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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Reading List: An Enemy of the State

Raimondo, Justin. An Enemy of the State. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000. ISBN 978-1-57392-809-0.
Had Murray Rothbard been a man of the Left, he would probably be revered today as one of the towering intellects of the twentieth century. Certainly, there was every reason from his origin and education to have expected him to settle on the Left: the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, he grew up in a Jewish community in New York City where, as he later described it, the only question was whether one would join the Communist Party or settle for being a fellow traveller. He later remarked that, “I had two sets of Communist Party uncles and aunts, on both sides of my family.” While studying for his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in the 1940s and '50s, he was immersed in a political spectrum which ranged from “Social Democrats on the ‘right’ to Stalinists on the left”.

Yet despite the political and intellectual milieu surrounding him, Rothbard followed his own compass, perhaps inherited in part from his fiercely independent father. From an early age, he came to believe individual liberty was foremost among values, and that based upon that single desideratum one could deduce an entire system of morality, economics, natural law, and governance which optimised the individual's ability to decide his or her own destiny. In the context of the times, he found himself aligned with the Old Right: the isolationist, small government, and hard money faction of the Republican Party which was, in the Eisenhower years, approaching extinction as “conservatives” acquiesced to the leviathan “welfare-warfare state” as necessary to combat the Soviet menace. Just as Rothbard began to put the foundations of the Old Right on a firm intellectual basis, the New Right of William F. Buckley and his “coven of ex-Communists” at National Review drove the stake through that tradition, one of the first among many they would excommunicate from the conservative cause as they defined it.

Rothbard was a disciple of Ludwig von Mises, and applied his ideas and those of other members of the Austrian school of economics to all aspects of economics, politics, and culture. His work, both scholarly and popular, is largely responsible for the influence of Austrian economics today. (Here is a complete bibliography of Rothbard's publications.)

Rothbard's own beliefs scarcely varied over his life, and yet as the years passed and the political tectonic plates shifted, he found himself aligned with the Old Right, the Ayn Rand circle (from which he quickly extricated himself after diagnosing the totalitarian tendencies of Rand and the cult-like nature of her followers), the nascent New Left (before it was taken over by communists), the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute, and finally back to the New Old Right, with several other zigs and zags along the way. In each case, Rothbard embraced his new allies and threw himself into the cause, only to discover that they were more interested in factionalism, accommodation with corrupt power structures, or personal ambition than the principles which motivated him.

While Rothbard's scholarly publications alone dwarf those of many in the field, he was anything but an ivory tower academic. He revelled in the political fray, participating in campaigns, writing speeches and position papers, formulating strategy, writing polemics aimed at the general populace, and was present at the creation of several of the key institutions of the contemporary libertarian movement. Fully engaged in the culture, he wrote book and movie reviews, satire, and commentary on current events. Never discouraged by the many setbacks he experienced, he was always a “happy warrior”, looking at the follies of the society around him with amusement and commenting wittily about them in his writings. While eschewing grand systems and theories of history in favour of an entirely praxeology-based view of the social sciences (among which he counted economics, rejecting entirely the mathematically-intense work of pseudoscientists who believed one could ignore human action when analysing the aggregate behaviour of human actors), he remained ever optimistic that liberty would triumph in the end simply because it works better, and will inevitably supplant authoritarian schemes which constrain the human potential.

This is a well-crafted overview of Rothbard's life, work, and legacy by an author who knew and worked with Rothbard in the last two decades of his career. Other than a coruscating animus toward Buckley and his minions, it provides a generally even-handed treatment of the many allies and adversaries (often the same individuals at different times) with which Rothbard interacted over his career. Chapter 7 provides an overview and reading guide to Rothbard's magisterial History of Economic Thought, which is so much more—essentially a general theory of the social sciences—that you'll probably be persuaded to add it to your reading list.

Posted at 22:07 Permalink

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reading List: Children of Apollo

Whittington, Mark R. Children of Apollo. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2002. ISBN 978-1-4010-4592-0.
This is a brilliant concept and well-executed (albeit with some irritating flaws I will discuss below). This novel is within the genre of “alternative history” and, conforming to the rules, takes a single counterfactual event as the point of departure for a recounting of the 1970s as I, and I suspect many others, expected that decade to play out at its dawn. It is a celebration of what might have been, and what we have lost compared to the future we chose not to pursue.

