Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Governor Christie Winning NJ's Public School War?

OK ... maybe "winning" is too strong a word. 2011 was to be the year of education reform, according to Governor Chris Christie. The results were underwhelming, to say the least.

But Christie has two more years of his first term to go, and an interesting development occurred on the last day of the 2011 NJ legislative session; passage by a heavily Democratic legislature of the Urban Hope Act. This narrowly tailored bill would authorize private companies to build and run public schools. The companies would finance and build the schools themselves, but would draw upon tax dollars to fund operations. They would have to operate under strict state- and municipal-imposed guidelines. Furthermore, these schools would be restricted to only three "failing" districts; Newark, Camden, and Trenton. In other words, the bill is minimal "privatization", but not a significant move toward a genuine free market.

The interesting thing about this bill is not the bill itself, but the fact that it drew the reluctant support of the New Jersey Education Association - the teachers union. The question is why?

The union has long been a steadfast opponent of anything with a scent of privatization. As such, the decision to support this bill came as a shock to government-run public schools’ staunchest defenders. Bob Braun of the NJ Star-Ledger, writing on the eve of what looked like certain passage, blasted the union endorsement:

In a move that displays either its weakness or cynicism — or both — the state’s largest teachers’ union has joined forces with archenemy Gov. Chris Christie and the powerful Camden County Democratic machine of George Norcross to endorse the "Urban Hope Act," which would allow private companies to build and manage public schools using taxpayer money.

The union’s flip-flop shatters the unity of a coalition that has consistently opposed the Christie administration’s efforts to bring privatization to public education. It left spokesmen for some of those groups literally speechless.

So again, the question is, why? The answer could be that the union views itself as losing a battle it can’t afford to lose; Christie’s ultimate goal is universal parental school choice. Braun continues:

Privately, union allies say it had no choice but to support the bill. They say the union hopes its collaboration with the Camden County machine might forestall legislative action on Christie proposals the NJEA fears more than it does private management of public schools — private school vouchers and tenure reform.

"The passage of the Urban Hope Act certainly will remove the logic behind the argument for vouchers,’’ Schnitzer said. She denied reaching a quid pro quo for the union’s support of the Norcross bill.

I hope Christie reads the tealeaves as pointing to a green light for more aggressive initiatives. The argument that the UHA “will remove the logic behind the argument for vouchers” is wishful thinking. Why should only parents with kids in “failing” school districts have choice? Once the principle that parents have the right to direct the course of their own children’s’ education is accepted, as is increasingly the case, the “logic” leads more and more towards freedom and individual rights in education – until and unless proponents get cold feet. This is not to say that I support Christie’s plan of implementation, which is, ultimately, fatally flawed. As I wrote in my 5/19/10 post “The Voucher Trojan Horse”:

Governor Christie intends no small, half-way measures. His approach is bold, aggressive, and courageous. He means to engage the entrenched establishment, including the coercive political power of the state teachers’ union, in full frontal ideological combat. He has done us a huge service by bringing education to the front burner in a big way. The government-run public school monopoly has been put on notice - your days are numbered in New Jersey. For this, he deserves enormous credit.

Unfortunately, his energetic enthusiasm is hitched to the wrong solution. While some measure of educational improvement is bound to occur early on, if his plan is fully implemented, the very advantages of private education that makes parental choice so appealing will eventually be washed away. They will get smothered by establishment conditions attached to their voucher checks, as the bureaucratic handcuffs are slipped on and their entrepreneurial freedom such as it is slips away.

A better way to implement universal choice is through a plan I spelled out in my Spring 2011 Objective Standard article, Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits? It is a plan that gives full private control over all education tax dollars to all that pay those taxes, and is thus a real, viable step toward an education free market.

