Jeffrey Tucker

Anthem by Ayn Rand

I’m pleased to see Laissez Faire Books publishing a new edition of this book. I may be unusual in this, but Anthem happens to be my favorite of Rand’s four major works of fiction. It is pithy, pared down to essentials, and more poetic. This guest editorial was originally published as the editorial preface of the new edition. — GAP

Anthem by Ayn Rand

“The author does not understand socialism,” read the letter from MacMillan in reply to the submission of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem. They turned it down. Actually, the publisher didn’t understand socialism. Hardly anyone did in 1937, when this book was written. Rand, however, did understand socialism. She understood it so well that she knew it would result in the opposite of what it promised and that its proponents would eventually come to embrace its grim reality, rather than repudiate the system of thought.

In many ways, this book is one of the best dystopian novels ever written because it puts the central focus on the key failing of socialism: its opposition to progress. How is that possible given that progress is a central slogan in socialist thinking? The problem is that by collectivizing private property, socialism removes the machinery of progress itself. It abolishes prices and profits and calculation and the incentive to create. It puts a premium on political control, and politicians resent the revolutionary implications of entrepreneurship. Therefore, a consistently socialist society would not only be poor and backward; it would revel in those features and call them the goal.

Think about it. This was the 1930s, long before the environmental movement and long before the primitivist streak in socialist thinking was to emerge as an outright agenda to be imposed by force. But as a child in the old Soviet Union, Rand had seen it in action. She had seen how entrepreneurship and creativity had to be sacrificed for the collective, and how this drove civilization straight into the ground. A totalitarian society would not be a world with amazing technology and flying cars, but would exist only at a subsistence level. And it would try to stay that way.

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Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

Before the third of the Batman trilogy hit theaters, I had heard that The Dark Knight Rises was a film without hope, with a long and dreary narrative that never loosens its grip. It leaves the viewer without a sense of answers.

I saw it and left confused. It saw it again, and left confused again. All the while, I kept wondering if this interpretive effort would pay off. Maybe it’s just another movie and lacks the ideological significance of the previous two.

I too had read several reviews that had condemned the film from a left-wing point view, arguing that it took a cheap shot at the Occupy Wall Street movement, suggesting that it consists mainly of brainless menaces who are easily manipulated by a strongman leader. The filmmakers deny this.

Regardless, this was probably the best political feature of the film.

However, the merit of its warning about left-wing populism was seriously compromised by the portrayal of the Gotham cops as saintly guardians of the social order. Neoconservatives loved this part of the film, made all the better to them because the prisons are full and Gotham is ruled by a civilian-led authoritarian regime of tight law and surveillance — the neocon dream come true.

What’s going on here? Why is the movie so full of mixed messages and, in the end, so unsatisfying?

Finally, it hit me. And this will be perfectly obvious once you hear it.

The problem is that the film gives Gotham (and us) a choice between two forms of despotism, one “left wing” and one “right wing,” and asks us to choose the lesser of two evils. We can have one of two systems: bureaucratic/authoritarian or revolutionary/dictatorial. The idea of a self-managing society is just out of the question. The film biases that choice by showing one as offered by the evil villain and the other by a corrupt, yet stable status quo.

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ARTICLE | Market Failure? The Case of Copyright Thumbnail

Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

How gigantically humongous and intrusive is the federal government? A traditional measure is to look at the pages of regulations in the Federal Register, which is, by now, probably the world’s largest book collection. The problem with this approach is that it takes no account of how a single bad regulation can have monstrously deleterious effects.

Copyright regulation is a good example of this. There was no universal enforcement until the very late part of the 19th century, and terms were mostly short in the early days of this regulation. In the course of the 20th century, regulations became ever more tight and the copyright terms ever longer, so much so that today, the words you sign away to a conventional publisher are theirs to keep for your lifetime plus 70 years!

One standard argument for doing this is that noncopyrighted works will not be efficiently exploited. You have to assign ownership or else the resource will vanish into the ether. No one will care about it, and civilization will lose extremely valuable literary works. Our market for ideas will be impoverished.

Now, to me, this argument seems obviously false, but that’s probably because of my own experience in publishing. I’ve seen it happen — so many times that it is predictable — that once a work has fallen out of print but is still under some kind of protection, it is mostly neglected by the heirs. No one who “owns” the work has the incentive to bring it to light, while those who care about it fear the law or don’t want to pay some arbitrary price set by the owners.

Meanwhile, when a work is public domain, there are dozens of people bidding to get it into print. This was true all throughout history, actually. The reason American school kids in the 19th century read British literature is that it was not regulated in the United States, and therefore, it could be sold very cheaply and distributed very widely. It is true today: Whether music or books, the material in the commons is far more in demand than that which is regulated. And the demand leads to the supply.

In other words, the opposite of the conventional exploitation theory is correct. The copyrighted works drop from memory, while the public domain works last and last. But of course, this observation draws from my deep involvement in the industry, and we can’t expect academic scribblers to understand anything about how the world actually works in real life.

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Sharis Pozen

DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Sharis Pozen
DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Get this: The federal bureaucrat who last month started the litigation against Apple and book publishers for ebook pricing is the same person who, back in the stone age, represented Netscape in its lawsuit against Microsoft.

Recall that Microsoft was trying to give away its Internet Explorer to computer users for free. Netscape went nuts and got the government to clobber Microsoft for being so nice to consumers. It put the company through litigation hell and even demanded that Microsoft change its operating system code to untie it from IE.

The person’s name is Sharis Pozen, and she is acting head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and a political appointee of the Obama administration. She claims that she is threatening state violence against Apple and publishers for pricing collusion — and that it’s her job to protect consumers.

