Imagine a new country suddenly emerging somewhere in the world, a country based on America’s old Constitution and nothing more. This new country has no taxes, a strong military, a free and open press, and a limited government.
Would you pack your bags? Let’s head out for the Atlantis of Atlas Shrugged, or Sarah Hoyt’s Eden colony in Darkship Thieves, or Heinlein’s lunar base in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. We’d miss our old home and feel sorrow over leaving our old country, but to be free of the increasing weight of totalitarian government? Color me gone, and my family too. We did it once, generations ago, when we got on a boat and headed to America. We could do it again.
This is why Mexico is a failed state. Rebels who object to a government unwilling to preserve individual liberty and protect private property have an Atlantis shimmering and beckoning on the horizon. They’ve packed their bags and moved here, some legally and some illegally. Some have died in the deserts of the American Southwest, murdered by coyotes or succumbing to thirst, willing to die to gain freedom.
Left behind are the people who either engage in corruption themselves or have no energy to fight it. Consider Michoacan, Mexico. Almost half the state’s population lives in the United States. Those left behind endure passively as corrupt government officials make deals with drug cartels and refuse to protect people’s safety or private property. Their rebel for liberty, their Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin, isn’t around. He’s moved to America.
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory in 1862 of a small, ill-equipped Mexican force over the powerful French army at the Battle of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. It took another five years before Mexico gained independence, but the 5th of May is celebrated as the symbol of Mexican freedom. Today’s rebels should fight to free Mexico and turn her back into a vibrant and wonderful country, but I can understand how the lure of freedom in their neighbor to the North is too much.
Because if you had a free country to emigrate to, would you stick around here and fight it out, or would you pack your bags?
On Tax Day, I dared to wonder what happiness I might pursue with the money I earn but never see. I asked readers to join me in the exercise and imagine what they might do with the money they lost to taxes last year. Reader Mike Mahoney added this insightful comment:
I would probably wind up spending it on protection, roads, litigation services. If one looks at tax receipts and the portion of the budget that is enumerated as a power to do things in the constitution you’ll note a similarity. The rest is all done on borrowed money. So, if I didn’t pay taxes I would still pay.
Mike lands a fair point. Government certainly provides a value. In the absence of particular government services, we would need to pursue alternatives, thus incurring expense.
Of course, in that case, we could choose to pay as we saw fit, and would benefit from the cost and quality controls of the market. Whether we would pay as much for the same services under a private model is an open question. (I think it safe to bet we’d pay significantly less.) However, we know the percentage of our income spent on such services would decrease as we earned more, instead of increasing as it does today. Market-driven prices are rarely progressive.
You don’t pay more for groceries or fuel just because you earn more. So why should you pay more for the services provided by government, particularly if you prove less likely to use them?
An unspoken assumption which may inform Mike’s comment is that a world without taxes means anarchy. But that’s not necessarily the case. Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute here briefly explains how government could raise revenue without coercive taxation:
Imagine the effect such an arrangement would have upon our incentives to produce and improve the lives of ourselves and others through trade. The sky would be the limit.
Here, Ayn Rand Institute executive director Yaron Brook addresses the campaign against income inequality. What are the philosophical roots of this concern?
By now you may have caught the LIBRE Initiative report of President Obama telling a town hall audience to consider cutting personal expenses to afford health insurance under the [Un]affordable Care Act. Here’s the quote:
[Obama] responded to a question received via email, from a consumer who makes $36,000 per year and cannot find insurance for a family of three for less than $315 per month. The President responded that “if you looked at their cable bill, their telephone, their cell phone bill… it may turn out that, it’s just they haven’t prioritized health care.” He added that if a family member gets sick, the father “will wish he had paid that $300 a month.”
Imagine a Republican politician saying the same thing. The leftist media would go apoplectic.
While that may appear to be a partisan double standard, the truth has more to do with ideology than parties. A Republican telling people to prioritize healthcare expenses over their cable or cell phone would likely do so in a free-market context where such priorities would serve the consumer’s individual interest. Obama, by contrast, asks people to sacrifice for the sake of others.
Obamacare depends upon its mandated enrollments to fund its mandated benefits, a process designed to redistribute wealth. Since paying for others is considered morally superior to paying for yourself in Obama’s worldview, he advises cancelling your cable or cell phone to pay for Obamacare. A Republican offering the same advice in a free-market context would be castigated not primarily for the notion of prioritization, but for the notion of self-reliance. Prioritizing to benefit yourself — bad. Prioritizing to benefit others — good.
