The Supreme Court today decided a very interesting antitrust case that may benefit economic freedom in the long run. I explain at the PLF Liberty Blog.
Some days ago, as guests at the International Students for Liberty Conference prepared to hear from one of their heroes, Ron Paul, three students--Aarón Shelby Baca, Mackenzie Holst, and Cory Massimino--presented "An Open Letter to Ron Paul," taking Paul and his allies to task for their bigoted and anti-libertarian positions.
Readers of this blog know that I have long warned about the shabby counterfeit of Paul's libertarian credentials. He is not, in fact, a libertarian, but an authoritarian states rights conservative, who, to name just one example, believes that the state has the right to send its armed agents into your bedroom to drag you from the arms of your loved ones if you have sex in ways the majority finds distasteful.
Baca, Holst, and Massimino were shouted down as they tried to make their case, by students so wedded to groupthink and partisanship that they would prefer to shut their ears to the truth. One cannot imagine a less libertarian attitude. But on the other hand, there are those like Baca, Holst, and Massimino, who will stand up for the truth and stand up for freedom even when those values are threatened by their friends. And those who love truth more than their friends, and love freedom enough to resist their own "side," will always have a truer claim to the label "libertarian." I for one congratulate Aarón Shelby Baca, Mackenzie Holst, and Cory Massimino for their bravery and their honesty in setting forth this long-overdue challenge to the libertarian community.
Here is the text of their letter:
Dear Dr. Ron Paul,
We would like to preface this letter by pointing out it is written with the utmost respect and appreciation for all you have done to contribute to the freedom philosophy and human liberty. However, as principled supporters of liberty, we find your appearance at the International Students For Liberty Conference troubling for a few reasons. Most of which relate to your past and current associations with certain individuals and organizations that we find un-libertarian.
We believe many of the people you have aligned yourself with and continue to align yourself with are libertarians only in name and their true ideology is one more akin to a bigoted and authoritarian paleo-conservatism. Your appearance at Mises Circle in Houston, Texas just a few weeks ago is a prime example of this.
The prevalence of an age gap in the libertarian movement has been underscored by the ideas discussed in conferences such as the Mises Circle and put forth by the Mises Institute itself. “Millennial” or “Second-wave” libertarianism is not going away and there seems to be irreconcilable differences between these new libertarians and the old guard, which includes figures such as Lew Rockwell, Hans Herman-Hoppe, Walter Block, Gary North, and yourself. In this letter, we would like to highlight the downright absurdity promoted by this obsolete style of thinking, as delineated in the racist, homophobic, and sexist undertones present in these thinkers’ writings.
The themes of bigotry at the Mises Circle and in many of your colleague’s writings are obvious. At the Mises Circle, Lew Rockwell, founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, compared the life of people under modern nation states to literal chattel slavery. We admit the state is a gang of thieves writ large. But this analogy is downright offensive to people have suffered actual chattel slavery as well as people who have relatively great living standards under modern states. Libertarians can expose the evils of statism without resorting to bad metaphors with blatantly obvious racist undertones.
Hans Herman-Hoppe, distinguished fellow of the Mises Institute, wrote just last year that, “it is societies dominated by white heterosexual males, and in particular by the most successful among them, which have produced and accumulated the greatest amount of capital goods and achieved the highest average living standards.” Hoppe has also advocated violence against homosexuals and other people who live lifestyles he doesn’t approve of, “There can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They-the advocates of alternative, non-family-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism-will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” The racist and homophobic themes in these passages speak for themselves.
Walter Block, senior fellow at the Mises Institute, has argued, “Feminists and gays aren’t libertarians.” Also on the topic of homosexuals, Block has written, “If a seventeen year old is an adult, and voluntarily wants to have sex with an adult homosexual man, I may not like it. I may be revolted by it.” If that wasn’t clear enough, Block has made his bigoted views explicit, “I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior.” In addition, he has put forth the idea that “lower black IQs” could explain productivity differences between blacks and whites. Again, the arguments speak for themselves.
Gary North, an associated scholar at the Mises Institute, is an outspoken Christian Reconstructionist and supporter of biblical theocracy. North advocates capital punishment by means of stoning for women who lie about their virginity, blasphemers, nonbelievers, children who curse their parents, male homosexuals, and other people who commit acts deemed capital offense in the Old Testament. These views are certainly not representative of the libertarianism we’ve come to know and love.
