21 May 2008

Obama’s Heavy Hand

In my previous post I pointed out Barack Obama’s apparent reticence to use American force against a foreign aggressor, Iran.  The proper approach to dealing with regimes that threaten us is, according to Mr. Obama, to engage them in conversation.  All that is needed to stop medieval killers is to talk to them.  If that doesn’t work, then we should really get serious and talk some more.

So, in what situations does Mr. Obama think government force is necessary?  

On the campaign trail in Oregon, he left us a clue.  “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times… and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK.  That’s not leadership.  That’s not going to happen.” 1

What is not going to happen?  He is not going to permit us to do those things?  And how does he plan to stop us?  Apparently, this is what leadership means to Mr. Obama: telling American citizens what we are permitted to eat, how warm we are permitted to be in our homes, and what we are permitted to drive.  This is chilling to the bone.  

To be sure, John McCain and Hillary Clinton both pose significant implicit threats to our freedom, each in their own way.  But how can Barack Obama, a candidate for the United States presidency, explicitly threaten Americans to their face and then receive enthusiastic cheers?  Isn’t anyone paying attention to his words?

NOTE 1:  I first saw Mr. Obama’s quote on Gus van Horn's blog.

Obama’s Tough Talk

In Kate Phillips’ New York Times politics blog, The Caucus, she recently wrote about the remarks made by President Bush during his trip to Israel.  The President’s address to the Knesset included a criticism of appeasement, and though Mr. Bush did not refer to Barack Obama by name, it is not too hard to see that Mr. Obama fits the description of the “some” in this quote:  

“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along…  Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away.  This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of our enemies, and America rejects it utterly…  For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

The lines that I have excerpted above express a surprisingly rational foreign policy; I only wish that the President’s actions conformed to this rhetoric.  Even in these few words, however, there are a couple of clues that reveal problems below the surface.  For instance, Mr. Bush identifies the enemy as “terrorists and radicals.”  Radicals?  This is the same empty label as “extremists,” about which I have commented elsewhere.  Also, the President said, “the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” suggesting that he is afraid to say America must and will act whether “the world” approves or not.  

The point I wanted to emphasize in this post, though, is not the President’s failings, but the Obama campaign’s response to his remarks (again, from Phillips' blog).  Keep in mind that this is a deliberately crafted statement from the Obama campaign, not an extemporaneous utterance:

“It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence to launch a false political attack.  It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel.  Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power – including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy – to pressure countries like Iran and Syria.” [emphasis mine]

Diplomacy, no matter how many adjectives are applied to it, is still talk.  It may be tough talk, principled talk, and direct talk, but in all cases it is mere talk.  Marines fight; diplomats talk.  

Also, when sentences are constructed in this form – “We must do everything, including X.” – it is implied that the “X” represents the limit of action, the last resort, the extreme measure to which one’s hand may be forced.  That’s the whole point of calling attention to the “X”: to emphasize that matters are so serious, even “X” is considered to be among the possible actions.

So, the official statement from the Obama campaign reduces to this:  Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to use all elements of American power – including tough talk and no action.  "Tough, principled, and direct diplomacy” constitutes the upper limit of American power, according to Mr. Obama, a man who wants to be the next Commander-in-Chief of the United States.

Nicholas Provenzo LTE

Nicholas Provenzo's letter to the editor was published in the Wall Street Journal today (21 May 2008):

The Journal applauded the FTC's effort to block
the proposed merger of Inova and PWHS on the grounds that Inova's use of zoning
law and other political efforts to restrict its competitors makes it a coercive
threat to competition and a legitimate target for antitrust enforcement. The
error in such a position is that there is no such thing as a legitimate target
for antitrust enforcement; these laws are no different from any other political
interference in the marketplace.

Nicholas Provenzo
Chairman, The Center for the Advancement of
Capitalism, Washington

19 May 2008

Writing For A More General Audience

I found Diana Hsieh's post, Shifting Noodles, to be intriguing - or maybe inspiring is a better word.  In it, she notes that her NoodleFood posts will henceforth be geared toward a general audience, as opposed to one that is largely familiar with and in agreement with Objectivism.

