Category Archives: Book Reviews

War and Peace

No, seriously, War and Peace. I found it on the top 100 lists of free Kindle books, and decided that reading War and Peace was one of those things I probably had to do in my life to call myself a serious reader.

Bad decision. As I remarked to a good friend, it was meandering, it seemed to lack any true central conflict about any particular character, and it was infused with a very particularly Russian fatalism. At the end of the day, I had no real emotional attachment or involvement in the story, and the last 20% or so was simply a slog through to be able to say I finished it. To thus my fried replied, “yep, that pretty well describes Russian literature.”

However, one specific attribute of that fatalism I found quite interesting, and possibly timely:

That the peoples of the west might be able to accomplish the military march upon Moscow, which they did accomplish, it was essential (1) that they should be combined in a military group of such a magnitude as to be able to withstand the resistance of the military group of the east; (2) that they should have renounced all their established traditions and habits; and (3) that they,should have at their head a man able to justify in his own name and theirs the perpetration of all the deception, robbery, and murder that accompany that movement.

And to start from the French Revolution, that old group of insufficient magnitude is broken up; the old habits and traditions are destroyed; step by step a group is elaborated of new dimensions, new habits, and new traditions; and the man is prepared, who is to stand at the head of the coming movement, and to take upon himself the whole responsibility of what has to be done.

While I’m not a believer in either the societal or personal fatalism espoused by Tolstoy, one can make an argument that what “had to be done” was to crumble the final vestiges of feudalism’s legitimacy in society. This can’t occur by overthrowing a single despot. Political change of that magnitude must be jarring enough to destroy even the memory of what came before it. Society, like a phoenix, must be destroyed and rise from its own ashes to build anew.

Britain, while still a monarchy, had largely transitioned from a feudal society to a mercantile society. America was still a pre-teen on the world stage. Europe, though, was still fighting the final stages to break off the chains of feudalism and monarchy. The slaughter of the French Revolution produced Napoleon, and Napoleon slaughtered Europe.

Is this what “had to be done”? Millions dead, cities burned, the entire existing social hierarchy torn from its roots? Perhaps it did have to occur. Feudalism and monarchy are stories of powerful entrenched interests and a complacent underclass. It is not enough to cast those bonds off on paper; they must be cast off in the soul. This is not easy to do without a jarring blow.

At the end of the French & Russian war, swaths of Europe had been destroyed, and the people were prepared to accept peace — peace on different terms than had existed previously. Society could now be built on a foundation other than feudalism and monarchy. It needed to occur, but it was only the jarring blow that allowed people to come to terms with what was needed.

War is messy. War is hell. War is cruel and painful. But war works.
-John Fuller, my high school AP US History teacher

At the end of the US Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Americans lay dead, essentially to right a wrong that had been building since before the Declaration of Independence. Was war truly necessary to free the slaves? No, but war was probably necessary to settle, in the minds of America, that the freedom had been won. The Civil War was a black mark on the history of America, but nobody can say that the question of slavery was left unsettled at its conclusion.

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and — thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never solves anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor; and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.
-Robert A. Heinlein

The thesis that a jarring blow is necessary to effect the inevitable social changes that occur over time, though, is troubling to me. It’s troubling because I see significant social changes on the horizon.

Technology has brought us global, immediate, and zero-cost-of-entry communication, cutting the information stranglehold of governments and destroying entire business models in the process. Modern communication and modern transportation have made the world smaller, perhaps finally putting the lie to economic mercantilism. Governments have been debasing fiat currencies for decades since the end of Bretton Woods II, and global financial stability appears to be solely based on nations’ ability to lend to each other [especially to the US].

There seems to be a palpable tension building in the world and it’s unclear where it will lead. Much of that tension has already been seen in Iran, Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. There is tension both within China and in America’s trade/debt relationship with that nation. Unlike some hyperbolic pundits, I won’t quite put Madison in a category as serious as those just discussed, but a fight between fiscal reality, monetary stability, and the promises of government is certainly brewing — and that fight won’t be pleasant.

The world 25 years from now may very well be a place that people alive today don’t quite recognize. But there are a lot of people invested in this one, who will be very upset to see it change. So there’s only one question, and a troubling one, to ask. What sort of jarring blow is on the horizon to cleanse us of the old ways?

Monday Open Thread — What Are You Reading?

Hey, folks. Slow day here at TLP, so it’s probably a good a time as any to open the floor.

What’s currently on the reading shelves for all of you?

For me:

Just finished:
The American Story, by Garet Garrett. — Available from the Mises Store. I plan on a review of this once I get a bit of time to put it together.

On tap:
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover – The Great Depression 1929-1941 [PDF], by Herbert Hoover. — I was trying to decide whether or not to buy it, but since I saw it on PDF I figure I’ll need to get around to reading it.

Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead Of The Modern Libertarian Movement

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There are few figures in the American libertarian movement that gave rise to as much controversy or passion as Ayn Rand. Love her or hate her, it’s hard to find a libertarian who doesn’t have an opinion about the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. For many of us, she was the one who lit the spark that sent us down the road toward becoming a libertarian. Even after her death, some still consider themselves hard-core Objectivists in the model of those who gravitated around the Nathanial Branden Institute in the 1960s. For most libertarians, though, while Rand is arguably the most influential moral philosopher, she is also someone who’s flaws, both personal and philosophical have been acknowledged, debated, and argued about for decades.

There’s always been a missing piece of the puzzle, though, and that was that nobody had really undertaken a full-scale intellectual biography of someone who, even today, can sell 200,000 copies a year of her 1,000+ page magnum opus. There were personal biographies by Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden, but those both seemed to concentrate on the more lurid details of Rand’s personal life and the circumstances behind the 1968 Objectivist Purge. The heirs of Rand’s estate, meanwhile, have guarded her papers closely in an obvious effort to protect her legacy and reputation. Someone wanting to learn more about Rand’s life, the development of her ideas, and her impact on American politics, had almost nowhere to go that wasn’t totally biased in one direction or the other.

That’s why Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right is so welcome.

Instead of dwelling on the lurid aspects of Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden, and without taking sides regarding the many controversies that followed Rand in years after Atlas Shrugged was published, Burns provides a thorough, well-written and well-researched survey of how Ayn Rand went from Alisa Rosenbaum of St. Petersburg, Russia, born just as Czarist Russia was beginning it’s decent into chaos, to Ayn Rand, the woman about whom more than one person has said “she changed my life.”

For people versed in the history of libertarian ideas, the most interest parts of the book will probably be Burns’s documentation of Rand’s interaction with the heavyweights of both the Pre World War II Right and the conservative/libertarian movement that began to take shape after the war ended. She corresponded with Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken and, most interestingly, developed a very close personal and intellectual relationship with Isabel Patterson, best known as the author of The God of the Machine. For years, especially during the time that Rand was writing The Fountainhead, Rand and Paterson exchanged ideas and debated philosophy, and it’s clear that they both contributed to the others ideas.

The Rand-Paterson relationship, though, also foreshadowed something that would happen all too frequently later in Rand’s career, the purge. Paterson was among the first libertarian-oriented writers to experience Rand’s wrath for the perception that she was not sufficiently orthodox. Over time, that would continue to the point where, at it’s height, Objectivism displayed a level of orthodoxy and denunciation of perceived heresy that rivaled the religions that it rejected. It was, in the end, the reason why the movement’s downfalls was largely inevitable.

Burns also goes into great detail discussing the process and the ordeal that Rand went through while writing both of her great novels. After reading that part, one marvels at the fact that she even survived.

In the final chapter, Burns shows that, even though Rand herself had flaws that led to the demise of Objectivism as a formal movement, her ideas have a staying power that has permeated throughout the conservative and libertarian movements in the United States. There is hardly a libertarian in the United States who has not read at least one of Rand’s books and, it’s clear that her ideas have taken hold in a way that she probably never expected and definitely would not have approved of. That, however, is the power of ideas, the creator can’t control what people do with them once they’re out there.

Burns does a wonderful job of filling in the missing pieces about Rand’s life and her place in the wider context of the political and social history of Post World War II America. Whether you love or hate Ayn Rand – and I don’t think you can have no opinion about her once exposed to her idea – this is a truly fascinating book.

Book Review: Island by Aldous Huxley

I think many libertarians are a bit like myself, and tend to like a good dystopian novel. 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, etc. It’s typically a book detailing a future utopian society, where government controls the lives of their citizens for their own good (1984 being the exception there), but the world the book portrays has unintended anti-freedom consequences that show the utopia to be rotten and empty.

Huxley’s Brave New World is a classic example. You have a government that controls every aspect of life, down even to selecting (and disabling if necessary) people into a caste system of people based upon their intelligence, educating (conditioning may be a better word) them from birth to accept their caste placement. They ply the populace with consumption, drugs, and sex to keep them happy and docile, and the result is a country largely free of crime and misery. This is all upset when a “savage” from the outside, educated and English-speaking, is introduced to the society. Being an individual and a freethinker, he quickly tires of the life devoid of emotion and value and starts (after the death of his mother) lashing out. The novel ends when John the Savage finds the only escape from the rot that he has left, and hangs himself.

Island is sort of an anti-BNW, in some rather (I would think) deliberate ways. It tells the story of a remote island, Pala, which had closed itself off to the world — an island which correspondingly had little reason for the world to take note. This is rapidly changing, though, as the island is sitting on quite a bit of oil. One journalist shipwrecks on the island (partly tasked by his boss, newspaperman AND oilman, with trying to find a way to exploit that oil) and starts exploring. He finds a populace where everyone seems to be very happy and well adjusted, a society that is well-run but still lightly-governed. The island is heavily informed by buddhist teachings, and uses early childhood conditioning, community families, sex (tantric buddhist variety) and drugs (of the magic mushroom variety) to expand the Understanding of, rather than pacify, the populace. In our reality, many people use things like dry magic mushrooms in much the same way – to connect with their inner selves and their place in the world around them – and also, increasingly, for therapeutic purposes. It is not a society built for consumption, but rather a society built for happiness and self-actualization. The journalist (perhaps best described as a “savage” from civilization) grows enamored with this society, sees what he now understands as rot within his own, and wants to join. *(see below the fold for spoiler)

Island is widely described as Huxley’s counterpoint to Brave New World. It is clear that he sees the same demons (consumerism, a lack of individuality, and a value-less society) and the same fetishes (drugs and sex) in both books, but in Island he sees the impression of positive ethics and values as the difference. He changes the game, using sex and drugs as a way of furthering Understanding, using community family raising not as a way to blunt individuality but a way for children to avoid the parental roullette that often cause them to inherit their parents flaws, and using biological/behavioral understanding to inform educators in the proper ways to help each individual student learn and become self-actualized. I’m not well-steeped in Buddhism, but it appears to be heavily influenced by Buddhist rather than Western thought. The result is a society that, while not perfect, appears to meet the magical middle ground between planning a good outcome without really destroying individuality.

Island paints the picture of a beautiful society, and one that I suspect is a guideline, in the mold of Plato’s Republic**, for his ideal state. From a philosophical perspective I think is definitely something that should be read (although not a plank for any cohesive philosophy), as it contains some practical personal lessons about thought and emotion that many folks might benefit from.

But in another sense, it doesn’t work as a novel. It is a philosophical dialectic much like that of The Republic, and my thought reading throughout the whole aspect was Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged. Very long, and pretty important, but certainly not a page-turning thriller. The novel seems to have very little in the way of plot, the “conflict” takes a far back seat to the philosophy, and the scenes become nothing more than an excuse for philosophical pontificating, not advancing a story. I said after reading it on twitter that from a literary standpoint it was weak and grandstanding, and that it seemed far more like a writer’s first novel than his last, which Island was for Huxley.