And then there’s you. The now infamous newsletters that had your signature several years ago contained rhetoric referring to people of color as “animals”, asserted that homosexuals with HIV “enjoy the pity and attention that comes with being sick,” and went so far as to sanction anti-semitic views.
When questioned about these newsletters in 1996, you told the Dallas Morning News, “Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” You didn’t dispute the newsletters and you certainly never condemned this: “If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet of foot they can be,” which appeared along with your signature.
Bigoted subtext has consistently been condoned by so-called “pro-liberty” individuals; a contradiction of the most offensive degree. Liberty cannot exist if individuals of any group are viewed as inferior, whether it is outright, or merely in the connotations of an argument. Suppression means the absence of liberty; something the founding fathers of Libertarianism built up a wealth of rhetoric against. Hypocrisy to this extent cannot be permitted any longer in the libertarian movement.
In Ludwig von Mises’ classic work, Liberalism, he identified tolerance as a fundamental value of a free society, “Liberalism demands tolerance as a matter of principle, not from opportunism. It demands toleration even of obviously nonsensical teachings, absurd forms of heterodoxy, and childishly silly superstitions. It demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society and even for movements that it indefatigably combats. For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.”
This isn’t about guilt by association. It’s about condemning evil, illiberal ideas and being clear about your principles. You continue to hide behind your prestige, refusing to admit this intolerance exists, although it was your name signed on the papers, and you who allowed this bigoted mentality to perpetuate by being closely associated with the Mises Institute. As the icon of the libertarian movement, you have a duty to eliminate this intolerance, not sit back and let it destroy the cause you helped create.
Do you think the Ludwig von Mises Institute has really embraced its namesake’s crucial insight here? Do you think you have? If not, then tell us. Condemn all forms of bigotry and intolerance as unlibertarian. Denounce these connections and the ideas of sexism, homophobia, and racism that have infected the Mises Institute and by extension the libertarian movement. Reclaim Mises and true liberalism. If libertarianism is to advance in the coming century, we must continue to build a community of peace, acceptance, and tolerance and whether you like it or not, it starts with you.
Sincerely and For Liberty and Tolerance,
Aarón Shelby Baca, Mackenzie Holst, and Cory Massimino
The Blaze today carries my article on "Competitor's Veto" laws--laws that forbid you from starting a business unless you get permission from your own competition first. Excerpt:
Unlike ordinary licensing rules that require a person to have a degree or pass a test before getting a license, these laws have nothing to do with whether a person is qualified. Instead, they allow established companies a special opportunity to object whenever a person applies for a license. When an objection is filed, the would-be entrepreneur must attend a lengthy and expensive hearing, to prove to state bureaucrats that there is a “public need” for a new company.
That’s no easy task, given that most of these laws are written in such vague language that nobody knows what they mean. What is a “public convenience and necessity”? Typically it’s whatever the government says it is. And if officials decide new competition isn’t necessary, they can deny a person the right to start a new business, no matter how skilled or qualified he may be.
I recently sat down with my friend Anthony Dynar to record an episode of his podcast Torture Vision, which in this case is an apt name, since we talked about the themes of totalitarianism in The Twilight Zone, particularly the episode "It's A Good Life." That episode, based on the short story by Jerome Bixby, is a brilliant exposé of totalitarian rule.
In the podcast, I mention Gyula Illyés's poem "A Sentence on Tyranny." You can read it here.
I expand on my comments about R.E.M.'s classic song, "Losing My Religion," here.
The passage from the Psalms that I cite is from Psalm 137, when the captives hung their harps upon the willows, weeping as they remembered Zion, but "they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth."
I'll be speaking at
Feb. 18: Placer County Tea Party, about The Conscience of The Constitution - 7pm info
Feb. 28: California GOP Convention, Sacramento, about Obamacare and other abuses - 10am info
Mar 5: Boston University Federalist Society, about The Right to Earn A Living - noon info
Mar 6: MIT Young Americans for Liberty, Boston - noon info
Mar. 9: Chapman Federalist Society, