted a picture of the state of nature that would cause anyone to flee from it. Hobbes claimed that “the life of man [was] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” To express their equality, people could decide to form a society. Once they agreed, however, they lived under an absolute sovereign.
Not satisfied with this result, John Locke took up the task of eliminating the absolutism associated with the Hobbesian social contract by portraying a softer, gentler state of nature — but one carefully constructed to remain unappealing. According to Locke, people in the state of nature enjoyed equality because all “creatures of the same species and rank” have reciprocal “power and jurisdiction.”
Despite the easier life in the Lockean state of nature, people had trouble enforcing rules, which allowed bad actors to steal from others. These bad actors could not be held accountable for lack of an objective arbiter, since “power and jurisdiction” are “reciprocal.” Thus, the desire to create a system with enforceable rules causes individuals to form a social contract and create a society. Locke’s system involved direct democracy at the creation of society: all people have to consent to enter into society.
A Problematic One-Size-Fits-All Theory of Government
The concepts of the state of nature as the birthplace of equality and the social contract as a means of holding government accountable provided early revolutionaries with the tools to overthrow oppressive kings. These theorists created universal truths applicable to all people in all situations: we’re born free and equal; government exists to protect us; and for Locke, when government doesn’t protect our rights, the people can overthrow it.
With these words, many theorists finished their work and released it into the world. They failed to see the drawbacks of creating a one-size-fits-all model of government. The more moderate classical liberal theorists saw the problem more clearly.
Montesquieu and Edmund Burke saw the application of theoretical models of government to real governments as extremely problematic. According to Montesquieu, laws develop over time in a particular geographic location among a unique group of individuals. If a founder or reformer ignores the historical context of a given society, they do so at their own peril. A successful founding occurs when the legislator considers these elements.
Montesquieu references the Athenian statesman Solon on this point. When others asked if he had given the Athenians the best laws, Solon replied: “I have given them the best laws they could endure.” Montesquieu goes so far as to say that liberalization can have negative effects, just as “pure air is sometimes harmful to those who have lived in swampy countries.”
While Montesquieu wrote before the age of democratic revolutions, he understood that the radical changes proposed by many classical liberal theorists could create a violent reaction among the people, followed by decades of turmoil. His prediction came true in the French Revolution.
Burke similarly emphasized the importance of historical context and the connection between rights and a particular government, eschewing the idea of natural rights. He watched with horror as the French Revolutionaries ate their own and destroyed the complex constitutional system developed over hundreds of years in France.
In Burke’s opinion, the French lacked a respect for history and relied too heavily on ideal theories of democratic governance. The French looked to radical liberal thought, convinced that they need only create the Declaration of the Rights of Man and give it to people all over the country to cause a democratic revolution.
Lacking the knowledge and skills needed to create or run political institutions, a group of lawyers, intellectuals, and journalists called the Girondins, and eventually the Jacobins, known for their extreme egalitarianism and violence, led the country incompetently. The newly formed national government quickly descended into chaos. For Burke, these events showed that the program of radical reform could not be implemented quickly.
Moderation in reform never provides the same fireworks as dramatic and radical reform. Reflecting on regime change over history, the revolutions of the French or the Russians come to mind most readily while the steady reforms of the English Commonwealth rarely come to the fore as a guide for founders and reformers.
Much like the dramatic revolutions, radical theorists like Hobbes and Locke come to mind easily, while moderates like Montesquieu and Burke do not provide easy answers to hard questions about reform. The process of building and changing liberal regimes requires investing in a better understanding of the complicated web of considerations associated with large states. A better understanding of theorists like Montesquieu and Burke will provide better answers, albeit more complicated ones.
Comments Off on Happy birthday to René Descartes, father of methodological skepticism
On March 31, 1596, René Descartes came into the world. Once he entered the intellectual fray, things would never be the same.
Even if you’ve only taken an intro to philosophy course, you probably already have some sense of Descartes’s influence on epistemology and metaphysics. Perhaps his interest for political and moral philosophers isn’t quite as well known, though.
So, let’s celebrate his 421st birthday with a little list of reasons why lovers of liberty should give René another look.
- Freedom from Fortune
We all know that Descartes is famous for his method of doubt, but what that method is, exactly, and what motivates Descartes to develop it can be a bit trickier to untangle. But at least one of Descartes’s claims about the method is clear: it will free us from our dependence on fortune.
Without the method, some people found themselves in possession of the knowledge and experience required to develop an understanding of a particular object, idea, or dynamic … and others didn’t.
With the method, we are no longer subject to contingency in the same way. If we commit ourselves to an inquiry, and if we seriously undertake the work of approaching it systematically, we can be confident that we will make progress. Descartes claims to liberate philosophers from indiscriminate fortune or, in other words, to lay the groundwork for an intellectual meritocracy.
- Freedom of the Will
In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes describes the possibility of avoiding error entirely. His argument rests on the distinctions between understanding, imagination, and will. Imagination concerns mental images, but it is clearly limited. (Just try to form images of a 1000 sided figure and 10,000 sided figure, and see if you can tell the difference between those two images in your head.)
Understanding concerns things that can be rationally apprehended, and Descartes presents it as obviously limited. We can, he says, form the idea of a supremely great and infinite (divine) understanding, and it is immediately clear that human understanding falls far short of it. The will is different, though.
The human will is infinite. It is, he says, in no way inferior to the divine, except insofar as it is constrained by the limits of human imagination and understanding. So, Descartes claims that the way to avoid error is to make sure that the infinite will does not range beyond the boundaries of understanding and imagination.
The implications for this description of the will are, in themselves, fascinating. Human beings have an infinite will, a capacity for freedom of choice that is bounded only by our imagination and our understanding, both of which can be cultivated and expanded. If we are to avoid error, we must rein in the will while we cultivate the understanding and imagination, but as our understanding and imagination grows, so does the scope of our freedom.
Descartes has recontextualized human freedom within completely amoral constraints. If one can understand and/or imagine it, one is free to choose it.
It is easy to make fun of Descartes’s grandiose claim that his method will make us “masters and possessors of nature,” but who can dispute the stunning progress that science and technology has brought to the natural world? We may not be comfortable with mastering and possessing nature, but the obstacles to that today are increasingly more moral than practical.
And, even though contemporary scientific methodology is not exactly Cartesian, it is certainly its heir.
But the ambition to master and possess nature is even less easy to dismiss when we follow the Cartesian turn around to see that it is our own natures that Descartes first helps us to master — our own selves he helps us to possess.
Descartes begins with himself, because self-mastery is the central tenant of any version of his methodology one might discern in his work. And, pushing even more deeply into the preconditions for his project, it is important to note that, for Descartes, such self-determination is possible at all. The claim that we should learn self-mastery is on the surface of Descartes’s writings. The claim that we can is at least as significant, and is fairly easily missed.
But, in the universe of discourse in which Descartes was writing, the claim that human beings could control themselves, direct themselves, perhaps even own (!) themselves was radical, and we should remember to give him credit for that.
- Freedom of Conscience
In his recent book, Cartesian Psychophysics and the Whole Nature of Man, Richard Hassing argues that the psycho-physical model Descartes presents in the Passions of the Soul laid the groundwork for diagnosing and avoiding the errors of judgment that drive men to conduct religious wars.
So, all those arcane arguments about the pineal gland and its function on the frontier of the spiritual and physical substances of human existence also have a moral and therapeutic aim. As we act, the cavities in our brains change shape. And the more we act in a particular way, the more those cavities change to make those actions frictionless and natural.
Put bluntly, Descartes describes an anatomy that makes independent thought possible. And with it, he offers an alternative to those who believe they must defer to the religion of their fathers, even when it drives them to atrocious behavior.
In the Passions, the chief virtue Descartes describes is Generosity, but this is not Aristotle’s virtue of giving and taking. For Descartes, Generosity is esteeming oneself properly and as highly as possible. One enacts generosity when one realizes that the only thing that we truly possess, as human beings, is the free control of our volitions. The only acts for which we genuinely deserve praise or blame are those where we use our free will well or badly.
Deferring to a group rather than acting on one’s own conscience is never praiseworthy for Descartes. And, the more we do the hard work of acting generously — that is, according to a good use of one’s own free will — the more one’s anatomy will be altered to make such choices and actions more natural. Not only can we distance ourselves from groupthink and appeal to our own conscience to guide our actions, virtue requires that we do.
- Individual Liberty (for better or worse)
Alexis de Tocqueville opens the second part of Democracy in America with the claim that “America is one of the countries of the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.” What he says he means by that hilarious claim is that 19th-century Americans share a common philosophical method, even though they don’t know that’s what it is. And, he says, it looks like this:
To escape from the spirit of system, from the yoke of habits, from the maxims of family, from the opinions of class, and, to a certain point, from the prejudices of nation; to take tradition only as information, and present facts only as a useful study for doing otherwise and better; to seek by yourself and in yourself alone the reason for things, to strive toward the result without allowing yourself to be caught up in the means, and to aim for the substance beyond form: such are the principle features that characterize what I will call the philosophical mode of the Americans.
What we are now more apt to call radical individualism was, for Tocqueville, Cartesianism, and it worried him. Tocqueville feared that individualism would isolate Americans from one another spiritually, debase our imaginations and our souls. And, as the American spirit spread throughout the world, so would a leveling effect. First Americans, then all “Americanized” peoples would be rendered unable to appreciate refinement, cultivation, ambition. Our unselfconscious, enthusiastic, and contagious Cartesianism would eventually dumb down the world.
Tocqueville had some interesting ideas for how to combat the creep of “soft despotism” in the face of the inevitable rise of individualism. Lovers of liberty have other responses, both to the statement of the problem and to ideas about the conditions under which genius is incubated. So, those of us who have a different perspective on the meaning of individualism for culture may not walk all the way down that road with Tocqueville, but we probably should have something to say about it. And perhaps we can thank Descartes just as legitimately as Tocqueville sought to blame him.
Comments Off on Elinor Ostrom, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and learning to see the women who have shaped the world
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Most recognizable from bumper stickers and coffee mugs, the phrase has become a pop feminist favorite.
You can buy it engraved on 42 different pieces of jewelry on Etsy — possibly even with attribution to the correct author, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor of history at Harvard University.
Unfortunately, many adopters of the slogan have deeply misunderstood Ulrich’s original intent. The statement has nothing to do with flame-throwing, or civil disobedience, or even defying convention. Rather, when Ulrich penned the phrase, her point was that the importance of the everyday is too often ignored.1 Well-behaved women seldom make the history books, but they should.
True, the record of human civilization is filled with those who forged new paths and defied the expectations of their time. These revolutionary figures are important and rightfully remembered.
However, most people are not Galileo, risking their lives to challenge church and state in their quest for truth. Most people, instead, make their mark by offering contributions on a more modest scale. They produce, innovate, cooperate, and govern within their homes and neighborhoods, and through membership in communities forged both geographically and through shared interests.
I want to be very clear here that the everyday-ness of most contributions to the world applies equally to men and women. I beg of you, do not read into this argument any implication that women are better suited to contribute in domestic or communal ways.
However, to the extent the focus of history has been on the grand feats of statesmen and scholars, the historical exclusion of women from formal political and educational systems has diminished the record of their impact on the world. A failure to recognize the importance of social history, including that of enterprise and political organization at the local level, has often gone hand in hand with a failure to recognize women’s contributions.
Elinor Ostrom, like Ulrich, made significant contributions by engaging in scholarship that took seriously the importance of people’s day-to-day actions. Throughout her career, Ostrom studied how it is that people find ways to solve problems within their own communities, even when those problems are considered theoretically insoluble without a great statesman swooping in and forcing people to get along.
Through archival history, ethnographic fieldwork, and a carefully selected mélange of other statistical and social scientific methods, she studied the role of communities in police services, water conservation, natural resource management, and a variety of other contexts in which individual actors are often considered helpless in the face of how many others could choose to free-ride on their efforts.
What she found over decades of research was that conventional, non-revolutionary, everyday folks are perfectly capable of coming up with solutions to what other economists and political scientists claimed should have been cripplingly complex social problems. Even classic collective-action problems, like securing mutual commitment to a program of water conservation, are often successfully resolved by voluntary negotiation among individuals. Her book Governing the Commons investigates instances of such local resolution taking place across the world and through history.
For these contributions, Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel), in a joint prize with Oliver Williamson in 2009. She remains the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
The framework that Ostrom used throughout this research emphasized the importance of understanding the rules-in-use in any given social context, as distinct from the rules as formally articulated. It’s the rules that people actually enforce that matter, not what people just say the rules are. What this means is that the formal record is often an unreliable indicator of the actual conditions within which people live, and the constraints that they face when attempting to accomplish their goals. This is why fieldwork has been such an integral component of Ostrom’s research.
Through this emphasis on fieldwork and rules-in-use, Ostrom’s work — like Ulrich’s — highlights the importance of the everyday, well-behaved approach to making a difference in the world. The everyday is where local norms are created, and where local governance takes place. In part because of Ostrom’s contributions, the significant impact that local practices have on other levels of political and social organization is increasingly being recognized and grappled with by social scientists.
I would be remiss if I didn’t conclude by noting that, like other women in history, there were several points in Ostrom’s life where her potential was dismissed because of her gender. Her pursuit of a doctoral degree was in defiance of her family’s wishes. The economics department at UCLA refused her graduate admission, and many of the political science faculty were upset when she and three other women were admitted to their doctoral program.2 Her initial appointment at Indiana University-Bloomington might not have gone through had it not been for the fact that she and her husband, esteemed political scientist Vincent Ostrom, came as a package deal.
Learn More: Jayme Lemke: Feminism is about choice.
Both Ulrich and Ostrom demonstrate that when we fail to account for women’s contributions — whether or not they are well-behaved — we risk ignoring significant forces determining the shape of the world.
1Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. 1976. “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” American Quarterly 28 (1): 20–40. Available at https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/14123819/Vertuous%20Women%20Found.pdf?sequence=1
2Herzberg, Roberta, and Barbara Allen. 2012. “Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012).” Public Choice 153 (3–4): 263–68. See also this Big Think Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8CXgBSQhcA.
Comments Off on Mary Wollstonecraft: Libertarian Feminist
Almost two centuries before the women’s lib movement and a full century before the suffragettes, not all women were quiet subordinates to men. In this 1996 essay, historian Jim Powell provides us with an illuminating account of the brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th-century author and philosopher who never minced her words in defense of equal rights for women. She lived only 38 years but left behind a principled legacy any lover of liberty can embrace.
Wollstonecraft’s case for equal rights was not a collectivist one; it was, as Powell explains, a deeply individualist one. Rights, she felt, do not come from governments. They belong to each and every person by virtue of their birth and their nature. They do not belong to groups and should never pit any group of individuals against another group. And the recognition of rights never absolves anybody of the responsibility for their own individual lives.
One gets the clear impression from her writings that were Wollstonecraft alive today, she might have some cogent advice along these lines for activists of all kinds: politics may be the route to change bad laws and enforce genuine rights, but once that’s accomplished, politicians have no more responsibility to peaceful individuals in society than to leave them alone. — Lawrence W. Reed
In Western Europe during the late 18th century, single women had little protection under the law, and married women lost their legal identity. Women couldn’t retain a lawyer, sign a contract, inherit property, vote, or have rights over their children.
As Oxford law professor William Blackstone noted in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1758): “The husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs every thing.”
Then along came passionate, bold Mary Wollstonecraft, who caused a sensation by writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She declared that both women and men were human beings endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. She called for women to become educated. She insisted women should be free to enter business, pursue professional careers, and vote if they wished. “I speak of the improvement and emancipation of the whole sex,” she declared. “Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated.”
Wollstonecraft inspired people because she spoke from the heart. Although she was reasonably well-read, she drew more from her own tumultuous experience. “There is certainly an original defect in my mind,” she confessed, “for the cruelest experience will not eradicate the foolish tendency I have to cherish, and expect to meet with, romantic tenderness.”
She dared do what no other woman had done, namely, pursue a career as a full-time professional writer on serious subjects without an aristocratic sponsor. “I am then going to be the first of a new genus,” she reflected. It was a harsh struggle, because women were traditionally cherished for their domestic service, not their minds. Wollstonecraft developed her skills on meager earnings. She dressed plainly. She seldom ate meat. When she had wine, it was in a teacup, because she couldn’t afford a wine glass.
Contemporaries noted Wollstonecraft’s provocative presence — thin, medium height, brown hair, haunting brown eyes, and a soft voice. “Mary was, without being a dazzling beauty … of a charming grace,” recalled a German admirer. “Her face, so full of expression, presented a style of beauty beyond that of merely regular features. There was enchantment in her glance, her voice, and her movements.”
Mary Wollstonecraft was born April 27, 1759, in London. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Elizabeth Dixon, who hailed from Ballyshannon, Ireland. Mary’s father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a handkerchief weaver. He decided to become a gentleman farmer after he got an inheritance from his father, a master weaver and residential real estate developer, but farming was a bust. The family moved seven times in 10 years as their finances deteriorated. Edward drank heavily, and Mary often had to protect her mother from his violent outbursts. She had rocky relations with her siblings.
Mary’s formal schooling was limited, but one of her friends in Hoxton, outside London, had a respectable library, and Mary spent considerable time exploring it. Through these friends, she met Fanny Blood, two years older and skilled at sewing, drawing, watercolors, and the piano. She inspired Mary to take initiative cultivating her mind.
Spurred by family financial problems, Mary resolved to somehow make her own way. She pursued the usual opportunities open to smart but poor young women. At 19, she got a job as live-in helper for a wealthy widow who proved to be a difficult taskmaster.
Three years later, in 1781, Mary tried and failed to establish a school at Islington, North London. Then Mary, Fanny, and Mary’s sisters, Eliza and Everina, started a school nearby at Newington Green. After initial success, that, too, failed. She then worked as a governess for an Irish family and saw firsthand the idleness of landed aristocrats. These discouraging experiences were compounded by the death of Fanny Blood from tuberculosis. After Mary’s mother died in 1782, she — not her oldest brother — assumed primary responsibility for taking care of her volatile father.
Meanwhile, through her Newington school experience, Wollstonecraft met many local Dissenters whose religious beliefs put them outside the tax-supported Anglican Church. Among these Dissenters was minister and moral philosopher Richard Price, who was in touch with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Marquis de Condorcet, and other radical thinkers of the day. Wollstonecraft also met scientist Joseph Priestley, schoolteacher John Hewlett, and Sarah Burgh, widow of radical author James Burgh. Although Wollstonecraft retained her faith in the Anglican Church, she stood out as a maverick and became good friends with these people.
Dissenters promoted reform of Britain’s cozy political system. The House of Lords consisted of aristocrats who inherited their positions. The House of Commons was chosen by the very few males who were enfranchised—just 15,000, about one-half percent of adult males —determined the outcome of an election. The Test and Corporation Acts disenfranchised religious Dissenters. Moreover, no town had gained the right to representation since 1678, which meant that dynamos of the Industrial Revolution like Birmingham and Manchester were excluded.
The Influence of Joseph Johnson
Hewlett encouraged Wollstonecraft to write a pamphlet on education and submit it to Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher and bookseller with a shop at St. Paul’s Churchyard. He was known as a visionary entrepreneur who backed a number of unknowns including the poet-printmaker William Blake. Johnson published works by Joseph Priestley and poets William Cowper and William Wordsworth, too. He distributed materials for Unitarians.
Hewlett’s suggestion turned out to be a lifeline because, as Wollstonecraft biographer Claire Tomalin explained, “Mary was homeless again, without a job or a reference; she had nothing to live on, and she was in debt to several people. She had no marriage prospects. She was 28, with a face that looked as though it had settled permanently into lines of severity and depression around the fierce eyes … her most remarkable trait was still that she had refused to learn the techniques whereby women in her situation usually attempted to make life tolerable for themselves: flattery, docility, resignation to the will of man, or God, or their social superiors, or all three.”
Johnson told Wollstonecraft that she had talent and could succeed if she worked hard. He published her pamphlet in 1786 as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life. Sales were negligible, but the work launched Wollstonecraft’s literary career. She sent her author’s fee to the impoverished Blood family and redoubled her efforts. “I must exert my understanding to procure an independence and render myself useful,” she wrote. “To make the task easier, I ought to store my mind with knowledge — The seed time is passing away.”
By 1788, Johnson offered her steady work. She translated books from French and German into English. She served as an assistant editor and writer for his new journal, The Analytical Review. She contributed to it until her death, perhaps as many as 200 articles on fiction, education, sermons, travelogues, and children’s books.
Johnson was a good man. He helped Wollstonecraft find lodgings. He advanced her money when needed. He dealt with her creditors. He helped her cope with her father’s chaotic situation. He calmed her bouts of depression. “You are my only friend,” she confided, “the only person I am intimate with — I never had a father, or a brother — you have been both to me.”
Wollstonecraft met more radicals who visited Johnson, including William Blake, Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, and Johnson’s publishing partner, Thomas Christie. On one occasion, she met philosopher William Godwin and Thomas Paine, the Englishman who helped inspire the American Revolution by writing Common Sense. Wollstonecraft dominated the conversation. “I heard her very frequently,” Godwin recalled, “when I wished to hear Paine.”
The French Revolution
The outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789 triggered explosive controversy. In November, Richard Price gave a talk before the Society for Commemorating the Glorious Revolution of 1688, defending the right of French people to rebel and suggesting that English people should be able to choose their rulers — an obvious challenge to the hereditary monarchy. This alarmed Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament previously known for having defended the American Revolution. Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France (November 1790), a rhetorically brilliant attack on natural rights and a defense of monarchy and aristocracy.
Burke’s ideas as well as his swipes at Price made Wollstonecraft indignant. Drawing on the ideas of John Locke and Price, she rushed into print with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, among the earliest of some 30 replies to Burke. Although this polemic was repetitious and disorganized, and Wollstonecraft overdid her attacks on Burke as vain, unprincipled, and insensitive — she had an impact. She faulted Burke for being blind to poverty: “Misery, to reach your heart, I perceived, must have its cap and bells.” She denounced injustices of the British constitution which evolved during the “dark days of ignorance, when the minds of men were shackled by the grossest prejudices and most immoral superstition.” She singled out the aristocratic practice of passing family wealth to the eldest son: “the only security of property that nature authorizes and reason sanctions is, the right a man has to enjoy the acquisitions which his talents and industry have acquired; and to bequeath them to whom he chooses.”
She lashed out at arbitrary government power:
Security of property! Behold, in a few words, the definition of English liberty.… But softly — it is only the property of the rich that is secure; the man who lives by the sweat of his brow has no asylum from oppression; the strong man may enter — when was the castle of the poor sacred? — and the base informer steal him from the family that depend on his industry for subsistence.… I cannot avoid expressing my surprise that when you recommended our form of government as a model, you did not caution the French against the arbitrary custom of pressing men for the sea service.
Wollstonecraft’s work, and everyone else’s for that matter, was later dwarfed by Thomas Paine’s far more powerful reply to Burke — The Rights of Man — but she established herself as an author to reckon with.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
She had generally supposed that when revolutionaries spoke of “man,” they were using shorthand for all humanity. Then on September 10, 1791, Talleyrand, former Bishop of Autun, advocated government schools that would end at eighth grade for girls but continue on for boys. This made clear to Wollstonecraft that despite all the talk about equal rights, the French Revolution wasn’t intended to help women much. She began planning her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She wrote for more than three months and was finished January 3, 1792. Johnson published it in three volumes.
She despised the government class. “Taxes on the very necessaries of life,” she wrote, “enable an endless tribe of idle princes and princesses to pass with stupid pomp before a gaping crowd, who almost worship the very parade which costs them so dear.”
She specifically cited laws that “make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cipher … how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? or virtuous who is not free?”
Wollstonecraft issued an early call for women’s suffrage: “I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.”
Wollstonecraft attacked those like collectivist Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wanted to keep women down. He had written, “The education of the women should always be relative to the men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.”
Wollstonecraft believed education could be the salvation of women: “the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence of character; I mean explicitly to say that they must bow only to the authority of reason, instead of being the modest slaves of opinion.” She insisted women should be taught serious subjects like reading, writing, arithmetic, botany, natural history, and moral philosophy. She recommended vigorous physical exercise to help stimulate the mind.
