Monday, April 18, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I liked it. The producers and writers did a good job of extracting the key elements of the first third of the book and fitting them to the two-hour format of a movie in a way that is watchable and sufficiently evocative to encourage attendance and to get people to attend the next two episodes. The critical role of Dagny Taggart is well played by Taylor Schilling . If the episodes succeed commercially, it will be mainly due to the way audiences relate to the way she plays Dagny, and that performance works for me.

I plan to see it again at least once.

I do have some minor quibbles:

  • The number of cars in the maiden run of the train changes from one scene to the next, and that is not quite what 250 mph looks like, nor could that high speed be maintained on standard gauge track or with such curves in them. It would take something like maglev and fairly straight courses.
  • About the only kind of metal that would fit the specifications of “Rearden metal” would be titanium, whose properties are well-known and would not be subject to the kinds of doubts raised in the book or the movie. It is plausible that Rearden might have found a cheaper way to produce titanium rails, and there are recent developments on that.
  • If oil becomes so expensive airlines can’t afford to operate, that would also affect railroads, metal fabrication plants, and every other kind of industrial process. But if oil rose that much we would make liquid fuel out of coal or gas. The problem would come if there were a rapid price increase. The market can adapt given a few years, even if a lot of companies do not, but the transition can be rough for everyone.

Further on the technology of rails. Accidents almost never happen because rails break. They happen because the mounts break, allowing the rails to shift, or because the train jumps the rails, or because of switching errors or obstacles. The weight of rails doesn’t matter much. For the purpose depicted in the movie, better mounts would be more important than using a different material for the rails, which could be made of any of several kinds of metals or ceramics.

Now for bridges, titanium would definitely be better. Even more for the load-bearing parts of maglev monorails which are somewhat like bridges for the entire length. The titanium would not be magnetic, of course, unless alloyed with magnetic materials.

Another couple of quibbles:

  • The span bridged by the bridge to be replaced is not the same as the span bridged by the new bridge. Different landscape.
  • High speed only matters for passenger service and perhaps the delivery of critical things like medical supplies or highly perishable goods. For things like oil slow is okay.
But if one suspends one’s annoyance at such technical details, it is enjoyable and I recommend it. As it happens, I didn’t enjoy the book much. I was already well beyond it philosophically at the time.

The philosophic problem with objectivism is that it applies better to gene lines than to adult individuals. As the sociobiologists have revealed, an adult is a gene's way of making another gene, and it is the gene that is selfish. It is a genetic advantage for adults to sacrifice themselves for their progeny and kin, which is what social species are genetically programmed to do. It is not just humans that are altruistic, and it is not force or indoctrination that makes us so.

Rand does show that competitors don't win because they are morally superior, but because they are stronger. But part of strength is the ability to attract the aid of others, and others tend to aid those they see as "good" over those they see as callous brutes. So goodness and altruism are not weaknesses in a social context, and both business and government are social contexts.

So when your parents taught you to be benevolent, they weren't teaching you to be weak. They were teaching you how to survive and compete in a world in which benevolence has a place.

That is not to say that we as a society has a duty to take care of the elderly and infirm regardless of the cost. There is a limit to how much it is rational for a society to sacrifice for its weakest members, and if it comes to that, as it does, the priority has to be the young, not the old or infirm. At present we are trying to spend so much on entitlements that it threatens to trigger the fall of Western Civilization, in a crash from which humanity may never arise again.

The main lesson to take from Rand's works is that rent-seeking is bad. That is the great evil, not altruism.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Infidelity to the Constitution

Professors Goodwin Liu (Boalt Hall), Pamela Karlan (Stanford), and Christopher Schroeder (Duke) just published Keeping Faith with the Constitution, which they claim is a bold challenge to originalism (in all its stripes), on the one hand, and to "living constitutionalism," on the other, and a clear argument for a richer approach they call "constitutional fidelity." The book is one of a pair just released by the American Constitution Society. (The other is a collection of works on constitutional interpretation titled It is a Constitution We are Expounding.) You can download a full copy on the ACS site, here.

An announcement and commentary has been posted to the Constitutional Law Profs Blog.