The philosophical underpinning of Obama’s comment is altruism, the idea that you exist for the sake of others. The countervailing idea, that you exist for your own sake, is egoism. Obama gets away with his comment not because he’s a Democrat so much as because our culture embraces altruism and bristles at egoism.
Critics of the president would do well to focus on that point rather then the “audacity” of suggesting families might need to prioritize one expense over another. Indeed, families will always need to prioritize one expense over another. That’s part of being an adult in the real world. An alternative to Obamacare should not promise a world without prioritization, but a world where the priorities which individuals choose redound to their own benefit.
What would you do, as the owner of a company, if the manager you hired to run it rebuked your desire for the highest return on investment? Imagine that you approach your manager with concerns about his performance, and he tells you to stop worrying so much about profit.
Apple CEO Tim Cook did precisely that in a meeting with stockholders at the company’s Cupertino headquarters. Mashable reports on the confrontation with a group of stockholders objecting to Cook’s wasteful spending on environmental initiatives:
“We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive,” the CEO said:
We do things because they are right and just and that is who we are. That’s who we are as a company. I don’t…when I think about human rights, I don’t think about an ROI. When I think about making our products accessible for the people that can’t see or to help a kid with autism, I don’t think about a bloody ROI, and by the same token, I don’t think about helping our environment from an ROI point of view.
Anyone who had a problem with that approach? They should sell their Apple shares. “If you only want me to make things, make decisions that have a clear ROI, then you should get out of the stock,” Cook said to applause.
Emphasis should be placed on that applause. Stockholders went on to vote down a proposal to halt environmental efforts which hurt the company’s bottom line. In other words, stockholders voted against making money.
The episode evokes comparisons to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and the character of James Taggart, heir to a railroad company who squanders his inherited wealth on altruistic efforts which ruin both his company and the national economy. Like Cook, Taggart believes business should be motivated by more than profit. Like Cook, Taggart believes business holds some responsibility to help people.
There was a time, not too many years ago, when I was up on all the latest games on any given platform. Nowadays, with a wife, two young sons, and several other responsibilities — not so much.
I never even tried the most recent smartphone craze, something called Flappy Bird. Now, I may never get the chance. IGN reports:
The creator of Flappy Bird… pulled the game from the iOS App Store and Google Play because it’s become an “addictive product”.
In his first interview since he followed through on his threat to remove the game, 29-year-old Dong Nguyen told Forbes that he has no plans to bring it back.
“Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed,” he said. “But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”
Ultimately, it was guilt that motivated his decision to pull the game. “My life has not been as comfortable as I was before,” he explained. “I couldn’t sleep. I don’t think it’s a mistake. I have thought it through.”
Thus Nguyen disposes of his intellectual property in a manner that would make John Galt proud. We can argue whether Flappy Bird was actually addictive or whether it caused real harm. Regardless, though many may enjoy the game Nguyen created, as its owner he retains sole discretion as to whether it should remain available.
The decision to yank a smartphone game from the market may not prove controversial. However, similar decisions made upon the same principle of ownership generate controversy all the time. The champions of antitrust law and consumer protection, along with critics of intellectual property, adhere religiously to that famous Vulcan maxim: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
Think of all the smartphone users like me who will never get the opportunity to play Flappy Bird. Who’s looking out for us? Who does Nguyen think he is, robbing us of the fun we never knew we could have?
Of course, it was never ours to have in the first place. We played no role in its creation, and thus hold no claim upon its use. Wasn’t there another flappy bird, The Little Red Hen, who taught us this long ago?
I stand as guilty as the next guy of using the words “conservative” and “libertarian” interchangeably. Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of either term. When used, they conjure up whatever baggage a given mind associates with them, rather than what was intended. In the realm of politics, these terms get mushed together in an effort to rally coalition. Whatever a conservative and a libertarian are respectively, it would seem there aren’t enough of either for each to work alone.
That said, certain issues bring to the fore fundamental differences which exist between conservatives and libertarians. In the wake of Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana, drug prohibition gains fresh prominence as one such issue.
