Sunday, November 28, 2010

A "Teachable Moment" from Tennessee

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." – George Washington

The battle of “big” vs. “small” government … i.e., between socialism and capitalism … has taken a rather interesting turn. The turn revolves around a recent tragic incident in Tennessee. The New Jersey Star-Ledger editorialized for the big government side. Here is its account of what happened:

Gene Cranick’s home caught fire in rural Tennesee [sic] last week, so the family frantically called 911. But the fire department refused to respond because the Cranicks had forgotten to pay an annual $75 fire protection fee. As Cranick screamed “I’ll pay whatever you want!” into the phone, the fire department was ordered by heartless local officials to ignore him.

Oh, fire engines eventually showed up — when the blaze spread to the home of a neighbor, who had paid the fee. Firefighters extinguished that fire, then watched the rest of Cranick’s house burn to the ground. It’s a wonder they didn’t pop open a bag of marshmallows. The Cranicks lost all of their possessions, three dogs and a cat.

The fire department, of course, is run by the government. Whether the government should run it is another matter. Without getting into that specific debate, let’s assume for the sake of argument that fire departments were private, for-profit businesses. In that event, Cranick's house would probably still be standing. After all, what profit-seeking businessman would turn down a customer who is willing to “pay whatever you want!”

That perspective aside, there are a number of critical issues swirling around this tragedy. The situation here involves somewhat of a twist. The house was in a town not situated within the same jurisdiction as the fire department, which was from a neighboring town. The department offered its services voluntarily and as a courtesy to out-of-town homeowners, for a fee. The Cranicks’ were not tax paying citizens of the fire department’s town. They didn’t pay the out-of-town fee.

Those are the facts. We’ll get into the ethics of the firefighters’ refusal to respond in a bit, as we dissect this editorial. The Editors write:

But hey, this happened in the backwoods of some podunk town. It couldn’t happen here, right?

Not yet, anyway. But if you shrink government enough, this is what you get in the end. And we are inching in that direction, with leaf collection fees, garbage fees and high school sports fees.

Notice how a bizarre situation that none of us will ever have to face gets blurred into a hodgepodge of mundane, everyday concerns that most of us rarely think twice about. Well, why shouldn’t each of us pay for our own “leaf collection fees, garbage fees and high school sports fees”, as we do our utility, auto repair, and a myriad of other “fees”? Are they in the same category as a house on fire? The message is clear: If we suggest shrinking government by taking personal responsibility for these services, rather than cycle our money through government bureaucrats who do them for us, we are in essence asking for the day when the fire department will let our houses burn.

The S-L holds the Tennessee tragedy up as an example of the perils of small government. Here, we must stop to define our terms. What is big government? What is small government? The issue is not merely one of size, nor of semantics. Let’s examine the fundamentals.

A government is a unique institution. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that, in any society, it and it alone holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. It is a law-making body whose laws may compel its citizens to act only within its scope. This is as it should be and can only be. A “society” without laws, and a government without the teeth to enforce them, is anarchy. But those laws must have an objective basis in reality, and conform to proper politico-philosophic principles. When a government is limited to using its legalized power of physical force only as a means of protecting the rights of its citizens, as it was originally intended by the Founding Fathers, it is a vital and indispensable necessity of a free society. This is what is referred to as “small” or limited government - the essential premise regularly evaded or blurred by statists. Protection of individual rights is the only legitimate function of government (“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”), and the only legitimate basis for taxation. (How that principle relates to the question of whether or not fire departments should be run by government is an issue that is beyond the scope of this article.)

But, when a government steps outside of those limits, it becomes a "big" government and a threat to a free society, to the extent that it strays from its legitimate function. To the extent that a government uses its taxing powers to redistribute wealth or its law-making powers to regulate private behavior … i.e., to violate the rights of its citizens … is the extent to which it losses its legitimacy.

