The Historic Significance of Atlas Shrugged

10 10 2007
atlas shrugged

Robert Tracinski in Real Clear Politics

October 10 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s classic novel Atlas Shrugged, so in the coming week we can expect to see a flurry of articles about the novel–many of which will, unfortunately, offer highly inaccurate descriptions of its meaning and significance.

That’s a shame, because Atlas Shrugged is a novel that everyone ought to discover and grapple with, because it succeeds at something too few artists and intellectuals have had the courage to do.

The purpose of art and philosophy is to show us truths about human nature, about the nature of the world and our place in it. Philosophy names these truths explicitly, in literal terms; literature dramatizes these truths in concrete terms, revealing its insights through the actions and statements of the characters created by the novelist. A philosophical novel, like Atlas Shrugged, is supposed to do both of these things.

But too often both the philosophers and the artists have simply repeated or project their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions.

More here.


Think Again: Drugs

5 10 2007

Ethan Nadelmann in Foreign Policy

Finally, a smarter drug control regime that values reality over rhetoric is rising to replace the “war” on drugs.

A “drug-free world,” which the United Nations describes as a realistic goal, is no more attainable than an “alcohol-free world”—and no one has talked about that with a straight face since the repeal of Prohibition in the United States in 1933. Yet futile rhetoric about winning a “war on drugs” persists, despite mountains of evidence documenting its moral and ideological bankruptcy. When the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on drugs convened in 1998, it committed to “eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008” and to “achieving significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction.” But today, global production and consumption of those drugs are roughly the same as they were a decade ago; meanwhile, many producers have become more efficient, and cocaine and heroin have become purer and cheaper.

It’s always dangerous when rhetoric drives policy—and especially so when “war on drugs” rhetoric leads the public to accept collateral casualties that would never be permissible in civilian law enforcement, much less public health. Politicians still talk of eliminating drugs from the Earth as though their use is a plague on humanity. But drug control is not like disease control, for the simple reason that there’s no popular demand for smallpox or polio.

More here.

Francisco’s Money Speech

30 09 2007

Marking 50 years since Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Capitalism Magazine reprints an important speech from the book.

“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?

“When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears not all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor–your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money, Is this what you consider evil?

More here.

Making Carbon Markets Work

25 09 2007

Danny Cullenward and David G. Victor in Scientific American

Limiting climate change without damaging the world economy depends on stronger and smarter market signals to regulate carbon dioxide

The odds are high that humans will warm Earth’s climate to worrisome levels during the coming century. Although fossil-fuel combustion has generated most of the buildup of climate-altering carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, effective solutions will require more than just designing cleaner energy sources. Equally important will be establishing institutions and strategies—particularly markets, business regulations and government policies—that provide economies with incentives to apply innovative technologies and practices that reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

The challenge is immense. Traditional fossil-fuel energy is so abundant and inexpensive that climate-friendly substitutes have little hope of acceptance without robust policy support. Meanwhile, for nearly two decades, negotiations on binding treaties that limit global emissions have struggled. But policy makers in Europe and other regions where public concern about climate change is strongest have already implemented significant initiatives to limit release of CO2. Lessons from these endeavors can help governments and world bodies fashion more effective strategies to protect the planet’s climate. Policy makers in the United States, which historically has produced more CO2 emissions than any other nation while doing relatively little to tame the flow, can in particular learn much about creating viable carbon-cutting markets by studying Europe’s recent experience. Based on these insights, we offer several concrete suggestions on how the U.S. should go about constructing an effective national climate policy.

More here.

The cultural contradictions of libertarianism

17 09 2007

Kay S. Hymowitz in Opinion Journal

On the one hand, libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal. On the other hand, libertarians depend on the family–an institution that, in crucial respects, is unfree–to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system (not to mention future members of their own movement). The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital–that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.

Family breakdown, by contrast, limits the accumulation of such human capital. Worse, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing leave the door wide open for big government. Dysfunctional families create an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies, which libertarians reject on principle. And in courts all over the country, judges who preside over the manifold disputes occasioned by broken families are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone. It is a libertarian’s worst nightmare.

A libertarian, according to Brian Doherty, “has to believe” that “the instincts and abilities for liberty . . . are innate,” that we possess “an ability to fend for ourselves in the Randian sense and to form spontaneous orders of fellowship and cooperation in the Hayekian sense.” But this view of the relationship between the individual and society is profoundly and demonstrably false, especially when applied to the family.

More here.

A Physics Look at Economics

16 09 2007

Sean Carroll at the Cosmic Variance blog.

But the other, closely related, sense of linearity is the ability to simply add together the utility associated with different kinds of goods: U(x+y) = U(x) + U(y), where x and y are different goods. In the real world, utility isn’t anything like that. It’s highly nonlinear; the presence of one good can dramatically affect the value placed on another one. I’m also pretty sure that absolutely every economist in the world must know this, and surely they use interesting non-linear utility functions when they write their microeconomics papers. But the temptation to approximate things as linear can lead, I suspect, to the kind of faulty reasoning that dissuades you from ordering wine in nice restaurants. Of course, you could have water with your meal, and then go home and have a glass of wine you bought yourself, thereby saving some money and presumably increasing your net utility. But having wine with dinner is simply a different experience than having the wine later, after you’ve returned home. There is, a physicist would say, strong coupling between the food, the wine, the atmosphere, and other aspects of the dining experience. And paying for that coupling might very well be worth it.

Physicists deal with this by working hard at isolating the correct set of variables which are (relatively) weakly-coupled, and dealing with the dynamics of those variables. It would be silly, for example, to worry about protons and neutrons if you were trying to understand chemistry — atoms and electrons are all you need.

More here.

Downward mobility has become almost impossible

4 09 2007

David Aaronovitch in The London Times

Yesterday we discovered, courtesy of the publicity for a new study from the Institute of Education, that the child of a labourer is six times more likely to suffer extreme poverty by the time he or she reaches 30 than the child of a lawyer. This seems amazing until you apply Old Aaronovitch’s rule, and realise that this means that a lawyer’s child is only six times less likely to suffer poverty than a labourer’s child. And that really did surprise me.

If I’m sniffy about the top claim, I’m not all dismissive of the Institute’s report. Entitled Reducing Inequalities and using a cohort study of 17,000 people born in 1970, it has discovered a complete hierarchy of risk, with plumber’s children likely to do better than bus driver’s kids, who in turn fare less badly than the progeny of shop assistants. It’s an important study and is being taken to show how increased social mobility, despite all the Government’s efforts, remains an elusive aspiration.

More here.