Prolific conservative author, editor, and publisher John Hawkins, who also contributes to PJ Media, provides fodder for discerning those differences in a recent piece at Townhall. “5 Reasons Marijuana Should Remain Illegal” lays out arguments which fall into three categories distinguishing conservatives from libertarians.
Understanding these differences requires some working definitions. Broadly speaking, a conservative seeks to maintain existing institutions and uphold or restore traditions. A libertarian prioritizes individual rights above all else, even at the expense of institutions and traditions. One can be a “conservative-libertarian” by supporting an institution like the family or the church without condoning the use of force to that end. The philosophical line of demarcation separates collectivism from individualism. With that said, let’s explore 3 ways marijuana sorts conservatives from libertarians.
This will come across sanctimonious, like I’m trying to flaunt how good of a person I am. So let me start by offering the assurance that I prove no more courteous than anyone else, and may even be a bit below average. I use an example of my own courtesy because I remain well-informed as to its motivation.
I went to the gas station the other day to pick up a couple of snacks which I should not be eating. I was in no hurry. It was one of those meandering stops where you spend more time than you really need applying more thought than is rationally due to whether you should experiment with a new flavor of Combos.
When I finally completed my selection, I made my way to the register, where I stood in line behind one other person. A women rushed in from the arctic weather (uncharacteristically cold for this time of year, even in Minnesota) clasping onto a ten dollar bill and signaling without any sense of entitlement that she was in a hurry.
I stood next to be served and could have taken that privilege without objection. But I made the decision to yield my place in line to her. She paid her ten dollars for pump four and went on her way, delaying me mere seconds as opposed to the minute or so I may have delayed her.
As I left, seven layer dip tortilla Combos in hand, I pondered why I had stepped aside. Here I am, an admirer of Ayn Rand, an advocate of individual rights, frequently evoking rational self-interest in my analysis of politics and culture. Was my tiny act of courtesy a violation of that principle? Did I fail to act in my own rational self-interest by allowing a stranger to take my place in line? Did I sacrifice something of value for something of lesser or no value?
Who has two thumbs and loves Back to the Future? This guy! Replete with such cornball humor, and stimulating the imagination to ponder mysteries of the universe like temporal displacement and women, the ’80s popcorn adventures hold up to this day.
As 2015 nears, boasting a movie release schedule packed with blockbuster franchises – everything from the next Star Wars to Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World – it saddens me to realize we won’t also see a revisiting of the Back to the Future universe. You may recall that 2015 was the year that Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled to in the second film. That year will also mark the 30th anniversary of the franchise. A second volume of films centering around the disparity between 2015 as we will know it and the one encountered by Marty as a teenager carries a lot of potential. If only screenwriter Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis were reading.
Much of the fun in Back to the Future emerges from a clash of generations, how things change over time — and how they stay the same. The second film in the series addresses what might happen if you went back in time and told your younger self how to be successful. Marty McFly plots to take a sports almanac from 2015 back to 1985 so he can place bets on foreseen outcomes. When the book falls into the hands of an elderly and villainous Biff Tannen, he executes the same plan to disastrous effect.
Sure, sending your younger self stock tips or sports scores may be an underhanded way to achieve your best life now. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t less scandalous messages you could send which might produce a better result. Here are 6 warnings I would send my younger self.
Is money really the root of all evil? This Thanksgiving, I may argue that point with my brother-in-law. Our sparring began earlier this week on Facebook, discussing an episode of my Fightin Words podcast where I imagined a world without state-imposed hunting and fishing restrictions. In a truly free market, where government acted only to protect individual rights, our access to animals of value would be assured by market forces. After all, we’re in no danger of running out of turkeys for Thanksgiving, and government doesn’t ration those. So why do we need to ration deer and fish?
I attracted criticism from the Left for “coming out against fish and game laws,” though I would prefer to describe it as advocating for individual rights. The criticism was based on the belief that human greed unmitigated by state regulation enables the hunting of species to extinction. It’s happened before, the argument goes, and must be prevented in the future. My brother-in-law summed up the position like this:
Money kills everything.
Boy, oh boy. There may never be a more concise expression of the philosophies I work daily against. Here’s the context:
I think we would soon make everything extinct like we do everything else if not for laws… humans are extremely greedy and wasteful when it comes to hunting. Horrible shots that maim and wound, and they don’t know how to butcher the animals themselves much anymore either.
Pretty obvious to me that we need regulations. Especially in the ocean…money kills everything.
It’s one of those comments which lends itself to so many possible responses, picking a place to start proves difficult.
As we take a too-infrequent moment to honor the service of our men and women in uniform this Veterans Day, let us consider our language and test whether it does them justice.
Commonly, we refer to the contribution made by those who serve in the military as a sacrifice. Our veterans have given up relatively comfortable alternatives to place themselves in harm’s way and protect our liberties. When we call that a sacrifice, we mean it honorably. Nevertheless, we may be selling our now and future veterans short by continuing to think of their choice in that way.
What is a sacrifice? It’s one of those words, like “love,” which has many nuanced meanings depending upon the context in which one uses it. For our purposes in this discussion, let’s settle upon this definition: a trade of value for something of lesser or no value. In order for something to be sacrificial, it must leave the giver worse off than they were before, right? How often do we lift up as virtue the notion of doing something for others without any expectation of receiving something in return?
Yet many of the things we commonly refer to as sacrifice do not fit that definition. When a college student passes on a night out with friends to stay in and study for a big test, he hardly ends up worse off for the trade. Yet, we call it a sacrifice. When a parent prioritizes the needs of their children above her own personal needs, she rarely thinks of the trade as a loss. Yet we think of that as sacrificial too.
In truth, many if not most of the things we call sacrifices actually stand as rational value judgments. Studying for an important test has greater value than a single night out on the town. Providing for one’s children has greater value than indulging yourself to their neglect. We make such choices in pursuit of our values, not at their expense.
The same applies to our men and women in uniform. Enlistment rationally values the nation’s security and individual liberties above mere safety. That is what makes it so honorable! That is why we stand in awe of our veterans and offer them our thanks, because the choice to protect what the rest of us take for granted declares something of their character. It tells us what they value, and how much they value it. I imagine few if any enlist hoping to lose life or limb as a “sacrifice.” Rather, they accept the risk to life and limb as an affirmation of that which they value — life in a free country. As the beneficiaries of that choice, we ought not diminish it by calling it a sacrifice.
“That is just wrong,” posted one commenter in response to a story out of Los Angeles which raises vital questions about the morality of the market. From Ubergizmo:
A businessman in L.A. took scalping to a whole new level, when he picked up about 100 homeless people from Skid Row in Los Angeles. He promised to pay them if they waited overnight in the line outside Apple’s retail store in Pasadena, California. Since Apple allows customers to purchase no more than two units, he would have had 200 iPhones, all while paying each hired hand $40 for the trouble.
The operation did not proceed as planned. When the employees within the iPhone store heard what was happening, they refused to sell to the hired buyers. The scalper then refused to pay those who were unable to deliver iPhones to him. That upset the homeless crowd and aroused a disturbance which prompted police to escort the scalper away for his own protection.
Heads shake and fingers wag in reaction to this scheme. This scalper exploited homeless people, the story goes, proving himself to be a jerk at best and perhaps even a criminal.
The incident evokes a similar story involving Trader Joe’s. A guy from Canada drove down through California to buy inventory from the grocer which he then resold back home (where no Trader Joe’s stores exist). We used to call that an import business. Like Apple, when Trader Joe’s discovered his operation, they refused to do business with him. Yet it’s not entirely clear why, because he was helping them get their product to a market they have not otherwise reached.
Likewise, in the Apple case, the iPhone scalper was providing a value to all parties concerned. Obviously, the homeless people were getting income they otherwise would not have. Apple was moving its inventory. And the scalper’s end-customers had access to a rare and desirable product without having to wait in line. Whom did this hurt exactly? How was anyone’s access to trade unjustly restricted? There is no right to purchase a product at a particular price under particular circumstances. That’s why the police rightly deemed this a “business issue” and not a crime.
It may be tempting to scoff at the scalper’s refusal to pay those who were unable to purchase phones. Then again, we may safely presume that the agreement was for orders fulfilled, not attempted.
Every kid wants to be a pirate at some point. While sailing tall ships around the Caribbean on a quest for buried treasure remains an elusive fantasy, modern pirates take a less romantic form.
Based on reaction to a recent piece by PJ Media’s Susan L.M. Goldberg, it seems many of you – our dear readers — sail the digital seas looting movies, television, and music. To many, the suggestion by Goldberg that such activity might have economic consequences proved deeply offensive. One of the top-rated comments reads:
Quoting the RIAA [Record Industry Association of America] about piracy is like quoting the Mexican Cartel on the dangers of drug legalization. The dubious study RIAA cites assumes that all piracy are lost sales, for which there is simply no evidence.
And there is a lot to the concept that pirated copies lead to sales of legitimate copies and related merchandize. Certainly, there are studies that show that free downloads and DRM free products lead to more sales such as this one.
But mostly I don’t think you understand fully understand the tradeoffs, excessive zeal to stop piracy can annoy one’s legitimate customers.
Considering such arguments reminded me of a guy I know who spent years amassing piles of pirated DVDs by making copies of discs rented from Netflix. We’ll call him “Guy” for the sake of discussion. He obtained the requisite software with ease, available free on the internet, and set off to build a library of titles he wanted to watch but didn’t want to pay for.
Guy knew that what he was doing was illegal, briefly deterred as he was by those menacing FBI warnings displayed before each feature presentation. He felt pangs of conscience, but consoled himself with a number of convenient rationalizations.
Is the above quote true? Should you do more than you get paid for, hoping that you will eventually be paid for more than you do?
While it may at first sound like an expression of good work ethic, this quote proves not only incorrect, but dangerous. People who take it to heart could find themselves stuck on a path to nowhere.
Certainly, we make all manner of investments which do not produce immediate or guaranteed returns. Education and advertisement come to mind. Internships and apprenticeships involve work for little if any pay while students develop their skills in a practical environment. But none of that really amounts to doing more than you get paid for in hopes of getting paid for more than you do.
To truly do more than you get paid for is to sacrifice, trading a greater value for a lesser one. Investments in education, marketing, or the capital requirements of a business do not amount to sacrifices. Time spent studying for a big test or money spent trolling for new customers serves a valuable interest. Likewise, interning without monetary compensation provides an opportunity to develop both skills and a professional network. That has value. That value substitutes for a paycheck. Otherwise, if the value received was not perceived as greater than that expended, no one would agree to intern. Certainly, work done to produce a long-term value has virtue. But long-term value is still value, not “more than you’re paid for.”
The belief that you ought to provide a greater value than you receive in hopes of one day receiving a greater value than you provide stands on no principle. If doing more than you get paid to proves virtuous, then seeking to get paid for more than you do would prove wicked. Given that paradox, why would you do either? More to the point, why would anyone ever pay you more to do less?
We say you should not judge a book by its cover. However, when you have nothing else to go on, the cover will do. In film, our first impression takes shape from promotional materials, the most descriptive of which tend to be trailers.
From what we have seen so far from Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his 2009 breakout hit District 9, he appears bent on further developing that film’s none too subtle social agenda. The official synopsis of Elysium:
In the year 2154, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined planet. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the crime and poverty that is now rampant throughout the land. The only man with the chance to bring equality to these worlds is Max (Matt Damon), an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission – one that pits him against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her hard-line forces – but if he succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well.
In the trailer, we see Foster’s Delacourt order the destruction of several “undocumented” shuttles carrying illegal immigrants from Earth to Elysium. Clearly, we are meant to connect the imagery to real-life immigration scenarios. Like Cuban refuges braving a 90 mile trip in small boats for a taste of the American dream, the space-bound huddled masses of Elysium risk life and limb to escape untenable circumstances.
Added to the immigration meme, we detect the tone of Occupy Wall Street. Damon’s Max seeks to save the people of Earth and “bring equality to these worlds” through the use of force, justified by his “desperate need.” Though not overtly mentioned in the trailer, capitalism appears in the cross-hairs. An apparent industrial accident caused while in the employ of a corporate Elysium contractor, leaves Max with five days to live. The means to survive exists on the space station, medical pods which can apparently cure any illness or repair any injury. However, the only way to access one is to take on the Man.
Ayn Rand bore no children. If she had, and if they had grown to an appropriate age, she presumably would have sat them down for “the talk.” On such an occasion, she might have explained the birds and the bees like this:
Sex is a physical capacity, but its exercise is determined by man’s mind—by his choice of values, held consciously or subconsciously. To a rational man, sex is an expression of self-esteem—a celebration of himself and of existence. To the man who lacks self-esteem, sex is an attempt to fake it, to acquire its momentary illusion.
Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another—an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values.
Upon taking in the lecture, Rand’s offspring might have been left with profound insight into romantic love, but wouldn’t necessarily know where babies come from. Take what you will from Rand’s unique views on sex, she appears to have divorced the act from its reproductive function.
So it seems with the culture at large. An act which epitomizes connection has become detached from its vital moorings, divorced from marriage, divorced from love, and – most consequentially – divorced from parenthood.
Love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels prove by comparison why the original trilogy boasts such universal appeal. We love Luke, Han, Leia, and their ragtag band of rebels because they act from a profound moral conviction. They pursue liberty at any cost, and defy tyranny with admirable resolve. The prequel heroes, by contrast, spend a lot of time wringing their hands.
Over the course of the saga, Skywalker and son operate as essentially the same character presented in different contexts. Despite enjoying the collective instruction of the entire Jedi Order, Anakin falls to the Dark Side. Conversely, his son Luke adheres to the Light despite coming of age in dark times.
Upon due consideration, the prequels reveal that the Jedi Order was the true phantom menace. They took an innocent child with earnest moral impulses and turned him into a deeply conflicted, morally confused time bomb ill-equipped to deal with reality. Surely, the Sith were evil. However, despite an alleged moral dichotomy, so were the Jedi. Our recognition of their error makes it difficult to regard them as heroes and thus care about their plight. In the end, the teachings of the Jedi led directly to Anakin’s fall and the galaxy’s plunge into darkness. Perhaps that’s a large part of the reason we don’t care for their story that much.
The Jedi of the Old Republic operate from a disturbing moral ambivalence, fully personified in Grand Master Yoda and reflected to lesser degrees in the rest of the Council and their knights. At the close of Attack of the Clones, after reluctantly deploying the titular army to counter a clear and present separatist threat, Yoda rebukes Obi-Wan for regarding the outcome as victory.
Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen. Begun the Clone War has.
Therein lies one of the distinguishing characteristics of the prequel trilogy, an aversion to war among its heroes. From Queen Amidala’s initial refusal to “condone an action that will lead us to war,” to Yoda’s above noted refusal to acknowledge a moral mandate to destroy aggressors, the prequel protagonists spend most of their time trying to weasel out of conflict – and thus exasperate it.
Spoiler Warning: Bioshock Infinite cannot be properly analyzed without revealing the details of its plot. If you plan to play it, or haven’t finished it, consider whether you wish to read further.
This may seem an odd way to start an analysis of a video game. But bear with me.
I was not always a Christian. There was a period of my life during which I searched for truth, trying to discern medicine from snake oil. One of the most compelling observations which led to the development of my Christian faith was the unique economy of sin presented in the Bible.
While many people believe that human beings are inherently good, an honest assessment of one’s own thoughts, along with cursory observation of even the youngest child, reveals that human beings are actually quite wicked. Not only are we bad, we like ourselves that way. Indeed, the notion that we are inherently good lowers the moral bar to the status quo, as if this life lived this way with all its horrors and violations were some kind of ideal.
Christianity stands unique among worldviews in not only acknowledging our congenital moral defect, but also in explaining how we contracted it while offering a cure. Other faiths tend to regard sin as some form of moral debit which can be offset by good deeds. Becoming a Christian requires acknowledging that the debt accrued through sin can never be paid by the sinner. Instead, the believer trusts in the atoning death of Christ, pointing to Him as the settler of accounts. Such faith proves difficult, both because we tend to deny our own wickedness and because we prefer to think we can overcome deficiencies on our own.
Surprisingly, this economy of sin proves quite relevant to an analysis of Irrational Games’ hot new shooter set in the skies above 1912 America, Bioshock Infinite. Redemption runs as a prominent theme throughout the experience, presented in various forms which tend to prove false. Protagonist Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton man and player avatar, seeks the seemingly simple redemption of a financial debt to a dangerous creditor. Antagonist Zachary Comstock, head prophet of a xenophobic cult, offers his followers redemption from “the Sodom below” within the floating city of Columbia. Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the leftist Vox Populi, offers her followers redemption from the tyranny of Comstock through militant revolution. Player companion and surprisingly able damsel Elizabeth begins as an innocent who comes to realize her own peculiar need for a second chance.
Ayn Rand gets a lot of press these days, but her philosophy, Objectivism, is still wildly, ridiculously misunderstood. Typically this is because many people who COMMENT on it don’t actually think they need to READ it. But it also is because there are vile people in the world who would like others to think Objectivism is something that it isn’t, in order to prevent it from spreading in the culture. These vile people would prefer a world of ignorance, slavery, and large-soda bans.
Perhaps even more misunderstood, then, are the strange and wonderful creatures who call themselves Objectivists. (Yes, I just called myself a strange and wonderful creature.) Just because we are the intellectual superheroes of the world (too much?) doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to be better understood, and even appreciated. Even Superman needed to be appreciated. And if Superman were real, it would prove my point.
Objectivists are, to put it simply, people who have studied Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism, to such a degree that they understand its essentials, have decided the philosophy is true, have attempted to live by it, AND have erected an alter in Rand’s name with 7 candles representing each of the 7 virtues. (That last one is actually voluntary.)
Objectivism is a closed and complete system of thought, so agreement is actually possible. It’s the same as a person saying, I’ve read and agree with the philosophy of Aristotle, except that it’s Ayn Rand we agree with. What it means to be an Objectivist is that you philosophically understand and accept that reason is your only means of knowledge, and you resolve to honestly use reason and logic to the best of your ability in and for your life. That’s pretty much it. Done. Normal, yet exceptional. But that is not what most people think about us. Here are the top 5 most common misconceptions about Objectivists.
The cult of Ayn Rand has never been stronger on the American Right. Rand’s influence on groups such as the Tea Party and politicians like Rand Paul — who is, after all, named after her — is intense, and clearly growing in popularity. Indeed, the Tea Party began with a pundit who called himself “basically an Ayn Rander.” For many on the Right, Rand has become something approaching a messiah, or at least a patron saint. American conservatives, looking for a way up from the defeats of the Obama era, appear ready to embrace this trend. This is, needless to say, an extremely bad idea.
First, it is politically suicidal. The U.S. is mired in an economic crisis that has been brewing for some time, and shows few signs of disappearing. And this crisis was caused, to a great extent, by Randian economics. Eschewing traditional fiscal conservatism, the American Right embraced for the better part of three decades a messianic form of capitalism that demonized the state and society, while fostering an idolatry of the individual entrepreneur, the corporate CEO, and the unabashed pursuit of money as the highest moral good.
That this has had horrendous consequences cannot be denied. If money is the highest moral good, then making money — by whatever means — overrides all other concerns, even legality, prudence, and common sense. The result has been massive economic inequality, recklessness on the part of the private sector that brought it close to self-destruction, the gutting of public assets, and the negation of even the idea of a collective good.
This is much in contrast to traditional conservatism, which acknowledged the self-evident fact that society is a collective endeavor, and the interests of the individual must be balanced against those of the collective. It also acknowledged — indeed, insisted — that a society can reach a consensus on what constitutes the good, and pursue it on a collective level to the benefit of all. Indeed, Edmund Burke based his entire critique of the French Revolution on the idea that the good can only be achieved by particular communities with specific values, and not through universalist individualism. Rand, in contrast, regarded society as fundamentally evil and the mortal enemy of the individual; a point of view that can, in fact must, lead to a state of anarchy and social collapse that benefits no one and destroys precisely what traditional conservatism seeks to preserve.
Bioshock Infinite releases next Tuesday, March 26. A highly anticipated prequel to one of the most widely acclaimed video games in history, the title stands poised to awe not only with inspiring visuals and thrilling gameplay, but with a controversial critique of American Exceptionalism.
Film critic Roger Ebert earned the ire of gamers a few years ago when he ruled declaratively that video games can never be art. Emerging from the resulting swarm of agitated youth, Ebert later relented slightly, if only to admit that he really ought to experience video games before banishing them from the realm of artistic consideration.
An intriguing debate regarding what makes a thing art is woven through both of Ebert’s pieces linked above. However, the argument may be moot. It seems fair to say that when a craft begins to express complex ideas regarding the human condition, when it begins to stimulate thought and debate on matters of genuine import in the real world, when it can affect how you think about issues and what you believe about your world, it achieves the status of art.
By that standard, the video game industry has produced a bounty of artistic titles amidst a sea of thoughtless cookie-cutter fare. Of course, this makes video games no different than any creative medium. There exist far more vulgar scratches on bathroom stalls than masterpieces hung in museums, far more trashy romance novels than genuine epics, and certainly more popcorn flicks and action movies than truly inspirational films.
