Thursday, December 31, 2009

From The Older Religiousness of the South

Given our postmodern age with its outright apostasy and "emerging" churches across America, the following from Richard M. Weaver, written over six decades ago, might prove instructive:

Reverence for the word of God has been a highly important aspect of Southern religious orthodoxy. Modern discussions of fundamentalism have overlooked the fact that belief in revealed knowledge is the essence of religion in its older sense, so that this point perhaps needs special emphasis. The necessity of having some form of knowledge which will stand above the welter of earthly change and bear witness that God is superior to accident led Thomas Aquinas to establish his famous dichotomy, which says, briefly, that whereas some things may be learned through investigation and exercise of the reasoning powers, others must be given or revealed by God. Man cannot live under a settled dispensation if the postulates of his existence must be continually revised in accordance with knowledge furnished by a nature filled with contingencies. Nature is vast and unknown; in the science of nature there are constantly appearing emergents which, if allowed to affect spiritual and moral verities, would destroy them by rendering them dubious, tentative, and conflicting. It is therefore imperative...that man have for guidance in this life a body of knowledge to which the "facts" of natural discovery are either subordinate or irrelevant. This body is the rock of ages, firm in the vast sea of human passion and error. Moral truth is not something which can be altered every time science widens the field of induction. If moral philosophy must wait upon natural philosophy, all moral judgments become temporary, relative, and lacking in those sanctions which alone make them effective. And though probably no people were more ignorant of the Summa Theologica than the inarticulate and little-read rural Southern population, this Thomist dualism lies implicit in their opposition to scientific monism, the most persistent of the South's medieval heritages. Then, as now, it explains their dogged adherence to what is taught "in the Book" and their indifference to empirical disproofs.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Well, I am ambidextrous...

The result of a quiz I took, linked from (as a Christian I consider myself pretty conservative - at least from an evangelical standpoint)

You Scored as Left-libertarian

Left-libertarians are libertarians that are more associated with the anti-authoritarian left than other libertarians. Left-libertarians can be minarchists, but many are anarchists who are in alliance with the anarchist left. Left-libertarians are more critical of conservatism and corporatism than most libertarians. They view libertarians in a historical context that is interconnected with the history of the left.

"Small L" libertarian
Libertarian socialist

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Hope of Victory

The Hope of Victory by Bob Murphy

"Reason is not enough." A bold statement on just causes by one who is both a Christian and a (non-utopian) libertarian.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Proud to be from Tennessee

by State Rep. Susan Lynn (TN-57th)

The following is a letter from Tennessee to the other 49 State Legislatures

We send greetings from the Tennessee General Assembly. On June 23, 2009, House Joint Resolution 108, the State Sovereignty Resolution, was signed by Governor Phil Bredesen. The Resolution created a committee which has as its charge to:

  • Communicate the resolution to the legislatures of the several states,
  • Assure them that this State continues in the same esteem of their friendship,
  • Call for a joint working group between the states to enumerate the abuses of authority by the federal government, and
  • Seek repeal of the assumption of powers and the imposed mandates.

It is for those purposes that this letter addresses your honorable body.

In 1776, our founding fathers declared our freedom in the magnificent Declaration of Independence; our guide to governance. They established a nation of free and independent states, declaring that the purpose of our political system is to secure for its citizens’ their natural rights. The Constitution authorizes the national government to carry out seventeen enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 and the powers of several of the ensuing amendments.

At the time of the Constitutional ratification process James Madison drafted the “Virginia Plan” to give Congress general legislative authority and to empower the national judiciary to hear any case that might cause friction among the states, to give the congress a veto over state laws, to empower the national government to use the military against the states, and to eliminate the states’ accustomed role in selecting members of Congress. Each one of these proposals was soundly defeated. In fact, Madison made many more attempts to authorize a national veto over state laws, and these were repeatedly defeated as well.

There are clear limits to the power of the federal government and clear realms of power for the states. However, the simple and clear expression of purpose, to secure our natural rights, has evolved into the modern expectation that the national government has an obligation to ensure our life, to create our liberty, and fund our pursuit of happiness.

The national government has become a complex system of programs whose purposes lie outside of the responsibilities of the enumerated powers and of securing our natural rights; programs that benefit some while others must pay.

Today, the federal government seeks to control the salaries of those employed by private business, to change the provisions of private contracts, to nationalize banks, insurers and auto manufacturers, and to dictate to every person in the land what his or her medical choices will be.

Forcing property from employers to provide healthcare, legislating what individuals are and are not entitled to, and using the labor of some so that others can receive money that they did not earn goes far beyond securing natural rights, and the enumerated powers in the Constitution.

The role of our American government has been blurred, bent, and breached. The rights endowed to us by our Creator must be restored.

To be sure, the People created the federal government to be their agent for certain enumerated purposes only. The Constitutional ratifying structure was created so it would be clear that it was the People, and not the States, that were doing the ratifying.

The Tenth Amendment defines the total scope of federal power as being that which has been delegated by the people to the federal government, and also that which is absolutely necessary to advancing those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution of the United States. The rest is to be handled by the state governments, or locally, by the people themselves.

The Constitution does not include a congressional power to override state laws. It does not give the judicial branch unlimited jurisdiction over all matters. It does not provide Congress with the power to legislate over everything. This is verified by the simple fact that attempts to make these principles part of the Constitution were soundly rejected by its signers.

With this in mind, any federal attempt to legislate beyond the Constitutional limits of Congress’ authority is a usurpation of state sovereignty - and unconstitutional.

Governments and political leaders are best held accountable to the will of the people when government is local. The people of a state know what is best for them; authorities, potentially thousands of miles away, governing their lives is opposed to the very notion of freedom.

We invite your state to join with us to form a joint working group between the states to enumerate the abuses of authority by the federal government and to seek repeal of the assumption of powers and the imposed mandates.

Susan Lynn [send her email] is a member of the Tennessee General Assembly; serving on the Commerce Committee and Chairman of the Government Operations committee. She holds a BS in economics and a minor in history. She is the Chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Commerce Task Force. Visit her blog at

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Truth About the “Dismal Science”

I begin teaching a civics/economics class to local home school students this evening. The article below will be required reading:

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Economists

by Art Carden and Steven Horwitz, 09.12.09

In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley questions the wisdom and integrity of economists--as well as the value of economics. Unfortunately, she misunderstands what economics is and what economists do.

Smiley points out that English majors know a lot more about human nature and motivation than economists. True--so do theologians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, artists, historians, garbage collectors, short-order cooks, accountants, nurses, baristas and many others.

But that is missing the point. The strength of economics is not in explaining human preferences but in explaining the effects of changing incentives given those preferences. We assume people are "rational," but we don't mean they are omniscient or wise or even quick learners. We mean people want to make themselves as well-off as possible; people try to shape the world according to their values, whatever those may be. Free-market economists also assume that people are ignorant, and we show that markets teach them how to use resources wisely.

Smiley claims that economists' enthusiasm for markets stems from a belief that people are basically good. This isn't the case. Economists from Adam Smith to F.A. Hayek saw our intrinsic moral limitations. They believed individuals were generally self-regarding and would put their particular interests--including family and friends--first.

Yet they did not see this as a reason to reject competitive markets. They understood that markets make it more difficult for the knaves among us to wield power because markets decentralize power among numerous private property owners. Firms' "power" comes from customers who buy their products, and it can be taken away just as easily (ask the U.S. automobile manufacturers). Free-market economists do not have to trust individuals; they trust that good institutions minimize the damage done by knaves.

Some notable exceptions notwithstanding, it is--as Smiley writes--"human nature to cheat, monopolize and buy off others." But we see this as a reason to distrust politics rather than markets. Political incentives exacerbate knavery. Centralizing power in the hands of the state, which is Smiley's implied alternative to free markets, will not make things better. It will put more power in the hands of the sorts of people Smiley fears.

The examples Smiley uses to call the economist who supports free markets a "fool," "monster" or "at least an ignoramus" are cases in which there aren't formal markets for the goods in question. No free-market economist believes that children should be bought and sold. They recognize you can't have a market without respecting rights. Markets presuppose that people have control over their own bodies and property. Hence, owning other human beings is antithetical to the free market.

Smiley next claims that capitalism keeps wages low because capital moves to low-wage regions in a "race to the bottom." Again, this is wrong. The law of comparative advantage shows how trade creates wealth and raises living standards, as Paul Krugman discusses in his essay "Ricardo's Difficult Idea."

Smiley argues that the international economy works to shove capital upon people with progressively lower wages, leaving those who produce without an ability to purchase what they're producing. This theoretical framework has been dead for 30 years and hasn't a shred of empirical support. In fact, economies that have gone more toward capitalism in the last few decades do better along measures of GDP per capita, education, life expectancy and democracy.

Smiley claims that economists "have always resisted calculating the costs of raw materials by calling them 'externals.'" We haven't. Raw materials are factors of production, and there's a lot of literature on how these factors should be priced. And we don't call the costs "externals." We talk about "externalities," which are costs and benefits from our actions that spill over onto non-consenting third parties, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of papers about externalities and "market failure." Indeed, one of the quickest routes to professional success as an economist is to find a new kind of market failure that might require government intervention.

Smiley also describes an example in which a country wages war for oil. This is an example of rent-seeking, which is trying to use government power to increase private wealth or power, and it is part of a well-developed tradition in economics. Free-market economists aren't sucking up to tyrants; we're the ones decrying institutional arrangements in which licking tyrants' boots is standard operating procedure. [emphasis added]

Smiley, like so many others, confuses "capitalism" with "corporatism." Being in favor of capitalism, in the sense of free markets, does not mean we support whatever is in capitalists' interests. We support competitive markets, which often work against the interests of capitalists who would generally prefer cozy monopolistic relationships with the state, such as those likely to result if the state gets more power. [emphasis added]

Murray Rothbard once said that "it is no crime to be ignorant of economics," but that it is "totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance." It is tempting, therefore, to dismiss Smiley's article as little more than sound and fury. Yet it does signify something profound and troubling: economists' failure to communicate the essential insights of our discipline. Jane Smiley's contemptuous and uninformed dismissal shows that we really need to redouble our efforts.

Art Carden is an assistant professor of economics and business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and an adjunct fellow with the Oakland, Calif.-based Independent Institute. He is a regular contributor to, and Division of Labour.

Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, Va. He writes for Liberty and Power and The Austrian Economists.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

But Will They Listen?

This afternoon I will present a talk (Lord willing) at the Advanced Appraisal Seminar in Greensboro, NC. My topic will be the economic theory of real estate bubbles. I will borrow heavily from the work of Auburn University’s Roger Garrison, who has created a handy macroeconomic overview of how speculative bubbles arise.

At the core of the theory is the action of the Federal Reserve. In my talk I will point out that, between 2001 and 2004, the Fed lowered its federal funds rate (the rate at which banks can borrow from other banks to meet their reserve requirement) from 5.5% to 1%. The Fed also purchased bonds from commercial banks, which injected reserves into the banking system. The net effect was to increase the money supply and the amount of loanable funds. Borrowing from Neil Young, I call this phenomenon “the needle and the damage done,” because the resultant reduction in interest rates was not the natural, market result of consumer savings. In fact, as Fed policy artificially lowered rates, consumers actually saved less of their incomes, and began demanding immediately consumable goods. A great disconnect occurred in the economy: consumers’ time preferences rose (consume in the present) while investors’ time preferences fell (divert production to more roundabout, future-oriented enterprises).

By the end of 2007 most American consumers were so over-leveraged (using their home equity accounts as virtual ATM’s) they hit the proverbial wall. By mid-2008 it became manifest that investors had over-extended themselves in real estate projects, many which had to be abandoned. Those are the very basics dynamics of a “recession” (depression) – the natural and inevitable correction following a central bank induced “boom.”

Even as I sit in my office I can look out the window and see five construction cranes over the Charlotte skyline. Far from being harbingers of future growth, they represent to this appraiser future vacancy – the continued effect of malinvestment in real estate projects.

When you see retail shops close and the space going “dark” (as we say), don’t think, “business failure.” Rather, see it for what it is: overcapacity. Our economy has been on a heroine rush for years. The time for cold turkey has come, but the manipulative State, through the agency of the Fed, is continuing to pump liquidity into the blown economy. Those cranes, and the derelict skyscrapers they are raising, are the sobering evidence.

Sort of like pumping air into a blown tire.

The question is, will my fellow appraisers receive this theory? They ought to, seeing that the values they have placed on an untold number of properties have been exposed as inflated.

In the meantime, a public service announcement: contact your representatives and insist that they support a stand-alone version of H.R. 1207, the bill that will require an audit of the Federal Reserve. This represents a key first step toward exposing the Fed and, hopefully, bringing it down.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Threescore and Ten

Traffic for this blog has dropped off significantly. That means one of two things: 1) I can quit writing here and focus exclusively on posting controversies on my Facebook wall, or 2) throw caution to the wind and write whatever I fancy here.


I continue to be astounded by the breathless embrace of socialism by a growing number of young Christians. Speaking of blogs, Jim Wallis’ “GOD’S politcs” rag is commanding the attention of these well-meaning but misguided souls who believe the State can be turned to good purposes. Wallis’ latest preoccupation is the Obama healthcare plan. Legions of young believers agree that providing universal healthcare for the poor and uninsured is the “red letter” thing to do.

Frédéric Bastiat – who, incidentally, was also a Christian – taught us 160 years ago that good intentions in political economy have unintended negative consequences. The “iron law” of economic reality is this: a subsidized system expands coverage and causes the demand to rise; higher demand results in higher prices, i.e. higher costs to the government; higher costs lead to government price controls; and price controls invariably lead to shortages.

Right-wing nuts, whose demagoguery about “death panels” (Sarah Palin, El Rushbo, et. al.) does little but discredit the argument against socialized medicine, wax long about “rationing.” I suppose a shortage of doctors, procedures and medications could be so labeled; but it implies some shadowy, bureaucratic goon deciding who gets what treatment. The economic truth is that shortages translate into delays in service delivery to patients. And delays can, in many cases, lead to diminished quality of care.

But the rise of the “Christian Left” is merely symptomatic of bad, fallacious reasoning. Tom Woods, the author of the New York Times best-seller Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse (and a Catholic), wrote a challenging piece on the Church’s tendency to endorse erroneous economic policy prescriptions.

It is obviously not “dissent” [from the Church] merely to observe that the cause-and-effect relationships that constitute the theoretical edifice of economics are not a matter of faith and morals. They simply do not fall within the range of subjects on which a Catholic prelate is endowed with special insight or authority. Catholic laity cannot head up petition drives against them. They are facts of life. Facts cannot be protested, defied, or lectured to; they can only be learned and acted upon. There is no use in shaking our fists at the fact that price controls lead to shortages. All we can do is understand the phenomenon, and be sure to bear it and other economic truths in mind if we want to make statements about the economy that are rational and useful.

Here’s hoping our Christian brethren of all stripes come to some rational understanding of economics. After all, we can no more successfully sustain an alteration of market behavior than we can change the direction of the wind. I think our old friend Richard Hooker would remind us that economics, like other spheres of the natural order, is subject to its own laws.


On a far more encouraging note, we visited a new mission church this past Sunday. My wife and I had met the pastor and his wife several weeks ago and instantly hit it off. The little mission is the result of the pastor’s “undercover work” (spiritually speaking) as a part-time employee at a Starbucks coffee shop (he maintains a full-time teaching job at a Christian school). There, he led an informal Bible study that resulted in conversions to Christ. When the church had its inaugural service this past week, it marked the first time some of its members had ever attended a Christian worship service.

