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The Intellectual Activist - An Objectivist Review
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The following items are from TIA's regular feature "The News in Focus."

Just Say No to Chips
(October 1999)

The regulatory state-or the "nanny state," as it is called in England-needs to justify itself by offering its citizens some form of alleged protection against every conceivable danger. What else could explain an August 23 Associated Press story from London, which begins: "For hungry drinkers just home from the pub, the [British] government has a salutary warning: Don't drink and fry."

The report continues:
Tipsy people frying late-night meals are to blame for many of the house fires that kill about 40 people each year, the government said Monday as it launched an advertising campaign warning of the danger. . . . Some 4,600 people are injured each year while trying to fry chips, or french fries, the government's Health Education Authority said.

Moreover:
"It's a sad fact that many chip-pan fire casualties are caused by late-night cooking while drunk," spokesman Mark Bennett said.

The article ends by revealing that
The government plans to spend the equivalent of $2.4 million on the drive. . . . [The] campaign includes TV ads, posters, and leaflets advising people to use less oil, not to leave pans unattended, not to put food in a pan that is smoking or, simply, to "have a sandwich instead."

Here the psychology of the regulatory state is revealed from the perspective of the regulator. In this view, the individual is foolish and helpless by nature, so he needs to be guided and instructed by the state if he is to survive. Thus, the reach of government intrusion or ham-handed "education" by means of multi-million-dollar ad campaigns must extend even to the most obvious or trivial aspects of life.-RWT

Oppression by Free Products
(October 1999)

The Microsoft antitrust case is centered around the claim that Microsoft is taking away consumers' power of choice by giving away its Internet Explorer web browser for free.
This notion that giving away free products constitutes oppression is now being taken to its logical extreme by one of Ralph Nader's employees. According to an August 31 Associated Press story:

Ann Leonard wasn't surprised to find diaper samples and baby wipes in the gift pack she received as she left the hospital after childbirth. But credit card applications? Life insurance brochures? Chocolate bars? In all, she got five bags filled with corporate promotions-some of which had nothing to do with babies. She lodged a complaint that prompted her hospital to end the practice.

Hospitals across the country regularly give away loads of free stuff, often to parents' delight. But Leonard fears the gift packs prey on vulnerable new parents, who often interpret them as evidence their hospitals endorse the products. "We're thirsty for information and advice," she said. "This was packaged as information and advice from a health-care professional we had come to trust."

She took her complaint to her employer, who happens to be consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Now Nader is urging the American Hospital Association to tell hospitals across the country that it opposes "such crass commercialism at such a sensitive time" for patients.

As with the Microsoft case, these complaints do not arise from spontaneous outrage on the part of consumers. According to the AP story, "Hospitals say that . . . the only complaints they get about freebies are when a competing hospital gives away more than they do." And most grasp that they have the power to control their own lives:

Brynda Fowler of Austin, Texas, said she saved $4 or $5 in diaper coupons and enjoyed the free baby wipes and free diaper bag in her gift pack. As for the credit card and life insurance offers, "I just threw it in the trash," she said.

Why, then, do Leonard and Nader see grounds for complaint? The key is provided in a quote from another young mother who complained:

Here you are a new family, and you have all your anxieties, and you're bombarded by promotional materials. . . . You almost think, to be a good parent, maybe I do need to get all this stuff.

Here the psychology of the regulatory state is revealed from the perspective of the whining consumer. The basic message is: "I am helpless, vulnerable, and easily manipulated. If products are advertised to me, I will be unable to resist buying them. Please save me from myself by taking away my freedom." It is the reaction of those who accept the view of the individual as foolish and helpless-and who see that view reflected in themselves.-RWT

Cuban Boy Shipwrecked on Floating Concepts
(March 2000)

The most remarkable aspect of the controversy over Elian Gonzalez-the Cuban boy whose mother died trying to bring him to the US-is the number of commentators who simply ignore or dismiss the fact that Cuba is a dictatorship. Such a widespread phenomenon cannot be explained only by modern liberals' sympathy for Fidel Castro's communist regime. Another, more fundamental cause is suggested by several recent arguments in support of the federal government's decision to send Elian back to Cuba.

The message of a January 24 editorial in The New Republic is aptly summarized in a headline on the cover: "Family Over Freedom." The decision to send Elian back, the editorial declares, is a victory for "due process." What process do they mean?

The INS went to Cuba and interviewed Elian's father.... Based on his testimony, the testimony of others, and documents attesting to the father's deep involvement in his son's life, the ins decided that Elian should return to live with him.... Given the evidence, the INS would have had to deny Elian's father the right to custody of his child simply because he lives in a dictatorship. To do so would have violated both American law (which stresses family reunification) and elementary morality.

To deny the father's demands "simply because he lives in a dictatorship," The New Republic implies, is a form of discrimination, equivalent to denying a father custody of his child simply because he is black. What could explain such a bizarre position? The last paragraph of the editorial contains the key.

None of this is to imply that Florida's Cuban exiles-and the rest of America's citizens-don't have good reasons to despise Castro's regime.... But to conclude that the nature of a person's government is what invariably determines the quality of his life-to put Elian's freedom to live in the United States above his right to live with his father-is to make politics a synonym for life. And that, ironically, is a signature idea of the totalitarianism the Cuban exiles so passionately oppose.

This paragraph is a product of the contemporary assault on "ideology." In this view-which is promulgated as much by conservatives as by liberals-the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War has discredited, not the specific ideology of socialism, but all ideology as such. The problem, in other words, was not that communist countries were built on the wrong moral and political ideas, but that they were based on any ideas at all. This is what gives rise to the complaints that Elian Gonzalez has been turned into an "ideological pawn" in an outmoded, Cold-War-era conflict.

Under this anti-ideological, anti-intellectual approach, it is impossible even to talk in terms of abstractions as large as "freedom" and "dictatorship." These terms do not refer, in this approach, to the facts about the brutality and repression of totalitarian countries; instead, they become floating concepts unmoored to anything in reality-and thus dismissed as irrelevant.

The low point in this war on abstractions came when the Children's Rights Council, described on CNN's web site as "a Washington-based child advocacy group," issued a statement supporting Elian's return to Cuba. The group's president, David Levy, declared: "We realize Cuba is a dictatorship, but the child would not be living with Fidel Castro, he'd be living with his dad." For Levy, the word "dictatorship" is a noise signifying nothing; without such abstractions to guide him, he is left to fumble around on the perceptual level, judging the case on the basis of mere physical proximity: Elian's father will be close to him, while Castro will not.

This is what ultimately makes the campaign to return Elian Gonzalez possible: not merely corrupt political ideas, but the epistemological collapse that has rendered today's policymakers incapable of grasping any ideas.-RWT

"Soccernomics"
(July 2000)

According to contemporary economic dogma, the economy works in reverse-good news is bad, and bad news is good. If economic growth is strong, markets go down on fears that this will lead, somehow, to a ruinous rise in inflation. Flagging economic growth and rising unemployment, by contrast, are applauded and cause stocks to rise.

The most bizarre version of this already bizarre viewpoint was reported on the sports page of the June 8 edition of the Scotsman, a Scottish newspaper. The report, titled "Holland's Economists Are Banking on Home Defeat," explains:

Dutch economists have urged their national team not to win Euro 2000 [a soccer championship] because victory would overheat the local economy. ABN-Amro, the leading Dutch bank, said the feelgood factor in the country winning the competition would boost consumer spending-a benefit for sluggish economies, but an inflationary danger in the booming Netherlands. "A further boost to confidence could be harmful and that is why we would like to call on the sense of national duty on the part of the Dutch players and managers," the economists said in an analysis entitled Soccernomics.