With that in mind, and considering the Star-Ledger’s highlighting of the Cranick tragedy as an example of the scary consequences of small government, let’s go along with its line of reasoning and play “devil’s advocate”. Let’s take a look at some historically recent examples of the abuses of big government: Soviet Gulags, Soviet Ukrainian famine, killing fields of Cambodia, Mao’s “cultural revolution”, China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, Cuba’s political prisons, North Korea’s abused and starving citizenry, Nazi death camps … the list goes on. How about all of the impoverished third world countries, whose destitution results from big dictatorial governments who fail to uphold small government bedrock institutions like property rights and reliable contract law and enforcement. But, these are extremes, you say? OK, how about the current financial crises, which was caused by the federal Reserve central bank, the politicians’ “affordable housing crusades”, and a whole network of interlocking government regulatory agencies and policies.

The Editors ridicule those who “preach the ‘you’re-on-your-own governmental gospel of less’ ”, and implore us to focus on a single example of the alleged treachery of what “less” brings. OK, then, how about the treachery of “more”? How about the devastating consequences of America’s original “death panel”, the federal Food and Drug Administration, under which countless Americans suffer and die needlessly every year while waiting as that agency routinely denies access to promising experimental drugs that it has not yet approved? Being “on your own” means being free to live by the judgement of your own mind. It is the essence of freedom. It means the freedom to associate with others on a voluntary, mutually advantageous basis, including trade and contractual freedom. But, that’s not the way it is meant by the Editors, who see hordes of incompetent loners in need of an imperial bureaucracy to run their lives. The opposite of being “on your own” means being forbidden to do so. It means someone else – someone empowered by the government’s legal monopoly on physical force; someone who, as a private citizen, is not capable of being on his own – making both mundane and critical personal decisions for you. This is the big government that the S-L exploits the Cranick’s tragedy to uphold as the good. Tell that to the victims of the FDA - the countless Cranicks thereof that the S-L ignores – whose health burns to the ground while big government bureaucrats roast marshmallows on their regulatory power.

The S-L states:

“Officials say they couldn’t accept the Cranicks’ money after the fire had started, because that would encourage homeowners to pay only when they needed the service. It’s sound — if morally bankrupt — logic.”

Why is it sound logic? If no one paid for this emergency service until they needed it, then there would be no fire department when they need it. Everyone would then have to “save everything he owns with a trickle from a garden hose” if his house caught fire. That’s what a morally “enlightened” code would mean. (That statement is really a backdoor slap at the critics of ObamaCare’s provision that requires insurance companies to cover new policyholders with “pre-existing conditions”, who use the same “morally bankrupt logic”. The end result of that policy will be the same: no health insurance companies.)

The S-L’s “logic” here is really an attack on the sanctity of contracts. So, let me pose this question: If I fell off of my ladder doing household chores on a weekend, would it be OK for me to file for workmen’s compensation, claiming to have been injured at work on Monday? Why not? I’m injured, and need money to cover my food and medicine while recuperating. That would be fraud, all right. But what the heck, that doesn’t mean those heartless government bureaucrats should deny my claim. After all, I may need the money to buy medicine for my sick child. But, you ask, wouldn’t that encourage a lot more fraud? That’s only “sound — if morally bankrupt — logic”.

Contracts are an indispensable foundation of a free and civil society. They are either a valid, legally enforceable means by which men deal with one another, or they are not. If anyone’s need, at any time, can justify the breaking of contracts or the imposition of involuntary servitude or the seizing of the property or money of others not contractually bound to provide it, then there is no law at all, except for the “law of the jungle”. It is either/or. It’s either the rule of objective law, or the existence of a primitive savage, who can see no reason why he shouldn’t loot and enslave other savages to satisfy his own need. This is the moral ideal upheld by the Editors, who believe that honoring contractual obligations – which demands honesty, integrity, and rationality – amounts to “sound — if morally bankrupt — logic”. And it is precisely the social arrangement of jungle savages that you get when you divorce logic – i.e., reason – from morality.

Does all of this mean that those firefighters shouldn’t have extinguished Cranick’s house fire?

For proper context, we must pause to distinguish between normative ethics – morality as it pertains to the normal course of human events – and an emergency. “Emergency”, by proper definition, pertains to a situation that involves imminent danger, of very short duration, demanding immediate action. This differs fundamentally from every other kind of human endeavor. For example, an insurance company considering an application for a new policy that excludes coverage to the new client for a “pre-existing condition” – a medical condition for which the new client had made no prior contractual arrangement to pay for it – is well within its rights and moral bounds to do so. Likewise, if that company refuses to pay for treatment not covered by its existing insurance contract with the patient, it is acting properly.

These last examples are brought up because some have tried to equate them with the firefighters watching the Cranicks’ house burn. Nothing can be further from the truth or the facts. These are not emergencies. They are the normal course of events, and normative ethics applies: which means, contractual obligations and rational self-interest governs actions. As philosopher Ayn Rand explains:

“The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.” (I am indebted to Ayn Rand, author of The Virtue of Selfishness, for identifying the essential practical and moral fundamentals involved here. See chapter three of that book.)

According to the facts as we know them, township local officials had no legal obligation to service Cranick. But, there is nothing implicit in the moral principle of the sanctity of contracts that would have forbidden those firemen, or their municipal bosses, from acting out of compassion in an emergency. After all, the Cranicks had simply forgotten to pay their fee. “Or what if”, as the S-L hypothesizes, “Cranick didn’t forget? What if he simply couldn’t afford the fee? What if he spent that $75 on medicine for a sick child?” Or even what if he could easily afford it, but didn’t because he irresponsibly decided that “ it could never happen to me”?

There could be any number of reasons why the fee wasn’t paid. Do any of them mean that the firefighters were obligated to respond to Cranick’s 911 call? No. Could they have? Certainly. Should they have? A case can be made that they should have - being available, ready, and able. Cranick could have been billed after the fact. He did, after all, verbally authorize the service with a promise to pay for it (Verbal authorizations, and legally binding verbal contracts, are commonplace in the business world). The experience could have been used as a “teachable moment”, with municipal officials showing the public why paying firefighter fees in a timely manner is the right thing to do and best for avoiding confusion in an emergency.

The “heartless local officials” should have authorized the fire department to extinguish the blaze, in my view, given the circumstances. But, that is not the real issue here. The real issue is: What is the proper role of government?

The Cranick case does nothing to advance the case for “big government”, or diminish the case for “limited” government. That the S-L and others on the Left would use this tragedy to advance their big government agenda, in the face of the bloody historical record of statism, is unconscionable.

The Editors end with this lame comment, getting to the essence of the issue:

So every time you hear a candidate say, “I’m going to run government like a business,” think of George Cranick. And then envision a day when police stand by and watch a rape, because, “Gee, sorry, lady, but you didn’t pay the police fee.”

One of the gimmicks used by statists to justify the latest expansion of government is to smuggle in a false choice: totalitarianism or anarchy. It’s either a government that runs fire departments or leaf collection or high school sports or garbage collection or health care or banks or auto companies or whatever whoever decides to call a “vital” service; or it’s rapists running wild. The above statement from the editorial is a manifestation of that premise. Missing from that choice is the original American vision of a limited government that protects, but does not violate, individual rights.

Never mind protests that total control is not really the goal. Once you’ve abandoned political principles, there is no way to draw a line between where government control ends and freedom begins. The Founding Fathers defined those principles. Statists have been undermining them ever since, trivializing them as quaint notions that are no longer relevant, in order to pave the road for their latest statist initiatives. The Star-Ledger and most modern Leftists do not want a totalitarian state, but as Ayn Rand has observed: “Principles, like laws of nature, continue to operate, whether men choose to recognized them or not…”. Once the principle that a government may run any aspect of our lives is accepted, then you’ve accepted the premise that the government can run all aspects of our lives. Once the principle of unalienable individual rights is abandoned, the logic of events leads inexorably to the totalitarian state – to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Red China, Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, or to any mutation of such… The Star-Ledger doesn’t want that. No one wants that. But the trend toward that end in America is clearly evident to anyone with the courage to think objectively.