There were around 20 that showed up for the first service – including parents and friends of those new believers. The little flock met in a former consignment shop that the pastor and his wife have transformed into a cheerfully bright worship space.

I don’t want to say too much about this little testimony lest I jinx it. But it is off to a very promising start.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Alternative Continuum

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was my kind of man – a strange quantity known as “liberal conservative.” He taught that we live not for ourselves but in honor of our ancestors and for the sake our children. He was an Anglican man through and through – a respecter of historic Christian tradition passed down by generations of faithful saints, but an embracer of necessary reforms. A role model for G.K. Chesterton, Burke was loyal to his culture and his king (a friend and advisor to King George); but he was for the American Revolution (secession) – after all, the Americans had forged a new society based upon the rights of Englishmen, thousands of miles removed from London. Why should their wealth be expropriated to fund the empire’s continental and oceanic wars? That wasn’t citizenship but slavery. The Americans had taken risks in the New World; Burke believed in the self-determination of people on their own ground. On the other hand, Burke despised the French Revolution and its appeal to abstract “universal” rights. In it he detected the makings of a Total State, a rebirth of Babelesque idolatry of the worst sort.

Albert Jay Nock (1873-1945) and Frank Chodorov (1887-1966) helped me distinguish the State from government. Nock perceived one detail about the American Revolution that Burke missed; that its underlying motivation had been little more than rank land speculation. George III didn’t want Anglo-Scots and German settlers pouring over the Appalachian spine and agitating his anti-French Cherokee allies (whose stateless society Thomas Jefferson admired). That wasn’t to say that the Americans shouldn’t have been cleared of the British yoke; but early on the Antifederalist instinct was snuffed out by a group of opportunists who recreated a modified British system on this continent. Nock identified the State as a “criminal gang,” a group of men who use constitutions and charters to seize as much power and expropriate as much wealth as possible within their term limits.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe (1949- ) taught me that term limits have the ironic effect of making democracies far more violent than monarchies ever were. The 20th century was bloodier than all previous centuries combined in a world “made safe for democracy.” Hoppe is a proponent of natural orders within society.

Hoppe’s Austrian School predecessors (Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, et. al.) taught me that central banking – a key element of Alexander Hamilton’s plan for state-building – devalues currency in order to fund internal improvement projects, often at the expense of farmers and small merchants. In modern times the bank also suppresses the price of borrowing money below its natural rate, which causes consumers to stop saving for the future while simultaneously luring entrepreneurs to invest in the future – resulting in the pernicious “boom/bust” cycle.

The Southern Agrarians (1929) and Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963) taught me the beauty of small things, of rustic values, of humility towards nature, of living off the land and within one’s means. When the former Marxist-skeptic historian Eugene Genovese (1930- ) embraced the Christian faith and an earthy conservatism, his lifelong study of the Agrarians and the Southern tradition helped reshape his thinking.

All of them, from Burke to Hoppe, have taught me that while all men are indeed created equal none of them demonstrate equal talents, abilities, or gifts. To act as if that were untrue is the height of folly.

A special acknowledgement is due historian Joseph R. Stromberg, whose essays and articles directed my attention to, or affirmed my already-existing interest in, many of these thinkers and their alternative ideas.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

LBJ and Another Day of Infamy

Being involved in the appraisal field means I spend a significant amount of time scouring the Internet for economic data and forecasts. But as a slightly loose[1] subscriber to the “Austrian School” of economics, I’m also on the look-out for historical information that corroborates Austrian theory regarding business cycles and money.

This morning I stumbled upon this jewel from UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. It is the transcript of a speech given by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the Coinage Act of July 23, 1965 – another day that lives in infamy, though the great majority of Americans doesn’t know why.

The Coinage Act of ’65 effectively brought a halt to the striking of 90% silver coins. From that time forward the U.S. has minted alloy coins for the 10, 25, and 50 cent pieces. Currency debasement is older than the Roman Empire. States find it increasingly difficult to pay for “public goods” – i.e., pay off the politically-connected and thus remain in power – with a finite money stock. In the old days corrupt kings would call in gold and silver coins, shave off some (or all) of the content, replace the missing precious metal with alloy, and re-circulate a devalued currency.

The American way is to print money out of thin air. The agent for this State-sanctioned counterfeiting is the Federal Reserve. The problem was one of getting real money – a naturally arising commodity used for indirect exchange – taken out of favor. The public had to be conned. Thus spake LBJ,

Now, all of you know these changes are necessary for a very simple reason--silver is a scarce material. Our uses of silver are growing as our population and our economy grows. The hard fact is that silver consumption is now more than double new silver production each year. So, in the face of this worldwide shortage of silver, and our rapidly growing need for coins, the only really prudent course was to reduce our dependence upon silver for making our coins.

The “rapidly growing need” included such wonderful projects as the “Great Society,” the Vietnam War, and endless corporate welfare programs. In a word, payola.

Johnson was at his brow-beating best (after all, the man started out as a public school teacher) when he preemptively chided the little remnant of the population that would wise up to the implications of the Coinage Act:

If anybody has any idea of hoarding our silver coins, let me say this. Treasury has a lot of silver on hand, and it can be, and it will be used to keep the price of silver in line with its value in our present silver coin. There will be no profit in holding them out of circulation for the value of their silver content.
This is where IM chatters would type, “LOL,” or “ROFL,” or more profane acronyms denoting incredulity.

Lest there be any confusion (the then “Commander-in-chief’s” words notwithstanding), the purchasing power of silver coins has remained remarkably stable relative to goods and services since – you guessed it – 1965. A silver quarter struck before the Beatles recorded “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” is worth the same amount of cash presently required to buy a loaf of premium grain bread, or about $3.25.

In other words, there has been no inflation in the prices of goods and services in terms of silver (or gold); general price levels rise and buying power erodes due to currency devaluation, with local oscillations attributable to changes in supply and demand. A loaf of bread (or two loaves of cheap white bread) should cost a typical household no more than around 25 cents in real money.

My dad voted for Goldwater.

[1] I’ve touched upon this before. In the main, I believe Austrian theory offers a thoroughly convincing explanation of economic phenomena. I diverge from those in the camp who tend toward what Kevin Carson calls “vulgar libertarianism.” Without a lengthy explanation, “vulgar libertarian” refers to supporters of massive corporations like Wal-Mart. I agree with the “Libertarian Left” that in a truly free market, void of tax advantages and subsidies, such monstrous entities could not exist (for the record, I don’t agree with the Libertarian Left on certain social issues).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sad, So Sad

I have to admit: this old wayfaring Baptist fell in love with the Episcopal church. I fell in love with her the way a man might fall for a beautiful woman – one that is beautiful on the outside but proves unfaithful...a heartbreaker.

With a broken heart I’ve watched from afar this week as the Episcopal church commits the greatest act of mass suicide since Jonestown. But my sorrow pales in comparison to that shared by those who grew up in the church, invested their lives in it, and sought to remain faithful Christians, first and foremost, within it. My prayers are with them especially. And in the midst of her demise, it is particularly poignant to see faithful men like these continue to declare the truth with gentle firmness.

I need to admit something else: there’s little comfort in watching her go down from a distance. Being involved with an Anglican splinter group has its advantages, but there are other sets of quirks and challenges, as well.

Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hillbillies were Hobbits

I have long suspected that the early settlers of Southern Appalachia desired nothing more than to live in a natural order. Certainly, their Cherokee neighbors were already doing so. The essay that follows explains what that means, and more. (~ed.)

Tales of Titans and Hobbits


Literature can exert a powerful influence on our ideological views.[1]

Ayn Rand, after all, was primarily a novelist. Many people were converted to liberalism (or at least some variety of it) after experiencing in person her unquestionable charisma and magnetism, but the significance of her novels, most notably Atlas Shrugged,[2] can hardly be overlooked.

Indeed, it is only having read that expressive story that many future libertarians — among them Walter Block[3] — once and for all denounced socialism along with all the physical and mental bondage which it ineluctably imposes upon people. Hence, it was a narrative — a novel or, if you want, a fairy tale — that had managed to shape and contextualize the readers' notion of such abstract matters as freedom, l'étatism, or egalitarianism.

Another novelist who also managed to gain an exceptionally wide circle of readers and admirers was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the author of a worldwide bestseller The Lord of the Rings.[4] Even though Tolkien's style of writing was much less obtrusive than Rand's — he never forced upon his readers any particular reading of his book, and he overtly disliked conscious and intentional allegories — the English novelist never denied that his work concerns something more than just elves or dwarves, or that it deals with certain ideas. As he wrote to Michael Straight, the editor of New Republic, The Lord of the Rings was meant to succeed first of all as an exciting and moving tale — but a tale addressed primarily to adults, involving something more than mere chase and escape, namely some reflection of the writer's own views and values.[5]

Since Tolkien considered himself a conservative anarchist,[6] it should come as no surprise that while trying to answer his publisher's questions regarding the symbolism hidden in his magnum opus, he suggested to "…make the Ring into an allegory of our own time… an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power."[7]

Therefore, even though Tolkien's saga is all too often interpreted as an apolitical "road novel" or "picaresque novel for children," The Lord of the Rings could very well be the source of unending inspiration for libertarians as a belletristic dramatization of Lord Acton's famous statement that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Both Rand and Tolkien, then, passionately tell their tales about freedom, but they resort to completely different aesthetics, and, in consequence, paint two entirely different pictures of the world, with different heroes and different challenges. Are those differences important? How do they affect the "moral" of the respective tales? Given that it is of utmost importance just what kind of story one tells, it is perhaps worthwhile to reflect upon the different world images depicted in Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings, comparing the characters of both narratives along with the predicaments they face, and asking the fundamental question, which of the two novels constitutes a better context, a better literary frame of reference for freedom and Hans-Hermann Hoppe's idea of natural order?[8]

The Titans

Atlas Shrugged is, shortly put, a story of a strike, although not an ordinary one.[9] Rand does not write about labor unions or working masses, but about titans whose irreplaceable work, like that of their Greek predecessor Atlas, keeps the world alive. Titans are big capitalists, owners of ironworks and mines, men of genius, people who are creative and in every respect outstanding. Such is also the main character of the novel, Dagny Taggart, the heiress to the huge railroad company Taggart Transcontinental, which she desperately strives to save against ever more impudent government attempts to lay hands on her fortune. The society in which the heroine lives is dull, envious, lazy, essentially quite helpless, and were it not for the handful of Atlases, it would have definitely plunged into despair.

Dagny loves what she does for a living. She is an extremely talented railroad executive, and directing the whole enterprise seems not to tire her at all. The real burden for her is not work itself, but the necessity — the legal obligation — to share its plentiful fruits with the rest of society — the ungrateful mob of losers. Initially, the situation, though harsh, seems bearable, mainly because the heroine carries on with all her everyday duties with the relieving thought in mind that she is not alone, that other great achievers feel and think similarly, and though they may be outnumbered, they constitute the real engine of the world.

Gradually, however, Dagny realizes that the very engine of which she considered herself a part has been abruptly turned off and the titans, one after another, seem to be disappearing. The kidnapper turns out to be John Galt — a mysterious, legendary hero, whose name elicits expressions of helplessness among the losers:

"How should I deal with it?" asks one frightfully mediocre worker.

"How should I know?" is the invariable, dull reply. "Who is John Galt?"

Galt used to be one of the titans, but greed, collectivist bias, and ingratitude from the society to which he had given so much in the past have induced him to go on strike — not to fight with the oppressive system, not even to try to change it, but simply to leave, taking others along. And so they go, one by one: the great composers, innovators, creators, directors, owners… As a result, the engine of the world stops, and the economy plunges into chaos, for when there is no one to prey upon, the society of insatiable vultures no longer knows what to do.

The Übermenschen find refuge in an extraordinary valley hidden somewhere in Colorado, where the dollar sign does not stand — as on the "other side" — for greed, bribery, and sneakiness, but instead symbolizes success, skillfulness, and creative powers. The one and only unforgivable sin there is altruism. So they live, far from the dying world, bound by a promise that never again will they let unproductive loafers gain from their work.

They await the end of history, the moment when

the creed of self-immolation has run, for once, its undisguised course — when men find no victims ready to obstruct the path of justice and to deflect the fall of retribution on themselves, when the preachers of self-sacrifice discover that those who are willing to practice it, have nothing to sacrifice, and those who have, are not willing any longer — when men see that neither their hearts nor their muscles can save them, but the mind they damned is not there to answer their screams for help… when they have no pretense of authority left, no remnant of law, no trace of morality, no hope, no food and no way to obtain it — when they collapse and the road is clear….[10]

Then the titans will once more lift the Earth — all the superior individuals will come back to rebuild the world.

The Hobbits

Tolkien's novel also ends with a theme of rebuilding the world, a promise of setting things straight, bringing back the right order of things. It begins, however, in an entirely different way: not on the platform of a huge railway station, nor in a big factory, nor in a beautiful palace. The Lord of the Rings begins in the Shire — more precisely in Hobbiton, a small village peopled by hobbits, unobtrusive, somewhat clumsy, little creatures, whose straightforward and rather friendly nature makes them very similar to humans.

One day a great magician, Gandalf the Grey, pays a visit to the village. He is concerned by the fact that one of the hobbits, a certain Mr. Bilbo Baggins, keeps there hidden a precious artifact — a mysterious ring. Forged many years ago by Sauron, the Lord of Darkness, the Ring of Power is one of many rings of power, the one, however, that controls all the others. It has apparently found its way to Hobbiton by mere chance, as Bilbo brought it with him from one his journeys, hoping to hide it there from the rest of the world, adoring its gleam and magnificence.

The ring would give Bilbo strength and vitality, unusual in his advanced age, but it would also make him dependent on the ring itself. Before he knew it, the old hobbit became a serf of the Ring of Power, never daring to part with it, he would always keep it in a pocket of his ornamental waistcoat. This state of affairs would have probably gone on for many long years had Gandalf not learned the mysterious history of the ring, and recognized its true dark nature. Gandalf understood that Sauron knew very well where to look for his long lost precious treasure, and would inevitably claim it.

The ring cannot, however, go back to its creator, since it would mean the destruction of the whole Middle-earth and slavery of all peoples inhabiting it — darkness would fall over the once wonderful world, covering the horizon with a veil of smoke. Unfortunately, that mighty source of power cannot simply be buried or hidden, since the ring itself tries to return to its master who surely will not spare strength or efforts to regain rule over the world.

Thus, the only way to save Middle-earth seems to be to destroy the damned ring. Easy as it may seem, the task is in fact extremely difficult, for being a magic artifact, it will not yield to ordinary flames or any smith's hammer — it can only be thrown into the fire of Mordor in the Cracks of Doom. First, however, somebody must take it there. This will not be easy, since the road is guarded by Sauron's soldiers, the ugly, ruthless orcs.

It might seem that only Gandalf himself or one of the great and noble knights of Middle-earth could undertake such a dangerous quest. Unfortunately, to the extent that the Ring of Power gives its bearer strength to rule the world, it also overcomes him. It is an entity whose nature is to control everyone and everything. Thus, if the ring were to be worn by Gandalf or any other of the great heroes, it would become a terrifying implement of destruction, since anyone who slips it on his finger stops being himself and becomes instead a mere servent to the ring.

Only someone so mediocre, so weak, inept, and created seemingly for the sole purpose of minding his own merry business like Frodo Baggins — Bilbo's heir — could, at least to some extent, resist the evil power. Not clearly knowing what awaits him, Frodo sets upon his mission accompanied by a few friends from the Shire along with the distinguished knights of other races: Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; two men, Aragorn and Boromir; and wise Gandalf himself.

Many times, the long journey puts Frodo's immunity to the test, showing that even such a moderate creature as himself cannot always resist the power of darkness. Once the ring eventually gets thrown into the abyss of Mordor, the sun rises again over Middle-earth, everything can be started anew, and the old world order is restored — without replacing the defeated power by a new, more sinister one.

How to Fight the System

These summaries might suggest that since the story told in The Lord of the Rings takes place in a fictitious world, while Atlas Shrugged describes a real-life situation, it is Rand's novel that does a better job of dramatizing the libertarian creed. Nevertheless, even though Tolkien creates his own world, different from the one we see around us each day, he meant the characters, the heroes of the war for Middle-earth, to be just as real as, say, the pygmies of the African jungle.[11]

Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli are all characters created for the purpose of storytelling, but this does not change the fact that they are exemplifications of definite truths, principles, and values — as are Rand's characters, John Galt and Dagny Taggart. It does not matter whether one fights to defend Hobbiton or Taggart Transcontinental. In their most profound, most significant message, the two novels essentially talk about the same things — about challenges that a man must face, about his moral responsibility for himself and for all that he loves, and about the captivating and destructive influence of power and coercion.

Moreover, both novels clearly denounce the so-called imperative of action, that is, the belief that a system can easily be changed from within. It is plainly described in Atlas Shrugged, where the main characters express their opposition to the wickedness of the world by simply running away from it, confirming with their deeds the famous dictum of Etienne de la Boétie: "Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed."[12]

Even though in The Lord of the Rings it is an active fight and not passive resistance that forms the central theme of the novel, the fight is fought outside the system. Gandalf and Galadriel, both of great powers, consciously reject the possibility of defeating Sauron with the ring — they know very well that it would turn them into tyrants themselves.[13] The Lord of Darkness can only be defeated by destroying that which constitutes the very essence of his might — the Ring of Power.

Those similarities do not imply that there are no differences between Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings. Quite to the contrary — differences exist and they are the very reason why one of the novels serves better as a contextualization of the idea of natural order. To see this, we shall turn to the dissimilar structure of worlds and characters in both novels.

In Atlas Shrugged, for example, it is hard not to notice that somebody drives the world, maintains the reality in order, and without him everything would plunge into chaos. Clearly, that mysterious entity is not the state apparatus — rightly described as a machinery of exploitation — but a group of exceptional individuals who have simply created civilization — radio, television, central heating, music, law and order, etc. Luckily, the Übermenschen are benevolent and have no evil intentions vis-à-vis ordinary people. They wish neither to exploit, rule, nor control the rest of the society, but rather to impose upon it their rational project of "enlightenment" — they want to make use of their genius and bring prosperity and comfort to all.

It is totally different in The Lord of the Rings, where there is no "great plan for the world"; Middle-earth is inhabited by many different races — elves, dwarves, hobbits, men, ents, etc. — who all live, albeit separately, in tolerance, sometimes even friendship, but as a rule not interfering with each other. There is no government, central or local,[14] no industrial revolution and no uniform vision of progress or future. Even in the face of a terrible war, it is extremely hard to create a coalition against Sauron.

The world in Tolkien's novel is simply divided, decentralized to the extreme; beautiful in the diversity of various races, peoples, languages and outlooks — that is why no such thing as a "plan for humanity" could ever arise there as something good. There are, however, millions of smaller plans — for living through a harsh winter, for cultivating one's garden, for drinking a pint of beer in a local inn — drafted by millions of distinct individuals. The only unified vision that appears in the book is Sauron's plan; and let us not forget that Sauron stands for "an incarnation of Evil."[15]

It is instructive to compare also the main characters of the two novels. In Atlas Shrugged they are exceptional and it is precisely because of that quality that they became characters of the novel. Each of the Atlases is unblemished, pure, proud. Every detail of their physiognomy speaks of genius and magnificence. The Übermenschen do not simply move: they make motions full of charm and elegance. They do not simply work: they craft, always with passion and enthusiasm. They never get tired, weary or bored with what they do; they have no families, no children, no obligations; they are frightfully rational; they live only for themselves and for their occupational passions. If they happen to be businessmen, they never own little family businesses; they run huge corporations, ironworks, mines, or railway companies. In Rand's novel there is no place for moderation and inconspicuousness. Only that which is huge and effective deserves praise and attention.

Completely different, more human-like, are Tolkien's characters. In fact, the whole novel — though told from the hobbit's perspective — has a profoundly anthropocentric dimension. There are men in The Lord of the Rings, to be sure, but it is the hobbits who resemble real humans the most — they are rather clumsy, neither exceptionally smart, stout, nor courageous, but good, sociable, faithful and generally cheerful. The most important characters in Tolkien's novel are actually anti-heroes — they try to stay away from the world of big politics; however, when fate throws them in its very middle, they act bravely and ultimately bring salvation.

What the author of The Lord of the Rings seems to be saying, then, is that it is not titans who support the earth, but hobbits; each and every one of us, therefore, can answer the call of greatness and novelty, even should he live in Hobbiton spending most of his time cultivating his garden, smoking a pipe, and drinking beer in the local pub.

Every one of us struggles daily with the Saurons of his life, and maybe it is precisely those little triumphs that make the world a better place. As for respect and praise, it is not the directors of big corporations who deserve it the most — since, by the very nature of things, they are much too close to the ring — but those who, using only their own modest resources, earn their living by running little shops, kiosks, and family businesses. In those places one can sometimes still find the real, healthy spirit of capitalism. No wonder, then, that the Eye of Mordor constantly looks in their direction.


Given the breadth and length of both novels, the comparison of Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings could go on much longer, revealing many new themes and interpretations. It seems, however, that even the few differences sketched above allow for a tentative answer to the questions raised in the introduction. As much as Ayn Rand's novel, with its strictly modernist message, could have been at some point in the past an effective remedy against the plagues of socialism and collectivism, the world described in it does not fit today's reality and does not help in introducing the idea of natural order. Today, it is no longer necessary to protect big business from people. On the contrary, it is people who need protection from big business, which now goes hand in hand with Leviathan in trying to create a homogenous and completely atomized society.

The Lord of the Rings shows not only the great danger associated with all attempts to defeat evil power by power, but it also teaches that collectives do not really exist, that every one of us is the hero of his own individual story, and that law and order can easily exist without the state. Despite its egoistic message, Atlas Shrugged is full of imperatives to act, to fight, to bring salvation. Rand's characters suffer not only because the state reaches into their wallets, but because the society rejected their rational, "enlightened" vision of what is good and right.

Tolkien, on the other hand, disliked such imperatives. He hated the outlook that if something can be done, it has to be done, and once even admitted that the greatest deeds of mind and spirit are born in abnegation.[16] That is most likely the reason his characters do not look for great challenges, nor wish to change the world, and instead live quietly, fulfilling Voltaire's dictum Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

This is what makes The Lord of the Rings a much better means for conceptualizing the ideas of freedom than Atlas Shrugged. Reading Tolkien helps realize that, even after the "end of history," the world and society can move in the direction of Merry Old England rather than a soulless homogenized mass of atoms. Moreover, The Lord of the Rings conveys an extremely important and optimistic message, namely that a plurality of many different cultures, languages, societies and visions, all existing together, yet separate and independent of each other, is still viable — not in a democratic regime, but in the new world of Hoppean natural order.

Juliusz Jablecki is summer fellow at the Mises Institute, and works with the Mises Institute, Poland. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.


[1] This fact has been brilliantly captured by Jerome Tuccille who entitled his book on the birth and evolution of the libertarian movement It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, Fox and Wilkes, 1997.

[2] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Penguin Books, London, 1992.

[3] See Walter Block, "On Autobiography."

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2005.

[5] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter ed., HarperCollins, London 2006, p. 233.

[6] He wrote: "My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to »unconstitutional« Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word state (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!"; see The Letters…, p. 63.

[7] The Letters…, p. 121.

[8] For a detailed, socio-economic treatment of the idea of natural order see e.g. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed, Transaction Publishers, Rutgers, NJ, 2001.