To be sure, she had a naive faith that the same governments that restricted women could inexplicably be trusted to run schools uplifting women. Twentieth-century government schools have been catastrophes for women as well as men, graduating large numbers at high cost without the most fundamental skills.
Wollstonecraft called for eliminating obstacles to the advancement of women. “Liberty is the mother of virtue,” she asserted, “and if women be, by their very constitution, slaves, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws of nature.”
She envisioned a future when women could pursue virtually any career opportunities: “Though I consider that women in the common walks of life are called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers, by religion and reason, I cannot help lamenting that women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence.” Finally: “How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility.”
With A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft emerged in a class by herself. She went beyond her contemporary Catherine Macaulay who had written passionately about educating women. Wollstonecraft was opposed by “Bluestockings” like Hannah More, Elizabeth Montagu, and Hester Chapone who had fared well by making the most of the subordinate position of women. A succession of women novelists — Fanny Burney, Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith, and Elizabeth Inchbald, for instance — had portrayed women who achieved heroic moral stature, but they didn’t always celebrate women with brains.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sold out within a year, and Johnson issued a second edition. An American edition and translations into French and German followed.
Wollstonecraft crossed the English Channel so she could see the French Revolution for herself. She was welcomed by expatriates such as the American patriot Joel Barlow, English poet Helen Maria Williams, and Thomas Paine. She sided with liberal Girondists who, including Marquis de Condorcet, favored a constitutionally limited government and equal rights for women. But she was horrified at how fast the totalitarian Jacobins seized power and launched the Reign of Terror.
Wollstonecraft dreamed that someday men and women would nurture each other as equals. “The man who can be contented to live with a pretty, useful companion, without a mind, has lost in voluptuous gratifications a taste for more refined enjoyments,” she wrote, “he has never felt the calm satisfaction that refreshes the parched heart like the silent dew of heaven — of being beloved by one who could understand him.”
Alas, she had an agonizing time applying these ideas to her own life. She became infatuated with the eccentric genius Henry Fuseli, but he was married and brushed her off after extended flirtation. While still in France, she fell in love with an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay, who was always looking for a scheme to strike it rich. They had a daughter, Fanny, but he lost interest in both of them and walked out. Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice. After the second incident, when she was being dragged out of the Thames, she renewed her resolve: “it appears to me impossible that I shall cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organized dust. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream.”
While recovering from despair over Imlay, she took a three-month break with Fanny in Scandinavia and produced one of her most poignant works, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The letters were addressed to the unnamed American father of her child. They provide a travelogue laced with commentary on politics, philosophy, and her personal life. After witnessing the French Terror, she tempered her hopes for social change:
An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alterations in laws and governments prematurely. To render them useful and permanent, they must be the growth of each particular soil, and the gradual fruit of the ripening understanding of the nation, matured by time, not forced by an unnatural fermentation.
Throughout the book, Wollstonecraft struggled to cope with her grief about Imlay, and she conveyed an immediacy and tenderness that touches the heart. “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book,” remarked William Godwin.
Relationship with William Godwin
Wollstonecraft decided to pursue her acquaintance with Godwin, calling on him April 14, 1796. He had a large head, deep-set eyes, and a thin voice. “He seems to have had some charm which his enemies could not detect or his friends define, but which had a real influence on those who attained his close friendship,” reported Godwin biographer George Woodcock.
Like Wollstonecraft, he had started a school, but his ideas were too radical, and the effort failed. His literary career had begun with a dull political biography, a book of sermons and some potboiler novels. Then London publisher George Robinson offered to pay Godwin enough of an advance that he could work out his philosophy. The result was Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), describing his vision of a harmonious society without laws or war. The book established him as England’s foremost radical thinker.
Godwin courageously spoke out against the British government’s campaign to suppress the Corresponding Societies, which were debating clubs interested in revolutionary ideas. Godwin wrote public letters supporting defendants. He charged that the government’s campaign was illegal since none of the defendants had committed revolutionary acts of violence. These writings won widespread sympathy for the defendants, and further prosecution was abandoned.
At the time Wollstonecraft called, Godwin was a 42-year-old bachelor courting Amelia Alderson, a doctor’s daughter. But he was intrigued with Wollstonecraft, despite his initial impression that she talked too much. He invited her to a dinner party the following week. Included were James Mackintosh and Dr. Samuel Parr, both of whom had written rebuttals to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
After Alderson rejected Godwin, he became more responsive to Wollstonecraft, and her passion overwhelmed him. “It was friendship melting into love,” he recalled. But Wollstonecraft was haunted by fear of another betrayal. Godwin reassured her that he longed for a relationship between equals. Her passion surged again. “It is a sublime tranquility,” she wrote him, “I have felt it in your arms.” By December, she was pregnant. Both Wollstonecraft and Godwin had criticized marriage as a vehicle for exploitation, but they tied the knot on March 29, 1797. She rejoiced that she had found true love at last.
She went into labor during the early morning of Wednesday, August 30, 1797. She was attended by one Mrs. Blenkinsop, an experienced midwife. After 11:00 that night, a daughter was born — Mary, who grew up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. For a while, it appeared things were fine, but three hours later, Mrs. Blenkinsop notified Godwin that the placenta still hadn’t come out of the womb. The longer the placenta remained, the greater the risk of infection. Godwin called a Dr. Poignand, who succeeded in removing much of the placenta. Wollstonecraft reported that the procedure was the most excruciatingly painful experience of her life.
That Sunday, she began suffering chills, an ominous sign of infection. Doctors offered wine to help ease the pain and tried other measures to stimulate her body to eject the remains of the placenta. Wollstonecraft continued to decline. She died Sunday morning, September 10, 1797. Godwin was so overcome that he didn’t attend the funeral, held at St. Pancras church where they had been married just five months before. She was buried in the churchyard.
Soon afterwards, ever-loyal publisher Joseph Johnson issued Godwin’s edition of the Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, together with Godwin’s candid memoir about her. Although Godwin believed telling all would boost her reputation, it unleashed a firestorm of controversy, and her unsettled personal life became an easy excuse to belittle her ideas.
But as author Virginia Woolf remarked about Wollstonecraft decades later, “We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” American crusaders for equal rights like Margaret Fuller, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were all inspired by A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
In recent years, the women’s movement has become linked with preferential treatment and hatred of men. Today, happily, more people are rediscovering Mary Wollstonecraft, who established the individualist roots of equal rights. She took responsibility for her life. She educated herself. She showed how a woman can succeed with her wits. She urged everyone to achieve his or her human potential. She spoke out for vital economic liberties. She demanded justice. She championed relationships based on mutual respect and love.
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Liberty was in full retreat in the early 1940s. Tyrants oppressed or threatened people on every continent. Western intellectuals whitewashed mass murderers like Joseph Stalin, and Western governments expanded their power with Soviet-style central planning. Fifty million people were killed in the war that raged in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The United States, seemingly the last hope for liberty, was drawn into it.
Established American authors who defended liberty were a dying breed. H.L. Mencken had turned away from bitter politics to write his memoirs, while others like Albert Jay Nock and Garet Garrett were mired in pessimism.
Amidst the worst of times, three bold women banished fear. They dared to declare that collectivism was evil. They stood up for natural rights, the only philosophy that provided a moral basis for opposing tyranny everywhere. They celebrated old-fashioned rugged individualism. They envisioned a future when people could again be free. They expressed a buoyant optimism that inspired millions.
All were outsiders who transcended difficult beginnings. Two were immigrants. One was born in frontier territory not yet part of the United States. They struggled to earn money as writers in commercial markets dominated by ideological adversaries. All were broke at one time or another. They endured heartaches with men — one stayed in a marriage that became sterile, and two became divorced and never remarried.
These women who had such humble beginnings — Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand — published major books during the same year, 1943: The Discovery of Freedom, The God of the Machine, and The Fountainhead, respectively. The women, recalled journalist John Chamberlain, “with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn’t an economist among them. And none of them was a PhD.” Albert Jay Nock declared, “They make all of us male writers look like Confederate money. They don’t fumble and fiddle around — every shot goes straight to the centre.”
Rose Wilder Lane
Like her compatriots, Rose Wilder Lane surprised people. She once described herself by saying, “I’m a plump, middle western, middle class, middle-aged woman.” She had bad teeth, her marriage failed, she worked to support her aging parents, and at one point during the 1930s, she was so financially distressed that her electricity was shut off. Yet, she soared with great eloquence as she helped revive the radical principles of the American Revolution, and she inspired millions of adults and children alike as the editor of the beloved Little House books about individual responsibility, hard work, stubborn persistence, strong families, and human liberty.
Rose Wilder Lane was born December 5, 1886, near De Smet, Dakota Territory. Her father, Almanzo Wilder, and her mother, Laura Ingalls, were poor farmers, devastated by drought, hailstorms, and other calamities that ruined crops. For years, the family lived in a windowless cabin. They missed many meals. Their daughter, named after wild roses which bloomed on the prairie, often went barefoot.
When Lane was four, the family gave up on Dakota and moved to Mansfield, Missouri, which offered better farming prospects. She went to a four-room, red brick schoolhouse that had two shelves of books, and she discovered the wonders of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Edward Gibbon. Her mainstay became the famous McGuffey Readers compiled by Cincinnati College President William Holmes McGuffey, who imparted moral lessons as he taught the fundamentals of reading and exposed young minds to many great authors of Western civilization.
“We did not like discipline,” Lane recalled, “so we suffered until we disciplined ourselves. We saw many things and many opportunities that we ardently wanted and could not pay for, so we did not get them, or got them only after stupendous, heartbreaking effort and self-denial, for debt was much harder to bear than deprivations. We were honest, not because sinful human nature wanted to be, but because the consequences of dishonesty were excessively painful. It was clear that if your word were not as good as your bond, your bond was no good and you were worthless … we learned that it is impossible to get something for nothing.”
She quit school after the ninth grade and determined that somehow she would see the world beyond rural Missouri. She took a train to Kansas City and accepted a job as a Western Union telegraph clerk on the night shift. She spent most of her spare time reading, perhaps three hours a day. By 1908, she relocated to San Francisco for another Western Union job and romance with advertising salesman Gillette Lane. They married in March 1909. She became pregnant but had either a miscarriage or stillbirth. It became impossible for her to conceive again.
By 1915, the marriage had broken up, but through Gillette’s newspaper connections, Lane found her start as a journalist. For the San Francisco Bulletin, a radical labor paper, she began writing a women’s column, then a series of daily 1,500-word personality profiles. She wrote an autobiographical novel serialized in Sunset magazine.
In March 1920, the Red Cross invited her to travel around Europe and report on their relief efforts, so that prospective donors — on whose support they depended — would know about the organization’s good deeds. Based in Paris, she traveled to Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Rome, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Tirana, Trieste, Athens, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Constantinople. Lane imagined that Europe was the great hope for civilization, but instead, she eluded bandits, encountered bureaucratic corruption, endured runaway inflation, and witnessed civil war horrors and the darkening shadows of ruthless tyranny.
Lane visited the Soviet Union four years after the Bolsheviks seized power. Like many people, she was enchanted by the Communist vision for a better life. She met peasants whom she expected to be rapturous about Communism. But, as she reported later, “My host astounded me by the force with which he said that he did not like the new government.… His complaint was government interference with village affairs. He protested against the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work. He predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow.… I came out of the Soviet Union no longer a communist, because I believed in personal freedom.”
After returning to America, her career blossomed as she wrote for the American Mercury, Country Gentleman, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and the Saturday Evening Post, among others. She wrote novels about pioneer life. Famed actress Helen Hayes dramatized one of Lane’s novels, Let the Hurricane Roar, on the radio. But Lane was financially devastated during the Great Depression. In 1931, she wailed, “I am forty-five. Owe $8,000. Have in bank $502.70.… Nothing that I have intended has ever been realized.”
In 1936, Lane wrote “Credo,” an 18,000-word article on liberty, for the Saturday Evening Post. Three years later, Leonard Read, general manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, helped establish a little publishing firm called Pamphleteers, which reprinted Lane’s article as Give Me Liberty.