Interesting. She began her career trying to protect the rights of an old-line company to rip off consumers. To her, a price of zero was unfair competition. She was sure that a browser should be a paid product. The progress of history flattens that argument. Today, dozens of companies beg you to download their browser for free. Browser use is all over the place, sort of like a free market. There is no Microsoft monopoly, contrary to the overheated predictions.

Given that history, one might suppose she would retire from public life and maybe go into flower arranging or something. Instead, she is still at it. Last year, she denied a proposed merger between T-Mobile and AT&T that would have improved your cell service. This year, she says that a deal between publishers and Apple is harming consumers, so she has to act.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Whatever good you have heard about The Hunger Games, the reality is more spectacular. Not only is this the literary phenom of our time, but the movie that created near pandemonium for a week from its opening is a lasting contribution to art and to the understanding of our world. It’s more real than we know.

In the story, a totalitarian and centralized state — it seems to be some kind of unelected autocracy — keeps a tight grip on its colonies to prevent a repeat of the rebellion that occurred some 75 years ago. They do this through the forced imposition of material deprivation, by unrelenting propaganda about the evil of disobedience to the interests of the nation-state and with “Hunger Games” as annual entertainment.

In this national drama and sport, and as a continuing penance for past sedition, the central state randomly selects two teens from each of the 12 districts and puts them into a fight-to-the-death match in the woods, one watched like a reality show by every resident. The districts are supposed to cheer for their representatives and hope that one of their selected teens will be the one person who prevails.

So amidst dazzling pageantry, media glitz and public hysteria, these 24 kids — who would otherwise be living normal lives — are sent to kill each other without mercy in a bloody zero-sum game. They are first transported to the opulent capitol city and wined, dined, and trained. Then the games begin.

At the very outset, many are killed on the spot in the struggle to grab weapons from a stockpile. From there, coalitions form among the groups, however temporary they may be. Everyone knows there can only be one winner in the end, but alliances — formed on the basis of class, race, personality, etc. — can provide a temporary level of protection.

Watching all this take place is harrowing to say the least, but the public in the movie does watch as a type of reality television. This is the ultimate dog-eat-dog setting, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But it is also part of a game the kids are forced to play. This is not a state of nature. In real life, they wouldn’t have the need to kill or be killed. They wouldn’t see each other as enemies. They wouldn’t form into evolving factions for self-protection.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

So you want to see Hunger Games when it comes out on Thursday at midnight? It’s not likely that you will get the chance. Tickets in my community have been sold out for weeks. In fact, the first 10 showings of the film are sold out. This disappoints me greatly because it is one of the few teen flicks I’ve really wanted to see.

The whole phenomenon seems set to make the Harry Potter hysteria and the Twilight mania seem like warm-up acts. Ask around among teens, and you will hear this confirmed. This is a true example of mass frenzy. Actually, the whole thing seems like a modern “madness of crowds.” It’s “pandemonium,” as People magazine put it.

Both the plot line and the marketing genius have lessons for our time.

Based on a book by Suzanne Collins that came out in 2008, the film tells the story of an impoverished, totalitarian society in which rebellion among the subjects is punished by the creation of a killing game for mass entertainment. A teenage girl is put in the position to kill or be killed, but she cleverly plots to stand up to the regime by cooperating with her opponent. Together, they win the hearts of the crowd and bring the regime to its knees.

In other words, it is a story about personal freedom against a powerful state, a tale of courage and defiance in the face of power. The reviews by actual readers (versus professional critics) are over the top. It’s Amazon’s No. 1, and it has 4,000 reviews and counting. This is a phenom.

Aside from the plot line, there is something contemporary about the theme of sheer deprivation and survival. It sums up the way young people are looking at the opportunities they are being presented in these times. We aren’t playing hunger games yet, but when an entire generation is pretty sure that it will not fare as well as its parents’ generation, that’s not good. Life seems like the zero-sum game posited in the film.

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The Lorax

Anyone who read Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as a kid might dread the movie version. No one really needs another moralizing, hectoring lecture from environmentalists on the need to save the trees from extinction, especially since that once-fashionable cause seems ridiculously overwrought today. There is no shortage of trees and this is due not to nationalization so much as the privatization and cultivation of forest land.

And yet, even so, the movie is stunning and beautiful in every way, with a message that taps into something important, something with economic and political relevance for us today. In fact, the movie improves on the book with the important addition of “Thneed-Ville,” a community of people who live in a completely artificial world lorded over by a mayor who also owns the monopoly on oxygen.

This complicates the relatively simple narrative of the book, which offers a story of a depleted environment that doesn’t actually make much sense. The original posits an entrepreneur who discovers that he can make a “Thneed” — a kind of all-purpose cloth — out of the tufts of the “Truffula Tree,” and that this product is highly marketable.

Now, in real life, any capitalist in this setting would know exactly what to do: immediately get to work planting and cultivating more Truffula trees. This is essential capital that makes the business possible and sustainable through time. You want more rather than less capital. An egg producer doesn’t kill his chickens; he breeds more. But in the book (and the movie), the capitalist does the opposite. He cuts down all the trees and, surprise, his business goes bust.

The book ends with the aging capitalist regretting his life and passing on the last Truffula seed to the next generation. The end. However, the movie introduces us to the town that is founded after this depletion occurs. It is shielded off from the poisoned and depleted world outside, and oxygen is pumped in by the mayor who holds the monopoly on air and builds Lenin-like statues to himself. The people eventually rise up when they discover that “air is free” and thereby overthrow the despot, chopping off the statue’s head.

It was this line about how air is free that clued me in to the movie’s possible subtext. You only need to add one metaphor to see how this movie can be the most important and relevant political-economic drama of the season.

The metaphorical substitution is this: The Trees are Ideas.

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