[9] Indeed, "The Strike" was meant to be the title of the novel; see Leonard Peikoff's introduction to the cited edition of the book.

[10] Atlas Shrugged, p. 686–687.

[11] See The Letters…, p. 233.

[12] Etienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (PDF), p. 48.

[13] Thus, Gandalf cries: "No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused." See The Lord…, p. 61.

[14] See The Lord…., p. 9–10; The Letters…, p. 272.

[15] The Letters…, pp. 151, 154.

[16] The Letters…, p. 246.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

No More “New Perspective” (for me, anyway)

On the theological front, I have been reading (and listening to podcasts of) a relatively young but brilliant British scholar named Simon Gathercole, a fellow at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. Gathercole takes a modified traditional reformed position toward the “New Perspective on Paul,” the latter being an insight into the problem of justification in Paul’s writings, based on work in the ‘70s by E.P. Sanders and popularized of late by N.T. Wright. Broadly speaking, the New Perspective says that justification is about “getting in” and, more precisely, “staying in” the covenant people of God. “Boundary markers” like Sabbath observance, circumcision and kosher dining are, in the age of the indwelling Holy Spirit, no longer necessary to distinguish the family of God.

Gathercole agrees with that statement so far as it goes; but he criticizes the baggage that tends to accompany the New Perspective: a downplaying of the severity of personal sin, a muddying of the importance of the atonement, and a slide toward universalism, or what he more specifically designates as “non-conversionism,” i.e., the gospel being not so much about converting lost souls to the sin-bearing Redeemer as inclusion of people in God’s great big happy family.

To get a sense of the issues involved, one can listen to a slightly meandering but nonetheless fascinating discussion with Gathercole and his colleague, biblical textual scholar Peter J. Williams, here (at the time of the interview both men were teaching at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland; both are now at Cambridge).

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Just Say No to State-worship

A pair of challenging essays, apropos a weekend when professing followers of Jesus Christ will likely be summoned to render glory to the State. From a Catholic perspective, Jeffrey Tucker; from a fundamentalist, dispensationalist perspective, Laurence Vance.

May we distinguish patriotism from nationalism, and our neighbors from the state-corporate system.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


That sound.

Sam and Josh don’t know it, but that sound they make started as a howl atop Black Balsam Knob. It ran down both sides, descending along Greasy Creek and the Middle Prong through the wilderness past Cold Mountain, running into the Big Pigeon and knifing its way through the gaps into Tennessee till it hit the French Broad, then ran downhill past Josh’s people in Maryville, past the inundated bones of Old Hop, past Sam’s people in Benton. Then Sam and Josh picked it up, brought it back across the ridge and howled it from a stage, releasing it into the atmosphere on an evening when the clouds hang like saturated rags above Asheville.

There are more Subaru’s per capita in Asheville than anywhere, and more self-described pagans per square block.

St. Lawrence’s Basilica is baroque to a fault. Fine frescoes in the apse converge on a crucifix that looks like something hastily made in Monterey; dust-covered and bronze as Moses’ serpent. Off to the left, in the shrine dedicated to Mary, a half-empty bottle of Crystal Geyser spring water – bottled in Benton – was left at the Virgin’s unshod feet.

A hot cup of spiced chai smells like St. Mary’s Church. The wiry reader smolders like flax while the tall, gaunt 80-something priest lifts his draped arms like an unbroken reed. There are four of us besides for a Friday night, reminded that Boniface was an 8th century Billy Graham.

Out the glazed, gothic window, in the failing sun the catbird sings a song he caught on the ridge some time ago.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Threshing Floor

Turning aside from theories about society, government, and the State, to more excellent things; this past Sunday was Pentecost for Western Christians. The pastor at the AMiA church we attend, Kyle Wallace, gave an exceptionally thought-provoking sermon.

He extended the primary text (Acts 2:1-13) to include elements of Peter’s sermon (vv. 16-21, quoting Joel the prophet) and drew an interesting connection with John the Baptist’s words, recorded in Matthew 3:11-12:

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Pentecost was the Jewish feast of celebration for the wheat harvest. On the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in Jerusalem, evidenced by their speaking in tongues and proclaiming God’s mighty works in the languages of people gathered from distant lands. We typically understand this event to be the “birthday” of the church, setting the stage for the inclusion of Gentile believers in God’s household of faith.

The point Kyle added to this understanding was the element of judgment. He touched upon the fact that, for centuries, Christians have speculated on whether they were living in the “last days.” Citing other New Testament texts (particularly Hebrews 1:2 and 1 John 2:18) he asserted that we are indeed in the last days, and have been so since the day of Pentecost. As the spirit of Anti-Christ has gone out into the world, so has the Holy Spirit, convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment.

The people assembled in Jerusalem that Pentecost were faced with a decision. Those who believed on Jesus were gathered like wheat for the barn. Those who resisted were separated as chaff prepared for fire.

The threshing floor has been swept clean continually down to our time.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tom Paine, Indians, & Tom Jefferson

As far back as one can follow the run of civilization, it presents two fundamentally different types of political organization. This difference is not one of degree, but of kind. It does not do to take the one type as merely marking a lower order of civilization and the other a higher; they are commonly so taken, but erroneously. Still less does it do to classify both as species of the same genus – to classify both under the generic name of “government,” though this also, until very lately, has been done, and has always led to confusion and misunderstanding.

A good understanding of this error and its effects is supplied by Thomas Paine. At the outset of his pamphlet called Common Sense, Paine draws a distinction between society and government. While society in any state is a blessing, he says, “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” In another place, he speaks of government as “a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” He proceeds then to show how and why government comes into being. Its origin is in the common understanding and common agreement of society; and “the design and end of government,” he says, is “freedom and security.” Teleologically, government implements the common desire of society, first, for freedom, and second, for security. Beyond this it does not go; it contemplates no positive intervention upon the individual, but only a negative intervention...

So far, Paine is sound as he is simple. He goes on, however, to attack the British political organization in terms that are logically inconclusive. There should be no complaint of this, for he was writing as a pamphleteer, a special pleader with an ad captandum argument to make, and as everyone knows, he did it most successfully. Nevertheless, the point remains that when he talks about the British system he is talking about a type of political organization essentially different from the type that he has just been describing; different in origin, in intention, in primary function, in the order of interest that it reflects. It did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation. Its intention, far from contemplating “freedom and security,” contemplated nothing of the kind. It contemplated primarily the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another, and it concerned itself with only so much freedom and security as was consistent with this primary intention; and this was, in fact, very little. Its primary function or exercise was not by way of Paine’s purely negative interventions upon the individual, but by way of innumerable and most onerous positive interventions, all of which were for the purpose of maintaining the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a property-less dependent class. The order of interest that it reflected was not social, but purely anti-social; and those who administered it, judged by the common standard of ethics, or even the common standard of law as applied to private persons, were indistinguishable from a professional-criminal class. Clearly, then, we have two distinct types of political organization to take into account; and clearly, too, when their origins are considered, it is impossible to make out that the one is a mere perversion of the other.

Therefore when we include both types under a general term like government, we get into logical difficulties; difficulties of which most writers on the subject have been more or less vaguely aware, but which, until within the last half-century, none of them has tried to resolve.

Mr. Jefferson, for example, remarked that the hunting tribes of Indians, with which he had a good deal to do in his early days, had a highly organized and admirable social order, but were “without government.” Commenting on this, he wrote Madison that “it is a problem not clear in my mind that [this] condition is not the best,” but he suspected that it was “inconsistent with any great degree of population.” Schoolcraft observes that the Chippewas, though living in a highly organized social order, had no “regular” government. Herbert Spencer, speaking of the Bechuanas, Araucanians and Koranna Hottentots, says they have no “definite” government; while Parkman, in his introduction to The Conspiracy of Pontiac, reports the same phenomenon, and is frankly puzzled by its apparent anomalies.

