My work on the philosophy of mathematics has sparked a recognition of a new epistemological-ethical principle: establishing thresholds is essential to success in thought and action.

A “threshold” is a lower bound of significance–a degree below which something has too little cognitive or existential impact to be entertained.

For instance, your chance of buying a winning lottery ticket or of getting hit by falling space debris is sub-threshold, so you should take no action based on that and give it no thought (beyond the judgment that these events are sub-threshold).

This supplements the Objectivist understanding of the arbitrary. The arbitrary has no evidence and is asserted on the premise of “evidence—who needs it?!” Entertaining the arbitrary is treating imagination as if it were cognition.

But the sub-threshold is different. “You have a 1 in 12 million chance of winning this lottery” is put forward on the basis of mathematics, not emotion. One could argue that by implication acting on this mathematics is emotionalist, but that presupposes the point about thresholds that I’m going to make: to grant significance to things with too little evidence or too little value is to engage in context dropping.

What context is dropped? The context of all the other things that have, in the mathematical sense, a 1 in 12 million chance of happening. There’s a a much better chance (1 in 2.6 million) chance of being dealt a royal straight flush in poker, so before one buys that lottery ticket one would have to consider betting the limit, sight unseen, on the next poker hand. There’s no doubt at least a 1 in 12 million chance that while you are in the store to buy the lottery ticket, an armed robber will enter and you will get shot. There’s a 1 in 12 million chance that you will receive a fortune in the near future in some other way. There’s a 1 in 12 million chance you will be struck by lightning, that building you are in will collapse, that a talent scout will decide you are have just the right look for a certain role in the next blockbuster movie. Etc.

There are far too many things to think about and do if all sub-threshold chances are to be taken as significant. And in practice what happens is that whatever fantastically unlikely scenario is talked up becomes the one that is treated as if it were the only one.

Many people are impressed, for instance, with the thousands of cases of, alleged or real, bad reactions to the Covid vaccines. But they have forget that one thousand bad outcomes out of one billion vaccinations is one in a million. And they drop the context of the greater than one in a million chance of experiencing severe medical problems from being unvaccinated and contracting Covid.

Thresholds are contextual. A very slight chance of getting a cold is, for most people, negligible. The same chance of dying is quite significant. At the end of We the Living, we see Kira taking a high degree of risk trying to escape Soviet Russia, because the alternative was unthinkable.

It is important, therefore, to determine whether a given degree of evidence (and when to count statistics as evidence) or a given degree of value or disvalue is entitled to one’s attention.

In mathematics, I promote the concept of “nil,” which is a magnitude that isn’t zero but is too small to detect or too small to matter—to matter in application.

For instance, in measuring rugs for your home, the threshold length may be a half foot, it may be an inch, it could even be an eighth of an inch. But it cannot be a millionth of an inch. But in measuring the size of molecules that can cross a given cell membrane, a millionth of an inch may make all the difference.

There’s the flip side of “too small too matter”: so big that increases don’t matter. This is the rational meaning of “infinity” in one sense of that term. Something is infinitely big if additions to it make no difference. (In effect, for any n, ∞+n — ∞ = nil.)

It is good to apply thresholds to establish what’s “enough.” Perfectionism is precisely the error of dropping the context and thinking any improvement, no matter how small, is significant. For the perfectionist, infinity is never reached; his work is never good enough, because there’s always more polishing of it that can be done. (As an advocate of contextual perfection, I must add that the charge of “perfectionism” is often hurled at those who simply demand more of themselves and others than the accuser wishes they did.)

Perfectionism is the same issue as thinking one “just might” win the lottery: it’s failing to consider what the operative threshold of significance implies as to other things. Yes, by spending more time editing this post, I could add some to its value; but what are the other things I could be using that time for? Yes, by working an extra hour longer a billionaire probably can make an extra $1,000 dollars. But what else could he be expending that hour on? Are the selfish rewards of increasing his wealth from $1,000,000,000 to $1,000,001,000 greater than the selfish rewards of dinner with friends? Improving his tennis game? Thinking about a philosophic topic, such as the need to set thresholds?

The point is not what answer one gives to those judgments; the point is the need to face these issues consciously and deal with them rationally.

Note that overconcern with the threshold being “exactly” right is itself a violation of the threshold principle. In the region of the threshold, small differences are way sub-threshold. Suppose our billionaire is trying to set a monetary threshold for what amount of money begins to matter to him. Suppose his estimate is: $1,000. Anything below that is, to him, what less than a penny is to us. But then he wonders: “Maybe my threshold should be $1200 per hour. But $200 has to be nil to him. The difference for him between a threshold of $1,000 and $1200 isn’t, for him, worth worrying about. It would be like, for us, worrying about the difference between a penny and 1.2 pennies.

So, thresholds are normally approximate, because differences close to the threshold make no difference.

Between “nothing’s there” and “something’s there, what do I do about it?” there is a third condition: “something is there, but it’s too little to devote any of my scarcest resource—time—to thinking about or dealing with.”

Vaccine skepticism is arbitrary

Belief in something without evidence is invalid. It leads to total skepticism, which in turn opens the door to mysticism (if nothing can be known for certain, you are “free” to indulge in whatever nonsense you like).

Doubt of something for which there is conclusive evidence is also arbitrary. “I have no counterevidence, but just maybe . . .” is fully as wrong as “I have no evidence, but just maybe . . .”

Let’s apply this to Covid vaccines. I will limit it to the mRNA vaccines of Moderna and Pfizer because I know most about them and they are the most commonly used ones (at least in my survey of HBLers).

The safety and efficacy of the mRNA Covid vaccines are established beyond any reasonable doubt. Remaining doubts are either uninformed or unreasonable. Here are some of the facts that make up the conclusive evidence.

1. The mRNA vaccines are known to be safe, from our understanding of how they work biochemically, how they performed in the clinical tests on 50,000 people, and what has happened to the more than 100 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated with them, which means 200 million shots administered.

What have been the bad results? [Sound of crickets.]

If you inject anything, even a saline solution, into 100 million people, there will be a few subsequent (not necessarily consequent) bad experiences. How many have there been to the mRNA vaccines? I don’t know, but it can’t be many or it would be all over Fox News.

Let’s say that there have been 1000 non-transitory bad results, which we could say are possibly caused by the vaccine. That means a random person in the U.S. has a 1 in 100,000 chance of a bad result. Can there be a rational worry about facing those odds? No.

2. Your doctor, I bet, wants you to get the vaccine. Dr. Amesh Adalja, the Objectivist infectious disease specialist, is strongly pro-vaccine.

3. 637,000 Americans have died from Covid, so if we do the same kind of individual-blind statistics I did in step (1), we get your chance of dying from Covid as 1 in 1900 (vs. not death but some kind of serious trouble with the vaccine for 1 in 100,000). Yes, you can say this kind of raw division of numbers doesn’t take account of individual differences, but that doesn’t help: healthy, vigorous, young people will do better with the shots just as they will do better in not dying from Covid.

4. Are there long-term effects of mRNA that will show up years later? No, it does not get inside the cell nucleus and it degrades quickly.

Facts about COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines

They cannot give someone COVID-19.

–mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19.

They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.

–mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.

–The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.

Now that is from the CDC, but it’s not contested or controversial.

5. The CEOs of both Pfizer and Moderna got shots of their own vaccines. This by itself is strong evidence of safety. It’s impossible to think that a layman following internet chatter knows as much about these vaccines as the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer.

Here are a couple more facts to consider from the University of Alabama website, beginning with a statement by the director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

“Many people worry that these vaccines were ‘rushed’ into use and still do not have full FDA approval — they are currently being distributed under Emergency Use Authorizations,” Goepfert said. “But because we have had so many people vaccinated, we actually have far more safety data than we have had for any other vaccine, and these COVID vaccines have an incredible safety track record. There should be confidence in that.”

Unlike many medications, which are taken daily, vaccines are generally one-and-done. Medicines you take every day can cause side effects that reveal themselves over time, including long-term problems as levels of the drug build up in the body over months and years.

“Vaccines are just designed to deliver a payload and then are quickly eliminated by the body,” Goepfert said. “This is particularly true of the mRNA vaccines. mRNA degrades incredibly rapidly. You wouldn’t expect any of these vaccines to have any long-term side effects. And in fact, this has never occurred with any vaccine.”

This adds up to a case as strong as the case against OJ Simpson. Maintaining, in the face of that evidence, that the vaccines are unsafe is like maintaining there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Simpson.

Should you be non-confrontational in arguing for Objectivist ideas?

Is it a good strategy to be avoid confrontation in arguing for Objectivist ideas, so as not to set off your discussant’s defenses?

You can’t answer that question as stated. First, make this crucial distinction: ideas vs. people.

In criticizing ideas, such as altruism, you need to be forceful and call a spade a spade. This includes being clear and objective: defining altruism in terms of self-sacrifice, duty, etc., and giving reasons for your conclusion.

In other words, you would not in conversation or to an audience or in writing say something like, “Altruism’s not my cup of tea.” No, you would make such points that altruism means the surrender of your values for the benefit of anyone who is non-you, that altruism has been the justification for every modern dictatorship, that full sacrifice of your values means your death. You would point out that there has been no argument ever given as to why we should sacrifice.

That’s being “confrontational” in regard to the idea of altruism. But it would be wrong to attack the person you are talking to: “You are an altruist and therefore are on the death premise.”

If you regard the person or people that you are talking to as evaders, as seriously immoral, then you should not be talking to them.

Conversely, if you are talking to them, it has to be on the premise that they respect rational arguments and that you share some starting point with them.

It’s neither practical nor morally proper to discuss ideas with those who reject reason.

So, it’s a mistake to think you have to be “non-confrontational” in discussing your ideas. That’s coming at it from the wrong perspective. You should give reasons for true, positive ideas and condemn and invalidate the wrong ideas. But your discussant or your audience has to be taken as open to reason and sharing with you some rational values if you are going to have or continue a discussion of ideas with them.

Confront the ideas not your audience.

Identity and Motion

The following is reprinted from the “Q & A Department” of The Objectivist Forum, December 1981. It was inspired by a private discussion with Ayn Rand on this issue. Subsequently, she read this piece and expressed no disagreement with any of it.—Harry Binswanger

Q: Does the law of identity imply that at every instant in time a moving object must be located at a definite point in space?

A: No. The law of identity implies that there are no such things as “instants in time” or “points in space”—not in the sense assumed in the question.

Every unit of length, no matter how small, has some specific extension; every unit of time, no matter how small, has some specific duration. The idea of an infinitely small amount of length or temporal duration has validity only as a mathematical device useful for making certain calculations, not as a description of components of reality. Reality does not contain either points or instants (in the mathematical sense).

By analogy: the average family has 2.2 children, but no actual family has 2.2 children: the “average family” exists only as a mathematical device.

Now consider the manner in which the question ignores the context and meaning of the concepts of “location” and “identity.”

The concept of “location” arises in the context of entities which are at rest relative to each other. A thing’s location is the place where it is situated. But a moving object is not at any one place—it is in motion. One can locate a moving object only in the sense of specifying the location of the larger fixed region through which it is moving during a given period of time.

For instance: “Between 4:00 and 4:05 p.m., the car was moving through New York City.” One can narrow down the time period and, correspondingly, the region: but one cannot narrow down the time to nothing in the contradictory attempt to locate the moving car at a single, fixed position. If it is moving, it is not at a fixed position.

The law of identity does not attempt to freeze reality. Change exists: it is a fact of reality. When a thing is changing, that is what it is doing, that is its identity for that period. What is still is still. What is in process is in process. A is A.

Pandemic Post Mortem

Unless some of the mutant strains are able to elude many of the vaccines—which I doubt—the pandemic is over.

New cases have plunged to one third of their peak value. The 7-day moving average was as high as 255,000 new cases and is now (February 16th) about 82,000. This is not well reported, because “Things are returning to normal” is like “Dog bites man.”

So, now is a good time to look back and assess what happened.

This was a nature-made disaster. But its harm was so magnified by government that one has to view the bulk of the suffering and deaths as due to disastrous government policy.

Above all, responsibility for the destruction has to be assigned to the FDA.

There are five levels here.

Level 1. The FDA as such

Had there been no FDA for the last 50 or 100 years, it is beyond question that medicine would have been so radically advanced that no virus could have created a pandemic. One factor accelerating medical progress would, of course, be the elimination of the years or decade of time wasted waiting for bureaucrats to permit offering medications on the market.

But the much more potent accelerator would be the Big Data doctors and researchers would get if the public were permitted to ingest whatever they wanted to. A huge pool of mini-experiments like that gives rise to quantum leaps of progress.

If a government bureau, like the FDA, wants to issue recommendations, that’s one thing. But it’s something else entirely when they seek to gain control over your health decisions. By what right, and at what cost, does a government agency stop you by force from taking the medication you think best?

And it is force: government is the agency whose rulings are mandatory, being enforced by the police. Government is the social institution in charge of the use of physical force within its territory. Laws are not suggestions or recommendations.

No individual has the right to use force to stop you from taking a medication, and neither do 100 million individuals, and neither do the politicians who appoint the panel of experts. Your life is your own, your mind is your own, your body is your own.

Using the police power of the state to enforce even a distinguished panel’s conclusions about personal health is totally improper and destructive. Placing science under political control can only lead to the corruption of science and to popular distrust, as we have seen in regard to the vaccines.

Level 2. The FDA on efficacy

As of mid-February, 1000 times more Americans than were in the clinical trials have received both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Had Moderna and Pfizer been permitted to sell their vaccines while clinical trials were being conducted, the vaccination process that began in December would have begun in May. Those additional six months cost many thousands of lives. And scientists would have tens of millions of informal data points to consider.

Note: the Phase III trials were not for safety but for efficacy. The government was satisfied on the safety of Moderna’s vaccine (reference) after the Phase I trials of March through early May. (The company then looked at efficacy for its own information and found that every single one of the 45 subjects developed high levels of antibodies to the coronavirus by two weeks after getting their second dose.)

Your right to act on your own conclusions about your health was taken away by 1962 legislation expanding the FDA’s role to cover not just the safety but also the effectiveness of medicines and medical treatments. That was an immoral and deadly enlargement of state power over the individual. The premise was paternalism: “We experts won’t permit people to waste their time and money on things that, even if safe, don’t work.” It doesn’t matter whether the experts do know better or are an ossified establishment: decisions regarding your health are yours to make.

Back near the beginning of this nightmare, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed pleading for the FDA, in this emergency, to drop the efficacy requirement and revert to the pre-1962 standard: safety. Tragically, the plea was completely ignored.

Level 3. The panic over hospital overcrowding

The public and politicians alike over-reacted to the possibility that hospitals could be temporarily unequipped to deal with a surge in Covid cases. In the ensuing hysteria, the country was locked down for month after month, businesses were bankrupted, jobs were lost, people’s lives were shaken, and there was a massive loss of wealth—all to prevent hospitals from being unable to handle all the Covid cases.

Why is shutting down the whole country preferable to hospitals not having enough staff or beds for all the Covid sufferers? The answer is: the tragedy at the hospitals is visualizable in contrast to the less easily visualized but even-greater tragedies resulting from extended shutdowns of the economy.

Plus, the ethics of altruist self-abnegation made intolerable the prospect of doctors having to decide whom to treat and whom to crowd out. “We can’t have some doctor or his staff deciding who will live and who will die.” (Why not? No answer.)

The absolute was: hospitals must not be overloaded. That would have made sense if mass vaccination had been just a week or two away. Then you could have argued that the government would accomplish something in its desire to “Flatten the curve” But the FDA made sure that the vaccines would not be released until “adequate testing” had been conducted, written up, forms filled out, and ruled upon by faceless bureaucrats. So the effect of all the lockdowns and general havoc the government wreaked was merely to add a slight delay to what was inevitable: the spread of the virus through the unvaccinated population.

Level 4. Capitalism non, socialism sí

Right from the beginning, the responsibility for everything having to do with the pandemic was taken away from individuals and made into a collective—i.e. governmental—responsibility. Even the military was involved in what should have been business activity on a free market. Never considered was the free-market solution: profit. The selfish search for profits would have resulted in many resources being pressed into service, and their owners highly rewarded, which is what justice demands.

We needn’t have strangled everyone with “flatten the curve” lockdowns. We needn’t have let the bureaucracy go power-mad. Instead, the same quest for profit that fills the supermarkets and clothing stores could have turned that hospital capacity line sharply upward, instead of destroying the economy for the sake of spreading out the same number of cases over a longer time frame.

As I wrote back then, why not pay physicians and health staff ten times the normal rate to attract out-of-state and out-of-country physicians, nurses, and hospital personnel? During the February crisis in New York City, it would have been much cheaper to offer out-of-state doctors $1 million per week to come to NYC to help with the crush.

Regarding distribution of the vaccines, the free market would have speedily and efficiently gotten the vaccines from the lab into production and into people’s arms. Businesses pursuing high profits do not exhibit the incredible bungling we’ve witnessed from government taking over distribution and injection of the vaccines.

Level 5. The FDA and testing

All that I have said about how government coercion prevents us from getting vaccines applies just as much to government coercion preventing fast and accurate testing from being made available. Often during the last year, we heard about newly developed fast, easy, at-home testing. But it never seemed to materialize. The cause: government paternalism, prohibitions, and the government’s disastrous tort law system, which make it almost impossible to sell any medical product. Just this morning, the WSJ’s story was headlined: “Rapid Covid-19 Tests Go Unused”:

The U.S. government distributed millions of fast-acting tests for diagnosing coronavirus infections at the end of last year to help tamp down outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons and allow schools to reopen.

But some states haven’t used many of the tests, due to logistical hurdles [that for-profit companies seem always to surmount] and accuracy concerns, squandering a valuable tool for managing the pandemic. The first batches, shipped to states in September are approaching their six-month expiration dates.

Bear in mind that the Moderna vaccine was created in a couple of days back in February 2020. There is no scientific problem in devising a vaccine effective against the coronavirus. The problems are political, which means ideological, which means philosophical. For two centuries the philosophy of self-abnegation and coerced submission to the collective has been replacing the original American philosophy of reason, self-interest, and individualism. The predictable calamity was in fact predicted by Ayn Rand through the hero of Atlas Shrugged, who says, in a different situation:

It was man’s mind that all their schemes and systems were intended to despoil and destroy. Now choose to perish or to learn that the anti-mind is the anti-life.

Nature produced the virus. The philosophers and intellectuals preached the collectivism that barred free individuals—patients, doctors, researchers, pharma companies—from taking rational action to defeat it.

Slavery did not benefit “whites”

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. —  Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, Ch. 17.

The notion of “white privilege” is collectivist. It’s Marxism seen through a racial lens.

You don’t need Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy to know that crimes are not racially shared, that there is no collective guilt. The fact that a group of people with white skin enslaved a group of people with dark skin does not mean that everyone with a white skin bears guilt for the crime. The same applies to the “Jim Crow” laws that used to exist in the Southern states: guilt for this rights violation does not attach to skin color.

But it seems that you do need Rand’s Objectivism, or at least quite an advanced understanding of capitalism, to realize the error and the insult to blacks in the idea that whites gained financially from slavery, as the term “white privilege” implies.

The truth is that, aside from the plantation owners (a tiny minority), the white population of the South was hurt by slavery—kept poor by it—rather than enriched.

Only racists, who believe that African-Americans are sub-human, could imagine that treating them like beasts of burden would be the path to riches. If you recognize that the enslaved people were human beings, with the rational faculty, you understand that slavery and discrimination were not only viciously evil but also socially and economically destructive. The forcible suppression of blacks was deliberately directed toward thwarting and paralyzing their minds—their deepest essence and most economically valuable asset.

In the words of Spinoza, “Nothing is more valuable to man than [another] man who lives by reason.”

Not just basic human decency, not just the understanding of individual rights, but also the profit-motive demands that you treat every member of every race as the rational beings they are.

Slavery sets the slave’s mind against you. Respecting a man’s individual rights and paying him for his services puts a free man’s mind on your side.

Or do the pushers of the slogan “white privilege” secretly believe that only whites can think rationally?!

The same anti-black, racist premise is behind the idea that capitalism is consistent with racial bigotry. The vile insult to those suffering from the bigotry is the ugly assumption that the members of the victimized race could not, in fact, perform as well as the members of the “privileged” race.

In concrete terms, the charge of “white privilege” assumes that it made economic sense for Southern businesses to give preference to whites over blacks. This assumes the inferiority of the black race! Otherwise, not hiring blacks and not selling to them would spell economic suicide.

On a free, capitalist market, the price of a man’s labor (his wages), like the price of any other factors of production, is set by the man’s contribution to production, not by non-economic considerations like his shoe size, the number of syllables in his first name, or his skin color.

Sure, in backward areas, like the 19th century Deep South, there would initially have been, from rednecks, resistance to doing business with blacks and general resistance to dropping racial prejudice. The Archie Bunkers have always looked with horror at competition from members of other groups (Jews, Irish, Italians, women, etc.). But as individual members of a group perform well, as they advance in wealth and form friendships, and marriages, with the more reasonable individuals of other groups, the old collectivist prejudices become less and less tenable—because they are false.

Capitalism sets the profit motive against irrationality. And racism is the height—or lowest depth—of irrationality.

To see why racism is anti-capitalist, consider the analogy to a Luddite prejudice against machinery. What would happen, under capitalism, to business owners who discriminated against machinery? Suppose the vast majority of businessmen thought machines were instruments of the devil; suppose they would not buy machines at all. How would these superstitious businessmen compete against a lone rational businessman who was not prejudiced against machines and gladly used them to save time and money? They couldn’t compete. The price of prejudice against machines would be: inability to cut costs, thus cut prices, thus maintain sales, thus stay in business. The same is true for prejudice against men.

It’s simple. Irrationality doesn’t pay. Racism is grossly irrational. Therefore, racism doesn’t pay.

Do the chanters of “white privilege,” then, think that it is rational for to view blacks as inferior?

COVID: New interview with Dr. Adalja

    Amesh Adalja

Dr. Adalja, a recognized expert on infectious diseases and a longtime Objectivist, provides an update (on May 3rd) to supplement his earlier interviews on MOTM. In these very popular, informative “Meeting of the Minds” sessions, Dr. Adalja gives crisp, black-and-white answers to the questions that are on everyone’s mind but are rarely dealt with in the often politicized and generally inadequate reporting on the virus.

Audio by Beeld en Geluid [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

P.S. The weekly podcast “Meeting of the Minds” is normally open only to members of HBL. Free trial membership.

The cracked economics of government “help”

Trump has pretty much endorsed socialism. Yes, socialism. He said he looked favorably on the idea of government buying “equity stakes” in companies (the companies the government has injured). So the plan is: we shut you down, you lose revenue, we steal from others to get cash to buy shares of your stock, thus partially nationalizing your business. (It typically takes only 10% stock ownership to have de facto control over business policy.)

I expected statist economics from Trump but not from supposedly right-wing TV commentators, like those on CNBC. (Is talk radio any better?)

Everyone seems to believe that the government has its own wealth and thus can “fix things” by supplying some of that wealth to those who most need it.

They’re going to send a trillion dollars in checks out to people. Where is the physical production that those checks draw upon? It’s not in lots of government warehouses stocked with the things you need to buy. It’s in Amazon’s warehouses, Walmart’s warehouses, the warehouses and shipping containers of all businesses and in the fields and storehouses of agribusiness.

Government can only transfer wealth. How, in a nationwide crisis, is it going to help to take the citizens’ goods, then give them back to them?

“Oh, we’ll take them from the rich and give them to the needy,” some people say. Really? What do you think the goods of the rich are? They are investments. They are capital. They are factories, machinery, land, and payments of wages and salaries. That’s where over 90% of the wealth of the rich is. How is turning that over to the needy going to help make up for lost production?

The plan advocated is something even worse than “tax the rich.” The plan is to create new (phony) money.

So people will be able to buy their food and pay their rent with government-created new money and credit. Which means people don’t actually pay anything for that part of the goods they get. How, then, is production supposed to continue? There is no money—no real money—to spend on replacing capital and equipment. How is Amazon going to survive giving away products for free? How are investors going to fund the new businesses to replace the normal percent of business failures (let alone crisis-level of failures) when investors’ real wealth has been looted by the inflation?

The cleaner solution (being used in some places) is to impose a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. Coupling that with an increase in food stamps is slightly less bad than distorting the price system, which is what inflation does.

Inflation is government counterfeiting of the money supply. That perpetrates a fraud on the entire economy. Fraud is an indirect form of force. Inflation is thus equivalent to the direct force of taxation. Because it disrupts the price system’s coordination of all economic activity, inflation is the worst kind of taxation.

It’s evil to have the government rob Peter to pay Paul. But it’s evil and crazy to have the government rob Peter and Paul to pay Peter and Paul.

Corona virus interview: Dr. Amesh Adalja

    Amesh Adalja

A must-hear interview with a recognized expert on infectious diseases, and a longtime Objectivist. In one of the best “Meeting of the Minds” sessions ever, Dr. Adalja gives crisp, black-and-white answers to the questions that are on everyone’s mind but are rarely dealt with in the shockingly inept reporting on the virus. Includes discussion of the harm wreaked by authoritarian governments in their heavy-handed response to the virus.

Audio by Beeld en Geluid [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

P.S. The weekly podcast “Meeting of the Minds” is normally open only to members of HBL. Free trial membership.

Objectivist Workshop Participants Identified

Ayn Rand once remarked to me that an event doesn’t become part of history until 50 years have passed.

It’s now been 50 years since the Workshops on Objectivist Epistemology were held. The Workshop comprised five meetings from 1969 through 1970 during which professionals in philosophy and related fields had the extraordinary opportunity to question Ayn Rand in great detail on her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

The tape recordings of those sessions, which were hosted by the Foundation for the New Intellectual (now terminated in favor of the Ayn Rand Institute), supplied the basis for the 200 page Appendix I edited for the 2nd edition of ITOE. The full recordings are in the Archives of the Ayn Rand Institute.

None of the participants asked for anonymity regarding the Appendix, but neither did I contact all of them to secure their permissions to be named and quoted, so I thought it best to use the identifiers “Prof. A,” “Prof. B,” etc. Some questions were asked by attendees who were classed as “auditors,” though they were given a few opportunities to ask a question or two.

There were only five full participants, if I recall correctly: Leonard Peikoff, George Walsh, John O. Nelson, Allan Gotthelf, and me. The rest were “auditors” or “guests.”

“Auditor” is not quite the right term, because they were each given the opportunity to ask a question late in the sessions, but I can’t think of a better term. The people I list below as auditors were those who asked a question that I included in the Appendix; there were probably a few others, but either they didn’t ask a question or I didn’t include any of their questions in the Appendix.

Of the full participants, three held the academic rank of “Professor,” two of “Instructor.” The auditors, I think, were all graduate students. So, “Prof.” was a device I used, rather than a description of their academic titles.

Also attending as guests were: a lawyer who was a Foundation trustee and his wife, George Reisman, and Frank O’ Connor. The group met in a hotel conference room, and we sat around a big, oval conference table, the guests sitting against the side walls.

The first session lasted 12 hours! Subsequent sessions were shorter, but still the total time was 21 hours. A full transcript would have run about 600 book pages.

Not everyone attended every session. Sessions 4 and 5 were quite different. They were not about ITOE or epistemology; one was on metaphysics and one on ethics/politics. These two final sessions were much smaller events, held in Ayn Rand’s apartment, and there were only three questioners: Leonard Peikoff, George Walsh, and Allan Gotthelf. I was not invited.

The assignment of letters for the names had no special significance: I used “Prof. A” for the first person quoted in the Appendix, “Prof. B” for the second, and so on.

As noted in my editor’s preface to the Appendix, I did some re-arranging of questions: they are presented in logical order, not the chronological order in which they were asked.

For the first three sessions, there was a different “main questioner,” who had the floor for an hour or two; then others took turns. Thus, my re-arrangement of questions did not interrupt any flow; each new questioner asked about whatever topic he was interested in, rather than continuing from where the previous questioner left off.

A happy result of putting the questions into a logical order was that my question on the nature of the whole theory was the one that needed to go first. So I am “Prof. A.”

Here is the complete list of the participants included in the Appendix.

Prof. A: Harry Binswanger. Then a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Columbia University and Part-Time Instructor in philosophy at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Prof. B: Allan Gotthelf. Doctoral candidate in philosophy at Columbia University and full-time Instructor in philosophy at Wesleyian University in Connecticut. Dr. Gotthelf went on to become, among many other accomplishments, a founder and longtime head of the Ayn Rand Society, a professional organization affiliated with the American Philosophical Association.

Prof. C: Nicholas Bykovetz. Graduate student in physics, who is now in the physics department of Temple University.

Prof. D: John Nelson. Nelson was then in his 50s, I believe, and was in the philosophy department of the University of Colorado, Boulder. His article “The ‘Freedom’ of the Hippie and the Yippie” was published in The Objectivist.

Prof. E: Leonard Peikoff, who needs no identification for this audience.

Prof. F: George Walsh. Then in his late 40s or early 50s, Prof. Walsh was in the philosophy department of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY.

Prof. G: Fred Weiss.  Graduate student in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Weiss went on to create and run The Paper Tiger, a niche publisher.

Prof. H: Mike Berliner. Doctoral candidate in philosophy at Boston University, where he also taught.  Dr. Berliner became the first Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute (1985 – 2000).

Prof. I: Gary Lachmund. Then a graduate student in mathematics, Mr. Lachmund later went into banking.

Prof. J: John Allen. Graduate student in philosophy.

Prof. K: Albert Jakira. Graduate student in philosophy. Mr. Jakira ran an Objectivist study group in New York City in the 1990s.

Prof. L: Tony Plasil. Graduate student in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Prof. M: Laurence Gould. Graduate student in physics, now in the physics department of the University of Hartford.

All trade deals are bad deals

All Trade Deals Are Bad Deals

Harry Binswanger

For over a year, markets have been whipsawed by alternating hopes and fears regarding trade deals between the U.S. and China, and between a post-Brexit U.K. and the European Union.

The fears are justified; the hopes are not. All inter-governmental dictation of the terms of trade are improper. The terms of trade are matters for negotiation between private parties, not governments.

An actual deal is a voluntary trade between private individuals or private businesses, who decide what to do with their own property. The premise of inter-governmental trade “deals” is that private property is irrelevant, that governments are to decide who is permitted to buy or sell what to whom and at what price.

If your money is yours, not the government’s, if Apple’s products are the property of Apple and not the government, then government officials have no right even to venture an opinion about the terms of private deals and contracts. If Ford wants to outsource part of its production to a factory in China, that’s up to Ford and to the owners of the factory. True, China’s government does not permit real property rights to the factory’s owners. But that’s an immorality on its part, one that is not ameliorated by our government acting with the same dictatorial mentality.

There’s a name for the premise of government dictation of trade. When the government preserves the surface appearance of private ownership but actually takes control of how that property is used and disposed of, the resulting system is called “fascism.”

Under fascism, the owners retain nominal title to their property, the businesses remain nominally private, but the government dictates what individuals and business must do with that property. Prices and the terms of trade are set coercively by the state. And that’s just what trade “deals” seek to do with international trade.

An analogy will expose the fascist nature of all trade “deals.”

Imagine that countries negotiated music deals. Suppose that in the mid-1960s American politicians had decided that the “British invasion” was not good for American music.

“We have enough Beatles and Rolling Stones,” they might have declared. “But we’re willing to make a deal with Her Majesty’s Government to establish a level playing field. We will allow in one British rock album for every Lawrence Welk album that they buy from us.”

Then the Brits try to negotiate a change from Lawrence Welk to the Beach Boys.

In order to get the best possible deal, the U.S. government starts banning the sale of Beatles albums here. “We can play hardball,” the President says. He adds, “We stand ready to prevent our people from listening to as many British rockers as is necessary to achieve musical parity.”

You take it from there.

That analogy evokes a chuckle–because it is too silly to occur. But there’s no difference in principle between obstruction of imported music and obstruction of imported electronics. In both cases, the government is strangling its own citizens for an irrational goal: musical parity or a “favorable” balance of trade.

(The “balance of trade” is an accounting artifact: when our imports exceed exports, it’s solely because of foreign investment here. Imports are always paid for–and in U.S. dollars. Dollars that foreign sellers leave in the U.S., rather than spending on U.S. products, create a “deficit” in the “balance of payments.” This isn’t disputed. But foreign capital invested here is a boon not a threat. The U.S. had a “trade deficit” practically every year of the 19th Century–the period of our fastest economic growth.)

If you want to buy a car made in Michigan, you would be outraged if the governor of your state began negotiating with the governor of Michigan to set the terms of a “deal” to be imposed on you because it’s “in the public interest.” You should be just as outraged when it’s a car made in Germany or Korea.

Free-traders have characterized America’s imposition of tariffs as Uncle Sam shooting himself in the foot. But it’s way worse than that: it’s Uncle Sam shooting American citizens in the foot. When governments “negotiate” to get a “deal,” the people are held hostage; their lives and well-being are the “bargaining chips” in the negotiations. The tariff threats governments make are directed against their own citizens.

It has been claimed that we need trade deals in order to stop the theft of our intellectual property. This is a mistake. If such theft can be shown in a court proceeding, then the individual businesses guilty of it, not the world at large, should be punished for the crime. As a first step the guilty firm should not be allowed to sell their goods in this country. Further legal redress should be pursued . . . against the individual firms that have engaged in the theft.

But today’s approach is the unjust practice of punishing a whole group for the misbehavior of one party. Imagine that Qualcomm were found to be stealing intellectual property from Apple. Would that justify slapping a tax on every American business in order to “play hardball” with Qualcomm? It’s even more outrageous to tax all Americans in order to “play hardball” with Huawei. Punish the offending party, not the population at large.

If governments are not to make “deals,” what should they do to improve foreign trade? Simple: stop interfering with trade. Drop all the controls over trade. Do it unilaterally.

The American government should immediately end all its tariffs, quotas, and other forms of interference with trade. Then we could broadcast to the world: “We are no longer going to rob our own citizens by interfering with their right to trade their property as they see fit. To foreigners, we say: why not demand of your government that it respect your rights?”

The same applies to the U.K. It should exit the European Union without a “trade deal.” The so-called “hard Brexit” is the morally right Brexit. There should be no British politicians tasked with “handling” trade issues. The courts of law are the proper venue for trying individual cases, based on individual evidence and individual rights.

All the uncertainty, paralysis, and escalating “trade wars” would vanish overnight if America and the U.K. dropped their controls and announced: “What our citizens buy from and sell to the citizens of other countries is not something any government may obstruct. The right of free trade is a corollary of the right to private property. No benefit, only mutual destruction, can result from violating those rights.”

Someone wrote me privately to object. He said that when country A puts a tariff on goods from country B, it’s a tax on country B’s businesses. E.g., the Trump tariffs on imports from China are a tax on Chinese businesses. Then he argued that imposing tariffs in the way we have is valid because the message to China is: “If you lower your tariffs, we’ll lower ours.” He saw merit in the claim that in the long term, this will lead to lower tariffs worldwide and bring us closer to free trade.

My answer was:

But our government has no right to initiate force against us in order to (supposedly) induce another government to stop taxing their own citizens! The tariffs that China puts on are not taxes on our businesses: they are taxes on the Chinese who want to buy from our businesses.

It is true that if you beat up potential buyers, that means less in sales for our would-be sellers. But that doesn’t make it a tax on our businesses. The Chinese, no doubt, impose income taxes on their citizens; that reduces their spendable funds, so they buy less from American firms. But the tax is on the Chinese, not on us. We fail to get trade we could have and should have gotten. But the same is true in regard to our taxes and controls: they hurt the Chinese (and the citizens of every nation). But our income tax and our environmental regulations and our antitrust laws are not taxes on the Chinese.

Take it more extreme. Suppose the Chinese murder half their population. Is that to be thought of as a violation of the rights of American businessmen who would have sold to the victims?

And would the answer to that genocide be: “Oh yeah? Well, we’re going to kill half of the Americans–see how your exporters like that!”

Reading over the above, it now occurs to me that arguments like “tariffs will work in the end” are nakedly pragmatist. Once you understand that the government exists to protect rights, not violate them, that ends the discussion about slapping on tariffs. It’s a (further) violation of our property rights, so it’s not permitted. Full stop.

I have said that our government should announce: “We are immediately dropping all tariffs, quotas, and import controls. Americans do not permit their government to rob them; we’re sorry if your government continues to rob you, and you have the absolute right to overthrow that tyranny. The regime has no power to stop a popular rebellion, as the fall of the Soviet empire proved. We hope that you throw out the thugs and join the free world. In the meantime, send us your goods.”