My comments are as follows:

While the two books, especially Keeping Faith with the Constitution, seem sound at a certain level of abstraction, and claim to reject the "living Constitution" approach to constitutional construction, when they get to the details they largely embrace that approach, and accept what some historians would regard as departures from constitutional fidelity as better "understandings" of it. That is especially brought out in their treatment and acceptance of broad interpretation of the Commerce and Necessary and Proper clauses.

I bring out some of this in my article, Principles of Constitutional Construction, in which I point out that "strict" construction properly means narrow interpretation of government powers and broad interpretation of individual rights (or more precisely, immunities). As I also discuss in my article, Presumption of Nonauthority and Unenumerated Rights, there is a fundamental right to a presumption of nonauthority that invalidates such doctrines as deference to a legislature or to administrative agents.

The book seems to be a concession to the growing movement toward accepting some kind of originalism, but is actually a somewhat disingenuous recasting of the progressive agenda of the American Constitution Society into pseudo-originalist terms.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Motivation for Evil

The question of why some people do evil things has been the subject of moral philosophers, novelists, and others throughout history. Most recently, it is explored in the movie, The Dark Knight, which examines the motives of The Joker, its villain, but also the dangers of its hero, Batman, becoming a villain himself in the course of fighting villainy. It makes a good morality play and is worth seeing for that reason.

It is not just a lack of empathy. Sociopaths are characterized by the lack of empathy or conscience, but not all of them resort to crime or terror or become tyrants. Most people have limited empathy for people they don't know.

In my own informal discussions with criminals and criminologists, one thing emerges. Most crime and violence is motivated by the thrill of exercising power over others, by destroying their lives, their dreams, by causing them pain. Leaving aside crimes like "mercy killing", one finds that thrill factor predominates, which can overcome empathy or the fear of harming others that prevails in most normal people.

The key, therefore, is to achieve and maintain a civic culture in which children are brought up to fear harming others and never experience a thrill from exercising power other others. Most cultures do that for some others, but not all others, and therein lies the problem. A culture that condones harming some others, whether they are called "infidels", "those kind", or whatever, is pathological, and needs to be treated as such. Ironically, one may have to do so by condoning destroying the intolerant or intolerant cultures, and thereby become an intolerant culture. That is the risk of becoming the enemy we fight.

"The contest is not between Us and Them, but between Good and Evil,
and if those who would fight Evil adopt the ways of Evil, Evil wins."

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Militia and the Right to Arms

The Militia and the Right to Arms, or, How the Second Amendment Fell Silent (Constitutional Conflicts)
by H. Richard Uviller

This treatise has one fundamental flaw, a misrepresentation of what the term "militia" means. The authors equate it with an organized body initiated and commanded by state government officials, but if that is what the word means to them, it is not what the word meant to the Founders. The term is from Latin, and it translates as "defense activity". In the idiom of the era, a word for an activity could also be used to refer to those engaged in that activity, and that usage is the source of the confusion here.

There is also a misrepresentation of the meaning of the word "state", which, when used in the context of the Constitution, does not mean the government of the state, but the people of the state, whether they acted through a government or not. When the Founders referred to a state government, they used the term "state legislature".

The authors are correct in their thesis that the right to arms is tied closely to the duty of militia. However, they commit a logical error in concluding that if the duty is being neglected, the right disappears. The duty is indeed being neglected, but the duty continues, a duty that arises out of the social contract that created the society and the natural rights and duties of mutual defense of rights that are the terms of the social contract.

The duty, and the right to perform that duty, continues, regardless of whether it is being actively performed or not. In fact, it is being performed by millions of civilians every day, in thousands of ways. Every time anyone reports a crime, conducts his own criminal investigation, or makes a civilian arrest, that is militia. Any time anyone defends himself or another from injury, that is militia. Any time anyone asks others to join him in defending the community from any threat, that is a militia call-up. We are all militia, when we engage in militia, even when we act alone. There is no need for initiation or leadership by some official. Of course, sheriffs are supposed to be the militia commanders of their counties, and constables militia commanders of their wards or precincts, but if they neglect to perform that duty, the duty falls upon anyone present who is aware of a threat requiring defensive action, or preparation for such defense.

For more on this topic see .