In it, Lane explained how free competition enables civilization to flourish despite scoundrels. “I have no illusions about the pioneers,” she wrote. “In general they were trouble-makers of the lower classes, and Europe was glad to be rid of them. They brought no great amount of intelligence or culture. Their principal desire was to do as they pleased.… [Yet] Americans today … are the kindest people on earth.… Only Americans pour wealth over the world, relieving suffering in such distant places as Armenia and Japan.… Such are a few of the human values that grew from individualism while individualism was creating this nation.”
The Discovery of Freedom
In 1942, an editor of John Day Company asked Lane to write a book about liberty. She began work in a McAllen, Texas, trailer park, amidst a tour of the Southwest. She went through at least two drafts at her home in Danbury, Connecticut. Her book, The Discovery of Freedom, Man’s Struggle Against Authority, was published January 1943.
While most historians focused on rulers, Lane chronicled the epic 6,000-year struggle of ordinary people who defy rulers to raise families, produce food, build industries, engage in trade, and in countless ways improve human life. She was lyrical about the American Revolution, which helped secure liberty and unleashed phenomenal energy for human progress.
With stirring, sometimes melodramatic prose, she attacked myriad collectivist influences, including government schools and so-called “progressive” economic regulations. She ridiculed claims that bureaucrats could do better for individuals than individuals could do for themselves. She swept away gloom with her towering self-confidence. “Five generations of Americans have led the Revolution,” she declared, “and the time is coming when Americans will set this whole world free.”
Individualist Albert Jay Nock lavished praise on the book, but Lane was dissatisfied with it and refused permission to reprint it. She never got around to completing another edition. Only a thousand copies of the book were printed during her lifetime.
Nonetheless, The Discovery of Freedom had a big impact, circulating as an underground classic. It helped inspire the launching of several organizations to promote liberty — among them, Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education, F.A. Harper’s Institute for Humane Studies, and Robert M. Lefevre’s Freedom School. Read retained General Motors consumer researcher Henry Grady Weaver to adapt the book as The Mainspring of Human Progress, and hundreds of thousands of copies have been distributed by FEE.
The Little House Books
Although The Discovery of Freedom was a founding document of the modern libertarian movement, Lane had perhaps a greater calling behind the scenes. In 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder gave Lane a manuscript about her early life from Wisconsin to Kansas and Dakota. Lane deleted the material about Wisconsin, then went through two drafts of the rest, fleshing out the story and characters. This became a 100-page manuscript tentatively called Pioneer Girl, and she sent it to her literary agent, Carl Brandt. The Wisconsin material became a 20-page story, “When Grandma Was a Little Girl,” a possible text for a children’s picture book. One publisher suggested that the story be expanded to a 25,000-word book for younger readers.
Lane conveyed the news to her mother, and since the original manuscript had been rewritten beyond recognition, she explained, “It is your father’s stories, taken out of the long Pioneer Girl manuscript, and strung together, as you will see.” Lane specified the kind of additional material needed, adding, “If you find it easier to write in the first person, write that way. I will change it into the third person, later.” Lane reassured her mother that the collaboration remained a family secret: “I have said nothing about having run the manuscript through my own typewriter.” By May 27, 1931, the “juvenile” was done, and Lane sent it off to publishers. Harper Brothers issued it in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods, and it became a beloved American story.
In January 1933, Wilder gave Lane Farmer Boy, a manuscript about Almanzo’s childhood recollections. Publishers had rejected it, presumably because it was mainly a chronicle of farm skills. Lane spent a month turning it into a flesh-and-blood story, and Harper’s bought it. The following year, Wilder gave Lane a manuscript about her life in Kansas, and she spent five weeks rewriting it into Little House on the Prairie.
The books began generating significant income for the Wilders — a relief to Lane, whose aim was to help provide their financial security. Wilder expanded part of Pioneer Girl into another manuscript and gave it to Lane in the summer of 1936. “I have written you the whys of the story as I wrote it,” Wilder explained. “But you know your judgement is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands.” Lane spent two months rewriting it and drafted a letter for their literary agent, asking for better terms. This manuscript became On the Banks of Plum Creek. Lane spent most of 1939 rewriting the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake; in 1940, The Long Winter; in 1941, Little Town on the Prairie; and in 1942, These Happy Golden Years.
Throughout the later books especially, Lane portrayed young Laura Ingalls Wilder as a libertarian heroine. For example, in Little Town on the Prairie, she described her mother’s thoughts this way: “Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.”
In 1974, NBC began adapting the books for Little House on the Prairie, a hugely popular television series that ran nine years and resulted in more than 200 episodes. Then came a syndication agreement assuring that they would be run again and again for at least the next quarter-century. Michael Landon wrote and directed many shows and starred as Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls.
Lane’s last blast was a book about American needlework, which she turned into a hymn for liberty. “American needlework tells you,” she continued, “that Americans live in the only classless society. This republic is the only country that has no peasant needlework.… American women … discarded backgrounds, they discarded borders and frames. They made the details create the whole, and they set each detail in boundless space, alone, independent, complete.”
Lane knew but wasn’t close to the bold, hot-tempered, sometimes tactless journalist Isabel Bowler Paterson. According to scholar Stephen Cox, she was “a slight woman, 5’3” tall, very nearsighted, a lover of pretty and slightly eccentric clothes, fond of delicate foods, a light drinker, a devotee of nature who could spend all day watching a tree grow.”
Paterson held stubbornly to her views and told all who would listen what she thought about an issue. Dominating conversations tended to limit her social life, especially as she became a dissident against New Deal government intervention, but she did have some stalwart friends. One remarked that “if people can stand her at all, they eventually become very fond of her.”
Paterson wrote novels and some 1,200 newspaper columns, but it was The God of the Machine that secured her immortality in the annals of liberty. It mounted a powerful attack on collectivism and explained the extraordinary dynamics of free markets.
She was born January 22, 1886, on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Her parents, Francis and Margaret Bowler, were poor farmers who moved to Michigan, then Utah and Alberta, in search of better luck. Paterson made soap, tended livestock, and spent just two years in school. But she read books at home, including the Bible, some Shakespeare, and novels by Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas.
When she was about 18 years old, Paterson went off on her own. She worked as a waitress, bookkeeper, and stenographer, earning $20 a month. She was proud to be independent. “Listen, my girl,” she told a journalist, “your paycheck is your mother and your father; in other words, respect it.”
At 24, in 1910, she married Kenneth Birrell Paterson, but the relationship soured, and within a few years, they went their separate ways. She seldom talked about him again. She was more determined than ever to maintain her independence.
She had done a little writing on the side to relieve boredom, and after she became a secretary to a Spokane, Washington, newspaper publisher, she did more. She began writing his editorials. She wrote drama criticism for two Vancouver newspapers. Next, fiction — her novel The Shadow Riders was published in 1916, and The Magpie’s Nest, the following year. Both were about young women struggling to achieve independence. Although Canada had become a protectionist nation, Paterson made clear in The Shadow Riders that she was a free trader.
Paterson moved east following World War I and started reading her way through much of the New York Public Library. In 1922, she persuaded New York Tribune literary editor Burton Rascoe to give her a job, even though he didn’t like her. “She said bluntly that she wanted the job,” he recalled. “I told her my budget would not allow me to pay what she was worth. She said she would work for whatever I was prepared to pay. I said the pay was forty dollars a week. She said, ‘I’ll work for that.’”
In 1924, she started writing a weekly column on books, and it became an influential forum for the next quarter-century. She used books as a point of departure to talk about practically anything. Many columns affirmed her commitment to American individualism. She attacked collectivist societies based on status and defended dynamic capitalism. She denounced Herbert Hoover’s interventionism and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The God of the Machine
Many columns explored themes that became the basis for The God of the Machine, published by Putnam’s in May 1943. Paterson attacked fascism, Nazism, and Communism as varieties of the same evil: collectivism. She reserved some of her most eloquent blasts for Stalin, who charmed so many intellectuals. Anyone who imagines that socialist horrors were exposed recently will be shocked to see how clearly Paterson understood why collectivism always means stagnation, backwardness, corruption, and slavery.
There’s much more in this tremendous book. Paterson provided a grand overview of the history of liberty. She made clear why personal freedom is impossible without political freedom. She defended immigrants. She denounced military conscription, central economic planning, compulsory unionism, business subsidies, paper money, and compulsory government schools. Long before most economists, she explained how New Deal policies prolonged the Great Depression.
Paterson celebrated private entrepreneurs, who are the primary source of human progress. For instance: “Everything that was the creation of private enterprise in the railways gave satisfaction. Private enterprise mined, smelted, and forged the iron, invented the steam engine, devised surveying instruments, produced and accumulated the capital, organized the effort. In the building and operation of the railways, whatever lay in the realm of private enterprise was done with competence.… What people hated was the monopoly. The monopoly, and nothing else, was the political contribution.”
By 1949, Paterson’s libertarian views became too much for the editors of the New York Herald Tribune, and she was fired. Nonetheless, she expressed her gratitude, saying they probably published more of her work than would have been tolerated anywhere else. They gave her a small pension, and she got along by investing her savings in real estate. She refused Social Security, returning her card in an envelope marked “Social Security Swindle.”
Meanwhile, she had become a focal point for the fledgling libertarian movement. For example, after Leonard Read founded the Foundation for Economic Education, she introduced him to influential journalist John Chamberlain, whom she had helped convert into a libertarian. A decades-long collaboration blossomed.
Back during the early 1940s, Paterson mentored Russian-born Ayn Rand who, 19 years younger, joined her weekly when she proofread typeset pages of her Herald Tribune book reviews. She introduced Rand to many books and ideas about history, economics, and political philosophy, helping Rand develop a more sophisticated worldview. When Rand’s novel The Fountainhead was published, Paterson promoted it in a number of Herald Tribune columns. Rand’s books went on to surpass Paterson’s — and just about everyone else’s for that matter — selling some 20 million copies.
Rand had a striking presence. As biographer Barbara Branden described Rand upon her arrival in America at age 21: “Framed by its short, straight hair, its squarish shape stressed by a firmly set jaw, its sensual wide mouth held in tight restraint, its huge dark eyes black with intensity, it seemed the face of a martyr or an inquisitor or a saint. The eyes burned with a passion that was at once emotional and intellectual — as if they would sear the onlooker and leave their dark light a flame on his body.” Later in life, chain smoking and sedentary habits took their toll, but Rand was still unforgettable, as book editor Hiram Haydn recalled: “A short, squarish woman, with black hair cut in bangs and a Dutch bob.… Her eyes were as black as her hair, and piercing.”
Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg. Her father Fronz Rosenbaum had risen from poverty to the middle class as a chemist. Her mother Anna was an extrovert who believed in vigorous exercise and thrived on a busy social life. Alissa wanted nothing to do with either exercise or parties.
She was precocious. After school, she studied French and German at home. Inspired by a magazine serial, she began writing stories, and at nine years old, she resolved to become a writer.
The Rosenbaums’ comfortable world ended when the Czar entered World War I, which devastated the nation’s economy. Within a year, more than a million Russians were killed or wounded. The government went broke. People were hungry. The Bolsheviks exploited the chaos and seized power in 1918.
The Russian Revolution spurred young Alissa to invent stories about heroic individuals battling kings or Communist dictators. At this time, too, she discovered novelist Victor Hugo, whose dramatic style and towering heroes captivated her imagination. “I was fascinated by Hugo’s sense of life,” she recalled. “It was someone writing something important. I felt this is the kind of writer I would like to be, but I didn’t know how long it would take.”
At the University of Petrograd, she took courses with the stern Aristotelian Nicholas Lossky who, scholar Chris Sciabarra showed, had an enormous impact on her thinking. She read plays by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (she loved him) and William Shakespeare (hated him), philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche (provocative thinker), and novels by Feodor Dostoevsky (good plotter). She was utterly captivated to see some foreign movies. She had her first big crush, on a man named Leo who risked his life to hide members of the anti-Bolshevik underground.
In 1925, the Rosenbaums received a letter from relatives who had emigrated to Chicago more than three decades earlier to escape Russian anti-Semitism. Alissa expressed a burning desire to see America. The relatives agreed to pay her passage and be financially responsible for her. Miraculously, Soviet officials granted her a passport for a six-month visit. On February 10, 1926, she boarded the ship De Grasse and arrived in New York with $50.
She soon joined her relatives in a cramped Chicago apartment. She saw a lot of movies and worked at her typewriter — usually starting around midnight, which made it difficult for others to sleep. During this period, she settled on a new first name for herself: Ayn, after a Finnish writer she had never read, but she liked the sound. And a new last name: Rand, after her Remington Rand typewriter. Biographer Branden says Rand might have adopted a new name to protect her family from possible recrimination by the Soviet regime.
Determined to become a movie script writer, she moved to Los Angeles. Through her Chicago relatives, she persuaded a movie distributor to write a letter introducing her to someone in the publicity department of the glamorous Cecil B. DeMille Studio. She met the great man himself while entering his studio, and he took her to the set of his current production. She started work as an extra for $7.50 a day.
At DeMille’s studio, Rand fell in love with a tall, handsome, blue-eyed bit actor named Frank O’Connor. They were married April 15, 1929, before her visa expired. She no longer had to worry about returning to the Soviet Union. Two months later, she applied for American citizenship.
The DeMille Studio closed, and she found odd jobs, such as a freelance script reader. In 1935, she had a taste of success when she earned as much as $1,200 a week from her play Night of January 16th, which ran 283 performances on Broadway. It was about a ruthless industrialist and the powerful woman on trial for his murder.
We the Living
Rand spent four years writing her first novel, We the Living, about the struggle to find freedom in Soviet Russia. Kira Argounova, the desperate heroine, became the mistress of a party boss so she could raise money for her lover suffering from tuberculosis. Rand finished the book in late 1933. After many rejections, Macmillan agreed to take it and pay a $250 advance. The company published 3,000 copies in March 1936, but the book didn’t sell. Although word of mouth gave it a lift after about a year, Macmillan had destroyed the type, and We the Living went out of print. Rand had earned just $100 of royalties.
In 1937, while struggling to develop the plot of The Fountainhead, Rand wrote a short, lyrical futurist story about an individual versus collectivist tyranny: Anthem. Rand’s literary agent sold it to a British publisher but couldn’t find a taker in the American market. About seven years later, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce General Manager Leonard Read visited Rand and O’Connor — then living in New York — and remarked that somebody ought to write a book defending individualism. Rand told him about Anthem. Read borrowed her copy, read it, and his small publishing firm Pamphleteers made it available in the United States. It has sold some 2.5 million copies.
Rand finished plotting The Fountainhead in 1938 after nearly four years of work. Then came the writing. Her hero, architect Howard Roark, expressed her vision of an ideal man. He battled collectivists all around him to defend the integrity of his ideas, even when it meant dynamiting a building because plans were altered in violation of his contract.
Selling the book proved tough. Rand’s editor at Macmillan expressed interest and offered another $250 advance, but she insisted the company agree to spend at least $1,200 on publicity, so Macmillan bowed out. By 1940, a dozen publishers had seen finished chapters and rejected the book. One influential editor declared the book would never sell. Rand’s literary agent turned against it. Her savings were down to about $700.
Rand suggested that the partial manuscript be submitted to Bobbs-Merrill, an Indianapolis-based publisher that had issued The Red Decade by anti-Communist journalist Eugene Lyons. Bobbs-Merrill’s Indianapolis editors rejected The Fountainhead, but the company’s New York editor Archibald Ogden loved it and threatened to quit if they didn’t take it. They signed a contract in December 1941, paying Rand a $1,000 advance. With two-thirds of the book yet to be written, Rand focused on making her January 1, 1943, deadline for completion. She found herself in a friendly race with Isabel Paterson, then working to finish The God of the Machine.
Rand made her deadline, and The Fountainhead was published in May 1943, the same month as The God of the Machine, about nine years after the book was just a dream. The Fountainhead generated many more reviews than We the Living, but most reviewers either denounced it or misrepresented it as a book about architecture. For a while, Bobbs-Merrill’s initial print run of 7,500 copies moved slowly. Word of mouth stirred a groundswell of interest, and the publisher ordered a succession of reprintings that were small, in part because of wartime paper shortages. The book gained momentum and hit the bestseller lists. Two years after publication, it had sold 100,000 copies. By 1948, it had sold 400,000 copies. Then came the New American Library paperback edition, and The Fountainhead went on to sell over 6 million copies.
The day Warner Brothers agreed to pay Rand $50,000 for movie rights to The Fountainhead, she and O’Connor splurged and each had a 65-cent dinner at their local cafeteria. Rand fought to preserve the script’s integrity and largely succeeded, though some of her most cherished lines were cut. The movie, starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey, premiered in July 1949. It propelled the book onto the bestseller lists again.
Sometime earlier, when the hardcover edition had just come out, Rand told Paterson how disappointed she was with its reception. Paterson urged her to write a nonfiction book and added that Rand had a duty to make her views more widely known. Rand rebelled at the suggestion that she owed people anything. “What if I went on strike?” she asked. “What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” This became the idea for her last major work, tentatively called The Strike.
As Rand worked on the book for some 14 years, everything about it became larger than life. The book featured her most famous hero, mysterious John Galt, the physicist-inventor who organized a strike of the most productive people against taxers and other exploiters. The book introduced Dagney Taggart, Rand’s first ideal woman, who found her match in Galt. Key characters delivered long speeches presenting Rand’s philosophical views on liberty, money, and sex — the book often seems more like a polemic for individualism and capitalism. A friend suggested that the tentative title would make many people think the book was about labor unions, and she abandoned it. O’Connor urged her to use one of the chapter headings as the book title, and it became Atlas Shrugged.
Rand’s ideas were as controversial as ever, but sales of The Fountainhead impressed publishers, and several big ones courted her for Atlas Shrugged. Random House co-owner Bennett Cerf was most supportive, and Rand got a $50,000 advance against a 15 percent royalty, a first printing of at least 75,000 copies, and a $25,000 advertising budget. The book was published October 10, 1957.
Most reviewers were savage. The old-line socialist Granville Hicks was a vocal critic in the New York Times, and others were similarly offended by Rand’s attacks on collectivism. The most hysterical review of all turned out to be in the conservative National Review, where Whittaker Chambers, presumably offended by her critique of religion, likened Rand to a Nazi “commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’” Word of mouth proved too strong for these naysayers, and sales began to climb, eventually past 4.5 million copies.
With Atlas Shrugged, Rand had fulfilled her dreams, and she became depressed. She was exhausted. She no longer had a giant project to focus her prodigious energies. She leaned increasingly on her Canadian-born intellectual disciple Nathaniel Branden, with whom she had become intimate. To serve the growing interest in Rand and help revive her spirits, he established the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which offered seminars, marketed taped lectures, and began issuing publications. Rand wrote articles about her brand of libertarian philosophy, which she called objectivism. Branden, 25 years younger than Rand, was sometimes an abrasive taskmaster, but he displayed remarkable skills promoting the ideals of individualism and capitalism. Good times continued until August 23, 1968, when he told Rand about his affair with another woman. Rand denounced him publicly, and they split, although the reasons weren’t fully disclosed until Branden’s ex-wife Barbara’s biography was published 18 years later. Branden later became a best-selling author about self-esteem.
During the past half century, no single individual did more than Ayn Rand to win converts for liberty. Her books sell a reported 300,000 copies year after year, without being advertised by publishers or assigned by college professors. Indeed, her works have been trashed by most intellectuals. Her enduring appeal is an amazing phenomenon.
Curiously, despite the enormous influence of Rand’s books, they have had limited impact outside the English-speaking world. The most successful has been The Fountainhead, with editions in French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Russian. We the Living is available in French, German, Greek, Italian, and Russian editions, but a fifth as many copies are sold. The only overseas edition of Atlas Shrugged is in German — incredibly, it was never published in England. Anthem still hasn’t appeared in a translation, although French and Swedish editions are underway. Confirmation, perhaps, that America remains the world’s hotbed of rugged individualism.
The Final Years
Rand, Paterson, and Lane saw little of each other over the years. Rand and Paterson, both prickly pears, had a bitter split during the 1940s; after publication of Atlas Shrugged, Paterson attempted a reconciliation without success. Paterson’s friendship with Lane apparently had ended in some kind of intellectual dispute. Suffering gout and other infirmities, Paterson moved in with two of her remaining friends, Ted and Muriel Hall, in Montclair, New Jersey. There she died on January 10, 1961, at age 74. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
Rand and Lane had already split over religion. Although Lane remained active throughout her life — Woman’s Day sent her to Vietnam as their correspondent in 1965 — she cherished country living at her Danbury, Connecticut, home. On November 29, 1966, she baked several days’ worth of bread and went upstairs to sleep. She never awoke. She was 79. Her close friend and literary heir, Roger MacBride, brought her ashes to Mansfield, Missouri, and had them buried next to her mother and father. MacBride had her simple gravestone engraved with some words by Thomas Paine: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the Channel nor the Rhine will arrest its progress. It will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.”
Rand had quarreled with many friends and led a reclusive life during her last years. She endured surgery for lung cancer. She kept more to herself after Frank O’Connor’s death in November 1979, oblivious to how her ideas inspired millions. Two years later, she enjoyed one heartening view, though; entrepreneur James Blanchard had a private train take her from New York to New Orleans, where 4,000 people cheered her resounding defense of liberty.
Rand’s heart began to fail in December 1981. She hung on for three more months, asking her closest associate, Leonard Peikoff, to finish several projects. She died in her 120 East 34th Street, Manhattan apartment on March 6, 1982. She was buried next to O’Connor in Valhalla, New York, as some 200 mourners tossed flowers on her coffin. She was 77.
With their acknowledged eccentricities, Rand, Paterson, and Lane were miracles. They came out of nowhere to courageously challenge a corrupt, collectivist world. They single-mindedly seized the high ground. They affirmed the moral imperative for liberty. They showed that all things are possible.
Comments Off on Rawls the Irrelevant
As editor of Cato Unbound, I don’t actively take sides. Here, though, I’m going to be a bit polemical. My thesis is simple: If you want to square libertarianism with social justice, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is probably not a book you should reach for.
As the term is usually used, the advocates of “social justice” are not Rawlseans. You will not win them by quoting Rawls. You will not win them by thinking like Rawls. They know what they want, and Rawls isn’t it. Rawls is for the milquetoasts of the academy; social justice is radical stuff. Whatever their origins, the two have diverged, and there’s no sense denying it.
(This leaves aside Rawls’ effect on libertarianism proper, which Todd Seavey has aptly described as “attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.” The only way to improve would be to specify, more elegantly than I’m doing right now, that the free market is the washing machine, a durable good that benefits everyone; and Rawls is the soufflé, a fragile, delectable confection, enjoyed for half a minute by a well-stuffed class of elites.)
Now we may certainly debate the merits of Rawls’ system (I say it’s flawed) but we should recognize that Rawls is tangential to the debate about libertarianism and social justice.1
Rawls’ distinctive move in political theory was to recommend a shift in strategy. Those who are most concerned with the poor should reject both egalitarianism and utilitarianism, he argued. In their place he urged a maximin strategy, in which inequality of wealth would be tolerated, and even welcomed, on the condition that relative disparities in wealth always worked to the absolute benefit of the poor.
I’d like to ask the libertarians who are keen on Rawls: Have you ever tried pointing out the absolute wealth of the American poor? Have you ever mentioned this fact to a progressive? And did their hair not immediately catch fire?
For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.
To a rounding error, this is what Rawls would demand. Note that the absolute wealth of our poor is virtually unprecedented in all of human history. It’s an accomplishment shared only by those countries that have adopted a significant measure of free market economics, or, at best, by a few others who piggybacked on the free market’s creative success while adding almost nothing of value themselves.
The overwhelming majority of the poor in the United States enjoy technological wonders that didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Outside the free market/liberal democratic synthesis, essentially no other social system has ever delivered as much — because almost none of them can produce a steady stream of new technological innovations in the first place, let alone distribute them to the poor.
Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.
This really ought to count for something, but somehow it never does. And if giving the poor a lifestyle that would have been the merest science fiction in the 1960s doesn’t count for anything — then what on earth would?