I think I will try to do this as well, since my primary blogging goal is to organize my thoughts on various topics and learn to articulate them to people who are not likely to agree with me - at least not until they are completely won over by the persuasiveness of my arguments!  C. August's comment to one of my recent posts got me thinking in that direction anyway, and I think it is a good idea to practice writing with a general audience in mind.  It's a little hard, since I'm pretty sure that the only people reading my stuff are Objectivists, but I'll try to get in the habit, at least for the most part.    

Leonard Peikoff Podcasts

Leonard Peikoff has been releasing a new podcast every other Monday, the latest of which is available here: Podcast15.mp3.  

They are brief - about a half hour - and the material consists of Dr. Peikoff's answers to questions that were submitted in advance.  LB and I have been enjoying them; it's starting to become a Monday night tradition for us!

17 May 2008


To my surprise, the WSJ printed my letter to the editor, which was based on my post from earlier this week. It showed up in the Saturday/Sunday edition, May 17-18, both in print and online.

They did a little bit of editing, but they left my points more or less intact. Above all, they preserved the reference to Ayn Rand in the concluding paragraph.

14 May 2008

Ayn Rand Institute Video

The Ayn Rand Institute released a new video today:
The Morality of Capitalism 6.

Update: By the way, I've just decided to start posting links to these when I notice that they are released. This video starts in the question period, so you may wish to back up to the beginning of the series if you haven't already seen them.

Does Being Ethical Pay?

In The Journal Report section of Monday’s Wall Street Journal, the main headline asks the question, “Does Being Ethical Pay?”  This caught my attention because if treated properly, the correct message delivered by such a widely read publication could have a tremendous impact.  What the article is essentially asking is, “Is the moral also the practical?”  A rational ethics should answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

Unfortunately, the article is a dreadful disappointment.  It reduces a potentially eureka-laden topic into an uninspiring call to follow the dull duties of the anti-corporate political left.  At best, the article is a mess of floating abstractions and parroted premises.  At worst, the piece obliterates ethics outright by appropriating the term to refer to actions that are either not ethical or even unethical.

The key to the article’s problems may be found in the paragraph that describes the criteria used to determine if corporate behavior is ethical.  The investigators defined the conditions to be met:

For our purposes, “ethically produced” goods are those manufactured under three conditions.  First, the company is considered to have progressive stakeholder relations, such as a commitment to diversity in hiring and consumer safety.  Second, it must follow progressive environmental practices, such as using eco-friendly technology.  Finally, it must be seen to demonstrate respect for human rights – no child labor or forced labor in overseas factories, for instance.(1)

I would guess that the average businessman who reads this article is not particularly well armed with a rational view of ethics, but holds a haphazard collection of ideas that he has collected over his life from parents, Sunday school teachers, books, movies, college professors,... and perhaps Wall Street Journal writers.  Think about what such a businessman would conclude from this article.  In an effort to be considered ethical by his peers - after all, who wouldn’t want to be ethical? - he would accept the list uncritically as a program of action.  

Let me take each of the article’s criteria in turn to see how well the activities correspond to truly ethical behavior.

1.  “First, the company is considered to have progressive stakeholder relations, such as a commitment to diversity in hiring and consumer safety.” 

A “commitment to diversity in hiring” means that factors such as race, gender, and age ought to be considered as a qualification of employment.  That is, a company must adjust its workforce according to these factors.  

This is outrageous.  To say that the “diversity” of an unchosen human characteristic - diversity of race, for example - is of value to a company is to say that the quality of a workforce depends upon its racial makeup.  This is bald racism, and to smuggle this activity under the category of “ethical behavior” is obscene.  An employer who holds his own long-term self-interest as his ethical standard will judge potential employees on merit alone.  Skin color, heritage, gender, and age are utterly irrelevant.  

To desire the diversity of race, gender, age, etc. is irrational to the same degree - and for the same reason - as desiring the uniformity of these characteristics.  If a workforce happens to be “diverse” - composed of people from every corner of the globe - that’s great.  If a workforce happens to be composed entirely of near-sighted, elderly Jewish women with curly red hair, that’s great, too.  The only thing that matters is that the people are good at what they do.