A government is not, and can never be, “run … like a business”. A business can not legally use force, a government can. A business can not force anyone to buy its products, nor can anyone who has not purchased its products or otherwise met its terms of sale demand its products be taken by force. A “small” government is one that is constitutionally bound to use its monopoly on the use of physical force only to protect the rights of its citizens – which means, to stop and apprehend a rapist. It is this protective function, in fact, that allows you to be “on your own” – from both private criminals and the legal big government kind.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ayn Rand: Tea Party Voice of the Founding Fathers


In a piece in the Christian Science Monitor – an article that many correspondents believe was beneath the intellectual integrity of that publication – Vladimir Shlapentokh has declared that Ayn Rand is an unbefitting hero of the Tea Party. He writes:

Tea party leaders themselves talk about restoring America to the vision of the founding founders [sic]. That’s hardly a revealing insight; almost every political movement claims to carry on the founders’ legacy. We can learn much more about the tea party’s identity by looking to its heroes.

At tea party rallies, posters and praise single out the usual suspects: Thomas Jefferson, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck. But there’s another person who figures prominently at these rallies, one who serves as the intellectual fountainhead ... Ayn Rand. And that should concern all Americans. (Emphasis added.)

Ignoring Rand's real philosophy

Tea partiers portray themselves as ordinary Americans fed up with an out-of-control, deeply indebted welfare state. Many no doubt see Ms. Rand – the 20th-century writer and philosopher who railed against state power and collectivist thinking in such novels as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” – as a posthumous compatriot.

But by clinging to the superficial commonality of hostility to welfare, tea partiers fail to see (or willfully ignore) something critical: Rand espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy that is both fundamentally antiAmerican (sic) and deeply at odds with the tea party's own “we the people” cause.

The growing cultural penetration of novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand has unleashed a continuing barrage of criticism based upon misrepresentations and distortions of her ideas. This smear piece is no different. In typical fashion, the author writes as if he never even bothered to read Rand’s works. What’s interesting about this piece is the connection he makes between the Tea Party, Ayn Rand, and the Founding Fathers – or, more precisely, the wedge he attempts to drive between them based upon an “anti-concept” and a fraudulent view of the Founders’ concept of “We the People”. Why? To smother her ideas. A Tea Party Movement without its "intellectual fountainhead" Ayn Rand would be just what the reactionary enemies of the Founding Fathers desperately want – a hollow “intellectual arsenal” on the Right.

The anti-concept is the term “elitist” that Shlapentokh pins on Ayn Rand, and is the hammer he attempts to use to drive the wedge. “Anti-concept” is a term coined by Rand herself, which she defines as follows:

An anti-concept is … designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.

It consists of creating an artificial, unnecessary, and (rationally) unusable term, designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concepts—a term which sounds like a concept, but stands for a “package-deal” of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context, a “package-deal” whose (approximately) defining characteristic is always a non-essential.

Article correspondent and Objectivist Sylvia Bokor explains this principle as it relates to Shlapentokh’s use of the term “elitist”:

"Elitism" is an anti-concept. It is an attempt to substitute the opposite of what the word "elite" emotionally generates, in an effort to destroy the abstract meaning of the term.

The emotion the concept "elite" arouses is admiration, pleasure, assurance. Its abstract meaning is those of high moral character. The elite in every category of endeavor refers to the achiever, the producer, the doer, the creative, the man of ability. We look up to men of ability and consider them the best man can be. We give them an elite status because they deserve distinction for their achievement.

Most men prefer the company of men they can respect and admire. Few men favor the company of criminals, cheats, the dishonest and the malingerer.

The anti-concept "elitist" is always meant derogatorily. It suggests that those who do not seek the company of morally depraved are somehow "not nice."