That would be 100 times more powerful than any economic pain inflicted (mutually). Didn’t we learn “The lesson of Vietnam”? That lesson was that the most militarily powerful country in the world will be defeated by one of the most backward and impoverished countries in the world when the stronger country loses its moral self-confidence.

Marx was wrong. Ideology is not determined by economics. The Chinese regime will not be brought down by slowed economic growth. Under Mao, the regime flourished while the people literally starved to death. In the 1930s, the Soviets deliberately starved to death tens of millions of “kulaks.” People will knuckle under to anything, as long as they believe the alternative is evil.

(It is true that if the ideological preconditions are sufficiently established, an economic contraction can serve as a catalyst; but a more effective catalyst would be calls to overthrow the regime, per above. That was the catalyst Reagan supplied by his one good moment: the “evil empire” reference.)

What is national sovereignty?

We advocates of open immigration are often accused of seeking to undercut national sovereignty.

“A nation’s very existence depends upon its having borders,” we are informed. Then that obvious fact somehow gets transformed into “A nation that doesn’t enforce its borders has surrendered its sovereignty,” which then slides into: “We need the power to control immigration.”

But what is sovereignty?

“Sovereignty” refers to the government’s monopoly on force. The border defines the area within which the government has that monopoly—i.e., its area of jurisdiction, the area within which its police will enforce its law.

The border is not a kind of property line, dividing one government’s ownership of “its territory” from the next government’s ownership of theirs. The government does not own the country. Nor does any collective. Jurisdiction is not ownership.

“Enforcing our border” in the proper sense means using military force to preserve our government’s area of jurisdiction; it means repelling foreign governments or gangs who would raid us or try to take over areas of the country. “Enforcing our border” does not mean initiating physical force to obstruct or stop the free movement of individuals.

If the Mexican police or army were entering Texas, trying to block U.S. authorities or to rule it, that would violate U.S. sovereignty and would call for our government to enforce our border.

If the United States cedes to the U.N. authority to make law regarding carbon emissions, that would be partially surrendering our sovereignty. If soldiers operating as a U.N. “peace-keeping team” enter Lebanon and start imposing their decisions on the Lebanese people, that would be Lebanon’s loss of sovereignty.

France has compromised its sovereignty by allowing Sharia law inside Islamist areas of Paris which the police will not enter.

The point is that a nation’s sovereignty has to do with the reach of its law, not with its policy on immigration.

As John Patillo wrote on HBL a couple of years ago:

Sovereignty is established by the monopoly of force that allows . . . laws to be applied within a delimited territory: these laws (and no others) apply to this territory (and no other). Sovereignty does not per se endow the government with the right to control the movement of any human being on earth.

Immigration policy, whether rights-respecting or rights-violating, is not part of maintaining sovereignty. Immigration policy could only affect sovereignty if, like France, the host nation’s government does not have the moral certainty needed to assert its power. (In other words, there is no reason on earth that the French military and police have to genuflect to Islamist sentiment; they have the power to clean out those areas, and enforce French law 100%–the explanation of their abdication is the West’s loss of moral self-confidence, due to the onslaught of post-modernists and multiculturalists.)

Enforcing the border is a government-to-government issue. Immigration is a government to individual issue: can the state use force against a person trying to drive on a public road that runs across the border?

If Canada’s government were rolling tanks towards Buffalo, our military should use retaliatory force to stop them. But they would be doing it to protect Americans’ individual rights, not to protect the government’s sovereignty (“their turf”). The government’s retaliation against initiated force is always justified—whether the aggressors are invading Mexican soldiers or a criminal gang of locals in Topeka.

So much for the claim that we lose sovereignty if we permit open immigration. To enforce our borders is to enforce our government’s jurisdictional area.

Those talking about keeping our sovereignty, enforcing our borders, seem to mean that our government should use initiated force to obstruct or block the movement of people who seek to work here, do business here, and live in peace here.

The appeal to “sovereignty” as a justification for initiating force against peaceful individuals is illogical, and unjust. It reflects a wholly un-American attitude: the collectivist view that “we” or our government own the country, and get to decide who may come here and who may not. And the “us vs. them” approach represents the lowest form of collectivism: tribalism.

Nativist propaganda paints immigrants as uncivilized, disease-ridden, and harboring a high percentage of thugs and criminals. This is exactly what was said, by anti-immigrationists in the 1920s  about Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, and about “the scaly scrappings of the European Ghettos.” For a credible report on the actual statistics, listen to this 11-minute podcast from Cato:

According to the Cato scholar, immigrants have a lower proportion of criminals than do native Americans.

Philosophically, though, it doesn’t matter. Suppose the crime rate for immigrants were triple that of native Americans. Since justice is not collective, that fact would not justify any interference with the flow of immigrants across our borders. You think it does? Would you then advocate that the police go to a poor neighborhood, where the crime rate is triple the average, and eject or imprison everyone? Would you even advocate “extreme vetting” of the entire population of that crime-ridden neighborhood? I hope not.

In regard to the issue of crime, immigration policy is a distraction from the real issue: the need to end Prohibition II (aka “The War on Drugs”). Legalize every substance, and the crime rate will fall by a factor of . . . 4? 5? 8? Then bring back proper policing—an easier job once the police don’t have to deal with drug-based crime and judges no longer have to worry about overcrowded prisons when they jail real criminals.

Crime has been dropping for decades. To the extent it remains a problem, it is to be dealt with by getting rid of rights-violating laws (like the anti-drug laws) and better policing, not by violating individual rights by erecting barriers to immigration.

The FDA is the Federal Death Agency

Scott Gottlieb, the man President Trump has appointed to head the FDA, wants to loosen its regulation, to permit more innovation. This is a step in the right direction. But it’s one step in a journey of 100 miles. And no one dreams of making that journey.

The more consistent pro-capitalists recognize that the FDA greatly impedes medical innovation, because of its incredibly lengthy, expensive, and onerous requirements before any medical innovation can be released to the public. That’s the easy part.

The deeper issue is individual rights. And this issue is understood only by a small minority within the preceding small group. The individual has a right to put any substance into his body at any time for any reason. He has a right to buy any such substance from any willing seller under whatever terms they each consider advantageous to themselves.

The government has no legitimate role in medicine. None. Not in regard to what people take into their bodies, not in regard to who sells what for people to take into their bodies (absent proven fraud), not in regard to who calls himself a doctor, or a pharmacist, or a nurse, or an anesthesiologist, or a physical therapist, a psychiatrist, a dentist, a surgeon—anything.

(Re fraud: we must be constantly on guard against preventive law: government cannot demand that anyone prove that he is not engaged in fraud. The government cannot interfere with private activity unless there’s “probable cause” of a rights violation—which, in the case of fraud, means evidence of a specific fraud involving specific representations made in specific media on a specific date(s).  The government cannot treat doctors or medical firms as guilty until proven innocent.)

Many people understand that the government has no right to stop people from committing suicide. If that’s so, how can they have a right to stop them from knowingly doing something that some bureaucratic panel believes risks the individual’s death?

The right to suicide is an expression of the right to life. Just as the right to your property includes the right to discard or destroy that property when it is no longer valuable to you, so the right to your life includes the right to discard or destroy your life when it is no longer valuable to you.

Imagine that the government required the sellers of pencils to go before a panel and show studies to prove that their latest model won’t damage your papers, and that it makes marks “effectively.” And imagine the same principle applying to everything sold that affects your property—which means just about everything sold.

Couldn’t you, in that case, say to the government: “I want to buy and use this pencil, and I don’t care if it ‘harms’ my paper; it’s my paper; I can throw it in the trash or burn it in the fireplace if I want. I decide what’s good for my paper, not you”?

The same thing is true, but more so, in regard to your ownership of your body and your life.

(“Ownership” here is a metaphor: your life is the source of all your rights, including rights of ownership, so you can’t literally have property rights to the source of your property rights: your valuing of your own life.)

The premise of the FDA is: you are government property. That’s what would have to be true for the government to have legitimate authority over how you treat yourself.

The other pillar supporting the FDA is: altruism. The rational individuals, who would not swallow the snake-oil cure-all, have to be stopped to protect the irrational. That means: you cannot be allowed to buy drugs without a prescription because Looney Louie would harm himself if everyone were free of this prescription law.

Notice, what’s at stake here is rationality, not intelligence or knowledgeableness. A rational person knows his intellectual limitations and seeks the advice of the more intelligent and knowledgeable. (And private certification would be a crucial aid here.)

But the premise of the FDA is that the person needing to be protected from himself is the one who would not seek a doctor’s or scientist’s advice but would lurch into action irrationally.

And since “rational vs. irrational” is the same alternative as “moral vs. immoral,” what the FDA is set up to accomplish is nothing less than the sacrifice of virtue to vice. It stops the rational, conscientious, moral man from acting on his judgment—for the sake of protecting the irrational, out-of-focus, immoral man from the consequences of his chosen state.

Nothing could be more evil.

I opened this post by distinguishing between two levels of opposition by pro-capitalists who are against the FDA. The first level is that of people who will tell you that the FDA is a good and needed agency but there’s a problem with some of the Agency’s decisions. These people think that the FDA is just part of civilized existence.

I pointed out a deeper level: individual rights and how the FDA violates them.

Now I want to outline the third, deepest level of understanding: the integration of the moral and the practical.

The immorality of the FDA lies in its forbidding individual judgment. The FDA exists solely to arrest anyone who acts without permission. The FDA does not exist to provide expert opinion on medical substances and practices: private, non-governmental voluntary certification does that. What the FDA adds is the power to arrest and imprison those who dare to disagree with its medical opinions.

And that takes us to the deepest point. The necessary result of throttling private judgments is: mass death.

I don’t mean just the deaths of those millions of diseased individuals who cannot get the life-saving drugs. Much worse is the fact that outlawing private judgment means a drastically shorter life-span for every one of us.

Let me try to concretize the extent of this tragedy. If America had continued through the 20th century the nearly laissez-faire system of the 19th, it’s a good bet that Ayn Rand would be alive today at age 113, and would still be in good health.

It is quite likely that, had we continued with almost-full capitalism, then the Millennials would have a lifespan of 200 years, or longer. The reason that sounds like fantasy is that statism has hamstrung America for so long that we have unconsciously lowered our expectations of progress.

Let me make my vision more plausible to you. Assume—just for the sake of argument—that the nation survives in more or less its present political condition for another two centuries. Do you have much doubt that in 2218, medical progress will have reached the levels I describe?

Probably, the idea that people born in 2218 would have a 200-year lifespan seems plausible. If so, ask yourself whether, under capitalism, we could have gotten to that point already.

For comparison, consider what happened in the 125 years of capitalism we had from 1796 to 1921: the world was entirely transformed. The average American in that century went from a life hardly different from that of his ancestors going back two thousand years, to a world of trains, electricity, automobiles, movies, phonographs, airplanes, steamships, submarines. And, medically: X-rays, sanitary conditions in hospitals, anesthesia (and the consequent development of surgical techniques), vaccination (discovered by Jenner in 1796), and an extension of the American lifespan from between 30 and 40 to over 60 by 1921.

So why has U.S. life expectancy gone only to 78.7 in the 97 years since it hit 60? Why isn’t life expectancy now over 100? In fact, since knowledge builds on knowledge and wealth builds on wealth, the rate of increase should have been accelerating!

You might think that there’s some inherent limit on the span of a human life. I don’t think there is, and neither do lots of people better informed than I. Especially not when there is the ability to re-program our DNA.

But go ahead and assume that there is an effective upper limit of 100 or 110. Now consider the 20 to 30 years of extended life that even those born today are, on average, not going to see.

What took away that 1/3 of the individual’s life? Government. And more directly than any other arm of the government, the killer is the FDA.

The reason is “that which is not seen”—the progress that was not made is invisible to the public.

The first factor generating the non-improving lifespan is the regulatory hurdles that soak up time and funds. But there’s another, unrecognized factor that dwarfs that one: the absence of mass experimentation.

We should have had a century of thousands of self-chosen medical trials going on simultaneously, with the superior innovations being swiftly adoped.

There would have been and should have been ad hoc experiments on all fronts: people trying out new concoctions, new dosages of medicines, new surgical procedures, implanted devices, chemotherapies, immune-system boosting therapies, genetic repair and splicing in of new designs . . . and more.

There have been, of course, official “studies” done on each innovation in all those areas. But the shocking part is the realization that there could have been hundreds times more experiments—by the parties that decide on their own they want to try out the latest pill.

With the liberation of private self-medication, we would have had Big Data to go by. And we now recognize the immense value of Big Data.

Would it have been difficult to separate out legitimate results from placebo effects? No, not at all, because we’re interested not in mild tweaks (e.g., a slightly better throat lozenger), but in identifying unsuspected radical improvements.

Incremental improvements do have an important role, however. They point the way to more radical change. If you were trying to develop a cure for, say, rheumatoid arthritis, you would have been scouring the nation, or the world, for word on what treaments were working and to what extent. If you learned of a minor improvement associated with taking some drug, that could be the essential item of knowledge that could lead to your making a huge integration that led to a radical improvement.

The mass experimentation I’m talking about is just: a large number of independent, private decisions.  lt’s a Darwinian process: the more “mutations” are tried, the better the success rate overall.

When men are liberated to act on their own judgment, the experimentation produces data-rich results. Even the unwise or downright irrational would have accelerated technological progress: you learn things from failure, including about bad and good side-effects. (As to good side-effects: many drugs developed for treating one illness are being found significantly helpful in combatting entirely different maladies.)

In the 1980s when “personal computers” got started, we had that kind of competition in place, and the extinction of laggard firms was continual and widely noted. No Board could have predicted the quick disappearance or exiting from the “microcomputer” field of such hardware and software leaders as: Northstar, Tandy/Radio Shack, Digital Research (CP/M), Magic Pencil, Lotus 1-2-3, PageMaker, Atari, Osborne, Altair, Wordstar, CBasic, Commodore, KayPro, Sinclair, Xerox, and IBM. If a government committee had required a decade of testing of each new computer product, we would still be in the age of the adding machine.

The path to genetic cures and radical life extension begins with the abolition of that Servant of Death: the FDA.

As a significant first step, an enormous amount of good could be achieved by slapping back the huge power grab the Death Agency made in 1962. It was then, under President Kennedy, that the agency vastly expanded its reach by, for the first time, setting itself up as the dictator over not just the safety of drugs but their “efficacy.”

Proving efficacy is much harder, more expensive, and more time-consuming than proving safety. Consider some twists and turns introduced by the efficacy standard. Suppose you offer an alternative to an existing drug that has the same effectiveness—should you be “permitted” to sell it? Suppose it is a little less effective on average, but much more effective with a certain sub-sector of the population? And how much does its purported efficacy depend on the placebo effect—an issue that doesn’t come up in proving safety.

The justification offered for including “efficacy” in the agency’s (death-dealing) mission is that an ineffective drug can divert a person from the drugs and medical treatment that he should be getting. So, if Mindless Marvin is permitted to buy and take an ineffective drug to treat his cancer, he will only later, if ever, turn to legitimate medical treatment—and by then it may be too late.

Yes, that’s true about Marvin, but so what? The horrible assumption is that the rest of us have to die early so that the nation’s contingent of flakes and evaders can escape the consequences of their own choices.

For relief, let’s turn to Galt’s speech.

The political system we will build is contained in a single moral premise: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force. Every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment. If he fails to use it and falls, he will be his only victim. If he fears that his judgment is inadequate, he will not be given a gun to improve it. If he chooses to correct his errors in time, he will have the unobstructed example of his betters, for guidance in learning to think; but an end will be put to the infamy of paying with one life for the errors of another.

[My emphasis]

A “conservative” calls for a pope and a king

Niall Ferguson published an alarming opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal of January 6th. I analyzed the real meaning of his call for “hierarchy,” during our Sunday “Meeting of the Minds” teleconference.

I now have excerpted, and lightly edited, that portion–13 minutes–of the teleconference:


John Hospers’ Betrayal of Ayn Rand–An Eyewitness Report

John Hospers’ Betrayal of Ayn Rand

An eyewitness report

by Harry Binswanger

The November-December 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine had a story on Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns, the author of one of the two (bad) biographies on Ayn Rand published in 2009.

The article’s topic is Ayn Rand’s appearance in October of 1962 at Harvard, where she gave “Art as Sense of Life” to the American Society for Aesthetics. The commentator for her talk was John Hospers, who at that time Ayn Rand was friendly with. Here is Burns’ presentation in the article, which I will correct afterwards.

“What happened next [after she delivered her talk] is a matter of some dispute. As the designated commentator, Hospers rose and delivered some remarks on Rand’s presentation. At least one of her entourage remembered his words as surprisingly sarcastic and harsh. Hospers himself thought his comments, while critical, were entirely typical. ‘I could not simply say how great her remarks were and then sit down,’ he recalled.

“But there was no mistaking Rand’s reaction. She lashed out at him immediately from the dais, raising eyebrows in the crowd.”

Well, as it happens, I was present at that talk. I was 18 years old, had only been introduced to Objectivism 7 months earlier, and was entirely unfamiliar with ideas about decorum and moral sanction. Nonetheless, I was stunned by the hostile manner of Hospers’ comments. I remember, verbatim how he began one of his “comments”: “Surely,” he said in a really sneering way, “Miss Rand doesn’t expect us to believe that a painting of a landscape can [here I’m unsure of the exact wording] convey a view about man’s relation to existence.”

Hospers concluded his attack, then stepped down from the dais, and, as is the academic fashion, Ayn Rand went up to give her response.

As you know, Ayn Rand could get intensely angry and fry a questioner with both her moral intensity and her logic. But, completely contrary to Burns’ report, she was on this occasion more than calm–she was gentle and earnest. She answered Hospers’ attack, including the landscape example, so gently and earnestly that I was a little uncomfortable, feeling: “Doesn’t she know what he just did to her?” I knew from The Objectivist Newsletter that Hospers was supposed to be very friendly to Objectivism–I think he even gave part of a lecture once in the NBI series “Basic Principles of Objectivism.”

Another thing struck me. During her response, Ayn Rand was looking straight at where Hospers was seated (in the front row on her far left). But I could see Hospers, and the whole time he was turned in his seat away from Ayn Rand, facing toward the wall, in an awkward pose that seemed to say, “I’m not interested in whatever you have to say.” He wouldn’t look at her; he stared at the wall. I’m not a great believer in “body language,” but in this case, his was loud and clear.

I left the event surprised and bothered by Hospers’ behavior. I concluded, immediately and without difficulty, that he had just sold her out in order to maintain “face” with his academic buddies.

Apparently, Ayn Rand got the message, too, because she broke with Hospers afterwards, and I’m pretty sure it was over this betrayal.

© 2010 TOF Publications, Inc.

John Henry, a steel drivin’ man–and a Luddite

[Reprinted from Harry Binswanger’s Forbes Online column of November 20, 2013.]

Symbols matter. Symbols are powerful. Psychologically, they activate “the vision thing,” which George H. W. Bush had trouble with, as do so many on the Right.

Consider the legend of John Henry and his race against the newly invented steam hammer, a competition in driving steel to build a railroad line. For the Left, Henry symbolizes the working-class hero. He evokes the entire Marxist apparatus of downtrodden labor, exploited by the fat-cat capitalist bosses.

The legend of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel appears to have some basis in historical fact. But it has no basis in moral or economic fact. Morally, John Henry exhibits a contemptible small-mindedness; economically, John Henry’s opposition to mechanization is the kind of short-range non-thinking that economists should warn against.

But the Left has tender feelings for this brawny proletarian. In the folknik era of the sixties, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and Odetta sang his mournful ballad. This version of the lyrics of “John Henry” captures it all:

The captain said to John Henry
“Gonna bring that steam drill ’round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down, down, down.
Whop that steel on down.”

John Henry told his captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord.
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.” . . .

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine.
But John Henry made fifteen feet –
The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.
He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord.
He laid down his hammer and he died.

Now let’s throw the warm light of reason on the story. One website gives this account of the Chesapeake and Ohio’s construction of the Big Bend Tunnel.

The C&O’s new line was moving along quickly, until Big Bend Mountain emerged to block its path. The mile-and-a-quarter-thick mountain was too vast to build around. So the men were told they had to drive their drills through it, through its belly.

It took 1,000 men three years to finish. The work was treacherous. Visibility was negligible and the air inside the developing tunnel was thick with noxious black smoke and dust. Hundreds of men would lose their lives to Big Bend before it was over, their bodies piled into makeshift, sandy graves just steps outside the mountain. John Henry was one of them. As the story goes, John Henry was the strongest, fastest, most powerful man working on the rails. He used a 14-pound hammer to drill, some historians believe, 10 to 20 feet in a 12-hour day–the best of any man on the rails.

One day, a salesman came to camp, boasting that his steam-powered machine could outdrill any man. A race was set: man against machine. John Henry won, the legend says, driving 14 feet to the drill’s nine. He died shortly after, some say from exhaustion, some say from a stroke.

What then is the actual meaning of the story? John Henry died trying to defeat an invention that actually brought deliverance from the inhuman conditions of all steel-driving men, including him. He and hundreds of men died building the Big Bend tunnel. The steam hammer would have saved most of those lives. It would have allowed the laborers to do work, on the railroad or elsewhere, that was immensely easier and less dangerous. Is this something that John Henry and his Leftist admirers should oppose?

Steam power also greatly shortened the time required to lay track, lowering costs and therefore lowering the price of rail travel, raising everyone’s standard of living. The invention meant the substitution of steam power for costly, back-breaking, life-shortening, muscular labor.

“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man”–but what is a man? Is his essence the brute strength of his muscles, or the unlimited power of the intellect? The true meaning of the story is not: “a man ain’t nothing but a man,” but: a man is more than an animal.

Economically, the introduction of the steam hammer raised the productivity of labor and hence real wages. John Henry, an uneducated manual laborer, could not have been expected to understand this. But the contemporary commentators should understand it. Yet the website continues:

“John Henry’s life was about power–the individual, raw strength that no system [capitalism?] could take from a man–and about weakness–the societal position in which he was thrust.”

John Henry was “thrust” into a “societal position”? How? By whom? By the fact that man has to work in order to sustain his life? By the fact that a railroad requires rails? These facts are due to the law of causality, not to some evil human design or to society. John Henry was not a victim–except of his own Luddite opposition to progress.

John Henry’s life was about power? Power, in the real sense of the term, comes from knowledge–the knowledge of how to harness the forces of nature to serve human life. Like the force of steam, made to drive a hammer.

But according to Marxism, it is muscles, not mind, that moves the world. That is why Marxists cannot, or refuse to, see the huge contribution made by the minds of the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the risk-taking investors, the managerial organizers–and by every employee to the extent that he does his job in a way that an animal couldn’t. If muscles were the source of wealth, China would have been for centuries the richest nation on the face of the earth.

Animals survive by muscles; man survives by using his rational faculty to produce material values. (The social condition required for the mind to function is: freedom.)

The website author concludes:

“To the thousands of railroad hands, [John Henry] was an inspiration and an example, a man just like they who worked in a deplorable, unforgiving atmosphere but managed to make his mark.”

His mark was a tombstone.

His epitaph should be: Here lies a man, who, at the dawn of the industrial age, attempted to prove muscles superior to the mind, and paid with life.

Blindness to the power of ideas

Over at our Member Forum, we’ve been discussing the ideas of Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness. Szasz (wrongly) claims that psychological problems that aren’t neural are “behavioral.” There’s an interesting connection of this notion to the political issues we’ve also been discussing on HBL. Many of those involved in the wrong political movements (e.g., anarchism, populism, Marxism) are driven by the idea that ideas—especially philosophic ideas—are irrelevant to behavior . . . and to history.

Of the many, many examples of this in politics, let me take the case of libertarian anarchism. Decades ago, these anarchists argued that anarchism was necessary if we are to take seriously the prohibition of the initiation of physical force. The argument was that government’s monopoly on force initiates force against would-be competing “governments.”

But that is no longer the main argument the anarchists see—perhaps because of its refutation by Robert Nozick and by me. Or, perhaps it’s due to the dumbing down of the population over the years. But whatever the cause, today the main argument for anarchism seems to be: “Governments always go bad.”

Look at the history of the U.S., they say. It started out in a state very close to the libertarian ideal, but then it started to go down the drain. They then typically quote Lord Acton about how power corrupts.

They do not grasp, and seem incapable of grasping, that the decline of the U.S. was caused not by “corruption” but by philosophy. They are deaf to Ayn Rand’s statement, in For the New Intellectual:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her. From her start, America was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. [pp. 53-54]

My hypothesis is that what separates the committed Objectivist from the rest of the population is an understanding of the fundamental role played by ideas in people’s lives and in history. That point seems the hardest for people in general to grasp.

It also accounts for the widespread case of those who respond to Atlas Shrugged but fail to translate it into action–fail to pursue the philosophy (when they know it exists) or even to attempt to apply it to their own lives.

An example is the dermatologist who told me that he was reading Atlas for the second time and was very impressed by how AR foresaw the events of today. I asked him what he thought Atlas was all about. He replied, “Some people game the system.” Another story is of the accountant who told a friend of mine that Atlas was about “A man who owns his own valley.”

And people accuse AR of beating the reader over the head with her philosophy!

I suspect that what’s going on in such cases–which are the rule, not the exception–is that they see the ideas of the heroes and the ideas of the villains as merely words they use to justify themselves. They don’t see that the heroes and villains live by and act in accordance with the ideas they espouse. And that can only be because they are unaware of the power of their own ideas on their own lives and actions.

There’s a relatively innocent explanation: they don’t recognize that they have premises. To them, their philosophical premises are not conclusions–they are just self-evidencies. As I’ve said before, it’s like the common attitude, which even I shared in my youth, that an “accent” was the way other people talk, when it sounded different. “I don’t have an accent—I just talk straight.”

Similarly, journalists who are immersed in a sea of like-minded colleagues and friends, don’t think they are slanting the news. They are not “ideologues”–that’s what their opponents are. They just report plain fact, “telling it like it is.” It’s just self-evident that it’s a crisis if not everyone has health insurance. It’s self-evident that when a hurricane strikes, the government must provide funds for relief.

Philosophically, this attitude represents intrinsicism–the belief that even highly abstract conclusions are facts of reality open to direct perception. When someone else doesn’t agree with the “self-evidency,” that merely shows that he’s a fool or a degenerate. If he’d only drop his prejudice, he could just see the patent truth of . . . [insert wrong idea here].

Colloquially, this attitude is parochialism. What do these people think about people’s beliefs in the Dark Ages or in Ancient Egypt or in Ancient Greece? The fact that virtually the entire population of other cultures hold different basic outlooks on life—different philosophic premises—is totally unreal to this type of person.

But you can see the different philosophies given expression—see it concretized—in art. Art is the expression of the artist’s philosophy of life, and because the vast majority of artists share the philosophy of their culture, the art of different cultures expresses, in concrete form, the different philosophies. Just think of the dramatic difference between the death-centered sculpture of Ancient Egypt and the life-affirming sculpture of Ancient Greece.

On a personal note, the thing that really cemented my adherence to Objectivism was attending, on a trip to New York City, the lecture by Mary Ann Sures on the history of art. (This is roughly the lecture that is reprinted as “Metaphysics in Marble” in the February and March 1969 issues of The Objectivist, which I highly recommend; read it here.) The lecture was accompanied by slides showing the different artworks of different cultures.

I thought, “Jesus! This is not just theory. It’s really true that philosophy rules history. These ideas matter. Objectivism is really, powerfully true.”

Thank you, Mary Ann.

Why not to vote Libertarian

Evaluating a candidate of the Libertarian Party (LP) is very different from evaluating a candidate of the Republican or Democratic Party. The major parties stand for no ideology. Each is an amalgamation of pragmatic, concrete-bound positions, driven by no discernible theme.

By contrast, the LP—like, say, the Communist Party or the Green Party—does represent an ideology. It is regarded as an advocate of an unorthodox set of ideas. It declares in its platform that it seeks to “challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual,” and all its positions are supposed to follow from that premise. A vote for the LP is a vote for its ideology.

So the crucial question becomes: what in fact is that ideology?

Harry Binswanger, in his post, has already indicated the devious ways in which the LP’s platform has been crafted to accommodate the views of anarchists. But the LP does not explicitly endorse those views. It is nominally non-anarchist. What it does endorse, however, is not only a tacit form of anarchism, but worse: the equating of anarchism with capitalism.

  • When its platform declares: “We oppose all laws at any level of government restricting, registering or monitoring the ownership, manufacture or transfer of firearms or ammunition”—it is rejecting the means by which government protects the individual’s rights. In a free society, one is legally prohibited from engaging in any activity that poses an objective threat to others. While there is a right to use guns in self-defense, as defined by law, there is no right to the unrestricted possession of deadly weapons. Allowing anyone to have any firearms he wishes—allowing someone, for example, to walk the streets with a machine gun—clearly places everyone else’s rights in jeopardy.
  • When its platform declares: “We assert the common-law right of juries to judge not only the facts but also the justice of the law”—it is rejecting the means by which government protects the individual’s rights. The purpose of law in a free society is to make objective the prohibitions against the private initiation of force and the authorizations of government’s retaliatory use of force. By giving a group of citizens the power to nullify any law they happen not to like, including perfectly rational laws, the LP is negating the entire function of laws. (I agree with HB’s suggestions about recusing yourself if you are a juror on a case involving a patently unjust law.)
  • When its platform declares, in the very first sentence under “International Affairs”: “American foreign policy should seek an America at peace with the world”—it is rejecting the means by which government protects the individual’s rights. Peace is a byproduct of a policy of laissez-faire—and so, sometimes, is war. The fundamental value of any proper foreign policy is not peace, but freedom. A government committed to its citizens’ freedom will abide by two equally important imperatives: it will refrain from initiating force anywhere and it will resolutely take military action if and when that freedom is threatened.

A mentality that regards the existence of government per se as odious will not distinguish between initiated and retaliatory force on the part of a government. It will simply mandate, as stated in the LP’s platform, that we “avoid entangling alliances” and “end the current U.S. government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid.” Can there be alliances that enhance our defense against aggression? Can there be military efforts that protect our freedom? It’s all part of one big hash called “intervention,” according to the LP, and should be condemned. (Yes, the platform states that we should maintain “a sufficient military to defend the United States against aggression,” but that’s just window dressing. Whenever there is occasion for the proper use of military force—against ISIS, for instance—the libertarian directive invariably is: “non-intervention.”)

The LP is thus guilty of more than making wrong applications of the principle of laissez-faire. It is conveying to the public the noxious message that laissez-faire means “non-interventionism.” The message of this anti-concept is that “liberty” requires the elimination of even legitimate functions of government. In the LP’s view, for the same reason that the state should not forcibly intervene in an employer’s decision on what to pay his own workers, it should also not forcibly “intervene” in Iran’s decision on whether to acquire its own nuclear weapons.

Is this how the cause of liberty is supposed to be advanced?

Given the major-party candidates in this election, I’m sympathetic to the desire to cast some sort of protest vote. But you wouldn’t cast a “protest” vote for the Socialist Workers Party, just because it opposes government bailouts of Big Business. Or for the Christian Liberty Party, just because it wants to end all government welfare programs. Why then vote for the Libertarian Party just because it wants to cut the size of government? The right conclusion for the wrong reason is the wrong conclusion.
Are there any circumstances under which I would consider voting for a Libertarian candidate? Sure. All that is needed is for the LP to issue a statement along the following lines:

“We disavow our past ties to, and tolerance of, anarchism. We hereby proclaim our repudiation of anarchism because it contradicts the principle of individual rights. We now regard government not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary good, so long as it restricts itself to its proper function of defending its citizens against all threats of force, domestic or foreign.”

Until and unless that happens, my vote will go elsewhere.

Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Achievement

A few months after Ayn Rand’s death, in 1982, I wrote this article for my publication The Objectivist Forum. What I’ve put up is a PDF file scanned from that journal.

The one change I made for re-publishing it here is changing, at the bottom of Part I, “(To be concluded in our next issue)” to “(To be continued in our next issue).” I did not know, after the first part was written, that it would become a four-part article.

(For best viewing, use the + or – buttons, in the lower right of the page that comes up, to zoom in or out.)

Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Achievement

“Who Needs the Fed?”–John Tamny’s new book

John Tamny, of Forbes Online and Real Clear Markets, has penned an original and stimulating look at the economics of money and banking: Who Needs the Fed?. I sang the praises of his remarkable Popular Economics when that came out, and now his new book, Who Needs the Fed? has me singing them again, in a new key.

Let me note upfront that there are substantial parts of this book with which I, so far at least, disagree. I have exchanged some emails with Mr. Tamny on these issues and nothing has been resolved. This is not A Bad Thing: it can be actually helpful to follow a rational person’s thinking when you disagree with the conclusion he reaches.

In this case, the disagreement is about inflation. Mr. Tamny thinks the Austrian theory of what inflation is, and how it works, is flawed (I don’t). Surprisingly, he argues that expanding the fiat money supply does not affect things much. It mainly leads people to use a different money (e.g., foreign currency).

The German hyperinflation? He holds that in actual commercial transactions, the hyperinflated Marks were scarce, because no one accepted them. An interesting idea, but I’m not sold on the whole idea of “money-as-yardstick.”

But, as a whole, the book’s viewpoint is right and penetrates to the fundamentals. Here’s a non-exhaustive list, with quotes to illustrate.

The primacy of production (my term) over consumption:

Growth economics is all about reducing the barriers to production.

Amen. And he carries this idea, which should be the axiom of economics, throughout the book.

Credit is real resources–labor, materials, factories, etc.–not money:

Remember, it’s not dollars that are borrowed but the real resources that dollars are exchangeable for.

. . . credit is not money. If it were, the “easy credit” that many-who-should-know-better clamor for would . . . be as simple as printing lots of money. In fact, credit is always and everywhere the actual resources–tractors, cars, computers, buildings, labor, and individual credibility–created in the real economy.

The pursuit of credit is actually the pursuit of the resources . . . necessary for entrepreneurs and businesses to turn concepts into reality.

The interest rate is a price set not by whim or greed or Fed decree, but by the objective factors governing supply and demand:

. . . the rate of interest [is] a price meant to bring savers together with borrowers. If this rate is distorted by governmental decree, the odds of exchange decrease. For credit to be “easy,” the price of credit must reflect both the needs of those who seek to access it and the needs of those who have it. Put more plainly, the price of credit should be set in free markets.

Banking should be totally free:

Free markets should apply to banking just as they do to any other industry sector.

John Tamny is one of the few men who, when they say “free markets,” mean free markets.

All government spending, not just deficits, comes at the expense of the private sector:

. . . government spending is the opposite of stimulation. It is a tax on real resource creation.

All government spending should be viewed as deficit spending (even that which is constitutional) simply because governments are consuming from the private sector first. . . . [G]overnment spending is what we suffer in the here and now.

The longer term effects of spending, Tamny notes, are the never-to-be, Bastiat’s “that which is not seen”:

Government consumes credit that would otherwise flow to cancer cures, transportation innovations like private jets, and technological innovations that would make the Internet seem quaint.

Government intervention in the economy is immoral:

The wealth they [the Clintons and other politicos] enjoy is the result of the federal government confiscating it from its actual creators. The Clintons are posh and supercilious, but their grand lifestyle is directly attributable to the ability of the political class to plunder America’s truly productive.

When politicians talk up ‘stimulus’ spending,’ it is realistically code for a redistribution of the economy’s resources by a political leviathan that is being enriched on the backs of the American people.

There is much in this book that will make you question conventional wisdom, even if you are already a staunch advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. For example, did you know that banks supply only 15% of the credit extended in this country?! I didn’t.

Really eye-opening, in this regard, is his attack on the idea of “the money-multiplier.” That’s the belief, held by nearly everyone, that banks lend out a high multiple of the money they take in–not because of the leverage of fractional reserve on the original loan, but because the loan funds go back into the banking system, where they are re-loaned and re-loaned.

He argues that the idea that this multiplies credit confuses money with real wealth. The same tractor, for instance, can’t be used by many individuals at once. So, while the re-loaning may expand nominal bank balances, it does not and cannot expand actual credit. Credit is the resources. The amount of resources available is what it is and cannot be expanded by acts of the banking system. What can be expanded is the use of these resources, by sharing that use among different borrowers, each having the resources available when they need them, which is not all of them all the time. Here, he gives the example of NetJet, a company that “sells fractional ownership of the jets in its fleet of seven hundred planes.”

He uses the NetJet example to demolish the opponents of fractional reserve banking, notably the anarchist Murray Rothbard:

As the late Murray Rothbard, a true-blue Austrian, long ago put it, “Fractional reserve banks . . . create money out of thin air. Essentially they do it in the same way as counterfeiters.” Underlying Rothbard’s assertion is a fanciful belief that the alleged “money multiplier” is a fact. It’s fiction.

The essential here:

Someone can borrow only if someone else is willing to cease using money in the near term. . . . For someone to lend, that someone or business must give up, at least in the near term, the resource access that those dollars represent.

I would add that it is from the part of the funds that are not being used at the moment–the part of the loan that is sitting in the bank as the borrower’s balance–that the bank makes its re-loan. So, what is re-loaned is what is not being spent, and what is being spent is not being re-loaned.

Those who are opposed to fractional-reserve banking must be able to answer the argument of his chapter “Banks Don’t Multiply Money and Credit.”

Equally controversial are Tamny’s arguments that a) the Fed isn’t that influential in the economy, and b) the housing crisis was not caused by credit expansion. I lean against his views here, but I have to admit his arguments give me pause.

In short, this is a book that is on the right economic and moral premises and that will make you think. Even if you end up disagreeing with the “heretical” positions he takes, his first-handed challenge to familiar ideas, his new facts, and his new perspective will provide you with inestimable value.

In praise of gold: you can’t eat it, but it fulfills a spiritual need

[This is a lightly edited version of a column that appeared in Forbes Online, November 30, 2013.]

Keynes sneered at it. Preachers damn it. Bitcoin dreams of transcending it. But free men inevitably choose it. Gold.

Whenever men have had a free, uncoerced choice of the medium of exchange, gold has won the competition, along with its sister element, silver.

Why? Only in recent times has gold had any utilitarian value. The Ancient Egyptians couldn’t use it in computers, but they prized it nonetheless, as did the faraway Aztecs and the Chinese. Men in every place and time have valued gold.

Why? Of what use is gold? You can’t eat it.

No, and you can’t eat a Rembrandt, either. A Chopin Ballade is not something you can eat, drink, or ride in.

It may surprise the spiritualists who damn gold to hear this, but gold, like music and painting, is a spiritual value. Gold is a value because it is radiantly beautiful. It is the esthetic pleasure gold brings that makes men esteem it.

Other of gold’s inherent attributes fit it to be the money commodity, but let’s pause to answer the great unanswered question: what is beauty?

Beauty is intelligibility–a sensory-level version of intellectual intelligibility. What looks beautiful or sounds beautiful is what features an intelligible pattern formed out of pure, simple elements.

Why the pleasure in pattern-recognition? Men’s lives depend upon their minds. The essential mental work that is required is integration: finding the one in the many, the theme behind the variations, the principle behind the concretes. But transforming a bewildering plurality into a clearly understood unity often means going through a difficult, doubt-ridden process. So, there is a definite delight in the easy, doubt-free microcosm provided by sensory pattern-recognition.

I’m generalizing here from what Ayn Rand wrote about why music moves us emotionally:

“Music offers man the singular opportunity to reenact, on the adult level, the primary process of his method of cognition: the automatic integration of sense data into an intelligible, meaningful entity. To a conceptual consciousness, it is a unique form of rest and reward.”

Beauty has been called “unity in variety.” The beautiful is that which features clear elements made into a clear, consistent whole.

The clear elements can be pure musical tones, or it can be shining pieces of gold. The pattern is supplied by fashioning musical tones into a melody or pieces of gold into jewelry, or into gold leaf to make the pattern it coats glisten. Gold nuggets are only the means; the end is a lustrous, intelligible esthetic object.

The other aspect of gold is its unique purity–purity both in its color and in its incorruptibility. In a world that features decay along with growth, degeneration along with too-rare improvement, gold’s imperishable, radiant luster offers the experience of purity, of unfailing reliability, and of stainless consistency. Gold remains gold; it does not tarnish or rust.

Thus, gold is not “a barbarous relic” (Keynes) or “filthy lucre” (preachers) but an objective esthetic value, a value rooted in the nature of how our minds work and in the need for incorruptible moral integrity. Why are wedding bands made of gold? Because gold is the symbol of remaining pure and true.

Gold jewelry is just as objective a value as utilitarian goods, such as bread or automobiles. But those goods provide value by being consumed–by being used up. You eat bread and it is gone. You drive a car and it wears out. Gold is almost unique in being an Unconsummable Consumable. Like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, gold provides value without being itself affected.

The oft-heard sneer, “You can’t eat gold” expresses a cynical materialism. Both artistic beauty and sensory beauty have their source in the nature of man as a conceptual being, a being who must use concepts and reasoning to survive and prosper. Animals cannot respond to artworks, or to the beauty of a brilliant sunset, or to the radiant, patterned purity of gold jewelry.

The objection “You can’t eat gold” confesses a mind-body dichotomy. In fact, material value requires spiritual value, and vice-versa. For man, “value” always involves a spiritual component. Even to value food, a man has to want to live–which takes an inner resolve to fight for his own happiness.

Gold is the ultimate expression of mind-body integration. It is denigrated as “crassly material” because it is beautiful–i.e., because gold is a spiritual value.

“You can’t eat gold” turns things upside down: gold is extra valuable because you can’t use it up. Gold as an Unconsummable Consumable does not have to be replenished. The gold jewelry of Ancient Egypt retains its value, bringing renewed pleasure to museum visitors daily. Because gold is, like a Rembrandt painting, an object of contemplation, it is used without being used up.

All this is why gold has monetary value. Because gold is of imperishable, objective value, it can serve as a store of value. And given that base (which bitcoin lacks), gold’s other inherent properties make it uniquely suited to serve as a medium of exchange. Unlike salt, gold has a high unit value. Unlike iron, gold does not rust. Unlike diamonds, gold can be easily divided into very small pieces without losing value. Unlike a computer chip, gold is homogeneous. And because it is ductile and malleable, gold can easily be fashioned into jewelry and gold leaf.

Salt and cigarettes have served as money, but their value rests upon their ultimately being consumed, which destroys them in the process. Gold can be used as money without ever being used up, without needing to be re-produced.

You don’t have to eat gold to get objective value from it. Beauty, though not material, is a rational, objective value, because its sensory beauty provides a spiritual pleasure.

Gold has esthetic value and–as men’s free choices demonstrate–monetary value. That is the power and the glory of gold.

Contra Trump

Here’s a guest post by John Gillis, followed by a brief additional comment by me.

— HB



Knowing and Not Knowing What a President Would Do

by John Gillis

Knowledge is the key to any electoral judgment: one decides how to vote by means of applying one’s political philosophy to specific items of knowledge about the candidates. But in the case of Trump, most people don’t understand yet that it is impossible to gain knowledge of any sort about what he would do if elected.

One can roughly gauge what an Obama will do, or what a Clinton (female version), or George Bush, or Romney, etc. will do, because each of them has presented the thrust of their view of life in their speeches, their past actions, etc. They are conservative, or liberal, or Marxist, or pragmatist-liberals, or religious conservatives, and so on. So, while one can’t ever predict the detailed outcomes of a given future presidency, it is not shocking if an Obama or a Clinton tries for universal socialist health care or for forcing people to act against their religious beliefs (funding contraception/abortion if you are nuns), or for trying to jail businessmen for committing acts of economics. It is not shocking that a Bush II would advocate and sign a major pharmaceutical welfare entitlement, or that Bush I would advocate and sign the draconian ADA law, or that he might cave on major new taxes wanted by the Dems; or that Reagan would try to reduce government (but fail); or that any Republican would try to jail businessmen for committing acts of economics.

Trump is unusual in the history of American candidates in that he is an epistemological blank: you cannot predict what he will do or say by referring to his previous ideas or behavior. Anyone who casually looks over the past many months of Trump’s candidacy will see that Trump holds no firm views on anything. He has flip-flopped on so many issues, even in the same week, day, hour or sentence. Clearly, he has no core principles on virtually any topic. Other candidates flip-flop occasionally, and that is important; but Trump represents a difference in kind, not degree.

What he would do as President is completely unknown.

E.g., If Putin disses him, will that lead to a U.S. war in the Ukraine or Syria, because President Trump now regards Putin’s statements as an affront to his majesty-or will it not lead to a war? Who knows?

Will Trump try to stop Apple from making phones in China or Thailand, and force them to make them in Nevada? Or will he force Apple to pay a “fee” for continuing to make phones in Asia instead of Nevada? Who knows?

Will he shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue to see if he can really get away with it, as he has claimed he could? Who knows?

Will Trump issue an executive order setting a minimum wage at $15 or $5? Who knows?

Will he “enhance” our proto-KGB, also known as the IRS, to deal with his enemies, such as those Republican donors who rejected him? Who knows?

Will he choose terrible or good Supreme Court Justices? Who knows?

Never mind the legality of any of the President’s actions in these examples; already, during the past 7 years, we’ve had a substantial number of illegal presidential actions. Those precedents will take a long time to reverse, if our country ever has the will to do so.

Trump as President would be a Nixon on steroids. If Nixon, a so-called “conservative,” could impose wage and price controls, by fiat, then we can count on Trump to do things many times worse. Remember that it was Nixon who created the malignant EPA and destroyed the last vestige of fixed-ness of our currency, by abandoning even the watered-down gold connection. Because there is no way to rationally predict what Trump might do on any political or economic topic, Trump, as president would likely take actions even more outrageous.

Nixon was an arch-pragmatist. While he had some tenuous hold on conservative ideas (mostly the bad kind), he was ideologically a loose cannon. Well, Trump can’t even be called a loose cannon, because that phrase is seriously inadequate to describe the truly chaotic character of his mind and his decisions. Even a loose cannon obeys the laws of physics, but a person with a chaotic mind can deliver a level of subjectivism that makes
one wish for the simplicity of cannons careening down a hill.

Trump is the Chaos Candidate. The only thing we can know about the nature of his future actions as president is that they would come from massive subjectivism and bring chaos.

On a political (not an epistemological) level, Hillary Clinton as president would at least face major opposition from what remains of the Republican Party. But with a Trump Presidency, most Republicans would be neutered, providing Trump with free rein to destroy the economy, our foreign policy, and our freedoms. (This does not imply in the slightest that I am advocating voting for Clinton.)

Choosing Trump, as the lesser of two evils, would be terribly mistaken.

Trump is in a different category. His nihilism and his utter mental chaos means that his future path is unknowable. For the sake of one’s moral conscience and mental hygiene, one should not vote for Trump.



Trump is a new level of bad

By Harry Binswanger

If it’s Trump vs. Hillary, I will either not vote, or vote for Hillary.

Yes, Hillary is bad in many ways, but is she worse than Obama? or than many previous presidents?

Trump is not just, like Hillary, a despicable candidate. Trump brings to the presidential race a new kind of bad: spiteful, adolescent bullying (“Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted”) combined with ignorant, demagogic hostility toward scapegoats. His modus operandi, and probably his actual belief, is that every social problem is due to the actions of “them”–Mexicans, Chinese, women, etc.

Trump is the proverbial “man on a white horse,” a Führer figure, who asks us to substitute for ideas, his claims to personal shrewdness, talent at conniving, and strength. Hillary wants to turn America into France. Trump wants to turn America into . . . what? Argentina under Peron?

Trump’s campaign slogan is: “Make America Great Again.” But Trump himself has no idea of what constitutes the “greatness” that he wants to restore. Yet, he’s seeking unlimited authority to achieve that unspecified end. He has no standard, no political ideology, no principles, no consistency–not even over the course of an hour. He brandishes a new level of pragmatism: not merely opposition to principles, but unawareness of there being such a thing as principles. Even Nixon, the pragmatist’s pragmatist, is caught on tape saying about one aspect of the Watergate coverup, “No–it is wrong that’s for sure.” (Presidential Transcripts, first meeting of 3/21/73). Trump doesn’t even know about such things as right and wrong.

Having no intellectual framework, no moral framework, no abstract understanding of alternative courses of action, Trump lurches about at random. Since random actions produce destruction not improvement, a Trump presidency could only wreak havoc on this country. John Gillis is right: Trump is The Chaos Candidate.

Trump as president could damage America much more than Hillary ever could. It’s not only the practical disasters he can visit upon us, a Trump victory would carry and amplify a lethal philosophic message: Don’t think, just trust in a strongman.

Adherents of a philosophy upholding rationality as the essence of moral virtue can do nothing but shudder at the prospect.

How Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Can Rescue Hayek’s Economics

This is an expanded version of opening remarks made at the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE) convention, April 12, 2016, for a panel titled: Hayek and Rand on the (Ab)Use of Reason.”

In discussing Hayek and Rand, we must begin by distinguishing philosophy from economics. In economics, Hayek makes great contributions, because he is a radical. “Radical” in the sense of getting to the root, the fundamental. In economics proper, Hayek rejects “conventional wisdom,” and grasps the fundamental role of production (not Keynesian “demand”) and that the task of production is, at root, intellectual–with primacy going not to Marxian “labor” but to “creative discovery” and economic calculation based on the information content of market prices.

But in philosophy, the story is different: Hayek is more conservative than radical. He doesn’t check the deepest premises of traditional philosophy and works within its limiting and ultimately self-defeating framework. Thus, he gets trapped in the set of false alternatives that has dominated philosophy over the centuries: Rationalism, as in Plato, vs. Empiricism, as in David Hume; mysticism vs. skepticism; contextless absolutes vs. arbitrary, subjective conventions; “instinct” vs. tradition.

For instance, Hayek writes:

The objective physical world is different from that perceived by the senses.1

That’s Plato’s metaphysics, via Kant. The entire Platonic-Kantian philosophy is based on the claim that the world we see, hear, touch, etc. is not objective–not “things as they are in themselves” (Kant), not “the really real reality” (Plato).

Similarly, Hayek writes:

In opposition to the naive rationalist which treats our present reason as absolute, we must continue the efforts which David Hume commenced when he ‘turned against the enlightenment its own weapons’ and undertook ‘to whittle down the claims of reason’ by the use of rational analysis.2


And: “The human brain can never fully explain its own operation.”3

In fact, confidence in reason’s ability to guide action is “The Fatal Conceit.”

Most knowledge . . . is obtained not from immediate experience or observation, but in the continuous process of sifting a learnt tradition, which requires individual recognition and following of moral traditions that are not justifiable in terms of the canons of traditional theories of rationality.4

Why does Hayek proclaim reason’s impotence? Because he’s operating under the assumption that reason has to mean Rationalism. He’s working within a Platonic framework, a Platonic view of logic and of abstractions. He does not know a solution to the problem of universals–the age-old problem of identifying what concepts refer to in reality. E.g., what does “man” refer to? The Ancient Greek Sophist Antisthenes said, “I’ve seen many men, but never have I seen man.”

In the whole history of philosophy, only two answers to Antisthenes’ challenge have been offered. 1. The Platonic answer: “You can’t see man with your physical eyes, but if you use your intellectual eye to apprehend the world of Forms, you can intuit the Form of Man. The Form of Man exists in another, non-perceivable dimension. 2. The Humean answer: “There is no such thing as man. There’s only men. They resemble each other, and we use their rough similarities as a basis for calling each individual “a man.” When we assume that what’s true of one man will be true of another, we are making a leap of faith, Humeans hold. There’s no rational basis for inductive generalizations, because there is no identical attribute running throughout the roughly resembling things that we use the same word for. There’s no logic to generalizations–only accidental associations that have become habitual.

So, traditionally, the epistemological alternative was: intuitions of an invisible world, or baseless social conventions. In ethics, that translated into: commandments from on high, or subjective whims. In Freud’s language, the alternative is the superego or the id.

This is the set of false alternatives Hayek accepts in philosophy. And it undercuts his economics, which rightly emphasizes the process of economic calculation, how prices convey information, and competition as a process of “creative discovery”–all of which involve confidence in the power of the intellect.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy offers a way out of the philosophic dilemma. Objectivism upholds a position that is neither Platonic nor Humean, neither Rationalist nor Empiricist, neither dogmatic nor skeptical, neither mystical nor subjective. This new alternative is: objectivity–objectivity understood in a new and deeper way. For Rand, objectivity means, as Leonard Peikoff formulates it, “volitional adherence to reality by the method of logic.”5

Platonists hold that knowledge requires neither method nor choice–we just open our minds to The Truth. Humeans, observing that one man’s “intuition” contradicts another, conclude that we’re doomed intellectually. Only an automatic knowledge would be reliable, they assume, but we have a choice of how to proceed, and there’s no rational standard to judge alternative ways of proceeding.

Both sides of the false alternative agree, in spirit, with Dostoyevsky’s line: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Mystics and skeptics agree that God or some mystical realm is required, if there is to be knowledge of truth and of value. (Skeptics conclude such knowledge is unobtainable.)

Rand rejects the premise. Knowledge does not have to be automatic to be valid and certain. A rational method of forming and using abstractions can be defined; that method is logic, “the art of non-contradictory identification.”6 But Objectivism expands Aristotelian logic to include an awareness of the requirements imposed by the nature of our cognitive equipment; logic is more than syllogistic reasoning (as even Aristotle knew)–it includes concept-formation, definition, and induction.

A rational theory of concept-formation is the root of all the rest. For Rand to develop her concept of objectivity, the crucial first step was grasping the relation of concepts to percepts–i.e., of abstractions to concretes–i.e., solving the problem of universals. Rand accomplished that singular feat by analyzing what underlies similarity. “Similarity,” she writes, “is the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree.”7 I won’t go into the technical part of Rand’s theory of “measurement-omission,” referring only to her clear exposition in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Chapter 2.

Consider now the application of reason to the issue of value-judgments. There, Hayek is also working with received notions, rather than questioning fundamental assumptions. Like most economists, Hayek (properly) rejects the notion of intrinsic value–the belief that the value of a good or service is inherent in it, independent of men’s ideas, values, and needs. It is an error to think there’s a “just price” against which one can judge the market price. But Hayek embraces the other side of the false alternative: if value is not intrinsic, it must be subjective. It exists only in the people’s minds.

Ayn Rand offers the third alternative: value is objective. Value is neither an intrinsic feature of an object, existing apart from man’s evaluations, nor something that exists only in our minds, independent of the facts. Rather, value is a relationship–a relationship between our minds and the facts, based upon applying a rational standard of value to the facts. This she calls the “objective theory” of value. We evaluate the worth to us of a good or service based on our ideas about a whole raft of facts–facts regarding the thing’s attributes, its causal properties, how difficult it is to produce, and much more economic data.

More widely:

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man—and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man.8

Rand bases her defense of the economic functioning of capitalism on its objectivity in regard to value. “The objective view of values permeates the entire structure of a capitalist society.”9

Hayek is famous for the idea of “spontaneous order.” Property rights, respect for the autonomy of persons, and all the capitalist institutions are not things that anyone planned from some political headquarters or some throne. They just evolved.

