Sunday, May 22, 2011

Social Security and the "Hypocrisy" Charge

Is it hypocritical to collect promised benefits from government-run social welfare programs if you are morally opposed to them and actively work for their repeal?

The issue behind that question came up in the comments section under a letter-to-the-editor
that dealt with a different subject – Ayn Rand’s concept of sacrifice. The above question relates to an off-topic issue that was raised by a correspondent. That is the topic of this post. The issue of sacrifice will be set aside for perhaps another post.

Often, when the subject of Ayn Rand comes up, ad hominem types emerge from their skulls lacking even mush to clutter up the conversation with mindless versions of what they undoubtedly consider to be their cleverness. The fallacy of ad hominem, of course, is the tactic used to evade the necessity of dealing with ideas by attacking irrelevant character traits or actions of the person promoting the ideas. Pointing up failings or faults of the person – real or imagined – is then supposed to be taken as proof of the nonvalidity of that person’s ideas.

As a correspondent, I used one such ad hominem attack to address the serious issue raised by the question opening this post. Here is my response:

“Ayn Rand was a fraudulent hypocrite who scammed the government for aid under an assumed name after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.” - stopGOPnuts

As an Objectivist who opposes these government programs and who nevertheless will soon be collecting Social Security and applying for Medicare, I must take strong exception to the “hypocrisy” charge.

According to the government’s own yearly statement, my wife and I have paid into both programs more than $450,000 over the course of our working lifetimes, including the portion paid in by the employers, which is money actually earned and paid by the employee but camouflaged as the “employer contribution”. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, a reasonable rate of return of perhaps 6% would yield a nest egg of perhaps double that amount. My accountant tells me that is conservative, with the likely total amounting to over $1 million. This is money taken by force, it must be remembered, and [allegedly] held “in trust” by our government.

A million bucks +!! Keep that figure in mind, when you hear anyone refer to the promised benefits as “government help” or “aid”.

But the “hypocrisy” charge is much worse, and reveals a sinister premise, to put it mildly. Those who fire that charge are essentially attempting to silence critics by means of a combination of blackmail and extortion. The money is extorted under threat of force, and then held as moral ransom – unless you keep your mouth shut. Your own money is used as a weapon of moral censorship.

It’s not legal censorship – yet. But property rights, the foundation of economic freedom, are already under withering assault. If the “hypocrisy” mindset ever took hold in law, it would be the end of free speech, as well: A double-killing for the champions of the omnipotent collectivist state.

Thank God for the late Ayn Rand – today’s strongest voice for justice and individual rights.

“Thank God” is used metaphorically, of course, as a statement of the supreme importance I attach to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism.

There is another way to approach the hypocrisy charge. I might answer the accuser this way:

“Suppose you were accosted by an armed thug, who put a gun to your head and demanded your wallet. You turn over your wallet under threat of physical force- in this case, a bullet in the brain. Later, the thug is apprehended, your wallet is held as evidence, and you are subsequently asked to testify against the thug at trial. Would you testify? Would you expect your wallet to be returned to you after trial, or left in the possession of the thug? If so, wouldn't that be hypocritical? Wouldn't that be participating in the very thing you testified against?

“ ‘But I was forced’, you angrily protest. ‘He had a gun.’

This is precisely the point. I was forced into the Social Security program, essentially at gunpoint. Morally, I have as much right to collect Social Security benefits as the victim of a that thief does to get his wallet back—as restitution. My personal opinions are irrelevant. The relevant principle is justice.

This is essentially how Social Security and Medicare work. Government programs are based on the threat of force. Had we tried to evade those taxes, we would have eventually been accosted by armed government agents, cuffed, arrested, tried, and fined and/or jailed – for tax evasion. We had to pay the taxes - “participate in the crime” – under threat of physical force. The only difference is the perpetrators work under cover of law, leaving us no restitutional recourse save the promise of benefits down the road, paid for by victimizing others in the same fashion. The money we “paid in”, remember, didn't go into any so-called “trust fund”, “lock box”, or personal investment account. It was simply stolen by the Washington scoundrels.

To say that I am hypocritical (i.e., morally forbidden) to collect the promised benefits that my taxes were supposed to pay for while simultaneously working to have that system phased out is tantamount to using my own stolen money to silence me – i.e., to assault my First Amendment rights.

This is what the once-grand moral crusade for the welfare state has shriveled to. Welfare statists have been reduced to attacking their victims; the same people their righteous socialist crusade was intended to benefit, who are now told that the promised benefits their taxes were to provide for is conditioned on the beneficiaries keeping their mouths shut—on giving up their free speech rights and their right to dissent—i.e., their minds. This is what intellectual bankruptcy looks like.

So I will collect whatever government benefits my taxes helped to support over the years, as a morally consistent expression of my belief in justice.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On the Principle of the Non-Initiation of Physical Force

I’ve left some comments on an article at First Things by David Bentley Hart entitled “The Trouble with Ayn Rand”. (The article is still available, but the comments section is apparently closed, at least to non-subscribers.)

The article itself is not worth commenting on, not because it is a critique of Objectivism, but because it isn’t. When the author begins his attack by referring to the cultural blossoming of her ideas as “the fashion of the moment” and refers to “Ayn Rand and her idiotic ‘Objectivism’ [as not] so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like”, you know you’ve encountered a person intent on discrediting ideas by evading them. This piece is more accurately characterized as a rant or a hissy fit or a childish temper tantrum.

It’s a shame, though, that the comments section is no longer – or at least not so easily - available as it originally was. It is much more interesting than the article, because it featured a dialogue about Rand’s actual ideas. It is a lively, informative back-and-forth featuring 168 comments. Many correspondents simply echoed the author’s anti-intellectuality. But other Rand critics at least attempted some measure of objectivity concerning her ideas. There was also a healthy dose of Objectivist commentary worth reading. Here was my contribution in response to a Rand critic’s question to those who adhere to at least parts of her philosophy.

“So I'm interested to hear from those people who _do_ find something in Ayn Rand to like. What is it? You don't have to defend her whole body of work or philosophy, just offer one or two things that you think she really does get right.”

Thanks to Josh W. for posing that question.

Since Objectivism is a comprehensive, integrated philosophic guide to living, it is hard to know where to begin to defend it in this forum. Since the question asked for one thing that Rand got right, I’ve chosen to offer a universal political truth she posited. Keep in mind that this statement is presented out of the context of her deeper metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical foundations. Politics rests upon those.

Rand identified the initiation of physical force by one human being against another as the fundamental political (i.e., social) evil that must be expunged from human relationships if a truly benevolent, live-and-let-live society is ever to be established. Once force is eliminated from human relationships, by design and by law, the only means of human association left is rational persuasion, and voluntary association and trade – i.e., reason.

Everyone agrees that the private initiation of force – armed robbery, fraud, murder, breaking and entering, etc. - is wrong, whatever the reason, and should be punishable by law. Force, Rand held, is essentially the only way to violate the rights of another to think and act upon his own judgement. (Force initiation includes indirect coercion, such as fraud and breech of contract, whereby the victim is separated physically from his property under false pretenses – which is basically no different from armed robbery.) But Rand saw a way for men to make an end run around the moral law that private citizens must abide – employ the mechanism of government’s legal monopoly on physical force in order to act as criminal, and get away with it – i.e., through legislative law-making powers, under the guises of “democracy”, the “public good”, and so on.

How to bring people in their capacity as government officials under moral law? The principle of individual rights. Individual rights, properly understood, is the principle that sanctions a man’s rights to freedom of action. Since rights are unalienable and held equally and at all times by all people, the exercise of one’s rights is conditional upon refraining from violating the same rights of others. In other words, the principle that guarantees your right to act also limits your freedom of action to renouncing the use of force to achieve your goals. Applied to law, it is the means of subordinating society and government to moral law. (ex. - no law may initiate force against private citizens, say by forcing you into government-run social programs, or by taxing you to support corporate subsidies.) Simply put, force is banished from all realms of human association. The end result is a laissez-faire capitalist society, where everyone’s rights are upheld and no one’s violated, and government performs its vital function of protecting those rights.

In practice, this principle is more complex than my brief commentary may make it seem at a glance. It’s easy to understand the arrest and incarceration of a street thug. The thug robbed someone at gunpoint, marking the initiation of physical force. The apprehension by law enforcement thus represents the retaliatory use of force. How the principle of the non-initiation of physical force applies to a nation’s laws is not always readily apparent. Let’s briefly examine one such case.

What of forcing a man (or woman) to pay child support to a former spouse who has custody of the couple’s children, especially in light of the passage in Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” (quoted in the article) in which Roark declares “I came here to say I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life, nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine.” After all, isn’t state-imposed child support forcible redistribution of a person’s wealth – the initiation of force against a man whose life, energy, and achievement is unalienably his? Why should a man be forced to support children if he no longer wants to?

The answer lies in the nature of individual rights. Rights, properly understood, are inalienable possessions of each individual human being, by virtue of the natural fact of his being born. But those rights – unique, properly understood, to human beings – are of no direct relevance to an infant. Like all of the higher animals, man’s young must be reared into adulthood over a period of time, before they are capable of fending for themselves and fully employing their particular means of survival. Since rights are an attribute of man by virtue of his rational, conceptual mind as his main means of survival, the minor child is rightfully entitled to be supported until he is fully capable of exercising his rights, on his own, in service to his own life: i.e., until he has acquired the necessary mind training, knowledge, and physical capacity, which means the age of majority as objectively codified into law. If he is entitled to this support, who holds the obligation to issue that support? It is the parents who brought him into the world.

By the nature of things, the minor child’s rights are thus vested in the parents. There is no conflict of rights here. The state, in its proper role as protector and enforcer of individual rights may step in on behalf of the child in cases of physical abuse and neglect, when the child is as yet incapable of fully exercising his rights. In other words, by neglecting his own child - thus violating that child’s rights – the parent may be compelled to fulfil the responsibility imposed upon him by nature. The state’s compulsory child support actions are retaliatory, not initiative. The above-cited quote from The Fountainhead, as well as others cited in the article, must be taken in full context. (Context-dropping is rampant among Objectivism’s antagonists.) It is a claim relevant to adults, first of all. And second Roark refers to unchosen obligations – obligations not related to one’s own actions and choices - which others may seek to impose on him. A man may stand on Roark’s principles in regards to welfare state programs that force him to support other people’s children, but not his own. In a very valid sense, there is an implied contract between a parent and a child, which neglectful parents may be considered to have broken, inviting intervention by legal authorities. Objectivism is not a license to shirk one’s personal responsibilities; i.e., to have it both ways.

There are obviously complexities to this specific issue that I have not dealt with, and the application of the principle of the non-initiation of physical force to the broad field of law is obviously very complex. But this principle, which as can be seen is rooted in deeper Objectivist principles, is a necessary building block of a free society.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

New Jersey's Constitutional Roadblock to Reform

NJ Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine has a good piece entitled “Can Christie erase the Hughes legacy? He’d better hope so
”. What is the “Hughes legacy”? Mulshine explains:

In his book, "The Life and Times of Richard J. Hughes," Seton Hall law professor John Wefing describes how Hughes tried and failed to get the Legislature to adopt an income tax during his two terms as governor in the 1960s. When he was appointed chief justice in the 1970s, however, Hughes got his wish. Wefing quotes an interview of Hughes by fellow Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun back then. "He wanted to talk about how the Legislature had refused to give him the state income tax back in the 1960s. ‘They didn’t want the income tax then? Well, they’ll want one now,’" Braun wrote, quoting Hughes.

In 1976, Hughes [as State Supreme Court Chief Justice) ordered the schools shut in a good guy/bad guy routine that helped his fellow Democrat, Gov. Brendan Byrne, push an income tax through the Legislature. The court’s been playing politics ever since.

The Hughes & Byrne show led to a flow of state funds first to “poor” districts and then to all districts. And the income tax-funded state municipal aid scheme has grown like a cancer ever since. Municipal aid now consumes more than half
of a state budget that is $billions in the red, even as state income and sales and local property taxes have ballooned, consuming “more as a percentage of income than any other state in America”, according to Christie.

Mulshine’s reference to the court’s “playing politics” refers to the court “sticking their noses into tax policy”. Mulshine points to the latest court battle over state funding for so-called “special needs” school districts – districts that allegedly can’t generate enough property tax revenue to support their local public schools, thus short-changing poor children. These are called “Abbott” districts, and the latest case is called “Abbott XXI”. Yes, 21 state Supreme Court rulings since the original case brought in 1981. In this case, the court has been asked to restore state school aid cuts instituted by Governor Chris Christie. Mulshine asks:

But why is that any of [the court’s] business? The judges are not supposed to be sticking their noses into tax policy. That’s the proper purview of the Legislature. Or at least it was until the man whose name is on the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex came along.

Mulshine’s right, of course. So, how did it become the court’s business? He points the finger at Hughes, calling it the “Hughes Legacy”. It was primarily Hughes who brought us the state school aid monster, which is a welfare scheme in which “wealthy” communities are drained, via the state income tax, to support “poor” communities’ public schools.

But is Mulshine drilling deep enough to find the ultimate cause. I’ve left the following comments:

I agree with thebullhorn that “the answer lies in getting rid of state-sponsored and state funded schools by constitutional amendment”.

The “Hughes legacy” traces back much further than Richard J. Hughes. The unholy Hughes Court-Byrne alliance that brought us the state income tax is rooted in the “thorough and efficient” clause of the state constitution, which reads:

“The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.”

That clause dates back to 1873. The real Hughes legacy is that he understood its meaning and discovered how to use it. It empowers the courts, which must uphold the constitution. It’s true that tax policy is properly the job of the elected legislature. But as I see it, that clause gives the court the reigns over the legislature in one way or another (say, by shutting down the public schools again?).

“The legislature shall provide…” What if it doesn’t, according to seven justices? It is then in violation of constitutional law. The court is now faced with an impossible dilemma. It must either neglect its duty to uphold the constitution, or usurp the proper function of another branch of government.

But it gets worse. On what basis does the court decide how much funding is necessary, or how those funds should be spent … i.e., whether “a school district [should] fire some teachers while keeping 40 sports programs”? On the basis of competing special interest pressure groups, that’s how. It can be no other way. That’s because there is no way to objectively define “thorough and efficient” when applied to “all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years”, each and every one of whom are unique individuals with his/her own needs, cognitive strengths and weaknesses, interests, pace of educational development, and so on.

The elephant in the room that few seem to want to confront is that the only solution is to get rid of the constitutional mandate for state provision of the schools. It’s a daunting task, to be sure. But to find the philosophical unpinning for repeal, look no further than America’s Founding principles. The proper purpose of government is not to provide an education (or any material product or service). It is to protect individual rights, which includes the rights of parents to educate their children as they see fit. Government-run schools violate those rights in two ways: They force people to pay for the education of other people’s children, and they put government in charge of what is taught, how it is taught, and who should pay for it.

I’m only a layman. But it seems obvious to me that the only way to get the court’s nose out of the legislature’s tax business - and, ultimately, the state out of the education business - is to repeal the thorough and efficient clause. There is no other way, as there is no way the court will relinquish its power to “have their hands in your pockets, trying to take your money” as long as the state constitution mandates it.

When you step back and look at the History of Abbott via the actual time line, it becomes obvious when and how it all began. NJ’s “thorough and efficient” clause is, of course, a complete inversion of American Founding principles. Any attempt by government to guarantee material benefits must necessarily violate individual rights, especially property rights. If education is a “right”, as the NJ constitution asserts, then someone must be forced to provide it and/or pay for it. (A good clarification of the issue is posted by The Lucidicus Project’s
’s Jared Rhoads, via FIRM
. The subject is a right to healthcare, but the same arguments apply to education, housing, jobs, etc.)

While Governor Christie battles the court, he and other advocates of free market education reforms must recognize that a much broader and deeper approach is ultimately required. The battle must be taken right up to the constitutional level. As another Star-Ledger columnist correctly states
, the proper way to fight this issue is to “press for a constitutional amendment”. It was the legislature and the voters that gave the court the power, and only they can take it away – or possibly have that state “constitutional right” clause overturned in Federal Courts.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Movies: Atlas Shrugged, Part I

Talk of an Atlas Shrugged movie has gone on for decades. I had always hoped that it wouldn’t get made because, for one thing, I didn’t think any movie could do this particular book – which I first read in 1968 - justice. It is at once an action novel and a philosophic treatise; not just any treatise, but one that challenges convention at the deepest and at multiple levels, from ethics to love to psychology to economics to politics and more. It is literally a book that requires extensive study.

On another level, I had always feared that Atlas Shrugged in the wrong Hollywood hands would distort and undermine the important things Ayn Rand had to say. Agree or not, Rand desperately needs to be honestly and objectively understood and debated. What she had to say is, in my mind, of great importance both historically and for the future of mankind.

To be sure, a bad movie could never derail ideas, even if it sets them back for a while. In their more than half a century long effort to defeat her, Ayn Rand’s critics of Left and Right have given us almost exclusively a steady barrage of lies and distortions, continuing at an accelerating pace to this day. Yet, they could not stop the expanding (though still limited) penetration of Objectivist ideas into the culture. A distortive movie would be no more successful. Ideas cannot be defeated except by confronting them openly and by means of better ideas. Nonetheless, a bad portrayal of Atlas would make the job of we Objectivist activists a lot harder.

Well, I’ve just seen the movie Atlas Shrugged – part I. Someone said that the movie and the novel each stand on their own, because the movie version of the story is, as the screen says at the end, "based on the novel by Ayn Rand". Considering that the movie was rushed into production, on a low budget, just before the movie rights lapsed, it wasn’t bad. But the fact is the movie is only very shallowly based on the novel. It deals with the political aspect of government controls vs. free markets, which is not the main theme of the novel.

So, the movie does not do justice to the book. On the other hand, it does not damage Rand’s message such as it deals with.

Having gotten my worst fears out of the way early on, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed the movie. It was a pleasant surprise not so much because it was as good depiction of the book – it is not – but because what it does tackle is depicted correctly. Aside from the many omissions – understandable maybe, given the novel’s length, but still a disappointment – the movie remained essentially true to the novel’s political message. Of course the political message – that economic freedom rather than central government planning is the path to prosperity – is the most superficial of Rand’s messages. The case for economic freedom has been thoroughly demonstrated in practice and in theory. On a practical level, that debate is over. One of the deeper themes in the novel is to answer the question, “If capitalism is so successful, why does statism keep winning, even in America?” The deeper answers are only vaguely hinted at in the movie, at least in this first part of the trilogy.

The movie did not drill down into the wide philosophical depth of the book. Not even close. Nor did it even begin to capture the depth of the characters, their conflicts, motivations, or passions. In these respects, it was very shallow. But the movie was engaging from start to finish, and I couldn’t believe how fast the hour and forty-two minutes went.

It’s questionable whether even the political message really got through to those unfamiliar with the novel or Rand’s ideas. For example, the connection between the actions of the political class and the disappearance of one after another prominent figures seemed blurry to me, at best. As an Objectivist and three-time reader of Atlas Shrugged, I of course “got it”. But I’m not sure the casual viewer does. Of course, this is part one of a trilogy. Perhaps the producers will do a better job of bringing it all together in Parts II and III.

No one is going to walk out of the theater with the sense that age-old ideas, especially moral ideas, have been challenged to the core. No one is going to exit the theater thinking about the role of human intelligence in human affairs, which was Rand’s main theme. The movie is simply way too incoherent for that. The best that can be said is that Rand’s revolutionary ideas sustained no harm, and that sales of Atlas Shrugged and her other works could well be stimulated. On its own, the movie will do nothing to change the debate. Not directly. Indirectly, quite possibly. To the extent that the movie inspires people unfamiliar with Ayn Rand to investigate and debate her ideas, the movie will have been influential.

In short, to me as an Objectivist, the movie is both a relief and a disappointment, even though as a “stand alone” production I enjoyed it. (I know, I sound contradictory here. Perhaps that’s a reflection of my very mixed feelings about the movie.) Perhaps parts II and III will offer partial redemption. Then again, this first big screen Atlas may not be the last. A much more serious attempt may eventually surface. “Al Ruddy, the charismatic producer of The Godfather (and a Democrat)”, writes the NY Times Leftist Maureen Dowd, “thinks the story will have a second life with stars. 'Atlas Shrugged is the most important novel of the 20th century,’ Ruddy says, ‘It will rise again.’ ”.

Which means, maybe my relief is premature. But for now, I’ll leave my worrying about a Democrat-produced Atlas for some future time, and simply recommend that people see the movie … and then read the novel and learn about the Objectivist philosophy that grew out of it.