Rand, Rothbard, and the real America

In the documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, one of Ayn Rand’s surviving acolytes reads from a letter of hers: “I’m in love with New York. Frank says that what I love is not the real city, but the New York I built myself. That’s true.” The film does not make clear when the letter was written, but it is introduced as the narrator discusses Rand’s move from Los Angeles back to New York City in 1951.

In large part this is the problem with Ayn Rand’s view of the United States in general, and probably why she was so hostile to Murray Rothbard’s libertarianism. It’s one thing to focus on the nobility of many (but not all) of the founding ideals, an assessment I often share. But the sad history of the development of statism, of the regrowth of the Ancien Régime in the United States began even before the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence. In practice, the reality was never even close to the ideal.* However, as a person whose view of America was essentially shaped without ever really experiencing it, she could never shake her view of America’s necessary correctness even as its government was laying waste to Vietnam and building up a legal and regulatory apparatus designed to choke off business and social entrepreneurship. On this issue, Rothbard was more correct than Rand. The revolutionary spirit of early American culture animated his thinking far more than Rand’s. She was unable to grasp this fully, and the partial, creeping realization she did have probably contributed to her wrath at Rothbard’s system.

*This does not mean the ideal is not worth struggling for anyway, but that’s a separate point.

Two quotes from Henri Pirenne

Now that fall semester is over and I have time to read books not directly for academic purposes, I’ve started Henri Pirenne’s Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe. I have a few quibbles here and there, particularly how Pirenne doesn’t quite seem to understand the function of interest, but overall I am enjoying it. I will comment more when I finish it, but for now, here are two good quotes I’ve seen so far:

The tie which continued to unite these ports [several southern Italian cities and Venice] to the Byzantine Empire was, it is true, not very strong, and it grew steadily weaker. The establishment of the Normans in Italy and Sicily (1029-91) definitely broke it as regards this region. Venice, over which the Carolingians had been unable to establish their control in the ninth century, had been all the more willing to continue under the authority of the Basileus, because he prudently refrained from exercising it, and allowed the town to be gradually transformed into an independent republic.

And

The essential difference between the merchants and the artisans of the nascent towns and the agricultural society in the midst of which they appeared, was that their kind of life was no longer determined by their relations with the land. In this respect they formed, in every sense of the word, a class of déracinés. Commerce and industry, which up till then had been merely the adventitious or intermittent occupations of manorial agents, whose existence was assured by the great landowners who employed them, now became independent professions. Those who practised them were incontestably “new men.” Attempts have often been made to derive them from the servile personnel attached to the domestic workshops of the manor, or the serfs who were charged with feeding the household in times of scarcity and in time of plenty disposed of their surplus production outside. But such an evolution is neither supported by the sources nor probable. There is no doubt that territorial lords here and there preserved economic prerogatives in the nascent towns for a fairly long time, such prerogatives, for instance, as the obligation of the burgesses to use the lord’s oven and mill, the monopoly of sale enjoyed by his wine for several days after the vintage, or even certain dues levied from the craft gilds. But the local survival of these rights is no proof of the manorial origin of urban economy. On the contrary, what we note everywhere is that from the moment that it appears, it appears in a condition of freedom.

Wise words from Richard E. Wagner

From To Promote the General Welfare: Market Processes vs. Political Transfers, p. 56:

Whereas instances of policy failure are commonly attributed to ignorance or unforeseeable events, those failures may often be an understandable and predictable outcome of prevailing institutions—either as the intention of policy or as the by-product of a separate intention. Policy failure has often been attributed to mistakes and ignorance, but it might rather be the result of the rational pursuit of interest and not really a failure from the perspective of those whose interests are controlling the choice at hand. [emphasis mine]

I think something along these lines every time I hear somebody proclaim that the War on Drugs, some instance of foreign intervention, or a government department or policy is a failure.

A very frank Soviet spy

I was just watching a documentary about spies during the Cold War, and this important lesson came up:

Narrator: The temptation was always there for the spymasters to earn favor from the leadership, whether by covert action or just slanting a routine report.

Col. Mikhail Luibimov: When we’d draw up reports, of course we’d dramatize those bits which pointed out the threat to the Soviet Union. By emphasizing the right things, I’d ensure that my report would go straight to the top, to the Politburo. If the report was dull and boring it would just get filed away. This was the problem with all suppliers of information: we’d tailor it to get a high rating from Moscow.

Why is this important? Try to imagine a scenario where a government agent of any kind, in any country, at any time, doesn’t have an incentive to do the same kind of thing. There may at times be countervailing incentives, but this one is universal.