Why does Hayek hold this? What is the advantage of saying that the capitalist system wasn’t imposed from above but emerged from below? Why does it have to be “spontaneous”–the biggest theme in Hayekian meta-economics? The answer is: if there’s no rational way to decide how society ought to be organized, as Hayek believes, then he can at least argue: “Let’s leave the selection to what evolved naturally. Don’t tamper with nature. We got capitalism as a result of trial and error to find what works. So don’t come in with some Rationalistic, deductive system of ideas and mess with that.

Now this is a terrible argument. This is the same as environmentalism: don’t attempt to improve on what nature provided–who are we to play God? Likewise, Hayek’s argument is who are we to play God in setting up laws, rules, and institutions?

But the only reason Hayek takes this (hopeless) line of argument is that he doesn’t believe that one can establish a rational ethics and a rational politics based on that ethics. (But Rand has shown how to do just that.)

Hayek, to his great credit has always been a dedicated opponent of the very idea of “central planning.” He makes the very valid point that it is irrational to seek to impose your ideas on others, forcing them to obey. But the evil of initiating physical force against others is not due to its being “unnatural” or incompatible with spontaneity. Instead, Rand argues that, coercion is evil because “To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival.”10

Thus, contra Hayek, the issue is not the planner’s ignorance. Even if someone does know that another person should be doing X, one cannot achieve that person’s well being by forcing him to do X.

A value which one is forced to accept at the price of surrendering one’s mind, is not a value to anyone; the forcibly mindless can neither judge nor choose nor value. An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.11

It is a person’s own mind that he has to rely on. Force is destructive because “the anti-mind is the anti-life.”12

Furthermore, the moral and political principles on which capitalism is based did


arise spontaneously. The principles underlying capitalism were consciously, carefully worked out by Enlightenment Era thinkers, such as John Locke. He, in turn, drew on the metaphysical and epistemological principles established by Aristotle (transmitted to the modern world by the Arabs, Thomas Aquinas, and Francis Bacon). Thinkers such as Grotius, Pufendorf, Richard Overton, and Locke developed the principle that made capitalism possible: individual rights. That long painful progression of intellectual development from Avicenna to Locke was hardly “spotnaneous.”

Incidentally, vs. the idea of “spontaneously developed order”: the Constitution of the Carolinas was drafted by John Locke! The Declaration of Independence borrowed some of the very language of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. The American Founding Fathers got the idea of individual rights and set up our Constitution consciously, based upon their careful study of philosophy and history. Reading The Federalist Papers reveals how erudite they were, and how much they knew not only Locke but Cicero, Montesquieu, Sydney and other great thinkers in political theory.

Hayek, with some justification, talks about “cultural evolution,” but where do the variants for the selective process come from? In biological evolution, the variations come from random mutation and sexual recombination of genetic elements. Where do the ethical-political variations come from? They come from philosophers. And when the required philosophical basis for “what works” loses acceptance, the society retrogresses–as in the fall of Rome and the collapse into the Dark Ages. Hayek’s “cultural evolution” is entirely unable to explain how such a phenomenon as the Dark Ages could occur, if institutions rise or fall based on what works in practice.

Hayek’s philosophy is what stops him from recognizing the cultural impact of philosophy. Hayek’s skepticism about abstract reason is married to his skepticism about morality. Abstract reason is “The Fatal Conceit.” And the frontispiece quote of that work is this quote from the arch-skeptic, David Hume: “The rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.” Anyone who believes that is, of course, at a total loss when it comes to justifying individual rights, and its consequence: the rule of law and the free market. “Spontaneous order” is what Hayek seeks refuge in, given his belief that no rational, objective moral code can exist.

What Hayek needs is Ayn Rand’s explanation of how concepts can be objective, how reason, no matter how abstract, reflects strict adherence to logic, and how that can be applied to defining a rational, objective, scientific code of morality (see, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).

The overview is that Hayek’s immensely valuable economic points need the philosophic base that Ayn Rand has developed. And let me emphasize that this base is not a few slogans strung together (“Be logical,” “Man is an end in himself”), but a voluminous, rich, detailed corpus of systematic principles, precisely defined. (See Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, and my own How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation.)



1. The Sensory Order, 8.37.

2. The Constitution of Liberty

3. The Sensory Order, 8.69.

4. The Fatal Conceit, p. 75.

5. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 116.

6. Atlas Shrugged, p. 934.

7. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 13.

8. “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 22.

9. Ibid., p. 23.

10. Atlas Shrugged, p. 940.

11. What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 23.

12. Atlas Shrugged, p. 930.

Identity and Motion

Reprinted from The Objectivist Forum, December 1981

Q & A Department

Q: Does the law of identity imply that at every instant in time a moving object must be located at a definite point in space?

A: No. The law of identity implies that there are no such things as “instants in time” or “points in space”—not in the sense assumed in the question.

Every unit of length, no matter how small, has some specific extension; every unit of time, no matter how small, has some specific duration. The idea of an infinitely small amount of length or temporal duration has validity only as a mathematical device useful for making certain calculations, not as a description of components of reality. Reality does not contain either points or instants (in the mathematical sense). By analogy: the average family has 2.2 children, but no actual family has 2.2 children: the “average family” exists only as a mathematical device.

Now consider the manner in which the question ignores the context and meaning of the concepts of “location” and “identity.” The concept of “location” arises in the content of entities which are at rest relative to each other. A thing’s location is the place where it is situated. But a moving object is not at any one place—it is in motion. One can locate a moving object only in the sense of specifying the location of the larger fixed region through which it is moving during a given period of time. For instance: “Between 4:00 and 4:05 p.m., the car was moving through New York City.” One can narrow down the time period and, correspondingly, the region; but one cannot narrow down the time to nothing in the contradictory attempt to locate the moving car at a single, fixed position. If it is moving, it is not at a fixed position.

The law of identity does not attempt to freeze reality. Change exists; it is a fact of reality. When a thing is changing that is what it is doing, that is its identity for that period. What is still is still. What is in process is in process. A is A.

Obama to Americans: You Don’t Deserve to be Free

Almost a million people have viewed this article since it was originally published in Forbes Online at the start of 2014.

President Obama’s Kansas speech is a remarkable document. In calling for more government controls, more taxation, more collectivism, he has two paragraphs that give the show away. Take a look at them.

there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes–especially for the wealthy–our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.

Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. (Applause.) I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.

Though not in Washington, I’m in that “certain crowd” that has been saying for decades that the market will take care of everything. It’s not really a crowd, it’s a tiny group of radicals–radicals for capitalism, in Ayn Rand’s well-turned phrase.

The only thing that the market doesn’t take care of is anti-market acts: acts that initiate physical force. That’s why we need government: to wield retaliatory force to defend individual rights.

Radicals for capitalism would, as the Declaration of Independence says, use government only “to secure these rights”–the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. (Yes, I added “property” in there–property rights are inseparable from the other three.)

That’s the political philosophy on which Obama is trying to hang the blame for the recent financial crisis and every other social ill. But ask yourself, are we few radical capitalists in charge? Have radical capitalists been in charge at any time in the last, oh, say 100 years?

I pick 100 years deliberately, because it was exactly 100 years ago that a gigantic anti-capitalist measure was put into effect: the Federal Reserve System. For 100 years, government, not the free market, has controlled money and banking. How’s that worked out? How’s the value of the dollar held up since 1913? Is it worth one-fiftieth of its value then or only one-hundredth? You be the judge. How did the dollar hold up over the 100 years before this government take-over of money and banking? It actually gained slightly in value.

Laissez faire hasn’t existed since the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. That was the first of a plethora of government crimes against the free market.

Radical capitalists are just beginning to have a slight effect on the Right wing. The overwhelming majority on the Right are eclectic. Which is a nice way of saying inconsistent.

The typical Republican would never, ever say “the market will take care of everything.” He’d say, “the market will take care of most things, and for the other things, we need the regulatory-welfare state.”

They are for individualism–except when they are against it. They are against free markets and individualism not only when they agree with the Left that we must have antitrust laws and the Federal Reserve, but also when they demand immigration controls, government schools, regulatory agencies, Medicare, laws prohibiting abortion, Social Security, “public works” projects, the “social safety net,” laws against insider trading, banking regulation, and the whole system of fiat money.

Obama blames economic woes, some real some manufactured (“inequality”) on a philosophy and policy that was abandoned a century ago. What doesn’t exist is what he says didn’t work.

Obama absurdly suggests that timid, half-hearted, compromisers, like George W. Bush, installed laissez-faire capitalism–on the grounds that they tinkered with one or two regulations (Glass-Steagall) and marginal tax rates–while blanking out the fact that under the Bush administration, government spending ballooned, growing much faster than under Clinton, and 50,000 new regulations were added to the Federal Register.

The philosophy of individualism and the politics of laissez faire would mean government spending of about one-tenth its present level. It would also mean an end to all regulatory agencies: no SEC, FDA, NLRB, FAA, OSHA, EPA, FTC, ATF, CFTC, FHA, FCC–to name just some of the better known of the 430 agencies listed in the federal register.

Even you, dear reader, are probably wondering how on earth anyone could challenge things like Social Security, government schools, and the FDA. But that’s not the point. The point is: these statist, anti-capitalist programs exist and have existed for about a century. The point is: Obama is pretending that the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were repealed, so that he can blame the financial crisis on capitalism. He’s pretending that George Bush was George Washington.We radical capitalists say that it was the regulatory-welfare state that imploded in 2008. You may disagree, but let’s argue that out, rather than engaging in the Big Lie that what failed was laissez faire and individualism.

The question is: in the messy mixture of government controls and remnants of capitalism, which element caused the Great Depression and the recent financial crisis?

By raising that question, we uncover the fundamental: the meaning of capitalism and the meaning of government controls. Capitalism means freedom. Government means force.

Suddenly, the whole issue comes into focus: Obama is saying that freedom leads to poverty and force leads to wealth. He’s saying: “Look, we tried leaving you free to live your own life, and that didn’t work. You have to be forced, you have to have your earnings seized by the state, you have to work under our directions–under penalty of fines or imprisonment. You don’t deserve to be free.”

As a bit of ugly irony, this is precisely what former white slave-owners said after the Civil War: “The black man can’t handle freedom; we have to force him for his own good.” The innovation of the Left is to extend that viewpoint to all races.

Putting the issue as force vs. freedom shows how the shoe is on the other foot regarding what Obama said. Let me re-write it:

there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The government will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just pile on even more regulations and raise taxes–especially on the wealthy–our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the losers are protected by more social programs and a higher minimum wage, if there is more Quantitative Easing by the Fed, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle up to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle up, well, that’s the price of the social safety net.

Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our intellectuals’ collectivism and Paul Krugman’s skepticism about freedom. That’s in Harvard’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn’t work when it was tried in the Soviet Union. It’s not what led to the incredible booms in India and China. And it didn’t work when Europe tried it during over the last decades. (Applause.) I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this statist theory.

How does that sound? That’s blaming an actual, existing condition–government controls and wealth-expropriation–not a condition that ended in the late 19th century.

So which is the path to prosperity and happiness–freedom or force? Remember that force is aimed at preventing you from acting on your rational judgment.

Obama’s real antagonist is Ayn Rand, who made the case that reason is man’s basic means of survival and coercion is anti-reason. Force initiated against free, innocent men is directed at stopping them from acting on their own thinking. It makes them, under threat of fines and imprisonment, act as the government demands rather than as they think their self-interest requires. That’s the whole point of threatening force: to make people act against their own judgment.

The radical, uncompromised, laissez-faire capitalism that Obama pretends was in place in 2008 is exactly what morality demands. Because, as Ayn Rand wrote: “No man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others. . . . To claim the right to initiate the use of physical force against another man–the right to compel his agreement by the threat of physical destruction–is to evict oneself automatically from the realm of rights, of morality and of the intellect.”

Obama and his fellow statists have indeed evicted themselves
from that realm.

Objectivism vs. Anarchism

Reprinted from The Objectivist Forum, August 1981.
Material added, July 20, 2011.

Q: A government has a legal monopoly on the use of physical force within its borders. What is the answer to the “libertarian” anarchists who claim that to maintain this monopoly a government must initiate force in violation of the rights of those who wish to defend their own rights or to compete with the government by setting up private agencies to do so?

A: The anarchist claim merits discussion only to illustrate the sort of self-defeating contradictions generated by anti-philosophical movements, of which the so-called “libertarians” are a prime example.

A proper government is restricted to the protection of individual rights against violation by force or the threat of force. A proper government functions according to objective, philosophically validated procedures, as embodied in its entire legal framework, from its constitution down to its narrowest rules and ordinances. Once such a government, or anything approaching it, has been established, there is no such thing as a “right” to “compete” with the government—i.e., to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Nor does one gain such a “right” by joining with others to go into the “business” of wielding force.

To carry out its function of protecting individual rights, the government must forcibly bar others from using force in ways that threaten the citizens’ rights. Private force is force not authorized by the government, not validated by its procedural safeguards, and not subject to its supervision.

The government has to regard such private force as a threat—i.e., as a potential violation of individual rights. In barring such private force, the government is retaliating against that threat.

Note that a proper government does not prohibit a man from using force to defend himself in an emergency, when recourse to the government is not available; but it does, properly, require him to prove objectively, at a trial, that he was acting in emergency self-defense. Similarly, the government does not ban private guards; but it does, properly, bring private guards under its supervision by licensing them, and does not grant them any special rights or immunities: they remain subject to the government’s authority and legal procedures.

The attempt to invoke individual rights to justify “competing” with the government collapses at the first attempt to concretize what it would mean in reality. Picture a band of strangers marching down Main Street, submachine guns at the ready. When confronted by the police, the leader of the band announces: “Me and the boys are only here to see that justice is done, so you have no right to interfere with us.” According to the “libertarian” anarchists, in such a confrontation the police are morally bound to withdraw, on pain of betraying the rights of self-defense and free trade.

Regarding the purported betrayal, one can only respond: if this be treason, make the most of it.

In fact, of course, there is no conflict between individual rights and outlawing private force: there is no right to the arbitrary use of force. No political or moral principle could require the police to stand by helplessly while others use force arbitrarily—i.e., according to whatever private notions of justice they happen to hold.

“There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. Or, to put it another way, he must accept the separation of force and whim (any whim, including his own.)” (Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government,” The Virtue of Selfishness)

The basic questions that the anti-philosophical “libertarians” ignore or evade are: what is the nature and source of individual rights, and how are these rights to be implemented? Only by answering these questions can one proceed to consider what is or is not proper self-defense in concrete cases.

But the answers to these questions are far from self-evident. To establish even the general principles on which the detailed, concrete administration of justice depends requires political and legal philosophy (and the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics these fields presuppose). The “libertarians” take a short-cut: they plagiarize Ayn Rand’s principle that no man may initiate the use of physical force, and treat it as a mystically revealed, out-of-context absolute. This one principle, deprived of its philosophical base, is expected to replace jurisprudence, constitutions, legislatures, and courts. Then they imagine that the rest of us are obligated to accept, on faith, any gang’s promise that their use of force will be “retaliatory.”

Bear in mind that, in fact, those who would be granted the right to enforce their own notions of just retaliation include leftists who consider government intervention in the economy to be retaliation against business activities that the leftists view as “economic force.” Then there are the terrorist groups who claim that random slaughter is “retaliation” against “Zionist imperialism,” “British rule,” etc. Are we to assume that the country will have been converted to “libertarianism” before anarchism is instituted? Very well. One wing of the “libertarians” holds abortion to be murder; in their view, force against women who have abortions is retaliation in defense of the right to life. Another wing welcomed the New Left rioters of the 1960’s, including the Black Panthers, as liberators who were retaliating against “state coercion.” How will the principle of no initiated force—in a philosophical vacuum—resolve disputes of that kind?

In any society, disputes over who has the right to what are inescapable. Even strictly rational men will have disagreements of this kind, and the possibility of human irrationality, which is inherent in free will, multiplies the number of such disputes.

The issue, then is: how are political and legal disputes to be settled: by might or by right—by street fighting or by the application of objective, philosophically validated procedures?

The most twisted evasion of the “libertarian” anarchists in this context is their view that disputes concerning rights could be settled by “competition” among private force-wielders on the “free market.” This claim represents a staggering stolen concept: there is no free market until after force has been excluded. Their approach cannot be applied even to a baseball game, where it would mean that the rules of the game will be defined by whoever wins it. This has not prevented the “libertarian” anarchists from speaking of “the market for liberty” (i.e., the market for the market).

By their talk of “competition” in the context of government, these “libertarian” anarchists endorse the statists’ equation of production and force (see “The Nature of Government”). “Competition” is an economic, not a political, concept; it refers to the voluntary exchange of values, not to the exchange of gunfire.

Behind the puerile fantasies of “market solutions” to political and legal disputes lies the collectivist notion that the ideas of the individual are determined by social institutions, so that once the “proper” social institutions have been established, “the people” will automatically agree on political and legal issues, and government will no longer be necessary. In the Marxist version of anarchism, once a socialist economy has “conditioned” men to altruism, they will automatically act according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In the “libertarian” version, once a capitalist economy has been established, rational selfishness will become automatic, and “the market” will act to resolve whatever short-lived disputes still arise. In the words of one of the “libertarians”: “Legislation forcing the parties [in a dispute] to submit to binding arbitration would be unnecessary, since each party would find arbitration to be in his own self-interest. Nor would it be necessary to have legal protection for the rights of all involved, because the structure of the market situation would protect them.”

In any irreconcilable dispute, at least one party will find that its view of justice is stymied. Even under anarchy, only one side will be able to enforce its ideas of where the right lies. But it does not occur to the anarchists that when one of their private “defense agencies” uses force, it is acting as a “monopolist” over whomever it coerces. It does not occur to them that private, anarchistic force is still force—i.e., the “monopolistic” subjection of another’s will to one’s own. They are aware of and object to the forcible negation of “competing” viewpoints only when it is done by a government.

Thus, their actual objection to government is not to its “monopolistic” character, but to the fact that “A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws.” (“The Nature of Government”)

The real target of the anarchist’s attack is objectivity. Objectivity requires one to prove that one is acting within one’s rights; they do not want to be held accountable to anyone for anything—not even regarding their use of physical force. They damn governmental retaliation because it is objective; they demand to be “free” to use force on whim.

In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the “libertarians” are tying capitalism to the whim-worshipping subjectivism and chaos of anarchy.

To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one’s own future.

[Added July 20, 2011]

There are two further, though lesser, arguments for anarchism that I also want to answer.

The first might be called “the argument from moral freedom.” This argument holds that it is wrong to impose morality by force, and that government, as a monopoly, necessarily does this, since it is on moral grounds that it prohibits “competitors.” The alternative to imposing morality by force, these anarchists claim, is letting a thousand flowers bloom—i.e., non-monopolizing “defense agencies,” each attracting, voluntarily, “customers” who patronize whichever agency has the moral outlook they find most congenial.

But this ignores the fact that our subject here is not the hiring of fruit-pickers or programmers but the hiring of gunmen. Terms drawn from the realm of voluntary trade, such as “competition” and “customers,” do not apply to transactions whose purpose is to command obedience. The purpose of the hired guns is precisely to establish a monopoly over human interactions, to force others to obey to one’s idea of what ought to be.

The wielding of force is monopolistic by its very nature: it is the subjugation of one side’s will to that of the other. Force does not permit dissenters to go their own way. By its nature, force is the imposition of value-judgments—the coercer’s ideas about how those subject to his power ought to behave. The monopolistic imposition of the coercer’s moral ideas is not affected by whether the force-wielder is called “the government” or “Joe’s Defense Agency.”

If one must avoid imposing moral ideas by force, then one must renounce force altogether—i.e., practice pacifism. Like all arguments against the monopolization of force, “the argument from moral freedom,” reduces to an advocacy of pacifism. Pacifism is the most nearly consistent form of anarchism. Few anarchists, however realize this. They implicitly assume that there is such a thing as physical force that lets dissenters go their own way.

Let me concretize this. If someone shoots at me and I shoot back, I am using force to impose my morality—my right to my own life—on the gunman shooting at me. To avoid imposing my morality by force, I could only try to persuade him not to kill me. I could not use defensive force against him.

The non-initiation of force principle is itself a moral principle. Individual rights are moral principles. Is it wrong to use retaliatory force to “impose” freedom and to protect rights?

This points to the equivocation in the term “imposing morality.”

It is indeed wrong for the government to “impose morality” in the sense of trying to force men to be virtuous. But that is not what a proper, limited government does: its coercive “imposition” of morality is retaliatory force used to protect freedom. It is indeed in the name of morality that the government “imposes” freedom: freedom is what makes virtuous action possible. But only the free choice of the individual can make virtue actual. Virtue cannot be coerced.

For example, it is wrong for the government to make men go to church or to stop them from going to church; it is right for the government to wield retaliatory force to secure their freedom to make this choice for themselves. Force used to maintain freedom is force used to “impose morality” to that extent. This is true whether the force is wielded by the government, a private group, or an individual. Again, the only alternative is not merely the absence of government but the absence of retaliatory force—i.e., pacifism.

The failure of “anarcho-capitalists” to see this brings me to a second point:

Anarchism is a product of and expression of collectivism.

“Anarcho-capitalists” fail to see the pacifist implications of their position because they think in terms of groups instead of individuals. They think in terms of “defense agencies,” and picture many “competing” (i.e., conflicting) agencies. These anarchists could not avoid the pacifist implications of their positions if they realized that both a government and a “defense agency” is just a group of individuals. When reduced to the level of individual-to-individual interactions, it becomes clear that “not imposing morality by force” means no individual can use force to defend himself— e.g., cannot shoot back at someone who starts shooting at him.

What if an anarchist holds that an individual is morally justified in using retaliatory force? Then so is any other individual, and so is that organization of individuals we call “the government.” The individual vigilante is acting just as monopolistically as the government. Both the retaliating individual and the government seek to stop someone else’s action. If it is morally proper for an individual to defend himself by force, it is morally proper for him to band together with others to do so—i.e., to form a government.

The same facts that make individual self-defense moral—i.e., the right to self-defense—makes governmental force moral if it is used in defense of the rights of individuals.

Government is not a collective super-organism. Government is the agent of individuals—the individuals who established and support it, by delegating their right of self-defense to it. If those individuals have the right to defend themselves, then the government, as their agent, has the right to do so on their behalf. Only a collectivized mentality can hold that the police, acting on my behalf, cannot forcibly exclude “competitors” but a “defense agency” can.

Put it this way: a proper government is a defense agency, and to carry out its mission it can’t let “competitors” (other gangs) use unsupervised force.

The telling difference between a proper government and a private defense agency is this: a proper government is placed under objective control. Thus non-pacifist anarchists object not to retaliatory force but to placing retaliatory force under objective control. Their objection is to objectivity.

The second argument of “anarcho-capitalists” is “the argument from history”: governments have always grown beyond their proper limits, so we must assume they inevitably do so.

This argument ignores why government has grown. The cause is: bad philosophic ideas—especially altruism. The history of the United States shows exactly this. Our government has grown beyond its proper limits because Americans have rejected the earlier idea of what those proper limits are. The pursuit of happiness is now regarded as ignoble; the moral ideal has become Mother Teresa, because she ignored her own happiness, despised material wealth, and devoted her life to serving the needs of the neediest. In today’s America, the ruling creed is not “Mind your own business” (Benjamin Franklin) but “compassion for the most vulnerable among us” (any politician).

It is men’s ideas that rule their actions and their politics. It is not the power-lust of politicians but the philosophical ideas of the citizenry that have caused the expansion of state power since the founding of this country. The power-lust of politicians would be impotent in a society whose citizenry—and intellectuals—held the Objectivist philosophy of reason and individualism.

Note that if one holds that the majority of men are too irrational to ever see that their own self-interest requires a free society, then one must simply give up and retreat to a deserted island. One cannot consistently advocate any ideas—including anarchism—if the vast majority will not listen to reason. If “the masses” were too irrational to keep government within its proper bounds, they would be too irrational to keep “defense agencies” to the task of actual defense.

One final wrinkle. “Anarcho-capitalists” claim that “the market” would keep defense agencies in check. (This idea represents a collectivist view of the market.) But remember: what is up for grabs here is whether or not there will be a market. When the society is turned over to warring gangs, the race goes to the bloodiest, not to the best producers.

Here again, the “anarcho-capitalists” accept the statist approach of equating the dollar and the gun, production and force. The Left claims that “concentrations of wealth” on the market are coercive. The “anarcho-capitalists” claim that coercion is just another service on the market. But both are wrong: voluntary exchange has nothing in common with coercive interactions.

Production must be kept strictly separate from destruction. A business deals in the creation of goods and services to offer on a free market; a coercer deals in destruction. The proper use of destruction is to combat destruction—to wield retaliatory force against the initiatiors of force. But retaliatory force is still destruction, not production. There is no such thing as “the market for force-wielding.” For there to be a market in the first place, those who would simply seize goods must be met with force. The benefits of a free market presuppose that freedom has been established. Market mechanisms can’t establish or protect the preconditions of there being a market.

“Anarcho-capitalism” is a contradiction in terms. Capitalism can exist only where rights are protected, including property rights. To protect rights, criminals who initiate force must be met with retaliatory force. But the wielding of retaliatory force itself must be placed under objective control, by a constitutionally limited government with objective law. Otherwise, what results is not “competing defense agencies” but civil war. That war will be won by the gang with the most ruthless and most powerful army. Under anarchy, might, not right, determines what the “laws” will be.

In terms of current events, anarchism means Lebanon or Somalia. To link such horrors with the benevolence and prosperity of capitalism is obscene.

Why Objectivists disagree on immigration

Why do Objectivists disagree on immigration? Well, they really don’t. I think we all agree (certainly Leonard Peikoff does) that in a laissez-faire world, there’d be open immigration. The disagreements arise because we are light-years away from that world
And it’s not just that we have wrong political conditions. It’s that we know that, within the foreseeable future, we won’t enact the right solutions to the problems created by the statism.

In the case of immigration, the right solution is essentially fourfold:

1. Militarily crush Iran and its ally-states, in an all-out campaign (it would be too short to call it a war). That, coupled with a proper foreign policy, would end the rise of Islam and worry about Muslim immigration.

2. Make immigrants sign away their right–for their whole lives–to any government loot. That would end the worry about poorer immigrants coming to get welfare.

3. Make it impossible for immigrants to get the vote–for their whole lives. That would end the worry about immigrants from statist cultures voting in more statists.

4. Replace multicultural BS with the proud, morally confident assertion of America’s moral superiority over the statist and theocratic societies from which the immigrants are coming. We are right and they are wrong–politically, philosophically, and in other ways. Standing up for our values would end the worry about immigrants diluting (the fast-fading remnants of) American individualism.

But not one of these things is going to happen in the foreseeable future. So what are we to do in regard to immigration?

Look at what this means: given that our government is not going to do the right things, what should it do? But there’s no way to answer that question. If it’s not going to do the right thing, then, by definition, whatever it does will be the wrong thing. Can we pick the best, or least bad, among the wrong things? Yes, to a certain extent, but not in a principled way.

It is a contradiction in terms to ask: “On what principle should we act if we are not going to act on the principle by which we should act?”

But philosophy deals in principles.That’s why there are continuing arguments about immigration among those who accept the Objectivist philosophy.

Deprived of the guidance of principles, the issue then becomes one of concrete facts. Do immigrants, in the aggregate, take more out of the economy than they contribute? Some of us think “yes,” others think “no.” Will the immigrants assimilate and become Americans in spirit as well as in legal status, given our multiculturalist intellectual establishment? It’s a factual question, on which views differ. If immigrants are going to be given citizenship, will they vote leftist or could a better Republican strategy (and other ideological work by us) prevent this? Is there a really dangerous threat to our safety from massive Muslim immigration, or is this a very minor issue compared to what’s going to happen to us from Islamic regimes abroad, with or without that immigration?

People can certainly differ on these factual issues, and raw, statistical (!) facts are all we have left when we can’t appeal to principles, because the principled path is not “politically realistic.”

My story

[On cleaning out old files on my hard drive, I came across this which I posted in 2012, on the occasion of my 50th “birthday” as an Objectivist. In the hope that you will enjoy reading it, I am reposting it now, with a few very small changes.]

Exactly 50 years ago, a bored, depressed college freshman, who was only half-listening to a lecture, suddenly sat up straight, leaned forward, and strained to understand every word he was hearing.

The place was MIT’s Kresge auditorium, the lecturer was Ayn Rand, the student was me.

I’m taking this 50th anniversary as an occasion to tell the personal story of my introduction to Objectivism.

These were the words that, 50 years ago, struck me to the core and set my life on a new trajectory:

Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality–or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

I recall my reaction–the exact words–very clearly. It was “Jesus Christ! I’m drifting in a semiconscious daze right now!”–which had been absolutely true right up until I heard Ayn Rand speak those words. I thought, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the key to everything: I can take control of my own mind, and thus of my life.” (The wording of that part is approximate.)

I next was puzzled and intrigued by this aspect: her idea sounded familiar, as if I, and everyone, already knew it, as if it were the accepted wisdom; yet I was dead sure I’d never heard anyone say anything remotely like it before. How could that be?

That passage occurred halfway through Miss Rand’s presentation of “The Objectivist Ethics.” For the rest of the lecture, I strained to focus on it, though I couldn’t absorb more than 10% of what she was saying–almost all of it was just unintegrateable to me (in my defense, I was 17). But here’s what I have always recalled.

First, she quoted, more than once from John Galt. But clearly, he was her own fictional creation, so she was quoting herself as an authority. “What nerve!” I thought–but in admiration. (From my college experience, I was already sick of the pretentious, second-handed over-quoting of “authorities”.)

Second, she was absolute, radical, black-and-white. I loved that. It especially made her stand out in what was still the atmosphere of the Eisenhower, “Leave it to Beaver,” 50s, even though JFK was president. It was an era when “That’s a value-judgment” was said in reproach, when no one wanted to rock the boat, when one of the top intellectual hits was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s book, “The Vital Center” (which argued that the arguments for communism and free enterprise were interchangeable, so the best thing to do was take a middle position).

It was a time when profundity was ascribed to statements like, “Everything is relative,” and “Values are subjective.” So Ayn Rand’s certainty, passion, and non-centrism made her stand out–and fit very well with my own premises. (About the only thing I knew about Ayn Rand before attending her talk was when I overheard a student saying, “I’m not advocating radical individualism, like Ayn Rand.” I thought, “Radical individualism? That sounds good.”

Ayn Rand herself gave the best description of what then was de rigeur for intellectual sophisticates: “militant uncertainty, crusading cynicism, dogmatic agnosticism, boastful self-abasement and self-righteous depravity . . .” [For the New Intellectual] That description is unfortunately still applicable.

Third, in the question period, I was struck by her response to two questions. When asked, “Are you an atheist?” she answered, “Of course,” as if slightly surprised by being even asked–something like how you would respond if asked, “Do you wear warmer clothing in winter?” On hearing that “Of course,” I instantly became an atheist. Before, I had been a woozy agnostic (“Maybe there’s some basic principle of the universe–like ‘Every process tends toward equilibrium’–that’s an impersonal kind of divinity.”) The sheer tone with which she said “Of course,” yanked the whole issue out of the realm of “What if?” and threw it into a factual, rational, scientific context for me. I realized that the actual question was: “Do I believe there’s some Spirit-Stuff out there beyond the moon? Is that rational?” And the answer was clearly “No.”

Now, Ayn Rand went on to explain that she accepted reason and only reason, and that in thousands of years, no purportedly rational argument for God had ever stood up to inspection. And that added a sense of objectivity to my reaction (I already held infinite respect for reason, knowing that it was what had lifted man up from the cave.)

The other answer which impressed me was in response to being asked what Objectivists held in regard to “sexual ethics.” Her answer began: “We are very chaste.” I was impressed once again. Here was a modern, science-loving intellectual who dared to say “chaste”–in an age when everyone pretending to be sophisticated claimed that sex was a matter of hormones held in check only by taboos.

She went on to explain that sex was a great value, that she was pro-sex, not prudish, etc. What her answer said to me was: she takes herself very seriously. She considers her choices, her values, and her person to be sacred. That appealed to me on a deep level.

Shortly after her speaking event came MIT’s spring break, and I returned to my family home in Richmond, determined to buy the book she had been quoting from: Atlas Shrugged. I went to Thalheimer’s department store, which had a book section, and picked up the paperback. It was very thick. I didn’t like reading, finding it a physically uncomfortable process (perhaps due to visual problems), and I had never read a book of more than about 200 pages. Looking at the size of Atlas, I thought, “Wow, this could be 300 or even 350 pages long!” (Fortunately, I didn’t check the actual length.)

Steeling myself, I purchased it anyway, went to a nearby coffee shop, and began reading over my grilled cheese sandwich.

At the top of the second page, I came to this:

The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of a motionless lightning, the length of ten stories.

I was puzzled: how come there was a long crack in a skyscraper? How come the atmosphere of decay? Was this set in the future? Was it science-fiction?

I turned back to the beginning and started to read much more carefully. The rest is history.

I read Atlas very slowly, in small segments, because I needed time to integrate the meaning of what I was reading. It took about a month to finish the novel. By the time I reached Galt’s speech, I was completely sold.

Several things in that first reading stood out in my mind. Early on–I think it was about page 60–I got the idea that Dagny (and Ayn Rand) considered selfishness to be good. On realizing that, I thought: “Wow! She’s gone further than I have: I’ve rejected the idea that selfishness is wrong, but she is saying it is good! I like that!” (I had always been accused of being selfish by my mother, which only made me dislike her.)

To brag a bit: I knew from the first scene with Eddie in the Taggart cafeteria that his mysterious friend, who never was given any lines, was John Galt. That’s because the back cover of my paperback had the line: “The astounding story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world–and did.” I remembered that line when I read Eddie Willers saying to the mysterious stranger:

Motive power–you can’t imagine how important that is. That’s the heart of everything. . . . What are you smiling at?

What, indeed! I “got” it.

Leaving aside falling in love with the characters, especially Francisco, I remember being troubled, from a literary standpoint, when I came to this statement by the old cigarette vendor in the Taggart Terminal: “Miss Taggart, to the best of my knowledge, that cigarette was not made anywhere on earth.”

“Oh no,” I thought. “Is this signaling that the strikers have gone to the moon or Mars?” Because I knew that their doing that was just not credible, and it would have taken the whole novel–and its meaning–into the realm of fantasy. In comparison to that thought, the refractor ray in the Rockies seemed downright conservative.

Another needless (though author-intended) worry came when I read:

In mounting panic, the watchers lost their sense of context and language–and their three voices blended into a progression of indiscriminate shrieks: “We want you to take over! . . . We want you to rule! . . . We order you to give orders! . . . We demand that you dictate! We order you to save us! . . . We order you to think! . . . ”

They heard no answer but the beating of the heart on which their own lives depended.

The current was shooting through Galt’s chest and the beating was coming in irregular spurts, as if it were racing and stumbling–when suddenly his body fell still, relaxing: the beating had stopped.

What? Has Galt died?! That would ruin the whole thing!

It was with infinite relief that I read what actually happened, climaxed by Galt calmly saying:

“It’s the vibrator that’s out of order,” said a voice behind them; they whirled around; Galt was struggling for breath, but he was speaking in the brusque, competent tone of an engineer. “Take it out and pry off the aluminum cover. You’ll find a pair of contacts fused together. Force them apart, take a small file and clean up the pitted surfaces. Then replace the cover, plug it back into the machine–and your generator will work.”

What a scene!

What was I to do when I finished the book? Well, for one thing I read this in “A message from the Author,” that was appended to the end of the paperback edition:

If you are the kind of reader who knows that for 1084 pages he has lived in the atmosphere of John Galt’s world–if you now feel regret at the necessity of returning to the gray hopelessness of a culture that is truly bankrupt–if you have understood that it is ideas which create or destroy a world, a culture or a man–if you have understood that the rejection of reason by the neo-mystics of our age is responsible for the present state of the world–then you now why only a philosophy of reason can lead to an intellectual Renaissance.

I was that kind of reader, at least about the regret of leaving John Galt’s world. To her appendix, my reaction was: “Jesus! She not only gave me this unprecedented emotional and intellectual experience, she knows that she did!”

That served even more to take this out of the realm of “a story” into the realm of practical reality. There followed a reference to lectures on her philosophy in New York City, with contact information. I realized there was much more to be gained, that there was a “movement,” which had action-implications for me.

After finishing Atlas, not wanting to accept anything on emotion, I decided to take a full year before absolutely committing myself to this philosophy. During the year, I made it a point not only to learn everything that I could about Objectivism, but also to seek out criticism from opponents. I knew that people disagreed with her, and I wanted to hear “the other side.” I knew I was young and ignorant–maybe there was some fatal flaw in the philosophy that could be pointed out to me. People sure seemed to think there was.

But over the course of the year, every time I asked what the error was in her ideas, I got back some answer that was reminiscent of lines given to the villains in the novel. You know, things like “It isn’t that black and white.” And, “She’s advocating dog-eat-dog, the law of the jungle.” And, “No one can prove an issue of values.” And, “Businessmen use force, too–economic force.”

I thought, “It’s not that her opponents see something she missed; she knows their arguments–and the answers to them. She knows what they know–and more.”

So, on March 12, 1963, I formally accepted what had long been true in fact: I was an Objectivist. To mark my acceptance, I repeated the striker’s oath:

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another to live for mine.

Amnesty for Illegal aliens is not enough, they deserve an apology

[Reprinted from Forbes Online, 3/4/2013]

What has happened to America? When did the land of the free become “You can’t land here”? Did we fight a Civil War to end slavery, in order then to put a wall around the country and keep “undesirables” out? Did we fight against Nazism in order to make our own class of “untermenschen,” and to have petty tyrants demand: “Where are your papers?!”

Freedom of travel is a right. It is a right possessed by every human being, not just by Americans. The Mexican government or the French government has no right to stop you from entering Mexico or France, and our government has no right to stop a Mexican or Frenchman from entering America.

The country does not belong to the government. It does not belong to the majority. Land belongs to individual, private owners, and only they have the right to invite or bar others from coming on their land.

The government has no more right to lock people out than to lock them in. The same principle damning the Berlin Wall damns walls erected to keep people out.

It is said we need to “secure our borders,” but that phrase is pure spin. To secure them against what? Nannies, engineers, carpenters, and waiters?

What about terrorists? The answer to terrorism is not to cower down in a bunker-America. The answer to terrorism is decisive military strikes against our enemies, especially Iran, to punish or end the regimes that sponsor terrorism. Make the rogue regimes worry about securing their borders.

If the laws restricting entry are dead wrong, what are we to think of those “illegals” who have disobeyed these laws? Everyone seems to think that entering the country without the government’s permission is a serious offense, that the illegals should at the least be “sent to the back of the line,” that their law-breaking forever stains them with dishonor. But the law is wrong. The stain of dishonor is not on the illegals but on the illegalizers.

The illegals came here because they value America. They broke an unjust law in order to live a free, better, richer life. In the vast majority of cases, obeying anti-immigration laws would mean never getting to live here. It’s a life sentence.

Breaking bad laws to build a better life is not dishonorable; it is admirable, provided breaking the law involves no use of force. Coming here in defiance of unjust laws is a peaceful act; it is just the avoidance of the force our government would initiate against them. It is certainly wrong to wield private force; it is wrong to take the law into one’s own hand. But these are not involved in illegal immigration.

There is no moral requirement to martyr oneself to any form of obedience to others-neither to their opinions nor to the disgraceful, rights-violating laws they pass.

An “illegal” immigrant is, in principle, like a Jew in Nazi Germany who refused to wear the yellow star. Yes, I grant you that ours is not a barbarous dictatorship like the Nazi regime, and in the name of objectivity, there is a certain deference due to legality and lawfulness as such. But not at the price of wasting one’s life in Senegal, Haiti, or even Greece, instead of America.

The principle established at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials was that a monstrous act cannot be excused by saying that one was merely obeying the law-“just following orders.” Basic morality trumps the merely legal. The corollary is that one cannot be condemned for disobeying a monstrous law merely on the grounds that “those are the rules,” “the nation decided, so just follow orders.” A monstrous law should neither be obeyed nor enforced. It must be repealed.

It is not enough to give “illegals” amnesty. These long-oppressed individuals deserve an official apology from our government.

For Open Immigration

This is a defense of a policy of absolutely open immigration, without border patrols, border police, border checks, or passports.

After a phase-in period, entry into the U.S. would be unrestricted, unregulated, and unscreened, exactly as is entry into Connecticut from New York.

(Note: I am defending freedom of entry and residency, not the granting of citizenship or voting rights, not even after decades of residency.)

An end to immigration barriers is required by the principle of individual rights. Every individual has rights as an individual, not as a member of this or that nation. The rights of Americans do not flow from their status as Americans, but from their status as human beings. In the words of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Instead of “their Creator” the reference should be to “their nature,” but it is quite clear that rights are held to be universal, pertaining to all men as such.

No special geographical location is required in order to have the right to be free from governmental coercion. In fact, government is instituted “to secure these rights”—i.e., to protect against coercion. Only physical coercion can violate rights.

A foreigner has rights just as much as an American. To be a foreigner is not to be a criminal. Yet our government treats as criminals those foreigners not lucky enough to win the green-card lottery.

Seeking employment in this country is not a criminal act. It coerces no one and violates no one’s rights. Jobs taken away? There is no “right” to be exempt from competition in the labor market, or in any other market. (And it is solid economic fallacy to believe that immigrants “take away jobs,” as I show below.)

It is not a criminal act to buy or rent a home here, and then to reside in it. Paying for housing is not a coercive act—whether the buyer is an American or a foreigner. No one’s rights are violated when a Mexican, or Canadian, or Senegalese rents an apartment from an American owner and moves into the housing he is paying for. And what about the rights of those American citizens who want to sell or rent their property to the highest bidders? Or the American businesses that want to hire the lowest-cost workers? It is morally indefensible for our government to violate their right to do so, but that’s exactly what immigration restrictions do.

Immigration quotas forcibly exclude foreigners who want not to seize housing but to purchase it, who want not to rob Americans but to work with them to produce goods and services, raising our standard of living.

Forcibly excluding those who seek peacefully to trade with us is a violation of the rights of both parties to such a trade: the rights of the American seller or employer and the rights of the foreign buyer or employee.

Immigration restrictions treat both Americans and foreigners as if they were state property, and as if the peaceful exchange of values to mutual benefit were an act of destruction.

To take an actual example, if I want to invite my Norwegian friend Klaus to live in my home, either as my guest or as a paying tenant, what right does our government have to stop me? Or to stop Klaus? To be a Norwegian is not to be a criminal. And if some American business wants to hire Klaus, what right does our government have to interfere?

The implicit premise of barring foreigners is: “This is our country, we let in only those we want here.” But who is this collective “we”? The government does not own the country. It has jurisdiction over the territory, but jurisdiction is not ownership. Nor does the majority own the country. America is a country of private property. Housing is private property. So is a job. Only the owner of land, or of a business employing people, may set the terms regarding the use or sale of his property.

There is no such thing as collective, social ownership of the land. The claim, “We have the right to decide who is allowed here” means that some individuals—those with the most votes—claim the right to prevent other citizens from exercising their rights over the land they own. But there can be no right to infringe upon the rights of others.

In a constitutionally limited republic, 60% of the population cannot vote to enslave the other 40%. Nor can a majority issue dictates to the owners of private property. Nor can a majority infringe the freedom of employers to hire whomever they wish. Not morally, not in a free society. In a free society, the rights of the individual are held sacrosanct, superior to any claim made by anyone or any group, regardless of the number of claimants. Even if every citizen of the nation wishes to violate the least right of a lone individual, they have no right to do so. That is the meaning of a society based on moral right, not on mob rule.

The rights of one man end where the rights of another begin. Every man is free to act on his own judgment—but only within the sphere of his own rights. The criminal is the man who deliberately steps outside his rights-protected domain and invades the domain of another, depriving his victim of his exclusive control over his property, or liberty, or life.

The criminal, by his own choice, has rejected rights in favor of brute violence, and thus can claim no rights himself. So, in principle, there’s no objection to barring criminals from entering the country.

There is, however, a procedural objection, and a decisive one: how are government officials to determine whether or not a given man about to enter the country is a criminal? Since potential or actual criminals do not carry signs announcing this fact, how can the government ferret it out—without violating the rights of the innocent immigrant?

And we must ask: “criminal”—by what standard? Is “the criminal” a man convicted in Canada of stealing a car, or a man convicted by a “revolutionary tribunal” in Iran for insulting The Prophet, or a man held to be a criminal in Sierra Leone because . . . ? Is the U.S. government to review every law and every trial of every immigrant from every country in order to bar “criminals”?

The crucial point is often overlooked: in its efforts to capture or bar criminals, the government may not violate the rights of the innocent. That means, no detention at borders, no demand to produce “papers” or “passports,”— such procedures violate the rights of the innocent. In order to interfere with a man’s free movement, the state needs to show “probable cause”—which means specific evidence against the specific individual, not the indiscriminate subjection of everyone to a screening process.

There is no more authority to demand papers at the border than there is for the police to board a city bus and demand papers of everyone on it. Every individual, whether citizen or non-citizen, is to be presumed innocent. He does not have to satisfy the government that he is not a criminal, in the absence of any evidence that he is.

At the nation’s borders, instead of “inspection,” there should simply be a sign: “Welcome to America.”

Things are different in wartime, or when an epidemic breaks out in a certain region, of course, but what about peacetime? What about now, when millions of Mexicans, South Americans, Chinese, Canadians, etc. are seeking entry into the U.S.? What about the overwhelming majority, who are not criminals, not terrorists, and not carriers of some plague? By what moral principle can they be inspected, harrassed, or excluded? Majority vote? No single individual has the right to stop another and “inspect” him to see if he is “acceptable,” so no majority—which is simply a number of individuals—has that right either.

In the absence of specific evidence against him, nothing can justify subjecting an immigrant to coercive interference.

I’m very afraid that the actual reason for limiting immigration is xenophobia, which is simply a polite word for racial bigotry.

The denial of rights to non-citizens is despicable, an affront to moral principles as such. We have erected a vicious and hypocritical double standard: we locals grant ourselves a right to violate the rights of outsiders.


That’s the moral case for phasing out limits on immigration. But some ask: “Is it practical? Wouldn’t unlimited immigration—even if phased in over a decade—be disastrous to our economic well-being and create overcrowding? Are we being told to just grit our teeth and surrender our interests in the name of morality?”

This question is invalid on its face. It shows a failure to understand the nature of rights, and of moral principles generally. Rational moral principles reflect a recognition of the basic nature of man, his nature as a specific kind of living organism, having a specific means of survival. Questions of what is practical, what is to one’s self-interest, can be answered only in that context. It is neither practical nor to one’s interest to attempt to live and act in defiance of one’s nature as a human being.

Yet that is the meaning of the moral-practical dichotomy. When one claims, “It is immoral but practical,” one is maintaining, “It cripples my nature as a human being, but it is beneficial to me”—which is a contradiction.

Rights, in particular, are not something pulled from the sky or decreed by societal whim. Rights are moral principles, established by reference to the needs inherent in man’s nature qua man. “Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.” (Ayn Rand)

Every organism has a basic means of survival; for man, that means is: reason. Man is the rational animal, homo sapiens. Rights are moral principles that spell out the terms of social interaction required for a rational being to survive and flourish. Since the reasoning mind cannot function under physical coercion, the basic social requirement of man’s survival is: freedom. Rights prescribe freedom by proscribing coercion.

“If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work.” (Ayn Rand)

Rights reflect the fundamental alternative of voluntary consent or brute force. The reign of force is in no one’s interest; the system of voluntary cooperation by mutual consent is the precondition of anyone achieving his actual interests.

To ignore the principle of rights means jettisoning the principled, moral resolution of conflicts, and substituting mere numbers (majority vote). That is not to anyone’s interest. Tyranny is not to anyone’s self-interest.

Rights establish the necessary framework within which one defines his legitimate self-interest. One cannot hold that one’s self-interest requires that he be “free” to deprive others of their freedom, treating their interests as morally irrelevant. One cannot hold that recognizing the rights of others is moral but “impractical.”

Since rights are based on the requirements of man’s life as a rational being, there can be no conflict between the moral and the practical here: if respecting individual rights requires it, your interest requires it.

Freedom or force, reason or compulsion—that is the basic social alternative. Immigrants recognize the value of freedom—that’s why they seek to come here.

The American Founders defined and implemented a system of rights because they recognized that man, as a rational being, must be free to act on his own judgment and to keep the products of his own effort. They did not intend to establish a system in which those who happen to be born here could use force to “protect” themselves from the peaceful competition of others.


One major fear of open immigration is economic: the fear of losing one’s job to immigrants. It is asked: “Won’t the immigrants take our jobs?” The answer is: “Yes, so that we can go on to better, higher-paying jobs.”

The fallacy in the protectionist view lies in the idea that there is only a finite amount of work to be done. The unstated assumption is: “If Americans don’t get to do that work, if foreigners do it instead, we Americans will have nothing to do.”

But work is the creation of wealth. A job is not just drawing a salary, it is acting to produce things—food, cars, computers, internet content—all the goods and services that go to make up our standard of living. And we never get a “too high” standard of living or “too much” wealth. The need for wealth is limitless. And that means the need for productive work is limitless.

From a grand, historical perspective, we are only at the beginning of the wealth-creating age. The wealth Americans produce today is as nothing compared to what we’ll have two hundred years from now—just as the standard of living in 1800 was as nothing, compared to ours today.

Unemployment is not caused by an absence of avenues for the creation of wealth. Unemployment is caused by government interference in the labor market, preventing the law of supply and demand from “clearing the market” in labor services, as it does in every other market. Yet, even with that interference, the number of jobs goes relentlessly upward, decade after decade—from 27 million workers in 1900 to about 140 million in 2010.

Jobs do not exist as a fixed pool, to be divided up. Jobs can always be added because there’s no end to the creation of wealth and thus no end to the useful employment of human intelligence. There is always more productive work to be done. If you can give your job to an immigrant, you can get a more valuable job.

What is the effect of a bigger labor pool on wage rates? Given a constant money supply, nominal wage rates fall. But real wage rates rise, because total output has gone up. Economists have demonstrated that real wages have to rise as long as the immigrants are self-supporting. If immigrants earn their keep, if they don’t consume more than they produce, then they do not subtract from per capita output, which means no one is injured by their employment. And to the extent that immigrants save, postponing current consumption, they increase capital and total output, raising everyone’s standard of living.

And, in fact, rising real wages was the history of our country in the nineteenth century. Before the 1920s, there were no limits on immigration; yet these were the years of America’s fastest economic progress. The standard of living rocketed upward. Self-supporting immigrants brought economic benefit, not hardship.

The protectionist objection that immigrants take away jobs and harm our standard of living is a solid economic fallacy.


A popular misconception is that immigrants come here to get welfare. In fact, this is rarely immigrants’ motive. It is true that the small minority of immigrants who come to get welfare do constitute a burden. But this issue has been rendered moot by the passage, under the Clinton Administration, of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which makes immigrants ineligible for most forms of welfare for 5 years. I support this kind of legislation (which should be enacted at the State level as well; currently left-leaning States, like California, continue to throw tax money at immigrants—and myriad other groups).

Further, if the fear is of non-working immigrants, why do protectionists seek to pass legislation aimed at punishing employers of immigrants?


Contrary to “accepted wisdom,” the data show that immigrants are less prone to crime than are native Americans. For instance, over one-fourth of the residents of the border-town El Paso, Texas are immigrants. But El Paso has about one-tenth the murder rate of Baltimore, a city of comparable size.

That’s not an anomaly:

If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. “If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you’re likely in one of the country’s safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Paso—these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they’re some of the safest places in the country.

Criminals have a short-range, stay-in-the-‘hood mentality. Immigrants are longer-range, ambitious, and want to earn money, not grab it.

The deeper point is moral-legal. The fact that some men in a given category may commit crimes is no justification for treating everyone in that category as criminals. Guilt is not collective. Just as Bernie Madoff’s crimes are his, not those of all hedge-fund operators, just as the fact that Madoff is of Jewish descent in no way legitimates anti-semitism, so it is a slap at morality to curtail the rights of all immigrants because of the crimes of a few individual immigrants.

Man has free will. The choices of some do not reflect on the moral status of others, who make their own choices. Each individual is responsible for his own actions, and only his own actions.


America is a vastly underpopulated country. Our population density is less than one-third of France’s.

You say that hordes of immigrants would come to overcrowd America? Okay, take a really extreme scenario. Imagine that half of the people on the planet moved here. That would mean an unthinkable eleven-fold increase in our population—from 300 million to 3.3 billion people. The result? America would be a bit less densely populated than England. England has 384 people/; vs. 360 people/sq. km. if our population multiplied eleven-fold.

Here’s another comparison: with half of mankind living here, we would be less densely populated than the state of New Jersey is today (453/sq. km.). Note that these calculations exclude Alaska (our biggest state) and Hawaii. And these density-calculations count only land area.

Contrary to widespread belief, high population density is a value not a disvalue. High population density intensifies the division of labor, which makes possible a wider variety of jobs and specialized consumer products. For instance, in Manhattan, there is a “doll hospital”—a store specializing in the repair of children’s dolls. Such a specialized, niche business requires a high population density in order to have a market. Try finding a doll hospital in Poughkeepsie. In Manhattan, one can find a job as a “Secret Shopper” (a job actually listed on Craig’s List). Not so in Paducah.

People want to live near other people, in cities. One-seventh of England’s population lives in London. If population density is a bad thing, why are Manhattan real-estate prices so high? People are willing to pay a premium in order to live in a densely populated area. And even within that area, the more “crowded” the more in demand: compare prices for apartments in mid-town Manhattan with prices for apartments on the less crowded northern tip of the island.


Immigrants are the kind of people who refresh the American spirit. They are ambitious, courageous, and value freedom. They come here, often with no money and not even speaking the language, to seek a better life for themselves and their children.

The vision of American freedom, with its opportunity to prosper by hard work, serves as a magnet drawing the best of the world’s people. Immigrants are self-selected for their virtues: their ambitiousness, daring, independence, and pride. They are willing to cast aside the tradition-bound roles assigned to them in their native lands and to re-define themselves as Americans. These are the people our country needs in order to keep alive the individualist, hard-working attitude that made America great.

Here is a short list of some high-achieving immigrants: Alexander Hamilton, Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, most of the top scientists of the Manhattan Project, Igor Sikorsky (the inventor of the helicopter), Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Ayn Rand.

Open immigration: the benefits are great. The right is unquestionable. So let them come.

Copyright © 2014 TOF Publications, Inc.
Permission hereby granted to republish, in whole or in part, provided no changes are made in the wording of material used, Harry Binswanger’s authorship is stated, and this notice is carried.