Ayn Rand the “elitist” is in fact the greatest champion of the “average working man” precisely because she is a defender of the individual’s right to his own life. The heroes in her novels – the productive elite - portray the virtuous character traits that lead to a self-made successful state of life and are readily attainable by anyone, on any level of ability. Reardon, d’Anconia, and Roark serve as inspirations particularly for the young just starting out in life. It is precisely those who the statists love to denigrate as hopelessly inept “little people” requiring a paternalistic state that have the most to gain by Rand’s philosophy, called Objectivism. It is “We the People”, not some mythical oligarchic elite, that statists fear. Once “the people” catch on and stand up and demand their rights, the collectivist game is over. Ayn Rand Tea Partyers are doing just that.

But Shlapentokh is right about one thing: Rand was an enemy of democracy. On this she stood with the Founding Fathers, who strove to create a constitutionally limited republic that authorizes the people to elect its leaders, but whose powers are limited to protecting their rights. The concepts of individualism based upon unalienable rights, and democracy based upon the supremacy of “the will of the people”, are antipodes. The statist advance in this country depends upon obliterating this country’s core Founding principle, the rights of man. Since one of the ideological means used by statists to achieve this is to smuggle in the idea of democracy as the American system, it is quite obvious why Rand must never be allowed to get an honest hearing: A principled, consistent defender of individual rights is a threat to power-lusters everywhere and at all times.

And diffusing this threat is the core meaning of Shlapentokh’s intentions. The Tea Party Movement, for all of its often-contradictory ideological diversity, is fundamentally about “restoring America to the vision of the founding founders”. Shlapentokh finds it “ironic” that “At tea party meetings in September, Rand’s name competed in popularity with Jefferson”. Competition?!? The book that he attempts to discredit as championing “the elites”, Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, is in fact the greatest of tributes to the Founding Fathers. A proper understanding of that book makes it clear why Shlapentokh desperately needs to drive a wedge between Rand and Jefferson: Ayn Rand stands on the shoulders of the Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.

That Declaration is a very abstract document which espouses a particular set of ideals that holds the individual human being as the supreme, sovereign societal value, each capable of using his power of reason to build his own life by his own effort, in voluntary and benevolent association and trade with others. The Founders' vision upheld government as the people's servant, bound by the single limited duty to protect his unalienable rights to life and property, and to the liberty to pursue of his own goals and happiness. The very same description applies to Atlas Shrugged, and the parallels between Atlas’ heroes and the Founders are manifest – they both sought only for every man to be left free, and were willing to risk all to fight for the principles espoused by Jefferson.

The Declaration of Independence ends with these words, which all of the signatories pledged to uphold:

“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

In its essentials, that statement perfectly describes Atlas’s heroes. Both they and the Founders cleaved uncompromisingly to the ideals that created this country, based solely upon their confidence in the judgements of their own minds. Let’s examine the three leaders of the revolt against the tyrannical collectivist society portrayed in the world of Atlas Shrugged – John Galt, Francisco D’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold:

John Galt, who started out in life poor but full of ambitious intellectual fire, gave up the fame and fortune that his revolutionary invention would have brought him, as well as the pursuit of the woman he loved. Why? To spend his life rescuing the victims of the tyranny he hated, before that tyranny destroyed them. He is the leader – the “commander-in-chief” – of the rebellion.

Francisco D’Anconia, one of Galt’s two field generals, was born into wealth, inheriting the world’s largest industrial enterprise. His brilliant productive energy promised to expand that enterprise to unimaginable proportions. Yet, he gave it all up to join Galt in the rescue mission and rebellion. He, too, gave up the woman he loved for this cause.

Ragnar Danneskjold, the other Galt field general, gave up a promising academic career that could have made him a world-famous philosopher. He chose instead to risk his life, literally, to defend the property of those who earned it – yes, all of them, including “everyday Americans” – against a looting government.

They gave it all up, and in varying degrees risked their very lives, for the ideal of individualist freedom. They had no idea how long the fight would be, or when they would be able to return to the lives they had chosen, if ever. They single-mindedly followed a vision – the vision of the Founding Fathers – to whatever end awaited them. Against an uncertain and risky future, armed with nothing but the judgement of their own minds, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor – to each other and to their cause.