Paine’s theory of government agrees exactly with the theory set forth by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The doctrine of natural rights, which is explicit in the Declaration, is implicit in Common Sense; and Paine’s view of the “design and end of government” is precisely the Declaration’s view, that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”; and further, Paine’s view of the origin of government is that it “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.” Now, if we apply Paine’s formulas or the Declaration’s formulas, it is abundantly clear that the Virginian Indians had government; Mr. Jefferson’s own observations show that they had it. Their political organization, simple as it was, answered its purpose. Their code-apparatus sufficed for assuring freedom and security to the individual, and for dealing with such trespasses as in that state of society the individual might encounter – fraud, theft, assault, adultery, murder. The same is clearly true of the various peoples cited by Parkman, Schoolcraft and Spencer. Assuredly, if the language of the Declaration amounts to anything, all these peoples had government; and all these reporters make it appear as a government quite competent to its purpose.

Therefore when Mr. Jefferson says his Indians were “without government,” he must be taken to mean that they did not have a type of government like the one he knew... Th[eir] type of government, nevertheless, has always existed and still exists, answering perfectly to Paine’s formulas and the Declaration’s formulas; though it is a type which we also, most of us, have seldom had the chance to observe. It may not be put down as the mark of an inferior race, for institutional simplicity is in itself by no means a mark of backwardness or inferiority; and it has been sufficiently shown that in certain essential respects the peoples who have this type of government are, by comparison, in a position to say a good deal for themselves on the score of a civilized character. Mr. Jefferson’s own testimony on this point is worth notice, and so is Parkman’s. This type, however, even though documented by the Declaration, is fundamentally so different from the type that has always prevailed in history, and is still prevailing in the world at the moment, that for the sake of clearness the two types should be set apart by name, as they are by nature. They are so different in theory that drawing a sharp distinction between them is now probably the most important duty that civilization owes to its own safety. Hence it is by no means either an arbitrary or academic proceeding to give the one type the name of government, and to call the second type simply the State.


One mind, indeed, came within reaching distance of the fundamentals of the matter, not by employing the historical method, but by a homespun kind of reasoning, aided by a sound and sensitive instinct. The common view of Mr. Jefferson as a doctrinaire believer in the stark principle of “states’ rights” is most incompetent and misleading. He believed in states’ rights, assuredly, but he went much farther; states’ rights were only an incident in his general system of political organization. He believed that the ultimate political unit, the repository and source of political authority and initiative, should be the smallest unit; not the federal unit, state unit or county unit, but the township, or, as he called it, the “ward.” The township, and the township only, should determine the delegation of power upwards to the county, the state, and the federal units. His system of extreme decentralization is interesting and perhaps worth a moment’s examination, because if the idea of the State is ever displaced by the idea of government, it seems probable that the practical expression of this idea would come out very nearly in that form.

There is probably no need to say that the consideration of such a displacement involves a long look ahead, and over a field of view that is cluttered with the debris of a most discouraging number, not of nations alone, but of whole civilizations. Nevertheless it is interesting to remind ourselves that more than a hundred and fifty years ago, one American succeeded in getting below the surface of things, and that he probably to some degree anticipated the judgment of an immeasurably distant future.

Nock, Our Enemy, The State

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Enemy Within

Th[e] process – the conversion of social power into State power – has not been carried as far here as it has elsewhere; as it has in Russia, Italy or Germany, for example. Two things, however, are to be observed. First, that it has gone a long way, at a rate of progress which has of late been greatly accelerated. What has chiefly differentiated its progress here from its progress in other countries is its unspectacular character. Mr. Jefferson wrote in 1823 that there was no danger he dreaded so much as “the consolidation [i.e., centralization] of our government by the noiseless and therefore unalarming instrumentality of the Supreme Court.” These words characterize every advance that we have made in State aggrandizement. Each one has been noiseless and therefore unalarming, especially to a people notoriously preoccupied, inattentive and incurious... Under covers of a nation-wide, State-managed mobilization of inane buffoonery and aimless commotion, it took place in so unspectacular a way that its true nature escaped notice, and even now is not generally understood. The method of consolidating the ensuing regime, moreover, was also noiseless and unalarming; it was merely the prosaic and unspectacular “higgling of the market,” to which a long and uniform political experience had accustomed us…

The second thing to be observed is that certain formulas, certain arrangements of words, stand as an obstacle in the way of our perceiving how far the conversion of social power into State power has actually gone. The force of phrase and name distorts the identification of our own actual acceptances and acquiescences. We are accustomed to the rehearsal of certain poetic litanies, and provided their cadence be kept entire, we are indifferent to their correspondence with truth and fact. When Hegel’s doctrine of the State, for example, is restated in terms by Hitler and Mussolini, it is distinctly offensive to us, and we congratulate ourselves on our freedom from the “yoke of a dictator’s tyranny.” No American politician would dream of breaking in on our routine of litanies with anything of the kind. We may imagine, for example, the shock to popular sentiment that would ensue upon Mr. Roosevelt’s declaring publicly that “the State embraces everything, and nothing has value outside the State. The State creates right.” Yet an American politician, as long as he does not formulate that doctrine in set terms, may go further with it in a practical way than Mussolini has gone, and without trouble or question. Suppose Mr. Roosevelt should defend his regime by publicly reasserting Hegel’s dictum that “the State alone possesses rights, because it is the strongest.” One can hardly imagine that our public would get that down without a great deal of retching. Yet how far, really, is that doctrine alien to our public’s actual acquiescences? Surely not far.

The point is that in respect of the relation between the theory and the actual practice of public affairs, the American is the most unphilosophical of beings. The rationalization of conduct in general is most repugnant to him; he prefers to emotionalize it. He is indifferent to the theory of things, so long as he may rehearse his formulas; and so long as he can listen to the patter of his litanies, no practical inconsistency disturbs him – indeed, he gives no evidence of even recognizing it as an inconsistency.

The ablest and most acute observer among the many who came from Europe to look us over in the early part of the last century was the one who is for some reason the most neglected, notwithstanding that in our present circumstances, especially, he is worth more to us than all the de Tocquevilles, Bryces, Trollopes and Chateaubriands put together. This was the noted St.-Simonien and political economist, Michel Chevalier. Professor Chinard, in his admirable biographical study of John Adams, has called attention to Chevalier’s observation that the American people have “the morale of an army on the march.” The more one thinks of this, the more clearly one sees how little there is in what our publicists are fond of calling “the American psychology” that it does not exactly account for; and it exactly accounts for the trait we are considering.

An army on the march has no philosophy; it views itself as a creature of the moment. It does not rationalize conduct except in terms of an immediate end. As Tennyson observed, there is a pretty strict official understanding against its doing so; “theirs not to reason why.” Emotionalizing conduct is another matter, and the more of it the better; it is encouraged by a whole elaborate paraphernalia of showy etiquette, flags, music, uniforms, decorations, and the careful cultivation of a very special sort of comradery. In every relation to “the reason of the thing,” however – in the ability and eagerness, as Plato puts it, “to see things as they are” – the mentality of an
army on the march is merely so much delayed adolescence; it remains persistently, incorrigibly and notoriously infantile. Past generations of Americans, as Martin Chuzzlewit left record, erected this infantilism into a distinguishing virtue, and they took great pride in it as the mark of a chosen people, destined to live forever amidst the glory of their own unparalleled achievements... An envious and presumably dissolute Frenchman may say what he likes about the morale of an army on the march, but the fact remains that it has brought us where we are, and has got us what we have. Look at a continent subdued, see the spread of our industry and commerce, our railways, newspapers, finance companies, schools, colleges, what you will! Well, if all this has been done without a philosophy, if we have grown to this unrivalled greatness without any attention to the theory of things, does it not show that philosophy and the theory of things are all moonshine, and not worth a practical people’s consideration? The morale of an army on the march is good enough for us, and we are proud of it. The present generation does not speak in quite this tone of robust certitude. It seems, if anything, rather less openly contemptuous of philosophy; one even sees some signs of a suspicion that in our present circumstances the theory of things might be worth looking into, and it is especially towards the theory of sovereignty and rulership that this new attitude of hospitality appears to be developing. The condition of public affairs in all countries, notably in our own, has done more than bring under review the mere current practice of politics, the character and quality of representative politicians, and the relative merits of this-or- that form or mode of government. It has served to suggest attention to the one institution whereof all these forms or modes are but the several, and, from the theoretical point of view, indifferent, manifestations. It suggests that finality does not lie with consideration of species, but of genus; it does not lie with consideration of the characteristic marks that differentiate the republican State, monocratic State, constitutional, collectivist, totalitarian, Hitlerian, Bolshevist, what you will. It lies with consideration of the State itself...