In one sense, the poor are entitled to as much as possible. And I mean that sincerely. Were I able, I would give every American a salary of $200,000 a year — in real terms, not inflationary funny-money. I would put everyone in today’s much-hated one percent. And why stop there? Let’s have free clothes from Prada. Free meals from Le Bernardin. And biological immortality. And a fully functional U.S.S. Enterprise. Because hey, why not?
Where we could find all that wealth, God only knows. But the problems are technological, not philosophical. Nothing in justice forbids everyone from growing arbitrarily wealthy, provided they come by it peaceably and honestly.
But what is social justice, then? It’s the kind of justice demanded by socialism. We might want to say that market institutions can provide it. We might want to say a lot of things about markets. We think markets are good; naturally, we want to promote them. But we should not lose sight of what markets actually are. Or of who our real audience is. This stuff isn’t going to convince socialists, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it will.
The type of justice demanded by socialism is neither the type favored by libertarians — that of continuous, undirected, uncoerced economic activity — nor the type favored by Rawlseans — too complex to set off neatly with dashes. Social justice appears to mean (1) an ever-greater equality of outcome through forced wealth transfer and/or state-run economies; (2) a prediction — surely falsifiable — that forced transfers enhance the dignity and autonomy of the poor, (3) state-subsidized status enhancement for members of aggrieved groups, and (4) never mind about the absolute holdings of the poor, already.
That’s also why I will never be a socialist, and why I will always be skeptical of social justice.
The advocates of social justice do not like it that the poor have surprisingly large holdings in absolute terms. Point it out to them, and they grow resentful or condescending. (“Well… but… it’s not really very nice cake…”) All these consumer goods dull the sense of envy, and that sense needs to be sharpened if we’re going to force the equality of outcome.
But you never make more cake by slicing it up differently. When cake goes to the hungriest, you don’t encourage baking; you encourage whining about hunger. How do you make more cake? Even the baker can’t answer that question in any detail. It’s a product, so far as we can tell, only of the market process, of specialization and gains from trade, of local knowledge and market discipline.
That discipline now yields a productivity unheard of in all of human history. That’s something we and the Rawlseans both might learn from. But it’s not a thing beloved by the advocates of social justice.
1 On that tangent: I find Rawls incompatible with libertarianism in part because Rawlsean thinking is too quick to bless the status quo. It is, as I suggest above, too conservative for libertarianism, which ought to be a radical political movement. Libertarianism should always begin at or near the question, “Why is there some government rather than no government?” Libertarians may be anarchists or minarchists, but they should never take government as either a matter of course or as one of indifference.
This piece was originally published at Libertarianism.org. It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kogelmann’s piece here.
Comments Off on A (Revised) Theory of Justice
I’ll admit it: I’m a Rawls guy. I consider Rawls’s A Theory of Justice to be one of the most compelling pieces of political philosophy ever written, grounded in one of the most convincing justificatory arguments ever crafted. But I’m also a libertarian. This presents something of a problem: although Rawls is part of the liberal tradition, he is arguably the pinnacle of the “high” liberal tradition, which is a far cry from the “classical” side I’m more comfortable with. Indeed, Rawls maintained that out of five possible political orders—laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, state socialism, liberal (market) socialism, and property-owning democracy—only two such orders would be justified by the argument he sets forth: market socialism and property-owning democracy. (John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 136-138.) Given my commitment to Rawlsian political philosophy and my staunch libertarian leanings, a pressing question arises: what gives?
Before explaining away the apparent contradiction I need to give a brief summary of Rawls’s overall argument from A Theory of Justice. Rawls saw himself as continuing the social contract tradition found in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, though with a higher level of sophistication and abstraction than his historical predecessors possessed. In doing so he saw the social contract as a hypothetical contract: the principles of justice are the principles we would agree to if faced with an original bargaining position subject to certain constraints. The major constraint of the original position is that we consider potential political orders while behind a veil of ignorance: that is, we can’t know our particular position in society—whether we’re rich or poor, black or white, insanely talented or disappointingly average, hardworking or in a perennial state of torpor, religious or an atheist. In doing so we get rid of features Rawls considers to be morally arbitrary while also removing personal bias: after all, there is something suspect about billionaires arguing that capital gains taxes are unjust, as there is when the impecunious argue for radical egalitarianism.
The resulting principles of justice agreed to in the original position are as follows: First, each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. Rawls says those basic liberties are the right to vote and hold office, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of speech and assembly, as well as the right to hold personal (not productive) property. (A Theory of Justice, 53.) Second (and this is an incomplete summary), social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged. (Ibid., 72.) This principle requires that we think about economic inequalities by first imagining a perfect state of equality. Deviation from this perfect state of equality is justified only if the least advantaged in this new state of inequality are better off than they would be in the original state of perfect equality. As a final note, we need to recognize one more salient feature of the two principles of justice: namely, that they are in lexical order. By this Rawls means to say that “infringement of the basic equal liberties protected by the first principle cannot be justified, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages.” (Ibid., 54.) In other words, we can’t go about messing with people’s basic liberties in order to make those worst off in society better off, as required by the second principle. The basic liberties are fixed.
Given these two principles of justice, how can we go about marrying Rawlsian political philosophy with libertarianism? There are two ways, both of which I endorse, both of which, to be fair, face problems of their own. First, we can take a route similar to John Tomasi’s in his excellent new book Free Market Fairness, though I do diverge with him in significant ways. This approach argues that Rawls’s list of basic liberties enumerated in the first principle is lacking. What should also be included is “thick economic liberties,” which includes (by my estimation) the freedom of contract, the right to own private productive property, as well as the right to keep most of the fruits of one’s labor. If these liberties were included then—given the lexical ordering of the principles of justice—it would follow that the pursuit of the satisfaction of the second principle through setting up redistributive institutions would be greatly handicapped, for we cannot do anything that violates our now-present economic rights. Thus, in shifting the content of the first principle we protect economic liberties while limiting the significance and scope of redistribution.
This approach is not without problems, though. One key feature of Rawls’s understanding of the basic liberties (particularly the political ones) is that it is not sufficient that we simply have them; we also must be able to realize their “fair value.” By this, Rawls means that we must be able to meaningfully exercise these rights. As an example, it is true that I have the right to run for political office. But given that I am a poor graduate student, and given that running for office costs a great deal of money, it is probably true that I cannot exercise this right in a meaningful way—that is, the fair value of my right is not realized. One of the reasons, cites Rawls, that the fair value of rights is often not realized is due to wealth inequality: “While it may appear … that citizens’ basic rights and liberties are effectively equal … social and economic inequalities in background institutions are ordinarily so large that those with great wealth and position usually control political life and enact legislation and social policies that advance their interests.” (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 148. ) And he’s probably right about this: massive wealth inequalities allow some individuals to exercise their rights more effectively than others. As such, there is a tension between wealth inequality and the realization of the fair value of the basic liberties enumerated in the first principle of justice.
The problem here is that if we are to achieve fair value for everyone’s basic liberties then we will probably need to do something about massive wealth inequalities—but we can’t, because we have just included thick economic liberties as basic liberties, which would mean that we would have to violate our newfound thick economic liberties in order to reach a state of distribution that allows for the fair value of our other basic liberties to be realized. This would mean, to put it in Orwellian terms, that some basic liberties are more equal than others. And the problems don’t stop there. Can a poor person realize the fair value of their right to own private productive property (if we are to include thick economic liberties as those whose fair value must be realized)? Probably not—after all, it costs a lot to buy a factory. As such, does the inclusion of thick economic liberties coupled with the fair value criterion require us to redistribute so we can allow the fair value of our new thick economic liberties to be realized? If the answer is yes, then it seems like we would be in the peculiar position of having to violate our newfound thick economic liberties in order to, in a sense, realize them. These problems are not incorrigible, though. Two solutions come to mind: we can lexically order the basic liberties as we did the two principles of justice, or we can get rid of the fair value criterion, and only require that we protect basic liberties in a formal, less robust sense.
Here is the second way we can marry Rawls’s political philosophy with libertarianism: We can keep the basic structure of the two principles of justice the same, and simply make an economic argument. We can argue that the political order best satisfying the second principle of justice is a free market capitalistic order—that, as a matter of fact, the worst off will be best off if we let the market run its course. This would essentially result in libertarians echoing Milton Friedman’s pithy line that a rising tide raises all boats. As someone who lacks formal economic training, there is not much I can say about this type of argument. This, though, is actually one of the argument’s weaknesses: Given the incredible lack of agreement we see among professional economists, it is doubtful that we can ever be sure what economic system will indeed best satisfy the second principle of justice. Thus, there will always be indeterminacy as to whether this argument is correct or not due to its reliance on empirical facts—an indeterminacy that could (presumably) be avoided with a knock-down philosophical argument, as the above approach requires.
In this essay I presented two ways one can reconcile Rawls’s political philosophy with libertarianism. As someone who broadly endorses the Rawslian approach to political philosophy I also endorse the two arguments presented in this paper. In the spirit of fairness I also tried to highlight the problems both these approaches encounter. I think this is an important thing to do. There is no perfect argument, as of yet, establishing libertarianism as the best, or most just, political order. By doing exercises like this—by presenting various arguments in support of libertarianism while also being open and honest about their weaknesses—we can hopefully make philosophical progress through constructive discussion, and, at times, through trial by fire. In the end, libertarianism as a whole will be better off.
This piece was originally published at Libertarianism.org. It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kuznicki’s piece here.
Comments Off on Was Jeremy Bentham a Classical Liberal at heart?
Jeremy Bentham was born on Feb. 15th, 1748, in Spitalfields, England. One of the main early advocates of utilitarianism — the ethical view that, roughly, an act is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and wrong insofar as it does not — he is best known for his view that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
This impersonal, aggregative approach to ethics might seem to be a far cry from the individualism of classical liberalism. The impression that Bentham’s work lies outside the classical liberal tradition might be reinforced by the knowledge that in one of his major works, “Anarchical Fallacies,” he trenchantly criticized the view that persons had natural rights. And in fact, Bentham produced as one of his students Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism.
But Bentham himself was very much an individualist, and, as such, belongs firmly in the classical liberal tradition. Bentham’s opposition to natural rights (which he termed “nonsense on stilts”) stemmed from his view that the basis of morality was the value of happiness. For Bentham, this could be measured (through the “hedonic calculus”) with different types of happiness being ranked according to such factors as their duration and intensity. (It is important to note that for Bentham the happiness of all creatures mattered morally, not just that of humans.)
Bentham’s approach to morality was thus nothing if not empirical, and so insofar as it is true that certain institutional structures are more conducive to widespread well-being than others (e.g., markets, secure private property rights, and the rule of law) these would be supported by him.
But we need not rely on such indirect evidence to usher Bentham into the ranks of great classical liberals. In an age when (male) homosexuality was not only morally condemned but criminalized in England, Bentham wrote against the persecution of gay men, although he kept his essay on the topic (“On Offenses Against Oneself”) private and unpublished. He also argued (in “Defense of Usury”) in favor of economic liberty, holding that no-one “of ripe years and of sound mind, acting freely, and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered … from making such bargain … as he thinks fit.” And, of course, he was one of the primary mentors of John Stuart Mill, the great classical liberal author of On Liberty.
Bentham died in 1832, in Westminster, leaving behind some 30 million words of work on philosophy, law, economics, and politics. He also left behind his preserved body, which is now on display at University College, London. According to an urban myth, he still attends faculty meetings, where he is recorded as being “present, but not voting.”
Comments Off on Immanuel Kant: Philosopher of Freedom
If you want to understand the moral basis of a free society, there might be no better place to start than the thought of Immanuel Kant. He is the most significant and widely discussed moral philosopher in history. And he was self-consciously an Enlightenment liberal who believed in limited government and maximum freedom.
Let’s take a look at the elements of his moral and political argument for freedom.
I. The Good Will and the Moral Law
In his first work of moral philosophy, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant tries to systematize our common moral intuitions in order to give us a method for deciding moral controversies — that is, issues where our consciences or intuitions might disagree with others’ or not speak clearly.
He notes that the only unconditionally good thing in the world, according to common understanding, is a good will. Good fortune, health, and even happiness broadly understood are not unconditionally good, because when married to a bad will they become a source of condemnation for an impartial spectator. We don’t applaud the evil man who achieves his goals and rides off into the sunset savoring his victory. We condemn him and hope his plans are frustrated. No, more important than being happy is to be worthy of happiness, that is, to have a good will.