In the novel's timeline, an obscure CIA analyst writes a memo about the impact Soviet efforts to beat the U.S. to the Moon are having upon the Soviet military budget and economy, and this memo makes it to the desk of President Nixon shortly after the landing of Apollo 11. Nixon is persuaded by his senior advisors that continuing and expanding the Apollo and follow-on programs (whose funding had been in decline since 1966) would be a relatively inexpensive way to, at the least, divert funds which would otherwise go to Soviet military and troublemaking around the world and, at the best, bankrupt their economy because an ideology which proclaimed itself the “wave of the future” could not acquiesce to living under a “capitalist Moon”.

Nixon and his staff craft a plan thoroughly worthy of the “Tricky Dick” moniker he so detested, and launch a program largely modelled upon the 1969 Space Task Group report, with the addition of transitioning the space shuttle recommended in the report to competitive procurement of transportation services from the private sector. This sets off the kind of steady, yet sustainable, expansion of the human presence into space that von Braun always envisioned. At the same time, it forces the Soviets, the Luddite caucus in Congress, and the burgeoning environmental movement into a corner, and they're motivated to desperate measures to bring an end to what some view as destiny but they see as disaster.

For those interested in space who lived through the 1970s and saw dream after dream dashed, downscoped, or deferred, this is a delightful and well-crafted exploration of how it could have been. Readers too young to remember the 1970s may miss a number of the oblique references to personalities and events of that regrettable decade.

The Kindle edition is perfectly readable, reasonably inexpensive, but sloppily produced. A number of words are run together and hyphenated words in the print edition not joined. Something funny appears to have happened in translating passages in italics into the electronic edition—I can't quite figure out what, but I'm sure the author didn't intend parts of words to be set in italics. In addition there are a number of errors in both the print and Kindle editions which would have been caught by a sharp-eyed copy editor. I understand that this is a self-published work, but there are many space buffs (including this one) who would have been happy to review the manuscript and check it for both typographical and factual errors.

Posted at 22:44 Permalink

Friday, April 15, 2011


Most libertarians and conservatives have great respect for the rule of law and civil discourse. They're inclined to assume their opponents are well-intentioned adversaries with a different vision of how to better the general welfare. This is an error: they are not “liberals” or “progressives”, as they call themselves, but rather enemies of liberty and progress. Enemies explores why champions of liberty must defeat them and how that might be accomplished.

Posted at 22:07 Permalink

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reading List: Theories of International Politics and Zombies

Drezner, Daniel W. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-691-14783-3.
“A specter is haunting world politics….” (p. 109) Contemporary international politics and institutions are based upon the centuries-old system of sovereign nation-states, each acting in its own self interest in a largely anarchic environment. This system has seen divine right monarchies supplanted by various forms of consensual government, dictatorships, theocracies, and other forms of governance, and has survived industrial and technological revolutions, cataclysmic wars, and reorganisation of economic systems and world trade largely intact. But how will this system come to terms with a new force on the world stage: one which transcends national borders, acts upon its own priorities regardless of the impact upon nation-states, inexorably recruits adherents wherever its presence becomes established, admits of no defections from its ranks, is immune to rational arguments, presents an asymmetrical threat against which conventional military force is largely ineffective and tempts free societies to sacrifice liberty in the interest of security, and is bent on supplanting the nation-state system with a worldwide regime free of the internal conflicts which seem endemic in the present international system?

I am speaking, of course, about the Zombie Menace. The present book is a much-expanded version of the author's frequently-cited article on his Web log at Foreign Policy magazine. In it, he explores how an outbreak of flesh-eating ghouls would be responded to based on the policy prescriptions of a variety of theories of international relations, including structural realism, liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism, and postmodern social constructivism. In addition, he describes how the zombie threat would affect domestic politics in Western liberal democracies, and how bureaucratic institutions, domestic and international, would react to the emerging crisis (bottom line: turf battles).