It appears to me that with the depletion of social power going on at the rate it is, the State-citizen should look very closely into the essential nature of the institution that is bringing it about. He should ask himself whether he has a theory of the State, and if so, whether he can assure himself that history supports it. He will not find this a matter that can be settled off-hand; it needs a good deal of investigation, and a stiff exercise of reflective thought. He should ask, in the first place, how the State originated, and why; it must have come about somehow, and for some purpose. This seems an extremely easy question to answer, but he will not find it so. Then he should ask what it is that history exhibits continuously as the State’s primary function. Then, whether he finds that “the State” and “government” are strictly synonymous terms; he uses them as such, but are they? Are there any invariable characteristic marks that differentiate the institution of government from the institution of the State? Then finally he should decide whether, by the testimony of history, the State is to be regarded as, in essence, a social or an anti-social institution?

from Our Enemy, The State (1935) by Albert Jay Nock

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

We’re All Rush Fans Now (the band, not the windbag)

You know the First World is in serious trouble when an impeccable motor company like Honda produces a crappy car like the Insight. Trying to stay ahead of the politically-correct curve, Honda created the Insight in anticipation of “greener” days to come under Eurobama socialism. Honda wants to stay in business, and it knows that more stringent laws and regulations on vehicle design and emissions are coming forthwith.

Trust me, the economy will stabilize. We’ll all (including the Third World) be the poorer for it. And we’ll drive around (if we get to drive at all) in paper-thin peddle-cars that struggle to reach 50 mph. I might be forced to take the light rail after all.

Back in college I was an avid fan of Rush, the Canadian progressive rock trio. The early ‘80s were what I dubbed Rush’s “middle period,” i.e. when their musical style transitioned from long, rambling epics like “Xanadu” to more compact but no less adventurous songs. On Permanent Waves drummer Neil Peart’s Objectivist philosophy came into clear view, especially in the preachy “Freewill.” The follow-up album, Moving Pictures, presented Randian themes in more subtle, metaphorical images. “Tom Sawyer” finds in the spirit of a restless teenager the embodiment of individual anarchism. “Witch Hunt (Fear, Part II)” alludes to ecclesiastical abuse but is open-ended enough to suggest political tyranny as well. But the crown-jewel of Moving Pictures is “Red Barchetta,” possibly the best song in the entire Rush repertoire.

My uncle has a country place
That no one knows about
He says it used to be a farm
Before the Motor Law
And on Sundays I elude the eyes
And hop the Turbine Freight
To far outside the Wire
Where my white-haired uncle waits
“Red Barchetta” tells the story of a youth who escapes to the countryside home of an uncle who keeps a restored, gasoline-powered Barchetta in a barn. He describes stripping away the protective covering and taking the sports car for an exhilarating spin through the country – until he meets up with the police in the form of a “gleaming alloy air-car, two lanes wide.” A one-lane bridge allows the young man to escape and return safely to his uncle’s home. Musically, this song pushes the pistons with every note.

The illegality of the event heightens the story’s tension and the euphoria of freedom. Had the boy been without the Barchetta’s horsepower he would no doubt have met with some grim fate at the hands of the State. The repressive circumstances of the story are set in the first verse, quoted above. “No one knows” about the uncle’s hidden place. That it “used to be a farm, before the Motor Law,” suggests the State outlawed both rural property use and certain forms of motor vehicle transport – methods of constraining and controlling populations. Eluding “the eyes,” the youth has to hobo as a means of getting beyond the State’s borders.

Clearly, the protagonist of this song lives in a totalitarian State, where freedom of movement and method of movement are restricted.

Can’t happen here? Test drive an Insight.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Look Ma, I’m a Leftist

In addition to Mother’s Day, today (May 10) is Confederate Memorial Day in North Carolina. For those who care, it is a day to commemorate a “lost cause” – one that most Americans associate with the worst kind of proto-fascist racism. The truth of the matter is not so easily defined. The white Anglo-Scots Southerners that comprised the majority of the Confederate army (beyond the Native Americans, Germans, Jews, Hispanics, Asians, and not a few African Americans scattered among the ranks) were of the non-slaveholding middling and lower classes. The misnamed “Civil War” was less to them about slavery than simply being left alone.

At least for a short time those Southerners fought for what Joseph Stromberg saw as the makings of a radical, libertarian movement. Now, on the heels of Jeff Riggenbach’s new book on revisionist American history, we may say the rank-and-file Southern soldier was a downright leftist, a true son of the Whiskey Rebellion, whose motivation for the cause became muddled once he wised up to the true nature of the conservative planter hegemony and dictatorial Confederate central government in Richmond. One need only to read Sam R. Watkins’ first-hand account of the war to understand why the spirit of the Southern soldier dissipated with the realities of Confederate politics. The Johnny Rebs who deserted and walked home did so because the power structure of their leadership was largely inimical to their interests.

But the pivotal fifth chapter of Riggenbach’s book has a wider scope than the War for Total Government Control (1861-65). Beginning with Jefferson and Hamilton, Riggenbach traces through the pens of revisionist historians the distinction between the liberal republicanism of the Jeffersonians and the state-capitalist conservatism of Hamilton & co. From Lincoln’s day on the Federalist-Whig-Republican branch won out, and the Big Government-Big Business-Big Banking axis has sold a collectivist corporate state to Americans ever since.

Citing Murray Boochkin, Riggenbach shows how the conventional political appellations of “left” and “right” are turned on their heads:

[A] brief look at the history of the relevant political terms – Left and Right, liberal and conservative – will persuade us that libertarianism has absolutely nothing in common with anything on the Right. For it is as the anarchist Murray Bookchin said back in 1978: “People who resist authority, who defend the rights of the individual, who try in a period of increasing totalitarianism and centralization to reclaim these rights – this is the true left in the United States. Whether they are anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, or libertarians who believe in free enterprise, I regard theirs as the real legacy of the left […].” And what about the socialists, the Maoists and Trotskyites, and the liberals of the Democratic party? Bookchin was asked. What about the people most Americans regarded as “the Left”? Those people, Bookchin replied, were “going toward authoritarianism, toward totalitarianism.” They were “becoming the real right in the United States.”

In other words, one who believes in unhindered free markets and individual rights is really on the left side of the political spectrum. Those who favor government intervention in social and economic matters (thus considering themselves flaming liberals) turn out to be supporters of conservatism – unwittingly preserving the statist status quo that under different guises has dominated public affairs in this country for decades.

So, all the years I considered myself “paleoconservative” I had it backwards.

The GOP is the conservative party in American politics, the party that since Lincoln (and Henry Clay and Alexander Hamilton before him) has stood for mercantilism, welfare statism, and war. Libertarians are not conservatives; they are not on the Right. They are on the Left, the last remnant of the original liberals.

And lest we forget that Barack Obama’s #1 campaign contributor was Goldman Sachs,

Though some true liberals remain in the Democratic Party of today, almost all of them have made the error of pursuing liberal goals by conservative means. And the majority in the party has been New Deal liberal – false liberal, conservative in liberal’s clothing – since the 1930s. In effect, the United States is now governed by one or the other of two conservative parties.

Better sit down, Ma. Your boy is a liberal and a leftist.