Atlas Shrugged is a monument to the American Founding, a salute and tribute to its Founders, and its author the logical intellectual and philosophic voice of the movement whose symbol is the Revolutionary War era slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me” – today’s Tea Party. Far from being “appalled to see how the ‘everyday Americans’ at tea party rallies have demanded that they (not the American nobility nor the Ivy League graduates) should have the decisive voice in American politics”, Rand’s heroes are the voice of the Founders rising in their defense. It is no wonder that the enemies of the Tea Party want to divorce it of Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand built upon the work of John Locke, the Enlightenment thinkers, and the Founding Fathers, purging the poisonous contradictions and omissions in their work, to forge the missing link of America’s Founding – a comprehensive ideological foundation and defense. The lack of a proper foundation is what opened the door to statism and the erosion and eventual destruction of the Founders achievement. If Rand’s philosophical validation of the American Revolution ever took hold in our culture, it would mark the beginning of the end of the predatory welfare state, and usher in a second, final … and peaceful … American Revolution. For this achievement, Ayn Rand deserves the title, America’s Last Founding Father.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The GOP Grabs a Tiger by the Tail

There were no surprises. The Republicans took the House of Representatives with room to spare. The Senate remained Democratic, but with a much larger GOP minority. The reign of unfettered Obama statism is over. So far, it’s 1966.

Considering today’s political realities, this is the ideal setup. In 1994, the Republicans rampaged to full control of both Senate and House, and President Bill Clinton used the next two years using the GOP congress as a punching bag, and won re-election in 1996. With a divided congress, President Obama will have a hard time employing that kind of strategy, although he will try. A repeat of 1994 would probably have greatly enhanced Obama’s re-election prospects, given the GOP’s philosophical agnosticism.

Speaking of that, the signs are not good. Already, we’re hearing about the Republican’s coming “moderate” approach. Political incrementalism is a workable strategy only when backed up by firm principles. As I’ve noted, the Statists (mostly Democrats) have done just dandy expanding government power in bits and pieces, while cleaving solidly to their collectivist/socialist ideals. America needs desperately for the Republicans to be just as strong in upholding individualism/capitalism ideals. The political battles can be fought with the usual give-and-take, but the philosophical battle is necessarily between the two extremes. This is where the GOP must stand tall.

Will they? Without an explicit statement upholding the individual’s right to live for his own sake, there is no way for the Republicans to effectively advance a free market political agenda. One must know what one stands for. The Democrats do. For the next two years, Obama will talk “compromise” and “cooperation” with the House Republicans while framing the debate in his collectivist terms. The GOP must call him on it, and present the clear philosophical alternative, or he will steamroll them.

The new element in this year’s GOP triumph is, of course, the Tea Party Movement. The Tea Party began, ironically, as a rebellion against the Republicans and their 2008 Tarp bailouts (although the name had not yet been coined). It then swarmed the Democrats in 2009. In late 2009 into 2010, the Tea Party flexed its muscles in elections in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial, and Massachusetts senatorial, races, with Republicans being the prime beneficiaries. The Tea Party continued its emergence into the political arena with the midterms, riding the minority Republican Party as the vehicle for expressing its growing cultural power.

The Republican leadership would like to have us believe that they harnessed the power of the Tea Party by heeding their message. But, the Republicans have harnessed nothing. They have grabbed a tiger by the tail. The unofficial motto of the Tea Party is, “Don’t Tread on Me!”. The Tea Party, that leaderless conglomeration of disparate, often contradictory elements, will not stand patiently by. It is a movement by and for independents. It wants government out of the business of running our lives. If this GOP crop doesn’t battle hard to roll back statism, the Tea Party will turn on them as fast as it turned on the 2008 Republicans and the 2009 Democrats.

The result, if the GOP fails this time, could very well be the emergence of a third major political party in 2012 – a literal Tea Party, this time.

Get ready.