The author makes no claim to survey the policy prescriptions of all theories: “To be blunt, this project is explicitly prohuman, whereas Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p. 17, footnote) The social implications of a burgeoning zombie population are also probed, including the inevitable emergence of zombie rights groups and non-governmental organisations on the international stage. How long can it be until zombie suffrage marchers take (or shuffle) to the streets, waving banners proclaiming “Zombies are (or at least were) people too!”?

This is a delightful and thoughtful exploration of a hypothetical situation in international politics which, if looked at with the right kind of (ideally, non-decaying) eyes, has a great deal to say about events in the present-day world. There are extensive source citations, both to academic international relations and zombie literature, and you're certain to come away with a list of films you'll want to see. Anne Karetnikov's illustrations are wonderful.

The author is professor of international politics at Tufts University and a member of the Zombie Research Society. I must say I'm dismayed that Princeton University Press condones the use of the pejorative and hurtful term “zombie”. How hard would it be to employ the non-judgemental “person of reanimation” instead?

Posted at 21:14 Permalink

Friday, April 1, 2011

Reading List: Known and Unknown

Rumsfeld, Donald. Known and Unknown. New York: Sentinel, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59523-067-6.
In his career in public life and the private sector, spanning more than half a century, the author was:

  • A Naval aviator, reaching the rank of Captain.
  • A Republican member of the House of Representatives from Illinois spanning the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.
  • Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Stabilization Program in the Nixon administration, both agencies he voted against creating while in Congress.
  • Ambassador to NATO in Brussels.
  • White House Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford.
  • Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration, the youngest person to have ever held that office.
  • CEO of G. D. Searle, a multinational pharmaceutical company, which he arranged to be sold to Monsanto.
  • Special Envoy to the Middle East during the Reagan administration.
  • National chairman of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
  • Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, the oldest person to have ever held that office.

This is an extraordinary trajectory through life, and Rumsfeld's memoir is correspondingly massive: 832 pages in the hardcover edition. The parts which will be most extensively dissected and discussed are those dealing with his second stint at DOD, and the contentious issues regarding the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, treatment of detainees, interrogation methods, and other issues which made him a lightning rod during the administration of Bush fils. While it was interesting to see his recollection of how these consequential decisions were made, documented by extensive citations of contemporary records, I found the overall perspective of how decision-making was done over his career most enlightening. Nixon, Ford, and Bush all had very different ways of operating their administrations, all of which were very unlike those of an organisation such as NATO or a private company, and Rumsfeld, who experienced all of them in a senior management capacity, has much wisdom to share about what works and what doesn't, and how one must adapt management style and the flow of information to the circumstances which obtain in each structure.

Many supportive outside observers of the G. W. Bush presidency were dismayed at how little effort was made by the administration to explain its goals, strategy, and actions to the public. Certainly, the fact that it was confronted with a hostile legacy media which often seemed to cross the line from being antiwar to rooting for the other side didn't help, but Rumsfeld, the consummate insider, felt that the administration forfeited opportunity after opportunity to present its own case, even by releasing source documents which would in no way compromise national security but show the basis upon which decisions were made in the face of the kind of ambiguous and incomplete information which confronts executives in all circumstances.

The author's Web site provides a massive archive of source documents cited in the book, along with a copy of the book's end notes which links to them. Authors, this is how it's done! A transcript of an extended interview with the author is available; it was hearing this interview which persuaded me to buy the book. Having read it, I recommend it to anybody who wishes to comprehend how difficult it is to be in a position where one must make decisions in a fog of uncertainty, knowing the responsibility for them will rest solely with the decider, and that not to decide is a decision in itself which may have even more dire consequences. As much as Bush's national security team was reviled at the time, one had the sense that adults were in charge.

A well-produced Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, footnotes, and source citations all properly linked to the text. One curiosity in the Kindle edition is that in the last 40% of the book the word “after” is capitalised everywhere it appears, even in the middle of a sentence. It seems that somebody in the production process accidentally hit “global replace” when attempting to fix a single instance. While such fat-finger errors happen all the time whilst editing documents, it's odd that a prestigious publisher (Sentinel is a member of the Penguin Group) would not catch such a blunder in a high profile book which went on to top the New York Times best seller list.

Posted at 22:09 Permalink