On this point, the Objectivist founder Ayn Rand misinterpreted Kant. She believed he was what she called an “altruist,” who thought it was praiseworthy to sacrifice happiness. Kant believes, as most of us do, that happiness should not motivate us to the exclusion of duty. Obedience to the moral law — duty — is the most important thing, but happiness is also desirable.
Kant notes that an important assumption necessary for moral responsibility is the idea that we human beings give the moral law to our own wills. We say to ourselves, “This is the right thing to do, and so I will do it.” We don’t know how it is possible for us to freely determine our own wills, but it must be possible for us if we are to consider ourselves as morally responsible beings.
II. The Categorical Imperative
The moral law takes the form of an unconditional or categorical imperative. It says, for instance, “Do not murder, even if you can achieve your goals by doing so.” It’s not a hypothetical imperative like “if you don’t want to burn your hand, don’t touch the hot stove,” or “if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t murder.” It commands our wills regardless of what our particular goals are.
Kant thinks all particular moral commands can be summed up in a fundamental, categorical imperative. It takes three forms. I’ll mention two of them here.
One form of the categorical imperative focuses on the notion that human beings are special because of our capacity for moral responsibility. Kant assumes that this capacity gives each individual human being a dignity, not a price. What that means is that we must not trade off the legitimate rights and interests of any human being for anything else. We must not treat other people or ourselves as means only to some other end, but always as ends in ourselves.
The other, perhaps more frequently cited, form of the imperative is highly abstract: “Always act according to that maxim that you can will as a universal law of nature.” In other words, think about the principle or rule that justifies your action; then figure out whether it’s universalizable. If so, it is an acceptable principle or rule for you to follow; if not, it is not. “Steal when I can gain an advantage thereby” is not universalizable because it implies that others may steal from me, that is, take what I own against my will. But I cannot will against my own will.
III. Rights and Freedoms
Now, this understanding of the dignity of the individual human being implies that persons have rights, in other words, that we have an enforceable duty to respect the freedoms of all persons.
So we can’t trample on the freedoms of one person to help one or many others (contra the “act utilitarians”). For instance, it would be wrong to kill one healthy person to distribute her organs to several sick people, even if doing so was necessary to save two or more lives. Each person has a dignity that must not be trampled, no matter what.
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(Another misunderstanding of Kant says that he thinks your intentions are the only thing that matter and you can ignore the consequences of your actions. To the contrary, to ignore consequences is to act with ill intent. Consequentialists differ from Kant in believing that only aggregate consequences of actions need be taken into account. Kant’s political theory is individualist, while consequentialist theories are inevitably collectivist.)
In an essay titled “Theory and Practice” (short for a much longer title), Kant gives an overview of his political theory. Once a civil state has been established to secure our rights, he says,
No one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of everyone else within a general workable law — i.e. he must accord to others the same right as he enjoys himself.
Kant therefore endorses the law of equal freedom, that everyone should have maximum freedom to pursue happiness consistent with the like freedom of everyone else, or what some libertarians have called the “Non-Aggression Principle.” This principle applies under government, not just in the state of nature.
The equal freedom of each subject in a civil state, Kant says, “is, however, perfectly consistent with the utmost inequality of the mass in the degree of its possessions, whether these take the form of physical or mental superiority over others, or of fortuitous external property and of particular rights (of which there may be many) with respect to others.” Kant is no Rawlsian; he is a classical liberal who realizes that liberty upsets patterns and should be preserved in spite of (or because of) that.
In the same essay, Kant endorses Locke’s view of the social contract. A legitimate state with a right to rule can emerge only after unanimous consent to the initial contract. To do otherwise would be to violate the non-consenters’ rights. We now know that unanimous consent to the social contract has rarely occurred in human history, and so Kant’s strong theory of individual rights sets us up for a rejection of political authority.
IV. Kantian Liberalism
Kant’s moral philosophy justifies extremely strong individual rights against coercion. The only justification for coercion in his philosophy seems to be defense of self or others. His ideal government therefore seems to be extremely limited and to allow for the free play of citizens’ imaginations, enterprise, and experiments in living.
Kant does take some strange positions on particular moral positions. He has an odd view of marriage as a kind of mutual servitude, he denies that there is a right to resist an unjust sovereign, and he thinks lying is always wrong, no matter what. I find that Kant is most persuasive at his most abstract, when he deals with fundamental philosophical issues.
Whatever your opinion of his work, Immanuel Kant deserves to be widely read by classical liberals and libertarians. His contributions to liberalism are important and still underappreciated.
Comments Off on Crony-in-Chief: Donald Trump epitomizes Ayn Rand’s “Aristocracy of Pull.”
After Donald Trump announced a number of cabinet picks who happen to be fans of Ayn Rand, a flurry of articles appeared claiming that Trump intended to create an Objectivist cabal within his administration.
“Ayn Rand-acolyte Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with fellow Objectivists,” proclaimed one article. Would that it were so. The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose birthday is today, was a passionate champion of individual freedom and laissez-faire capitalism and a fierce opponent of authoritarianism. For her, government exists solely to protect our rights, not to meddle in the economy or to direct our private lives.
A president who truly understood Rand’s philosophy would not be cozying up to Putin, bullying companies to keep manufacturing plants in the United States, or promising “insurance for everybody” among many other things Trump has said and done.
And while it’s certainly welcome news that several of Trump’s cabinet picks admire Rand, it’s not surprising. Her novel Atlas Shrugged depicts a world in decline as it slowly strangles its most productive members. The novel celebrates the intelligent and creative individuals who produce wealth, many of whom are businessmen. So it makes sense that businessmen like Rex Tillerson and Andy Puzder would be among the novel’s millions of fans.
But a handful of fans in the administration hardly signals that Trump’s would be an “Ayn Rand” administration. The claims about Rand’s influence in the administration are vastly overblown.
Even so, there is at least one parallel we can draw between a Trump administration and Rand’s novels, although it’s not favorable to Trump. As a businessman and a politician, Trump epitomizes a phenomenon that Rand harshly criticized throughout her career, especially in Atlas Shrugged. Rand called it “pull peddling.” The popular term today is “cronyism.” But the phenomenon is the same: attempting to succeed, not through production and trade, but by trading influence and favors with politicians and bureaucrats.
Cronyism has been a big issue in recent years among many thinkers and politicians on the Right, who have criticized “big government” because it often favors some groups and individuals over others or “picks winners and losers.”
Commentators on the Left, too, often complain about influence peddling, money in politics, and special interests, all of which are offered as hallmarks of corruption in government. And by all indications, Trump was elected in part because he was somehow seen as a political “outsider” who will “drain the swamp.”
But as the vague phrase “drain the swamp” shows, there’s a lot more concern over cronyism, corruption, and related issues than there is clarity about what the problem actually is and how to solve it.
Ayn Rand has unique and clarifying views on the subject. With Trump in office, the problem she identified is going to get worse. Rand’s birthday is a good time to review her unique explanation of, and cure for, the problem.
The Problem: Unlimited Government
The first question we need to be clear about is: What, exactly, is the problem we’re trying to solve? “Drain the swamp,” “throw the bums out,” “clean up Washington,” “outsiders” vs. “insiders” — these are all platitudes that can mean almost anything to anyone.
Are lobbyists the problem? Trump and his advisers seem to think so. They’ve vowed to keep lobbyists out of the administration, and Trump has signed an order forbidding all members of his administration from lobbying for 5 years.
It’s not clear whether these plans will succeed, but why should we care? Lobbyists are individuals hired to represent others with business before government. We might lament the existence of this profession, but blaming lobbyists for lobbying is like blaming lawyers for lawsuits. Everyone seems to complain about them right up until the moment that they want one.
The same goes for complaints about the clients of lobbyists — the hated “special interests.” Presidents since at least Teddy Roosevelt have vowed to run them out of Washington yet, today, interest groups abound. Some lobby for higher taxes, some for lower taxes. Some lobby for more entitlements, some for fewer or for more fiscal responsibility in entitlement programs. Some lobby for business, some for labor, some for more regulations on both. Some lobby for freer trade, some for trade restrictions. The list goes on and on. Are they all bad?
The question we should ask is, Why do people organize into interest groups and lobby government in the first place?
The popular answer among free-market advocates is that government has too much to offer, which creates an incentive for people to tap their “cronies” in government to ensure that government offers it to them. Shrink government, the argument goes, and we will solve the problem.
Veronique de Rugy, senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, describes cronyism in these terms:
This is how cronyism works: A company wants a special privilege from the government in exchange for political support in future elections. If the company is wealthy enough or is backed by powerful-enough interest groups, the company will get its way and politicians will get another private-sector ally. The few cronies “win” at the expense of everyone else.
(Another term for this is “rent seeking,” and many other people define it roughly the same way.)
There’s a lot of truth to this view. Our bloated government has vast power over our lives and trillions of dollars worth of “favors” to dole out, and a seemingly endless stream of people and groups clamor to win those “favors.” As a lawyer who opposes campaign finance laws, I’ve often said that the problem is not that money controls politics, it’s that politics controls money — and property, and business, and much of our private lives as well.
Still, we need to be more precise. “Favors,” “benefits,” and “privileges” are too vague a way to describe what government has to offer. Among other things, these terms just raise another question: Which benefits, favors, or privileges should government offer? Indeed, many people have asked that question of cronyism’s critics. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in an editorial responding to the effort by some Republicans to shut down the Export-Import Bank:
Governments regularly intervene in markets in the name of public safety, economic growth or consumer protection, drawing squawks of protest whenever one interest is advanced at the expense of others. But a policy that’s outrageous to one faction — for example, the government subsidies for wind, solar and battery power that have drawn fire on the right — may in fact be a welcome effort to achieve an important societal objective.
It’s a valid point. Without a way to tell what government should and should not do, whose interests it should or should not serve, complaints about cronyism look like little more than partisan politics. When government favors the groups or policies you like, that’s good government in action. When it doesn’t, that’s cronyism.
Government Force and Legal Plunder
In Rand’s view, there is a serious problem to criticize, but few free-market advocates are clear about exactly what it is. Simply put, the problem is the misuse of the power that government possesses, which is force. Government is the institution that possesses a legal monopoly on the use of force.
The question we need to grapple with is, how should it use that power?
Using terms like “favors,” “privileges,” and “benefits” to describe what government is doing when cronyism occurs is not just too vague, it’s far too benign. These terms obscure the fact that what people are competing for when they engage in cronyism is the “privilege” of legally using force to take what others have earned or to prevent them from contracting or associating with others. When groups lobby for entitlements — whether it’s more social security or Medicare or subsidies for businesses — they are essentially asking government to take that money by force from taxpayers who earned it and to give it to someone else. Call it what you want, but it ultimately amounts to stealing.
When individuals in a given profession lobby for occupational licensing laws, they are asking government to grant a select group of people a kind of monopoly status that prevents others who don’t meet their standards from competing with them — that is, from contracting with willing customers to do business.
These are just two examples of how government takes money and property or prevents individuals from voluntarily dealing with one another. There are many, many more. Both Democrats and Republicans favor these sorts of laws and willingly participate in a system in which trading on this power has become commonplace.
“Rent seeking” doesn’t capture what is really going on. Neither, really, does “cronyism.” They’re both too tame.
A far better term is the one used by nineteenth-century French economist Frederic Bastiat: “legal plunder.” Rand uses the term “political pull” to describe those who “succeed” by convincing friends in government to use the law to plunder others or to prevent them from competing.
And she uses the phrase “the Aristocracy of Pull,” which is the title of a whole chapter in Atlas Shrugged, to describe a society in which political pull, rather than production and trade, has become the rule. It’s a society that resembles feudalism, in which people compete to gain the favor of government officials in much the same way that people in feudal times competed for the favor of the king so they could use that power to rule over one another and plunder as they pleased.
The cause, for Rand, is not the size of government, but what we allow it to do. When we allow government to use the force it possesses to go beyond protecting our rights, we arm individuals to plunder one another and turn what would otherwise be limited instances of corruption or criminality into a systemic problem.