That aside, the political message that can be drawn from the passage of the Urban Hope Act is that the education establishment is on the defensive as the momentum continues to shift toward the parental school choice movement. Governor Christie has played a big part in humbling the Democrats’ strongest constituency in a heavily “blue” state – no small achievement. This is no time for true education reformers to rest on their laurels.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hypocrisy Right and Left

In a recent editorial appearing in a major newspaper right after the NH primary, and before Newt's big SC win, "Mitt Romney's free market success draws Newt Gingrich's attacks," the editors lectured Newt Gingrich as follows:

Let’s see if we have this straight: Newt Gingrich, the Reagan conservative, and his patron Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner, want us to believe that Mitt Romney is evil because he practiced capitalism when he ran Bain Capital.

We have entered strange new territory. With Romney’s win in New Hampshire, the race now moves to South Carolina, where Adelson has purchased enough TV time to hammer this message home. The emotional punch comes from testimony by individuals who are said to have lost their jobs as a result of buyouts by Bain.

So ask yourself this: Is it inherently wrong for an investor to purchase a firm and then reduce its staff?

Suppose the investor finds a way to do the same work with fewer people. Or that diminished demand for the firm’s product means that it must shrink to survive.

In those conditions, the only rational answer is to lay off employees. Because if you don’t, more efficient competitors will grind the overweight firm into dust. And at that point, all the firm’s jobs will be lost.

That’s the logic of a market economy. And yes, what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called 'creative destruction' takes a human toll. It’s important to have a safety net to soften the blow with unemployment benefits, job training programs and other help. But to suggest that Romney is somehow a force for evil because Bain’s buyouts resulted in layoffs is pure demagoguery.

Bain’s business model was to make leveraged purchases of firms, bring in new management to make them more efficient, and then sell them. Economists say that leveraged buyouts like this typically cost jobs in the short run, but position the firms to create more jobs in the long run.

...But for a conservative like Gingrich to vilify Romney based on the simple fact that jobs were lost is beyond hypocritical. And it’s a reminder, as if one were needed, that he is not fit to be president.

The Wall Street Journal? Investors Business Daily? Nope. That was none other than NJ's largest newspaper - the left-leaning Star-Ledger, on 1/12/12. Perhaps this editorial can be explained by the paper's late encounter with economic reality. Like most newspaper corporations, the Star-Ledger has had to brutally downsize in recent years to survive, cutting many jobs along the way. In any event, when liberals begin sounding more like capitalists than a leading presidential candidate of the allegedly pro-capitalist GOP, it's all the proof we need to show how desperately the party needs new blood ... and ideas.

But just three days earlier, on 1/9/12, the same NJ Star-ledger exposed a bit of its own hypocrisy, blasting an innocuous sounding bill scheduled for a vote near the end of the lame duck legislative session - since shelved - that would "allow local governments to stop posting legal notices in newspapers." The editors wrote:

The cover story is that this will save local governments money by allowing them to post the information online instead.

That’s not true, because towns would have to build and maintain secure computer sites for this purpose.

The sponsors of the bill haven’t bothered to calculate that cost, but the Legislature’s non-partisan researchers warn that the bill could actually increase costs to local governments.

The bosses don’t care about the costs, though, because saving money is not the real purpose. And they don’t care that many poor and elderly people don’t use computers, either.

The real purpose is to give them a tool to bully newspapers. Under this bill, a local mayor or county executive could retaliate against newspapers by pulling these advertisements. The bill is an attempt to turn watchdogs into lapdogs.

Coming from a major supporter of the regulatory welfare state, this editorial is almost laughable. Businesses are routinely bullied by antitrust crusaders; developers by local zoning boards and environmental protection agencies; medical doctors by Medicare/Medicaid price controllers. ObamaCare will bully every individual and every business into government-approved health insurance policies. Antitrust laws, government zoning, governement-run medicine, and other regulatory welfare-state schemes are all forms of government bullying of private Americans that the Star-Ledger supports.

The Star-Ledger may have a point about this proposed law, but their sob story rings hollow considering their philosophical love affair with statism. Sooner or later, chickens will come home to roost.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Politics 2012: Can “American Individualism” Save the GOP – and America?

In a recent speech in Kansas, President Barack Obama once again reiterated his collectivist ideological premises. In this PJTV interview, Yaron Brook called the speech “about the death of individualism in America and that the standard from now on needs to be collectivism.” Obama “knows what his ideology is [and] has laid it out for us,” Brook stressed. This “anti-American” speech, he said, should make it clear that “the job of the Republican candidate, whoever it is, [is] to have this speech for taking on individualism, capitalism, [and] freedom.” (For an indepth look at the president's deep-seated premises once again exposed in this latest speech, see my 3-part 2008 essay Obama’s Collectivist Manifesto – Parts I, 2, and 3.

Is that candidate a part of the group currently competing for the Republican nomination? It doesn’t look like it. To be sure, some of the makings of a candidate of such stature do exist, but he is scattered among all of them. When listening to the debates, one can pick out policy positions from each candidate that, put together, would produce a pretty decent prospect. The dark cloud hanging over the entire field, however – at least the ones participating in the debates – is that cast by the dominance over the party of the Religious Right and its social authoritarianism. That dominance hollows out the party’s allegiance to individual freedom and free markets – to the extent that that allegiance even exists. More broadly, the Republicans hold to the same collectivist premises as Obama, often speaking of “the will of the people” or the “overall good of the country.”

Without a consistent ideological commitment to counter Obama’s explicit collectivist message, the Republicans may actually lose an election that should be a slam-dunk for them – and they would deserve it. The GOP’s muddled message, if you can even call it a message, is no match for Obama’s philosophical consistency, which Dr. John David Lewis labeled Obama's Atomic Bomb. Consequently, the GOP may be headed for a shipwreck that could send the old guard packing and direct the party toward a search for new ideas and a new identity. This would open the door to the kind of innovative thinking that could rejuvenate the GOP into the kind of ideological counter-force to the prevailing collectivist trend that American statists have not encountered in a long time.

Does such innovative thinking exist? Fortunately, the answer is yes; and that is the subject of a book review of mine that has been published in the Winter 2011-2012 Objective Standard. The book is called American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party by Margaret Hoover. Ms. Hoover is a young Republican activist, a Fox News contributor, and the great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover.

Hoover’s book is strikingly reminiscent, in its broad theme, of my November 2008 call-to-action entitled My Challenge To the GOP…a Philosophical Contract With America. Ms. Hoover’s thesis has significant flaws, however. Her proposed political platform for the GOP is far less consistent with her theme than it could be, even allowing that a full platform of laissez-faire would not be realistic in today’s political climate. For example, although Hoover calls for some privatization such as “private accounts within Social Security and health savings accounts for health-care spending [so as to] maximize the individual’s ability to make his or her own decisions,” she does so not as a step toward full freedom, but as an end in themselves. She accepts the basic validity of the New Deal and Great Society programs in direct contradiction to the principles of the individualism she promotes. Put another way, she does not "maximize the individual’s ability to make his or her own decisions." Rather, she keeps him locked up in coercive government programs, albeit with more "choice." More crucially, Hoover fails to defend individualism morally, which is the source of the contradiction. Instead, and in line with most pro-freedom thinkers dating back to the Enlightenment, she attempts to reconcile individualism with altruism.

The pattern of defending individualism and by extension capitalism and individual rights on a base of altruism has been the dominant formula, and failure, of conservatism to this day. Hoover continues along that path. But one must acknowledge that she is not a philosophic innovator, after all, but a political innovator. Even so, Hoover seems to at least understand the basic existential nature and supreme value of individualism and its vital connection to America. And although she does not explain or defend individualism down to all of its deepest philosophical roots, it is unclear why. There are times that she hints a fuller understanding, and she does mention individualism’s foremost moral defender, Ayn Rand, alluding to her fiction and non-fiction works as influential to conservatism in the economic sense. She comes closest to a proper description of individualism in the metaphysical and epistemological realms; the individual as sovereign and the individual mind as the source of all human progress. And though she nibbles at the ethical aspect of individualism, it is here that she goes off the rails. Though she doesn’t use the term “altruism”, it’s clear that’s what she has in mind when she says that individualism must be “tempered” or “imbued with service to community … and country,” because the acknowledged inspiration for her current work is the 1922 book written by her great-grandfather Herbert Hoover. In his book, “American Individualism” – a title which Margaret Hoover borrows and which is indicative of its supreme importance to her thesis – the man who would become our 31st president makes an impassioned plea for “the sole source of progress … [the] intelligence, character, courage, and … divine spark of the human soul [which] are alone the property of individuals.” Yet this self-described “unashamed … American individualist” would forbid “individualism run riot, with no tempering principle.” Despite his acknowledgement that “we dare not abandon self-interest as a motive force to leadership and to production, lest we die,” his lack of understanding of the true nature of individualism leads him to that “tempering” principle – the “ideal” of “the aspiration and satisfactions of pure altruism.” Herbert Hoover can serve as a philosophical case study in how the most passionate defender of individual freedom will be inexorably drawn to statism - as evidenced by his presidential policies - as a consequence of altruism's influence.

Does Margaret Hoover not understand the moral case for individualism? Does she understand it but not agree with it? Does she understand it, perhaps even agree with it, but believe that promoting individualism on its proper egoistic base is politically untenable? The answers are unknown to me, but a yes answer to this last question is a distinct possibility. Hoover seeks to inject individualism into the heart of the Republican brand. With service and sacrifice as the accepted moral norms within a culture that still implicitly reveres individualism, she may be attempting to make individualism more politically palatable. But there are better ways to do that. For example, although individualism recognizes no unchosen moral obligations of a positive nature (i.e. requiring action), she could explain that there is nothing about the nature of individualism, properly understood, that would preclude self-interested chosen moral obligations to fellow citizens, to private efforts to make one’s community environment a better place to live, or to the kinds of humanitarian efforts like the WW I food relief efforts to stave off famine that Herbert Hoover led and which Margaret Hoover describes and lauds in her book. Indeed, Herbert Hoover himself disproves the need for any tempering principle, as this “unashamed … American individualist” stepping up in an emergency in no way contradicts the egoistic nature of individualism: Self-reverence is the moral core of individualism, and that is where compassion, good will, and the valuing of others begin. After all, who would want the truly needy – those unable to help themselves through no fault of their own - to be without any charitable options? (In fact, 19th century America – the most individualistic century any nation ever lived – was also a very generous and compassionate America, as Don Watkins and Yaron Brook explain in the current issue of Forbes.) Individualism does not preclude flourishing relationships at the level of romantic love, friendship, child rearing, or associations with neighbors. In fact, individualism fosters close personal relationships based upon shared values. Individualism does not mean narrow self-centeredness or personal isolationism. Furthermore, it does not mean power-lust; the domination or exploitation of others, which is a form of selfless pseudo-individualism that in fact is the flip side of the coin that also embodies parasitism. Living through and/or at the expense of others takes many forms – none of them individualistic. A true individualist would never rely upon anything other than honest and voluntary associations with others because, being an individualist, he doesn’t fear or resent self-reliance.

That said, Hoover’s main thrust is toward individualism, and politically her sympathy clearly lies with individual freedom; her view being, essentially, that altruism is compatible with individualism, and some limited statism is compatible with freedom, rather than the other way around on both counts. Hoover's initiative is a rather courageous one, as she risks the scorn of establishment conservatism (ex. being labeled a “RINO” – Republican in Name Only). She sought a formula for a new Republican majority and found it in what she views as the common ground between her great grandfather’s ideas and today’s millennials, and seeks to transplant American Individualism 1922 into 21st century politics. The focus on individualism will move the political debate into freedom’s ideological territory, and could begin the long process of building a proper philosophical foundation for the GOP.

A philosophical principle has its own dynamic, being grounded as are all concepts not in the subjective opinions or understandings of any individual mind but in the objective facts of reality. That Ms. Hoover doesn’t establish the moral foundation of individualism does not mean it doesn’t exist. Others may come forward to take on the task of defining it. That her flawed conception leaves the moral argument for individualism to others to properly define does not diminish the political significance of what she is proposing. A principle carries the virtue of being a reference point or yardstick by which to measure the validity of a party’s entire platform agenda. Under the unifying principle of individualism, competing GOP factions would have to anchor their positions to that premise – or leave the party. It would draw a bright line between the two major parties; a line that currently doesn’t exist except as a matter of degree between ideologically like-minded political entities. A GOP fused around individualism would serve a dual purpose: It would compel the Republican Party toward consistency in defense of freedom, while painting the Democratic Party into a collectivist corner.

A Hoover-esque “American Individualism”-oriented major party would give the more consistent defenders of individualism, individual rights, and capitalism a broad political opening. Herbert Hoover’s gallant attempt to stand against the collectivist tide of his day anticipated his successors of the 20th century conservative movement with his vigorous defense of individualism on a moral base of altruism. Capitalism, the political derivative of individualism, has been defended by conservatives on that premise ever since. That formula has been put to the test over the past nine decades, and has failed. To make their case, individualism’s consistent defenders may now draw upon the historical failure of that formula to stop the incremental advance of the very socialism that Herbert Hoover sought to stop. They also have something else that didn’t exist 90 years ago; the wide-scale philosophical case for the morality of individualism provided by philosopher Ayn Rand, whom Ms. Hoover credits only narrowly as merely a champion of economic liberty.

Hoover’s valiant attempt to infuse the Republican Party with “individualism as [its] integrating philosophy” is a breath of fresh air. Despite its flaws, the value of Hoover’s book is that it introduces the proper principles into the political realm, whether explicitly or implicitly. It points the national dialogue toward better ideas, because the fundamentals of individualism lead to pro-individual rights, pro-egoism, pro-capitalism political legislation, as the course of least resistance.

Is Margaret Hoover’s a lonely voice in the wilderness of an intellectually challenged Republican Party, destined to be drowned out by the social authoritarians and the pragmatist me-too-ers? Or, is she a pioneer in a new vanguard destined to revolutionize the party? As of this writing, the Republican field seems unable to produce a candidate that could actually have a strong chance of defeating Barack Obama. But in this era of “the protestor,” coupled with the steady abandonment of the two major parties by American voters, the Republican Party my emerge from the coming 2012 election season in search of new ideas and a new direction. This is the silver lining circling the GOP field. In that event, Margaret Hoover’s “American Individualism” could be an influential book. It is the kind of political initiative that freedom-lovers can encourage (and be encouraged by) – not in every premise and certainly not in every concrete detail – but in the direction it would take the political dialogue. It would be the equivalent of a Republican atomic counterattack. As I concluded in my condensed review published on

Despite the serious ethical contradiction inherent in her central thesis, however, Hoover is a political innovator who seeks to point the GOP in the right direction, and deserves strong - albeit qualified - support from liberty lovers. Both within the GOP and in the nation at large, her proposal could reorient America's political debate around the central conflict - individualism vs. collectivism. It could infuse our politics with a broad, vital debate on ethics, the rights of the individual, the proper role of government, and the fundamental nature of individualism itself. By calling on the GOP to be a principled, consistent advocate of individualism - even a significantly flawed conception of it - we may finally get "a choice not an echo" against the Obama Democrats' crusading collectivism. Should the GOP be serious and farsighted enough to adopt Hoover's basic strategy, we may begin to turn America's political tide away from the approaching abyss of totalitarian socialism.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

John David Lewis, New Intellectual

John David Lewis, one of a small but growing number of Objectivist intellectuals taking the lead on spreading the ideas of philosopher Ayn Rand (and by implication the ideals of the Enlightenment and of the Founding Fathers), died on January 3rd, 2012.

ARI has put up a memorial page, which contains a listing of his contributions to Objectivist thought. Several excellent tributes have been written, including by Craig Biddle, who summed up Mr. Lewis' personal and professional mission:

John taught at Duke, where his primary message to students was that their minds are efficacious; that they can acquire knowledge of the world, including historical and moral truth; that they can achieve their dreams if they are willing to think and work; and that their lives are theirs to live and enjoy.

Mr. Biddle's tribute and those of others who personally knew him such as Ari Armstrong, Alex Epstein, and Diana and Paul Hsieh lend a personal perspective for those of us who didn't know him. Leonard Peikoff, echoing others who spoke of John Lewis' enthusiam for life, wrote:

John waged a heroic battle against cancer, never giving up, always focusing on trying to achieve a recovery in the future. When told a little while ago that it was the end and he had only several months, he wrote me words to the effect of: I am not concerned about death, which I will never know, but about life, which I intend to go ahead and live as long as I can.

My motivation in recognizing Mr. Lewis' death here is to raise some awareness of his work in the activism field. I've often quoted from and linked to his work, including his articles in The Objective Standard such as Obama's Atomic Bomb: The Ideological Clarity of the Democratic Agenda
and What the “Affordable Health Care for America Act,” HR 3962, Actually Says.

I've enjoyed, learned from, and been inspired by his public talks and lectures, as well. I particularly liked Health Care Reform: Setting Doctors Free, delivered seven months before his death. In this lecture, Dr. Lewis discusses the inextricable link between life and action. He shows how to live requires the freedom to not just think but to act on one's thinking. Government-run medicine is fundamentally anti-life because it forcibly interferes in the doctor's ability to act on his own judgement.

Ayn Rand defines "intellectual" thusly:

The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher. The intellectual carries the application of philosophical principles to every field of human endeavor. He sets a society’s course by transmitting ideas from the “ivory tower” of the philosopher to the university professor—to the writer—to the artist—to the newspaperman—to the politician—to the movie maker—to the night-club singer—to the man in the street. ... The intellectual is the eyes, ears and voice of a free society: it is his job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields.

With so many of this country's intellectuals of both Left and what today passes for the Right working to advance statism and thus undermine freedom, America desperately needs the kind of "voice of a free society" that Dr. Lewis provided. Furthermore, he provided inspirational leadership to those many of us who occupy the next level of the army's intellectual hierarchy; those whom I would characterize as the foot soldiers to the field agents.

Ayn Rand placed the blame for the decline of American ideals squarely on the shoulders of the intellectual profession, and called for The New Intellectuals to arise to lead the way to an American Renaissance. John Lewis was in the vanguard of this new intellectual force. He was an invaluable asset to the Objectivist movement.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best of 2011

Here are a few of my favorite posts of the past year:

"Responsibility Depends on Individual Rights"

In the Spirit of “Compromise”, How About a Flat Tax? - I go on record in support of a flat rate income tax.

"The Message of Christ" and New Jersey's Education wars, on the hypocracy of the public school defenders.

Cohen: Hate-Crime Laws are "Totalitarian Nonsense" - more on a crucially important issue.

Social Security and the "Hypocrisy" Charge - addressing the statist extortionists.

What is the "Key" to Job Creation? talks a bit about the nature of real - i.e. remunerative - job creation, and their source.

Does Freedom Equal "The Wild West"? - another statist trap exposed.

America: A Nation of Sacrifice? - If America is to survive long-term, it is the notion of sacrifice as a virtue that must be challenged and defeated.

Welfare Statists Circle the Wagons - A key issue of the 2012 election campaign will likely be the "wealth gap", which is an outgrowth of the primitive idea discussed in Challenging the Tribal Premise.

PSA Testing: Are Death Panels Arriving Under Cover of “Scientific Evidence”? and and Forbes: "Death Panels ... We already have one" expose the way in which health care rationing will be smuggled in.

“Occupy Wall Street” Sharpens the Ideological Battle Lines - My first take on OWS.

America's Core: Liberty, or Compromise? - Freedom's defenders must recognize that the "virtue" of compromise ends at principle's door.