Fair Is Fair

This is apparently whizzing around the internet. The question is whether this means that Ayn Rand was a hypocrite. Though it has been decades since I read it, I immediately recalled a short piece by her, I think it it was titled “On Scholarships,” in which she expressed the view that if one is forced to pay taxes, one should not compound this harm by refusing to receive public benefits in compensation. I think that pretty much settles the question of public versus private style hypocrisy, for while Social Security and Medicare are not scholarships, the principle seems to be the same. Rand did nothing here in her private life that she didn’t publicly advocate that others do.

I think that people who perceive Rand through the lens of her effect on American politics, who are supporters of the programs she would have dismantled, fail to appreciate the experiences which led her to this conclusion. Rand grew up in the Soviet Union, at a time when it was almost impossible to get an education or pursue a career of any kind without receiving assistance from the government, because the government had all but destroyed other possibilities. In that context, “why should I destroy myself to express my commitments?” makes some sense. If Rand is to be faulted here, I should think that one of the main objections would have to be a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union, and we have her in part to thank for the unfortunate rhetoric that now circulates in our country likening one’s political opponents and competitors with totalitarianism. But this speaks to other shortcomings than hypocrisy.

Is Rand’s position itself cogent? I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, even given several of her assumptions, her position leaves open the possibility of taking every possible advantage of public support as long as one disapproves of it. (I’m not sure how vocal this disapproval has to be; it seems clear that discernible expressions of approval are impermissible). It seems to me that this only makes sense in the context of a system like the Soviet Union, where all alternatives are effectively precluded. Surely in a society where opportunities for activity without public support are available, someone who disapproves of public support should strive to pursue those opportunities as much as possible to the exclusion of publicly supported ones? And what precisely does it mean to say one “disapproves” if one does nothing concrete to manifest this disapproval? This seems to me not nearly demanding enough morally, given the other assumptions. Second, if accepting public assistance is to be understood as restitution, shouldn’t there be some obligation by the libertarian recipient to confine what they receive to something approximating what is taken from them? Again, in a totalitarian society, such calculations become meaningless, impossible, but that is far from the case here. And there are further moral reasons why it might be wise to do so. Patronage softens one’s resolve to judge patrons honestly, and often involves submission to conditions that might compromise one’s autonomy. It is for this reason that Hillsdale College famously eschews federal aid or students who receive it. According to Rand, they are just being silly.

Whether Rand’s whole position even makes sense from the get-go is another matter. It depends on a certain understanding of what taxation and property rights are that can certainly be questioned, which leads to the conclusion that taxation, regardless of representation, is theft. I think that’s wrong in ways that are not likely to be controversial to non-libertarians: tax obligations and property rights are both creatures of the law and the state, which when democratic, are the product of collective decision-making and self-governance. There are moral interests which give rise to these kinds of laws, to be sure. But one should not confuse the moral interests with the laws themselves. Furthermore, excessively taxing the productive to excessively subsidize those who choose despite their capacities to be unproductive falls afoul of certain important moral interests, but this is not stealing, however much we might like to call it that.* One can both revile theft and view all sorts of redistributivist policies with worry and dismay without regarding the operation of law in a free society as itself theft. All that would require much more elaborate defense, but then again, so would Rand’s views. Fair is fair.

*I’m not assuming anything particular policy answers to this description, just that if one did, we would be right to be concerned about it.

General All Over

Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

— James Joyce, “The Dead”

Honor Them

by remembering them: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis. And by continuing their work.

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me.
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me.

— Sonny Rhodes, “Ballad of Serenity”

The Law School Monster

Over at Last Psychiatrist there is some discussion of law school as scam and law school students as marks. Though I am dismayed to see aspiring law school students characterized as helpless babies who need some sort of consumer protection from something that, in my experience, they would kill to get a shot at, there is an element of truth in the idea that there is something wrong with the way we currently train lawyers. One of the commenters there suggested that all the doctrine courses are worthless, and that one’s time would be better spent in internships or something. Speaking as a member of a state Bar, I would say that is almost right, but not quite. Exposure to case law, especially at the same time that one is doing the writing/research courses, rewires your brain in far-reaching ways that are a necessary condition of lawyering, independent of what you retain. I probably retained my 1L classes, Con Law, Evidence, some of Remedies, and (oddly) Employment Discrimination. But the rest of it was not for nought, because it set up that proverbial “thinking like a lawyer” thing. The danger of learning the law entirely through practice is that practices other than the big firms tend to specialize, and seeing the law through the lens of a small area can create an illusion of understanding about everything you don’t practice in. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but if I take my car to the shop, even if I take it to someone that only does brakes, I’d like her to know that “that transmission really doesn’t sound right, you should have that looked at.” Where I went there were useful things that were not sexy, meaningless electives, things like clinic, pre-trial litigation, judicial extern. But clearly law school cannot replace experience. And though I don’t think I would’ve passed the Bar without BarBri, the areas I had extra coursework in (mostly UCC stuff) did make the process of studying a lot easier, as I could focus on the stuff I hadn’t taken more and get a cushion.

The question in my mind is whether this much law school, three years worth, is necessary or desirable. (Whether it should be so expensive is a chicken/egg problem, since you cannot teach law school, on the whole, without going to one first, which opens the door to more lucrative employment, which the schools must outbid). I think probably not, for a couple of reasons. In the past, and for all I know still in some Commonwealth countries, studying law meant majoring in it, as an undergraduate, and the content of the courses required for the major were close to what you now get as a 1L. At the end of the day, you’d get an LL.B. and then do whatever to practice. I think this makes more sense than our current system, but also more sense than a pure apprenticeship model. It would cut the law schools down to something more closely resembling a college in a university, which for the most part is what they are supposed to be, and eliminate the obscene, pig-in-a-poke cost of entry to the profession. But most important, it would give undergraduates an opportunity to learn something enlightening for citizenship. You really can’t make sense of your own society as a political structure without knowing something about law beyond what you get from a newspaper, but as it is now, it’s very unlikely that a non-lawyer will pick up enough of this to be able to (for example) see through the pundits’ lies about legislative agenda and vote responsibly. Majoring in polysci just doesn’t do it, for the same reason that studying the sociology of medicine prepares you to perform brain surgery. This means that to a large extent the only people truly competent to evaluate politics in this country are the politicians themselves (many or most of whom have been to law school), and while I am unusual in thinking that they aren’t nearly as bad as we like to tell ourselves, their incentives would tend to be skewed in predictable ways. This is all a shame. I don’t want there to be less law school; I want it more equally distributed, and cheap enough that the cost of being exposed to it is at least no greater than being exposed to English literature. This, I would think, would also demystify the law a great deal, and take away some of the incentives that send some to law school looking for importance and identity instead of a useful craft.

Aren’t You Glad…

…that Isabella and Ferdinand weren’t Americans? because if they had been, there wouldn’t be any. For elaboration on the paradox, read this. I’m sure that somewhere in their government, there were complaints about oceanic exploration costing too much at even less than 1% of the national budget, and that the spin-off technologies were insufficient to justify the costs. Perhaps there were even complaints about how it was all about subsidizing the builders of big ships and the oversized egos of Italian adventurers. But take a moment and look at your feet. The ground below it? That wouldn’t be under your feet had it not been for that “wasteful” spending. And in all likelihood, that would be not because your feet would be standing on some other soil, but because they, and you, wouldn’t exist at all.

This country is spending billions of dollars it doesn’t currently have to repair old roads. Later, it will spend money it doesn’t have paying off the debt to the people who loaned it to them. And those people will be building the New Roads. Thank God someone will.