For example, when politicians promise to increase social security or to make education “free,” they are promising to take more of the incomes of taxpayers to pay for these welfare programs. When they promise to favor unions with more labor laws or to increase the minimum wage, they are promising to restrict businesses’ right to contract freely with willing workers. When they promise to “keep jobs in America,” they are promising to impose tariffs on companies that import foreign goods. The rule in such a system becomes: plunder or be plundered. What choice does anyone have but to organize themselves into pressure groups, hire lobbyists, and join the fray?
Rand memorably describes this process in the famous “money speech” in Atlas Shrugged:
But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law — men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims — then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.
Observe what kind of people thrive in such a society and who their victims are. There’s a big difference between the two, and Rand never failed to make a moral distinction between them.
Wealth Creators vs. Wealth Appropriators
In the early 1990s, Atlantic City resident Vera Coking found herself in the sights of a developer who wanted to turn the property on which she lived into a casino parking lot. The developer made what he thought was a good offer, but she refused. The developer became incensed, and instead of further trying to convince Coking to sell or finding other land, he did what a certain kind of businessman has increasingly been able to do in modern times. He pursued a political “solution.” He convinced a city redevelopment agency to use the power of eminent domain to force Coking to sell.
The developer was Donald Trump. His ensuing legal battle with Coking, which he lost, was the first of a number of controversies in recent decades over the use of eminent domain to take property from one private party and give it to another.
Most people can see that there’s a profound moral distinction between the Trumps and their cronies in government on the one hand and people like Vera Coking on the other. One side is using law to force the other to give up what is rightfully theirs. To be blunt, one side is stealing from the other.
But the victims of the use of eminent domain often lobby government officials to save their property just as vigorously as others do to take it. Should we refer to all of them as “special interests” and damn them for seeking government “favors”? The answer should be obvious.
But if that’s true, why do we fail to make that distinction when the two sides are businesses — as many do when they criticize “Wall Street,” or the financial industry as a whole, or when they complain about “crony capitalism” — as though capitalism as such is the problem? Not all businesses engage in pull-peddling, and many have no choice but to deal with government or to lobby in self-defense.
John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T bank (and a former board member of the Ayn Rand Institute, where I work), refused to finance transactions that involved the use of eminent domain after the Supreme Court issued its now-infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which upheld the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another. Later, Allison lobbied against the TARP fund program after the financial crisis, only to be pressured by government regulators into accepting the funds. In an industry as heavily regulated as banking, there’s little a particular bank can do to avoid a situation like that.
Another example came to light in 2015, when a number of news articles ran stories on United Airlines’s so-called “Chairman’s Flight.” This was a flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, that United continued to run long after it became clear it was a money-loser. Why do that? It turns out the chairman of the Port Authority, which controls access to all the ports in New York and New Jersey, had a vacation home near Columbia. During negotiations over airport fees, he made it clear that he wanted United to keep the flight, so United decided not to cancel it. Most of the news stories blamed United for influence-peddling. Only Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal called it what it was: extortion by the Port Authority chairman.
The point is, there’s a profound moral difference between trying to use government to plunder others and engaging with it essentially in self-defense. It’s the same difference between a mobster running a protection racket and his victims. And there’s an equally profound moral difference between people who survive through production and trade, and those who survive by political pull.
Rand spells out this latter difference in an essay called “The Money Making Personality:”
The Money-Maker is the discoverer who translates his discovery into material goods. In an industrial society with a complex division of labor, it may be one man or a partnership of two: the scientist who discovers new knowledge and the entrepreneur — the businessman — who discovers how to use that knowledge, how to organize material resources and human labor into an enterprise producing marketable goods.
The Money-Appropriator is an entirely different type of man. He is essentially noncreative — and his basic goal is to acquire an unearned share of the wealth created by others. He seeks to get rich, not by conquering nature, but by manipulating men, not by intellectual effort, but by social maneuvering. He does not produce, he redistributes: he merely switches the wealth already in existence from the pockets of its owners to his own.
The Money-Appropriator may become a politician — or a businessman who “cuts corners” — or that destructive product of a “mixed economy”: the businessman who grows rich by means of government favors, such as special privileges, subsidies, franchises; that is, grows rich by means of legalized force.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand shows these two types in action through characters like steel magnate Hank Rearden and railroad executive Dagny Taggart, two brilliant and productive business people who carry a crumbling world on their shoulders. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Orren Boyle, a competitor of Rearden’s, and Jim Taggart, Dagny’s brother and CEO of the railroad where she works. Both constantly scheme to win special franchises and government contracts from their friends in Washington and to heap regulations on productive businesses like Rearden’s. Rearden is forced to hire a lobbyist in Washington to try to keep the bureaucrats off of his back.
When we damn “special interests” or businesses in general for cronyism, we end up grouping the Reardens in with the Orren Boyles, which only excuses the behavior of the latter and damns the former. This attitude treats the thug and his victim as morally equivalent. Indeed, this attitude makes it seem like success in business is as much a function of whom you know in Washington as it is how intelligent or productive you are.
It is unfortunately true that many businesses use political pull, and many are a mixture of money-makers and money-appropriators. So it can seem like success is a matter of government connections. But it’s not true in a fundamental sense. The wealth that makes our modern world amazing — the iPhones, computers, cars, medical advances and much more — can only be created through intelligence, ingenuity, creativity and hard work.
Government does not create wealth. It can use the force it possesses to protect the property and freedom of those who create wealth and who deal with each other civilly, through trade and persuasion; or it can use that force to plunder the innocent and productive, which is not sustainable over the long run. What principle defines the distinction between these two types of government?
The Solution: A Government Limited by the Principle of Rights
As I noted earlier, the common view about cronyism is that it is a function of “big” government and that the solution is to “shrink” or “limit” government. But that just leads to the question: what’s the limiting principle?
True, a government that does less has less opportunity to plunder the innocent and productive, but a small government can be as unjust to individuals as a large one. And we ought to consider how we got to the point that government is so large. If we don’t limit government’s power in principle, pressure group warfare will inevitably cause it to grow, as individuals and groups, seeing government use the force of law to redistribute wealth and restrict competition, ask it to do the same for them.
The common response is that government should act for the “good of the public” rather than for the narrow interests of private parties. The Los Angeles Times editorial quoted above expresses this view. “What’s truly crony capitalism,” says the Times, “is when the government confuses private interests with public ones.”
Most people who criticize cronyism today from across the political spectrum hold the same view. The idea that government’s job is to serve “the public interest” has been embedded in political thought for well over a century.
Rand rejects the whole idea of the “public interest” as vague, at best, and destructive, at worst. As she says in an essay called “The Pull Peddlers”:
So long as a concept such as “the public interest” … is regarded as a valid principle to guide legislation — lobbies and pressure groups will necessarily continue to exist. Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals takes precedence over the interests and rights of others.
If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment — and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy [a mixture of freedom and economic controls] would bring them into existence.
It’s tempting to blame politicians for pull-peddling, and certainly there are many who willingly participate and advocate laws that plunder others. But, as Rand argues, politicians as such are not to blame, as even the most honest of government officials could not follow a standard like “the public interest”:
The worst aspect of it is not that such a power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle. The best that an honest official can do is to accept no material bribe for his arbitrary decision; but this does not make his decision and its consequences more just or less calamitous.
To make the point more concrete, Which is in the public interest, the jobs and products produced by, say, logging and mining companies — or preserving the land they use for public parks? For that matter, why are public parks supposedly in “the public interest”? As Peter Schwartz points out in his book In Defense of Selfishness, more people attend private amusement parks like Disneyland each year than national parks. Should government subsidize Disney?
To pick another example, Why is raising the minimum wage in “the public interest” but not cheap goods or the rights of business owners and their employees to negotiate their wages freely? It seems easy to argue that a casino parking lot in Atlantic City is not “in the public interest,” but would most citizens of Atlantic City agree, especially when more casinos likely mean more jobs and economic growth in the city?
There are no rational answers to any of these questions, because “the public interest” is an inherently irrational standard to guide government action. The only approach when a standard like that governs is to put the question to the political process, which naturally leads people to pump millions into political campaigns and lobbying to ensure that their interests prevail.
Rand’s answer is to limit government strictly to protecting rights and nothing more. The principle of rights, for Rand, keeps government connected to the reason we need government in the first place: to protect our ability to live by protecting our freedom to think and produce, cooperate and trade with others, and pursue our own happiness. As Rand put it in Atlas Shrugged (through the words of protagonist John Galt):
Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
A government that uses the force it possesses to do anything more than protect rights necessarily ends up violating them. The reason is that force is only effective at stopping people from functioning or taking what they have produced or own. Force can therefore be used either to stop criminals or to act like them.
The principle, then, is that only those who initiate force against others — in short, those who act as criminals — violate rights and are subject to retaliation by government. So long as individuals respect each other’s rights by refraining from initiating force against one another — so long as they deal with each other on the basis of reason, persuasion, voluntary association, and trade — government should have no authority to interfere in their affairs.
When it violates this principle of rights, cronyism, corruption, pressure group warfare and mutual plunder are the results.
There’s much more to say about Rand’s view of rights and government. Readers can find more in essays such as “Man’s Rights,” “The Nature of Government,” and “What Is Capitalism?” and in Atlas Shrugged.
In 1962, Rand wrote the following in an essay called “The Cold Civil War”:
A man who is tied cannot run a race against men who are free: he must either demand that his bonds be removed or that the other contestants be tied as well. If men choose the second, the economic race slows down to a walk, then to a stagger, then to a crawl — and then they all collapse at the goal posts of a Very Old Frontier: the totalitarian state. No one is the winner but the government.
The phrase “Very Old Frontier” was a play on the Kennedy administration’s “New Frontier,” a program of economic subsidies, entitlements and other regulations that Rand saw as statist and which, like many other political programs and trends, she believed was leading America toward totalitarianism. Throughout Rand’s career, many people saw her warnings as overblown.
We have now inaugurated as 45th president of the United States a man who regularly threatens businesses with regulation and confiscatory taxation if they don’t follow his preferred policies or run their businesses as he sees fit. A recent headline in USA Today captured the reaction among many businesses: “Companies pile on job announcements to avoid Trump’s wrath.”
Are Rand’s warnings that our government increasingly resembles an authoritarian regime — one that issues dictates and commands to individuals and businesses, who then have to pay homage to the government like courtiers in a king’s court — really overblown? Read Atlas Shrugged and her other writings and decide for yourself.
Comments Off on Liberalism reconstructed for a world divided
So 2016 is limping to an end with an assassination of an ambassador, another “inspired” attack on innocents at a Christmas market, and the formal election of a master crony-capitalist to the office of the presidency of the United States. We have angry tweets, mean tweets, and self-congratulatory tweets defining our age. But our age requires something different.
The liberal project must be reconstructed for a world divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, nationalist, and economic class. The liberal project has always been an evolving project, not fixed in time. It has taken on different meanings at different historical junctures. Now is no different, and to do the necessary reconstruction, there must be no divide between the humanities and the social sciences. Philosophy without economics is daydreaming, and economics without philosophy has no purpose, and both without politics are sterile intellectual exercises.
In this reconstruction, we may draw inspiration from Smith and Hume, Mises and Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan, Nozick, etc., but repeating their answers to the problems of their day will not work. We live in the post-colonial and post-communist era, where the neoconservative project of a ‘world order’ has only exacerbated the social tensions that define our age.
This post is designed for one purpose — to encourage young scholars of classical liberalism — be they philosophers, political scientists, economists, historians, sociologists, etc. — to pick up this challenge and apply all their talents to be students of our civilization. If the best and the brightest don’t pick up the challenge because of academic conformity methodologically, analytically, ideologically, then the necessary reconstruction will not occur. Note I am not saying “restatement”, I am saying reconstruction.
My career as an academic political economist began with studying the history, collapse and transition from socialism in the former Soviet Union, it then switched to the institutional lessons to be learned from the failure of development planning in Africa, Latin America and Asia. This has led to studies on economic calculation and complex coordination; institutional infrastructure and economic development; endogenous rule formation and analytical anarchism; and social epistemology and comparative institutional analysis. But, these are at best inputs into a study that seeks to addresses the problems that plague our world and the reconstructed liberal project.
We have serious problems that require serious attention. Let’s get to work.