Monday, June 7, 2010

Atlas Shrugged: Quote #2

Hank Rearden, one of the main protagonists, has just been caught selling some of his miraculous alloy, Rearden Metal, to a business associate. The state has outlawed selling the metal in any significant quantity without specific approval. Vital industries are crumbling as they fall victim to acute lack of resources and materials. Rearden sold the metal to Ken Danagger to keep his coal mines producing a steady stream of coal for Rearden’s foundry. The government caught wind of this and has sent Dr. Ferris, a low-level villain, to confront Rearden:

“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against—then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there it that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of lawbreakers—and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

This little outburst encapsulates one of the central techniques of the progressive left. Look at any major movement on the left—environmental politics, racial politics, gender politics, class envy politics, health care politics, social security politics—and you will see just this kind of system at work. The politicians, demagogues and bureaucrats leading these efforts seek to enact just the sort of laws mentioned by Dr. Ferris for the very purpose he named: cashing in on guilt. Nearly every policy initiative on the left turns on this notion of criminalizing more and more actions, churning up or manufacturing guilt and then using that guilt to incapacitate all those who stand in their way. (See Shelby Steele's book, White Guilt, for an in-depth discussion of this technique.)

This phenomenon even extends to foreign policy. We are constantly reminded of America’s past failures and shameful acts. We are urged to abandon national pride in favor of national guilt—to embrace internationalism and the interests of other countries (even enemies) before the interests of our own country. A similar movement can be witnessed in the pages of history: Western Europe 1919-1939. The result was the Second World War.

Dr. Ferris' remarks  may help illustrate why conservatives strive so ardently for limited government. We seek to limit the number and extent of laws to increase freedom and reduce false guilt. We oppose 3,000-page laws which give sweeping powers to bureaucrats. We embrace the simplicity of the Constitution. The fewer laws we have and the smaller burden of guilt we accept, the less will be the power welded by political elites to control our lives.

5 comments:

  1. Actually, your article reminded me of a movement from the right, specifically the War on Drugs. It's not working, and it cripples commerce as much as anything Reardon faced. While I don't use illegal drugs myself, I think I would need to if I were to make any sense of those laws.

    Seriously, why is marijuana still illegal? It could be legalized, taxed and regulated like tobacco and alcohol, and then the govt. could progress to legalizing harder drugs too. Just like the Dutch, who are way more mature about this sort of thing and have no concept of a "victimless crime."

    Though drug use may be tied to violent and property crime, it may be argued that this is mostly because illegal drugs are expensive and sold by people who have little reputation. If an ordinary person can, say, buy a pack of joints at the same store he buys cigarrettes, this wouldn't happen. Just like the Mafia had no market for smuggling alcohol after Prohibition.

    And if everything could be legally manufactored in the U.S., it would cut down on money going to countries that may fund terrorism. If a heroin addict is going to spend money on his addiction anyway, wouldn't you rather that money go to a poppy field in Oregon than Afganistan?

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  2. I'm pretty sure Ayn Rand would favor legalizing drugs--pretty standard fair for those of the libertarian persuasion.

    I'm not sure how the War on Drugs used guilt in achieving it's objectives--then again, my memories of that are pretty hazy (not from drug use, but because I was a kid during the 80s). The War on Smoking definitely cashed in on guilt.

    I am conflicted about this issue because I love personal liberty but I don't want drug users to inadvertently harm me. Also, I am morally opposed to drug abuse because I am a Christian. I hesitate to mention that last part lest I be accused of wanting to institute a theocracy or something. There are plenty of things I think are immoral that I don't feel the need for government to ban or regulate. However, there are also plenty of things I consider immoral that definitely have an adverse effect on society and should be criminalized.

    This whole discussion hinges on the question: What is a crime? or What is morally wrong? Using gasoline in your SUV is not immoral. Crashing your SUV into someone else because you are high is immoral.

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  3. Before you get too caught up in Ms. Rosenbaum’s tome, I would encourage you to read some things written by Friedrich Hayek. The “Road to Serfdom” might be a good start. Even Solzhenitsyn was surprised that someone who had not lived in Russia could see so clearly the effects of socialism. More importantly, the “Randian” train of thought gave us Alan Greenspan. Hayek gave us Margaret Thatcher.

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  4. Thanks for the suggestions. Road To Serfdom has been on my list for a while now, but I may just have to move it to the top.

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  5. "I am conflicted about this issue because I love personal liberty but I don't want drug users to inadvertently harm me."

    Well, Philip, if drug users inadvertently harm you, they can be prosecuted and/or sued. Driving while intoxicated in any way should definitely be prohibited, because it's a threat to everyone else.

    I'm morally opposed to drug abuse, too, but it's not because I'm a Christian. For me, as for Ayn Rand, morality is about the consequences of actions for oneself in this life, and drug abuse has self-destructive consequences. (Occasional, light use of marijuana can be moral because it need not be destructive.)

    But just because I don't approve of it, doesn't mean the government has a right to restrict it. After Atlas Shrugged, I recommend Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It by Craig Biddle.

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