The other item, a “commitment to consumer safety,” might indicate a proper ethics, but expressed this way it obscures the only valid reason: rational self-interest.  Again, it is in the long-range interest of any company to ensure the quality of its products, and consumer safety is certainly one of the important aspects of product quality.  This is never a problem in a free market because the law holds a company liable for any legitimate harm that it causes consumers, and companies that make unsafe products (or are even merely rumored to make unsafe products) will be driven out by competitors.


2.  “Second, it must follow progressive environmental practices, such as using eco-friendly technology.”

To “follow progressive environmental practices” does not mean to respect the property rights of one’s neighbors, which does in fact constitute ethical behavior.  It actually means to subjugate one’s own interests - and indeed, the interests of all human beings - to the alleged “interests” of the planet.


It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate upon the deep irrationality of environmentalism.  I am simply pointing out that it is by no means moral to participate in the surrender of liberty, along with the prosperity, happiness, and achievement that it makes possible, in order to placate policy makers that use apocalyptic visions to advance their own agendas. 

3.  “Finally, it must be seen to demonstrate respect for human rights – no child labor or forced labor in overseas factories, for instance.”

If a “respect for human rights” means a respect for individual rights, then naturally this constitutes ethical behavior.  And “forced labor” is slavery, which is evil by any rational standard.  The problem is that I do not trust that the authors of the article are referring to individual rights, meaning: the right to one’s life, liberty, earned property, and pursuit of happiness.  

One clue to the authors’ meaning is the example of “no child labor.”  What is meant by this?  In some Third World countries, families send their children work to avoid starvation.  To use force to prohibit children from working in these circumstances would be extremely immoral.  The presence of these “sweat shops” is obviously a great benefit to the people, including the children, who work there; if there were a better deal somewhere else, they would leave.  (I am assuming here that they are not literally forced to work, for that would be immoral, as I’ve already stated.  And of course, by “force” I mean forced by people, not “forced by poverty” or “forced by conditions,” which is not force at all in the sense of rights violations.)  

It is tempting for us in western nations that are advanced and relatively free, to observe the squalid conditions and low-paying work in some overseas factories and conclude that this constitutes “exploitation,” since we cannot imagine ourselves actually choosing that kind of work.  But this is a misunderstanding of the context.  The progress of a civilization is made slowly, and Third World nations are in some respects literally centuries behind.  When corporations set up shop overseas, it is a supreme opportunity for the poorer nation to advance.  Everyone benefits. 

(As an interesting aside, a strict interpretation of “no forced labor” would mean that one should never do business with communist countries, since citizens of communist countries are, in every important respect, slaves.  However, I’m not sure that this strict interpretation should be applied in every case.  For instance, China is still technically a communist country, but I think a flourishing trade of non-military or non-“dual-use” goods with them is very beneficially and may by degrees cause the communist aspects to simply wither away.)

P.S.  I sent a greatly abbreviated version of this post as a letter-to-the-editor to the Wall Street Journal.

(1)  Wall Street Journal, Does Being Ethical Pay?, 12 May 2008, p. R-4.

09 May 2008

The Next Apollo Mission

I went to see Yaron Brook’s excellent lecture, Woodstock’s Legacy: The Rise of Environmentalism and the Religious Right, at the Ford Hall Forum tonight.  (Actually, I guess I have to say it was last night, not tonight, since it is now past midnight!)  I can’t possibly capture the order, integration, and eloquence of his speech, but I will try to recap some of ideas as faithfully as I can, with apologies to Dr. Brook if I’ve gotten something wrong.

He started by referring to Ayn Rand’s 1969 article, Apollo and Dionysus, in which she used two particular major events of the time - the Apollo 11 mission and the Woodstock rock music festival - to represent the wider concepts of reason and emotionalism, respectively.  In many respects, in 1969 the Dionysian elements in American culture were smothering the Apollonian ones.  It was a battle not of rich versus poor, but of intellectuals versus the people, hippies versus scientists - and the hippies and intellectuals seemed to be winning. 

So Dr. Brook asked the question - are we better off now than we were then?  There are some positive signs.  After George McGovern (an archetype for the Dionysian side) lost to the unpopular Richard Nixon, it seemed a thorough repudiation of the emotionalism of the hippie generation.  Indeed, the only Democrats elected to the Presidency since that time have run as centrists.  Reagan and Thatcher were elected.  Capitalism revived; Americans were prosperous and adored technology.

Unfortunately, the rebellion against the New Left was missing an explicit philosophical defense.  And many Americans, revolted by the shallow horrors of nihilism, flocked to the only prominent groups that boasted of absolutism and moral guidance: the evangelical churches.

Somewhat paradoxically, evangelical Christianity appeals to the 1960’s generation because of its emotionalism and spiritualism.  It is explicitly anti-reason.  Dr. Brook noted that, “the emotionalism of Woodstock was replaced by the emotionalism of Billy Graham” and “it was a rebellion against the Left - but not a rejection of Dionysus.”      

Dr. Brook then brought in the environmentalist movement as the other significant cultural movement that has made great inroads, showing that despite a veneer of scientific content and some lip-service geared to making it palatable to ordinary people, environmentalism is at root virulently anti-man.

These two strands - evangelicalism and environmentalism - are ultimately united in the realm of ideas; in essence, they share the emotionalism and hatred for reason.  But it gets really scary when these two unite as cultural and political forces - and that is exactly what appears to be happening.  (Dr. Brook illustrated this with many examples that I didn’t jot down, but I’m sure they’re on the recording that will be available soon at ARI.)

Brook’s sobering conclusion: “America is more Dionysian today than it was in the 1960’s.”  

Interestingly, though, Dr. Brook is unmistakably positive and optimistic.  What is needed today, he said, is a new Apollo mission that can provide a philosophical defense of freedom and capitalism.

07 May 2008

M is for Modular

I just happened to be looking up a word in the American Heritage Dictionary when I came upon a striking picture that was used to illustrate the word “modular.”  The illustration showed a Montreal dwelling called “Habitat,” designed by Moshe Safdie.

The design is a little bit chaotic, but it also has an order to it that appeals to me.  It’s sort of crystalline in nature – irregular in overall shape, yet its growth adheres to rigid orthogonal axes.  And I like its apparent mission to provide “privacy, fresh air, sunlight and suburban amenities in an urban location.”  

One of the many horrors of the massive public housing apartments that loom over big city slums (like the one in the Bronx, pictured below) is the monotonic regularity of each unit.  These “projects” seem by their very nature to thwart individuality and beat their tenants into collective insignificance.

In contrast, the Safdie “Habitat” provides each tenant with a unique unit, each with its own balcony and as much privacy as is possible in such a limited space.  If I were just scraping by in a big city and couldn’t afford a more private space, I think I would really appreciate the individuality of the Safdie construction and the dignity it permits.

Incidentally, on a totally different topic, I started out this post by saying I was looking up a word in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition.  I bought this dictionary after going to New York to celebrate the Ayn Rand centennial in 2005.  Somebody (I can’t remember whom it was - Yaron Brook, or perhaps Jeff Britting?) mentioned that this dictionary included at least one quote from Ayn Rand that, at least symbolically, is an uplifting sign.  In the synonyms section for the word “honor,” the dictionary lists “reverence,” then gives as an example a quote from Ayn Rand: “Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man.”

Ham Sandwiches and Eternal Happiness

A friend of mine related the following syllogism, which he saw in the Boston Globe Magazine:

   Nothing is better than eternal happiness.

   A ham sandwich is better than nothing.

   Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

This struck me as very funny, but of course there is a sober side to it as well.  It demonstrates the importance of not applying logic “in a vacuum,” so to speak, but to constantly check its correspondence to reality.  

The syllogism above deftly plays upon the use of the word “nothing” as a stand-in for an entity.  The major and minor premises stand alone as coherent propositions, but when the formal logic of a syllogism is applied, it produces a nonsensical conclusion.  The result is an intellectual sleight of hand that is amusing if one has the proper epistemological framework, just as a magician’s trick can be appreciated by one who is firmly grounded in reality.  However, it’s not funny at all if such tricks are used to attack logic itself.

As Ayn Rand advised: check your premises.