Like any medium, games can evoke powerful emotions and make compelling philosophical statements. The element of interactivity can heighten such moments beyond the experience of a novel, painting, or film. No longer a mere observer, what happens in a game happens to you. The world of the game and the characters which inhabit it change, live, and die according to the choices you make.
The inherent power of the medium proves all the more reason to treat it seriously as an influential artistic form. Therefore, as Bioshock Infinite makes its case against the notion of American Exceptionalism, we do well to pay attention and respond.
Previous articles in this series:
- 5 Common Accusations Leveled at Christianity
- A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
- A Reason for Faith: 6 Fatal Misconceptions
When Abraham Lincoln needed to rally the nation toward unity, he referenced Matthew 12:25:
But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand…”
That principle proves timeless. Divide and conquer remains an effective tactic. Perhaps that informs the many writers on the Left who have strived to drive a wedge between followers of Jesus Christ and adherents to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Consider Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero, who once wrote that “marrying Ayn Rand to Jesus Christ is like trying to interest Lady Gaga in Donny Osmond.” He cautioned Republican readers against conflating them:
Rand’s trinity is “I me mine.” Christianity’s is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So take your pick. Or say no to both. It’s a free country. Just don’t tell me you are both a card-carrying Objectivist and a Bible-believing Christian. Even Rand knew that just wasn’t possible.
Truthfully, one cannot be both a Christian and an Objectivist. As covered throughout this series, Objectivist epistemology does not allow for any acknowledgement of the supernatural. However, one can be a Christian and recognize many of the objective truths which Ayn Rand articulated. After all, Christians do not deny objective reality. We merely recognize an eternal context. Worldviews need not align to overlap.
Prothero employs the typical objection to any alliance between Christians and objectivists:
Real conservatism is also about sacrifice, as is authentic Christianity. President Kennedy was liberal in many ways, but, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” was classic conservatism. Rand, however, will brook no such sacrifice. Serve yourself, she tells us, and save yourself as well. There is no higher good than individual self-satisfaction.
Here, both Christianity and Objectivism are misrepresented. True, Rand deplored Kennedy’s classic inaugural exhortation, perceiving it to subordinate the individual to the collective (although it could be argued Kennedy intended the opposite). However, she never presented “individual self-satisfaction” as the standard of value. One can be fully satisfied in any given moment without serving their rational long-term self-interest.
Previous articles in this series:
The title of the talk, “Capitalism: The Only Moral Social System,” was irresistible to a newborn activist bred from the Tea Party. As a lifelong conservative, I had always felt as though capitalism was morally superior to any alternative, but had not encountered a claim as bold as this. The speaker was Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard. His thesis was not that capitalism was the best social system, or the most efficient, or the most tolerable among acceptable choices. His claim was that capitalism is the one true good, the only way to go, and that any other system proves profoundly bad.
Biddle’s argument was compelling, built upon observation of reality and application of reason. He took us through the mind’s eye to a far-flung island where we were marooned alone without a single piece of technology. He asked us how such a castaway would survive. What would have to be done? Through what means would it be done? What could prevent it?
In order to survive and thrive, human beings must act rationally to obtain and keep values. A castaway requires food, shelter, sanitation, recreation, and a means to escape or attract rescue. To obtain these things, the castaway cannot rely upon instinct like an animal. Rather, he must apply his mind to the task at hand. He must discern what can be safely eaten, how to fashion tools, how to construct shelter, how to trap and kill animals, how to effectively use the raw materials around him to affect his survival. Ultimately, the only thing which could prevent the castaway from doing these things, aside from his willingness and ability, is brute force from another human being.
Therein lies the objectivist ethic. What human beings need in order to survive and thrive is not provision, but the liberty to act upon their own judgment. Put another way, liberty is life. To deprive a man of his liberty is to deprive him of his life, to drain or contain him. Therefore, the recognition and protection of individual rights are essential.
Hearing this for the first time, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail of conservative apology. While natural law evoked a Creator which secular leftists could simply deny, this objectivist argument stood firmly upon reason and the uncontestable facts of reality. How is it that this was not being echoed across conservative media, I asked myself. Then I got my answer.