What makes this claim so grotesquely funny is its crude combination of the "bad is good" dogma with another common fallacy-the belief that the economy is driven by a subjective "feel-good factor." Given this combination of views, perhaps the Dutch should also seek to keep their economy running smoothly by clamping down on sex, chocolate, and any other products or activities that threaten to cause dangerously good feelings.

But behind this unserious economics there is a very serious moral philosophy, a philosophy that drives the "bad news is good" dogma. As economist Richard Salsman observed in the May 1997 issue of TIA, this dogma persists because it fits in with today's predominant philosophic ideal. By its nature, it codifies sacrifice, whether by crucifying the beneficiaries of sound money for the alleged sake of prosperity, or by crucifying the beneficiaries of a prosperous, job-creating economy for the alleged sake of sound money.

In this case, the immediate target of sacrifice is, incredibly, Holland's soccer team. The Scotsman article notes, "The economists said their team was most likely to win due to home advantage-and superior skill." Yet these players are being asked to sacrifice their superior skill in the name of a "sense of national duty."

Bad economic ideas are not the only dogmas the Dutch need to reject; they-and the rest of the world-first need to overthrow the vicious moral dogma of self-sacrifice.-RWT

Faith and Force
(January 2001)

The following is a series of headlines from the front section of the December 10 New York Times. Page 12: "A Widening Political Rift in Ivory Coast: State of Emergency After Clashes Between Muslims and Christians." Page 18: "Mosque Site Rampage Returns to Haunt India." Page 20: "Attack on Mosque in Sudan By Fundamentalists Kills 20." Page 21: "Dutch Groups Call Off an Opera After Muslims Pressure Cast." Could there by any more eloquent expression of the connection between faith and force?-RWT

The "New" Economy Finds Some Old Enemies
(June 2001)

The environmentalist war on man-made power is not just targeting the "old" industrial economy. It is also targeting the "new" information economy.

For years, promoters of Silicon Valley-and environmentalists seeking to cover up their real goals-have claimed that the new "digital" economy, because it "only" deals with information, will make it possible to have strong economic growth while reducing the need for energy. That myth is now being shattered, as Silicon Valley firms are labeled "power hogs" by California's environmentalists. The situation is outlined in an April 30 US News & World Report article, titled "How Green Is the Valley?"

In a swank neighborhood of Palo Alto, Silicon Valley's high-tech community gathered earlier this year for an "Eco-salon" put on by Environmental Entrepreneurs, a group that raises funds for green causes.... The assembled group murmured agreement with Cavanagh's core message: The IT [Information Technology] community can help save both the economy and the environment.

But for all its good intentions, the tech sector has probably contributed more to California's rolling blackouts than to the preservation of its greenery....

In theory, the tech economy should be a greener economy. The Internet can save energy by allowing people to work at home, reducing vehicle fuel consumption and the need for commercial office space.... The trouble is that while the tech-aided economy seems to be more efficient, technology itself is an energy glutton. "The Internet and Internet-related equipment use a sharply increasing amount of energy," says Mark Mills, coeditor of the Huber Mills Digital Power Report, a monthly investment newsletter about power technology. "Every generation of microprocessors consumes more energy than the previous one, and server farms that power the new economy are huge energy users." What's more, Mills says, new innovations prompt Americans to purchase more and more devices, such as PCs, resulting in drastically increased home electricity usage.

Activists are now targeting Silicon Valley for such crimes as buying diesel back-up generators to protect against rolling blackouts and opposing regulations to force the "recycling" of obsolete computers.

But the damage may hit much closer to the heart of the Internet economy.

[Internet] server farms, which got their name from their crop-like rows of identical terminals, are increasingly unpopular in energy-starved California. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an activist group that analyzes the environmental performance of new-economy companies, led a campaign against a massive server approved this month for San Jose. It would use as much energy as 180,000 households.

The lesson is that the futuristic "new" economy cannot afford to make any compromises with a philosophy that wants to drag us back to the oldest of "old" economies: a world without man-made power.-RWT

 

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