Saturday, April 02, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Part I, the Movie

Tibor R. Machan

I saw the movie Atlas Shrugged, Part I (to be released on April 15) and I liked it a lot, just as I did the book when I first read it in 1961 while serving in the US Air Force near Washington, DC. (The maiden ride of the John Galt Line was back then the most riveting segment and it still is for me, in the film.)

I ran across Ayn Rand’s ideas without much fanfare--I was in a theater group I helped start and run back then and we decided to put on The Night of January 16th, a curious little number in which after a fascinating trial (pitting independent entrepreneur against leach), a jury is picked from the audience after each performance. The cast and staff used to stay up until the wee hours debating how the verdict should have gone and why the jury went one or the other way.

After that no Ayn Rand for me for a year. Then I saw some mates reading The Fountainhead just after I read a nasty review of Rand’s first major novel--there were others, such as the novella Anthem and the very well done We The Living before--The Fountainhead by of all people that snide novelist Gore Vidal. The short of it is I read and liked the novel, again especially some features of it (e.g., where the importance of the human individual is asserted and defended). I was won over to Rand in part because I already held individualist views having survived a stint under Soviet communism--actually, as Susan Sontag so perceptively asserted many years ago, fascism--and a Nazi parent’s brutality. Such collectivist, communitarian regimes held out no attraction to me by then. Yet I lacked the education to figure out just why a human individual should be acknowledge as the center of values and Rand helped me figure this out.

Right or wrong, I found Rand--whom I met, in 1962, for a 30 minute private chat but who banished me, too, later, from her group of close knit students--sensible, passionate, a bit bellicose, and all around very insightful about nearly all aspects of philosophy. Then came Atlas Shrugged for me, three years after its publication, and I read it on a single day in one fell swoop, that is how vivid and good a read the book was and, judging by its phenomenal sales worldwide, still is for its contemporary readers.

Of course, there was a lot more meat in it than that fantastic train ride. So, for example, I cut out Galt’s brilliant speech, a long one that critics used so as to try to ridicule the novel, and with several buddies at Andrews AFB used to sit up weekends scrutinizing it. (Of course, no one much ridicules James Joyce’s lengthy stream of consciousness in his avant guard novel, Ulysses, or some of the Left wing political monologues included in, for instance, Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. That’s partisan literature for you--Rand infuriated both the Left and the Right and some never could treat her honestly.)

I saw Part I of the movie a few weeks ago and although it didn’t grab me as did the book when I first read it--how could it have?--it is a very good picture; it’s modern, serious, chuck full of poignant anti-statist and pro-capitalist dialogue (unlike most Hollywood products these days). The central theme is captured very well--about how when the mindful, productive, creative, and industrious folks in the land have had enough of the meddlers in Washington they go on strike and leave the place in shambles. The acting is good, much better than it was in the film version of The Fountainhead (with Gary Cooper and Patricia O’Neal--except for Cooper’s superb courtroom speech) and the production values are outstanding. The train and the bridge, made of Rearden metal, are rendered flawlessly!

Even if billions go see Atlas Shrugged 1, 2 and 3, it will not, as the novel didn’t (to Miss Rand’s reported consternation), change the world--you would need attentive, thoughtful viewers for that and one can never guarantee this (a central features of human existence). Yet it will brighten the day, even perhaps the week, for many who go see it and might inspire quite a few who are new to Rand to give her ideas a good study. I did and I never regretted it for a moment!

Tibor R. Machan is the author of 40 plus books including Ayn Rand (Peter Lang, 2001) which was recently translated into German by Lichtschlag Medien und Werbung KGm.
Machan Archives: Wanting but Reproducing

Tibor R. Machan

A while back at the Dallas/Forth Worth Airport I had to wait for two ours to board my flight back home so I sat before a TV set beaming forth CNN’s various scary stories. (Even as the traffic there was quite calm, and even as my two days’ of lectures in New Orleans proceeded amidst a city now showing mostly evidence of human resilience, the “news” came to nothing but scary stories!)

Included in the bad news viewers were being offered there was story of a family’s financial struggles, one in which both parents worked, earning about $55k per year, voicing drawn out complaints about how strapped they are. They had children already, in their early thirties, plus “one on the way.” Which brought up the issue, at least for me, if they believe they are so strapped, what business do they have bringing yet another child into their home?

Of course, the reporter covering this heart wrenching scene did not pose such a question. That would have been heresy. No, instead the reporter got sympathetically on board with the drift of the couple’s laments, suggesting nothing about the possibility of parental malpractice involved in bringing a new child into the world when by their own understanding they are economically unprepared for this. Never mind that having children in 21st century America surely is something over which people have considerable control. A simple question like, “If you are so strapped financially, why did you decided to have another child?” could have focused the issue quite nicely, but no such luck.

Instead the CNN reporter and the anchor both looked reproachfully not upon the parents with the financial wows but upon “American society” that on their view failed to do justice to the helpless, victimized couple.

Exactly when have journalists decided that children just pop into existence for couples who then must be seen as victims of various economic contingencies? OK, so in some cases the couple’s religion will not permit family planning of some type but surely if that’s so, one can deploy some alternative methods, maybe even abstinence. Yes, Virginia, you are free to say “no” if the other options are ruled out by your convictions. And that, indeed, would be the responsible thing to do, by all appearances, if it doesn’t seem like you can care for another child in your home.

Granted, one is rarely in the position to pass moral judgment based on a mere news report, although the producers and reporters giving us the information certainly do not hesitate indicating their own moral views, if only by their facial expressions and head shaking and turns of phrases. (All one needs is to watch a bit of Lou Dobbs, who has replaced the late Peter Jennings as the frowning, head shaking, dog faced commentator on domestic and world economic affairs, what with his intimation that the answer to everyone’s problems must be yet another protectionist measure by the federal government.)

It would be one thing if reporters and those who write their scripts would discipline themselves and remain really neutral as they report on various aspects of American society, on the lives of citizens, leaving viewers to come to their own assessments, if that’s at all possible from the information they dig up. But all too many of these media celebs have decided that they must make their lop-sided moral views evident, mostly of the “Oh, so you are yet another victim of the nasty forces that rule American society” variety. So it is not as if they refused to inject their evaluations into their reports—they do it good and hard most of the time.

If so, then, why not inject a little of the spirit of personal responsibility? Why not note, now and then, that individuals have the responsibility to heed their own situations and act accordingly? Why not a few shakes of the head when people act with evident lack of care and prudence and thus create circumstances for themselves they could clearly have avoided?

Journalists often claim they are independent of any moral position as they present the news to us in their well-trained non-partisan mode. This is rarely the case. Most often journalists—especially the celebrities among them—have anointed themselves as moral watchdogs, spouting the message of modern liberals that people are all victims of various insidious forces that oppress them and have no say about how their lives turn out. Frankly, I don’t buy it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

I am watching the current showing of Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydon, et al., and find that the show's depiction of taxation is about as historically accurate as such a vehicle permits. I only wish most people would realize that the upcoming April 15th extortion perpetrated on us all is a moral crime through and through.

Tibor R. Machan

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Scheduled Book World Appearance

It may be of some interest here that I have been asked to host C-Span’s *Book World/In Depth*, a three hour call-in program on Sunday, May 1, 2011, focusing on my 40+books, starting with *The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner* (1973) and the latest, *Rebellion
in Print* (2011). I have been, since December, 1997, and still am, a
resident of Silverado Canyon, a professor at Chapman University (holding the
R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise), and a regular
columnist for the *OC Register* and a free lance writer over the years for
many other publications (e.g., *Free Inquiry* magazine, *Barron’s*, *The
Boston Globe*,*The New York Times,* *The LA Times,* *The Houston Chronicle*). I was one of the founders of *Reason* Magazine back in 1970 and have appeared on PBS, NPR, ABC-TV, Fox Business News and the late Bill Buckley’s *Firing Line*. I was smuggled out of communist Hungary in 1953 and have lived in America since 1956. My recent writings are stored at &

Tibor R. Machan

Monday, March 28, 2011

Krugman, Academic Freedom & Phony Whining

Tibor R. Machan

In his column of March 28, 2011, Paul Krugman whines a good deal about how Republicans in Wisconsin are targeting scholars who may not like their opposition to public service union profligacy. No doubt, in these battles all sides can go overboard but let’s just face it, the Left has been dominant in higher education for decades on end, which is why, perhaps, I am not a professor at Princeton University while Dr. Krugman is, and why my columns and blogs are mostly marginalized and his appear on the pages of The New York Times. (But enough of sour grapes!)

First, opposing public service unions does not amount to opposing organized labor, certainly not of the kind that would take place in a free market where competition affords the opportunity to seek out firms not hit by union action. Public union members work for monopolies and there is no option but to do business with them all. That’s a major difference and cause of most of the problems faced in Wisconsin and elsewhere vis-a-vis public employees.

Another point to keep in mind is that Wisconsin’s and other states’ universities are tax funded and citizens who have to foot their cost cannot walk away and go elsewhere to buy their higher education from an alternative institution, not unless they are willing to be charged twice. Furthermore, college professors, like college students, enjoy academic freedom, not the full protection of the rights secured via the Fist Amendment to the US Constitution. University policy, in part dictated by public officials at the state level, trumps academic freedom (which is mainly a tradition or custom, not a legal guarantee). Politicians, who take themselves to be in charge of--or, euphemistically put, “responsible for”--higher education policy, have the legal authority to butt in anytime they can convince themselves that it is a matter of the public interest to do so. And that task is a very easy one for politicians and bureaucrats, don’t kind yourself. So when Wisconsin’s politicians scrutinize public university employees, including professors, in the public interest, there is no legal argument that can be made against this. They are ultimately in charge, something they would not be if they dealt with private educational institutions (which, more like churches, largely enjoy constitutional protection from such meddlers).

None of this should come as a surprise to Paul Krugman, an old hand in the education industry. (His professed shock with Wisconsin’s politicians is just about as authentic as was the shock of the police captain at the end of the movie Casablanca with the illegal gambling that had been going at Ricks!) Once you are near the centers of power, such as state and federal capitols, you will use whatever legal or near legal means you can deploy to hang on to your clout and to gain more and more of it. Your opponents will, of course, always holler “foul” as you make your moves but this is certainly just a ruse. No one should be fooled that Republicans and Democrats or any other mainstream political bunch do not try every trick in the book to undermine those on the other side.

Dr. Krugman himself is simply playing the game--charge your opponents with ill will and corruption even while you are guilty of these as well. Maybe he thinks no one can figure this out, him being such a well positioned public intellectual. Fact is, however, that Krugman is simply trying to keep and gain power for his team. It has nothing to do with overarching principles, not, especially, when you recall, also, that Dr, Krugman is a fierce defender of pragmatism and opposes all ideologies, including the ideology of remaining true to the principles of proper public conduct. Only amateurs would be bother with that!

We live in a dog-eat-dog political arena and very few people have the backbone to remain above the fray. By now anyone who reads his stuff should know that Dr. Krugman isn’t one of them.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Taxer (Extortionist) is Coming

Tibor R. Machan

For most people taxation is a burden that’s accepted in large part because they know the alternative is worse. As a friend pointed out, it is like dealing with someone who holds you up in a back alley: “Your money or your life!” To put up a fight can be fatal and up to a point almost everyone can tolerate the loss. But as the economist Arthur Laffer observed, everyone has a point at which no further taxation can be lived with. Kind of like pain--we can all put up with some of it and will not succumb until the level is just too high. But it is never a good thing.

Now there are sadly some prominent folks who claim that this is all as it should be. As Justice Felix Frankfurter reported about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "He did not have a curmudgeon's feelings about his own taxes. A secretary who exclaimed, 'Don't you hate to pay taxes!' was rebuked with the hot response, 'No, young feller. I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.'" (Felix Frankfurter, Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court [New York: Atheneum, 1965; originally published by Harvard University Press, 1938, 1961, page 71]) But this is not right at all, despite Holmes’ gravitas.

Taxation was the charge the ruler levied on his subjects for being privileged to live and work within the realm that belonged to him (or her). Yes, kings and czars and pharaohs were thought of as the owners of the countries they ruled. So they extorted funds from everyone at the point of the gun or bayonet. It wasn’t a free exchange, as between, say, a dentist and a patient. Or even a client and a body guard. No, the king ruled--indeed by some accounts owned--the subjects and confiscated what he chose from them in property and labor, leaving them just enough to survive.

This is what Robin Hood was protesting, by the way, not great wealth. His rebellion was to take back what the taxer took and return it to those who were the victims of taxation. The process of taxation is no peaceful interaction whereby citizens are offered services by their government and pay for it voluntarily, the picture Holmes painted of it. No. Rulers extorted the funds and didn’t obtain them in peaceful ways.

Taxation, then, was on par with slavery and serfdom, not with free trade. Once the American idea--learned from the English philosopher John Locke and some predecessors--of natural individual rights to one’s life caught on, both serfdom and slavery started to crumble. They lost their moral foundation. And once it was demonstrated that everyone has the right to private property as well, the notion that the monarch owns the country also took a major hit. Sadly, however, all this wasn’t taken far enough. It was all a bit too revolutionary, to make it clear that no one owns anyone else, only ones own life and property. Probably in part because that’s the only way political thinkers could see their way through to funding the legal services governments were providing--the civilization that Homes was talking about. But that is a bad way to have handled the situation.

As it was realized a bit later, one has no right or isn't entitled to another’s life even if one needs that life very much, as, for example, in fighting a war in defense of a country or for harvesting one’s crop. For a long time folks put up with conscription in the USA even though it violates the right to one’s life. So they also put up with taxation, even though it violates the right to one’s labor and property. But it need not be like that in either of those cases: one can pay people to fight or give them other benefits, and an army will arise quickly enough, especially provided the purpose is a just one, not imperialistic adventurism. And one can finance essential legal services without confiscating anyone’s private property, mainly by charging a fee for all economic transactions that need the protection of the law. Both these methods avoid coercion. One can avoid service in the military by paying others who are willing to take up arms for a just cause. And one can avoid paying the contract fee by simply relying on a handshake. But in the latter case, few would make that choice since they would be left very insecure in their commercial exchanges. It is best to enter into a binding contract and paying the fee to have it well protected in the law. Moreover, there is plain old human generosity which is far better than extortion any day!

Of course, the details would be very involved. Sadly no one is studying this since public finance is so intimately tied to the system of taxation. But just as the switch from conscription to a volunteer military wasn’t impossible, so is the switch from taxation to the contract fee system.

So taxation is by no means the best way to obtain funding for the legal system, quite the contrary, just as any other involuntary service isn’t the way to obtain the work of others. It is high time that this is realized and the extortionists sent on their way.