The United States of Ambition

The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office
by Alan Ehrenhalt

The book is a good introduction to a larger topic that deserves a more thorough treatment than a single volume could do. It examines how and why the political process has devolved since the Republic was founded, and in so doing, sheds light on the Supreme Law, the Constitution, and the kind of country and citizenry it contemplated in its design. The key idea is that liberty and the rule of law depend ultimately on a certain kind of civic virtue. If that civic virtue fails, tyranny will prevail, and no written constitution can prevent it.

To understand where we are today, we need to return to the way things worked with the country was founded, and the presumptions made about that by the design of the Constitution. The main thing was that almost all civic functions were performed not by government employees, but by amateur citizen volunteers. Most government that affected people's lives was local, and often consisted only of an elected county judge and an elected county sheriff, who often served only part-time and had other sources of income. Most decisions were made by town meetings and juries, and most law enforcement was conducted by militia, few if any of whom were paid.

One might think that what happened then was that the demand and supply of civic functions increased to the point where it was no longer feasible to have the work done solely by unpaid volunteers, that the core of civic work needed to be done by full-time paid professionals. That is part of what happened, of course, beginning with downplaying of the militia and enlargement of the role of the standing military. But there is another factor that is often overlooked, and to understand it, we need to look at elections.

Today it seems incredible, but in the early years of the Republic most candidates for public office won office without great expenditures of money or the need to raise the money to pay for the campaign. Most candidates had developed reputations in other fields, and had only to announce their candidacy, and make speeches. People would flock to hear those speeches, which were often fairly thoughtful and erudite, and newspaper reporters would transcribe and publish every word. People bought the newspapers that provided the most complete coverage of campaigns, and the most complete, accurate transcriptions.

In those times, there was not even a Congressional record of the proceedings of Congress. Newspapers sent reporters to record the proceedings, and published complete records for public sessions. The same was true of major trials, which were often reported verbatim. They could afford to do it because there was a demand for political information of all kinds.

But that changed. First, newspapers became partisan, and their messages more predictable, and therefore, less interesting. At the same time, candidates began making speeches that were less policy analysis and more appeals to emotion, which also made them less interesting. People bought fewer newspapers filled with political and legal articles. They turned away to their private affairs. At the same time, more government tax collections and spending meant more people feeding at the trough of the public purse, and more people began to vote their pocketbooks rather than for what was good for the country. Newspapers found they could charge for political advertising, and began withholding free media coverage from candidates who didn't pay for a proportional amount of advertising. This made it necessary for candidates to raise and spend more money to get elected, and also provided incentives for special interests to contribute those funds, expecting favorable treatment or at least "access".

As more and more civic functions came to be performed by full-time professionals, volunteerism declined. People would rather vote for taxes (on someone else) to pay full-time workers, than do their parts in doing the work themselves. The professionals encouraged this attitude, since volunteers were seen as competitors at an unfair wage. But while the economic theory of comparative advantage might suggest it is more efficient for citizens to work at what they do best, pay taxes, and hire public employees to do the work, in practice this doesn't work. Once the trend to professionalism gets under way, volunteerism falls off faster than government services can expand, no matter at what level of taxation. There is simply no substitute for personal involvement by almost every citizen in conducting public affairs at his or her own expense.

The process we have seen over the last two centuries has precedents in history, which were studied by the Founders, and they foresaw that the process would probably occur as it has. The process is corruption.

"Political corruption begins with every voter who votes his pocketbook instead of for what's good for the country. There is little difference between the selling of his vote by an elected official and the selling of his vote by a voter, to whatever candidate promises him some benefit."

That is our predicament. It is up to us to decide what to do about it.

Arming America

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture
by Michael Bellesiles

Bellesiles and his thesis has been discredited, but for those interested in pursuing the subject in more depth, and with more reliable sources, start at , and see particularly the collection of books by James B. Whisker, a Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University, the Whisker Militia Treatises, at , which shows clearly the falsity of Bellesiles thesis and supports the high level of militia activity and firearms usage with an abundance of evidence that Bellesiles conveniently chose to ignore. Any serious study of the subject needs to begin with Whisker's work.

Mission of this blog

My reviews of the works of others are growing too extensive to fit well on any of my websites, so I decided to start a blog dedicated to those writings, to which I can link from my sites.

To get a sense of my reading interests, see my recommended reading lists at: