Posts Tagged Murray Rothbard

“Our fathers lied”

Kipling, aged 60, on the cover of Time magazin...
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24hGold, a website devoted to precious metals, includes a  randomly selected relevant quotation. Today’s:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

This anti-war sentiment  is uncharacteristic of Kipling, and so I had to look it up: where did it come from? When and why did he write it? Read the rest of this entry »

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Atlas Shrugged revival

(The first part of this post is cross-posted from another blog of mine). As well as re-reading Atlas Shrugged for the next session of my Reading Group, I’ve also assigned The Fountainhead to a returnee student whose English is fluent. I’ve been creating worksheets for him, and will be posting them online, possibly here.

According to this press release on the website of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, sales of Rand’s blockbuster Atlas Shrugged have greatly increased this year and last year:

Reports from trade sources indicate that consumer purchases of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged have tripled in the first four months of 2009 compared to the first four months of 2008…. “Annual sales of Atlas Shrugged have been increasing for decades to a level not seen in Ayn Rand’s lifetime. Sales of the U.S. paperback editions averaged 74,000 copies a year in the 1980s, 95,000 copies a year in the 1990s and 139,000 copies a year in the current decade. After reaching an all-time high during the novel’s 50th anniversary in 2007, another new high was reached in 2008 and an even higher mark is expected for 2009.”

More than 6,500,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold to date.

This short blog entry Ayn Rand and the Tea Party Protests gives 3 reasons why so many people are buying and reading Atlas Shrugged:

Stephen Moore identified one reason in his Wall Street Journal column, “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” Atlas Shrugged depicted a future in which America descends into economic chaos due to ever-increasing government regulations. Each new problem spawns new government controls that merely deepen the crisis. The result is a downward spiral that nearly destroys America. Many Americans are finding Rand’s predictions uncomfortably close to real-life events.

Another reason for Rand’s appeal is her emphasis on the moral dimension. One of her themes was that no country can survive when its government constantly punishes good men for their virtues and rewards bad men for their vices. Americans correctly recognize that it is unjust for the government to take money from those who have lived frugally to bail out those who have lived beyond their means. Honest men should not be forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others.

Finally, Atlas Shrugged resonates with many Americans because they recognize that our current crisis is not just about bailouts and budget deficits. It’s also about a more fundamental issue — the proper scope of government.

Yaron Brook, Director of the Ayn Rand Center, writes on the Fox News website about a fundamental point of Atlas Shrugged:

“Atlas Shrugged” argues that ideas shape society. A society that values reason, the individual, and freedom creates the United States of America. A society that denounces the mind, preaches self-sacrifice, and worships the collective creates Nazi Germany. What “Atlas” shows is how our culture’s ideas–particularly its ideas about morality–are

Atlas Shrugged
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moving us step by step away from the Founding Fathers’ ideal.

There are, of course, critical articles, ranging from the dismissive, to the abusive, to the weakly reasoned. The dismissive can be dismissed, as the author himself admits he’s never actually read any Ayn Rand:

According to my friend and former colleague Scott Galupo in the Washington Times, sales of the book had tripled through April as compared to the same time period last year. I can’t say that I’ve ever read Rand, and Scott’s assessment of the book doesn’t increase my interest

Showing great trust in Scott Galupo, a man whom he dismisses as being usually wrong, Robert Schlesinger assures his readers that the Galupo piece is worth reading, tho the excerpts he quotes suggest that the main reason Schlesinger thinks it is worth reading is because it reinforces his own preconceptions (and obviates the need to actually read the book). Galupo’s main reason for dismissing Atlas Shrugged is that he thinks it is escapist fantasy. Galupo states

that American conservatism has shown great adaptability in the face of 200 years of federal governmental expansion, but that it nonetheless still suffers fringe-nuttery, as evidenced by the Rand/Atlas resurgence.

Murray Rothbard, himself no fan of Ayn Rand and her coterie (he was a member for a while, though he seems to have always admired her novels), would have some critical (at the same time as intelligent and informative) things to say about this “great adaptability” of conservatism.

Galupo’s article refers to an (in)famous contemporary review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers.

The Moderate Voice is almost equally scathing:

The message of that turgid 1200-page opus, that money is the root of all good, has inspired those who need justification for extreme selfishness and for looking down at the rest of humanity as “looters” and “moochers.”

The novel has certainly inspired a large number of people, including (famously) Angelina Jolie and Alan Greenspan (and we can add Murray Rothbard whose admiration for Rand’s novels did not prevent him from seeing through the phoniness of  Rand and her admirers); I’m sure all of them were merely looking for justification for extreme selfishness. Nowhere is it explicitly stated that “money is the root of all good”, but at least one character, Francisco D’Anconia, challenges guests at a party with the following question: “You say that money is the root of all evil. Have you considered what is the root of money?” The dollar sign is admittedly used in the novel as a symbol of the vision of capitalism that Rand ascribes to the Founding Fathers (or some of them, at least).

Megan McArdle is a more sympathetic reader:

I look to Atlas Shrugged more for conveniently totable beach reading than an economic blueprint.  What’s interesting to me, though, is how many details Rand did get right–like the markets in “unfreezing” Ukrainian bank deposits, so similar to the frozen railroad bonds of Atlas Shrugged.  Or the cascading and unanticipated failures, with government officials racing to slap another fix on to fix the last failing solution.

McArdle then attempts to explain Rand’s accurate description of socialism at work:

She was able to describe these things so well, of course, because she’d seen what an economy looked like while it was being wrecked.  All of Rand’s writing is dominated by the fact that she lived through the birth pangs of Soviet Russia, and saw her family’s business destroyed by Lenin’s ideology, and extraordinarily incompetent economic management.

While the biographical background is true, it is dangerous to assume that Rand was merely describing what she had lived through, and that that explains the realism of her descriptions. What evidence is there that Rand’s writing is dominated by the fact that she lived throught the birth pangs of Soviet Russia? Rand herself rarely mentioned it or her family background. What dominates Rand’s writing is its powerful chanpioning of laissez-faire capitalism and individualism and its finely argued excoriation of socialism of any kind. Rather than her childhood experience, I would locate the explanation elsewhere. Rand dug deep into ideas to find the root principle or value at their base. Barbara Branden wrote about Rand’s adopting, at the tender age of 12 or 13

a method that she called thinking in principles… she meant the process of systematically and explicitly identifying the reasons behind each idea she held and the relation of each idea to all the rest… Later, in her novels and nonfiction lectures and essays, the meaning of thinking in principles came to focus on the “why”, by looking for the abstraction that united and explained two or more concretes (Branden, B., The Passion of Ayn Rand, New York: Doubleday, 1986, 22).

This can be confirmed by reading almost anything Rand wrote, either fiction or non-fiction (e.g. Philosophy – who needs it?). It is more likely, therefore, that Rand’s accuracy in “predicting” some of today’s events comes from her understanding of the ideas, the principles, that underpin the decisions, statements and actions taken today in the financial crisis. Rand was not of course the only one to understand the core principles and basic philosophy behind socialism, nor was she the only one to “predict” the present financial crisis, and many of those others who did predict it did not have the benefit of Rand’s childhood experience to guide them.

Ayn Rand
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Something is destroying British education, says former Chief Inspector of Schools

Henry Hazlitt
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Chris Woodhead, a man many teachers loved to hate when he was Chief Inspector of Schools under the Conservative and then Labour governments, 1994-2000, has written a book in which he expresses his views about British education. An excerpt was published in the Times (online), May 10, 2009.

Fifty years ago the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch asked whether we could maintain educational standards while making education more “democratic”. The experience of the past 12 years has taught us we cannot.

John Holt, in Freedom and Beyond (1972), wrote about a fallacy of universal education: the idea that if everybody was equally educated, everyone would have a better job. (I don’t have the book, and could only find online this excerpt, which is not quite what I was looking for, but close).

Woodhead, in this excerpt, does not closely examine this fallacy, or delve too deeply into the possible meanings of “democratic”. He refers to Murdoch writing 50 years ago, which certainly predates Holt by about 25 years.

Woodhead goes a little deeper into what he means by freedom:

By freedom I mean an appreciation of what the greatest human beings achieved; a sense of what other people in other ages knew to be important and possible; a liberation from the tyranny of the majority view; a release from the monotony of the quotidian. I want every child, every “disadvantaged” child in particular, to walk as far as they can down that road to freedom.

Why “every disadvantaged child in particular“, and would this mean that disadvantaged children would be given preference (in an ideal, Woodhead world) to others? It’s impossible to tell from this excerpt alone, but leaving that aside, this concept of freedom seems rather threadbare: there is no suggestion, for instance, of the freedom to create new, exciting realities, only a typically conservative reliance on the past – “what the greatest human beings achieved… what people in other ages knew…” Nor is there any awareness of any form of tyranny other than “the majority view”. What about the tyranny of ruling elites, or of the state?

Woodhead goes on for a couple of pages which could easily have been expressed in a single word: egalitarianism.

I am reading a fascinating biography of Murray Rothbard, which mentions an essay of his on egalitarianism (pdf warning). Rothbard is an exciting thinker to read: highly knowledgeable, and with a flowing, readable style which leavens the erudition with a mordant wit. I am looking forward to reading Rothbard’s essay: I expect to learn much about the history of the egalitarian concept, as well as a barrage of solid arguments against it. Another great thinker whose essays and books are available on the Mises Institute website is Henry Hazlitt. In The Science of Thinking, Hazlitt makes this suggestion for choosing what books to read:

you should endeavor to get, in as short a time as possible, the greatest number of important facts and the main outlines of the best that has been thought. So if you sincerely intend to master any subject, the best way to begin is by the selection of the most comprehensive and authoritative work you can secure. … If you take up the most thorough book first you need merely glance through the smaller books, for the chances are that they will contain little that is new to you, unless they happen to be more recent.

I recommend Hazlitt, and Rothbard. If you want to learn about freedom and egalitarianism, reading Rothbard will be more profitable than reading Woodhead.

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