As with many books I read, I see there to be value for many readers. But if you go into the book expecting an experience like Brave New World, you’re not going to get it. This is a treatise on humanity and the ideal state, informed by Huxley’s own spiritual and ethical beliefs. As such, it contains useful information on a personal level, to better understand yourself, the society immediately around you, and how you might improve both. It’s not much of a novel, and not something I’d pass off to a friend unless I absolutely knew them to be receptive to this type of book, but it’s worth it for what it is.

The Cult Of The Imperial Presidency

whitehouse

Over the past 30 years, America has seen Presidential scandals ranging from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Travel-gate, Whitewater, the Lewinsky scandal, and the Valerie Plame affair. We’ve learned the truth about some of the truly nefarious actions undertaken by some of most beloved Presidents of the 20th Century, including the iconic FDR, JFK, and LBJ. And, yet, despite all of that, Americans still have a reverential view of the President of the United States that borders on the way Englishmen feel about the Queen or Catholic’s feel about the Pope.

How did that happen and what does it mean for America ?

Gene Healy does an excellent job of answering those question in The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, making it a book that anyone concerned with the direction of the American Republic should read.

As Healy points out, the Presidency that we know today bears almost no resemblance to the institution that the Founding Fathers created when they drafted Article II of the Constitution. In fact, to them, the President’s main job could be summed up in ten words set forth in Section 3 of Article II:

he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,

The President’s other powers consisted of reporting the state of the union to Congress (a far less formal occasion than what we’re used to every January), receiving Ambassadors, and acting as Commander in Chief should Congress declare war. That’s it.

For roughly the first 100 years of the Republic, Healy notes, President’s kept to the limited role that the Constitution gave them. There were exceptions, of course; most notably Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War but also such Presidents as James Polk who clearly manipulated the United States into an unnecessary war with Mexico simply to satisfy his ambitions for territorial expansion. For the most part, though, America’s 19th Century Presidents held to the limited role that is set forth in Article II, which is probably why they aren’t remembered very well by history.

As Healy notes, it wasn’t until the early 20th Century and the dawn of the Progressive Era that the idea of the President as something beyond what the Constitution said he was took forth. Healy documents quite nicely the ways in which Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to FDR went far beyond anything resembling Constitutional boundaries to achieve their goals, and how they were aided and abetted in that effort by a compliant Supreme Court and a Congress that lacked the courage to stand up for it’s own Constitutional prerogatives. Then with the Cold War and the rise of National Security State, the powers of the Presidency became even more enhanced.

One of the best parts of the book, though, is when Healy attacks head-on the “unitary Executive” theory of Presidential power that was advanced by former DOJ official John Yoo in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the War on Terror. As Healy shows, there is no support for Yoo’s argument that the Founders intended for the President to have powers akin to, or even greater than, those of the British Monarch that they had just spent seven years fighting a war to liberate themselves from. The dangers of Yoo’s theories to American liberty and the separation of powers cannot be understated.

If the book has one weakness, it’s in the final chapter where Healy addresses only in passing reforms that could be implemented to restrain the Cult Of the Presidency. I don’t blame Healy for only giving this part of the book passing attention, though, because what this book really shows us is that no matter of written law can stop power from being aggregated in a single person if that’s what the people want and, to a large extent, we’ve gotten the Presidency we deserve.

Healy’s closing paragraph bears reproducing:

“Perhaps, with wisdom born of experience, we can come once again to value a government that promises less, but delivers far more of what it promises. Perhaps we can learn to look elsewhere for heroes. But if we must look to the Presidency for heroism, we ought to learn once again to appreciate a quieter sort of valor. True political heroism rarely pounds its chest or pounds the pulpit, preaching rainbows and uplift, and promising to redeem the world through military force. A truly heroic president is one who appreciates the virtues of restraint — who is bold enough to act when action is necessary yet wise enough, humble enough to refuse powers he ought not have. That is the sort of presidency we need, now more than ever.

And we won’t get that kind of presidency until we demand it.”

And, if we don’t demand it we will find ourselves living in a country where the only difference between President and King is merely the title.

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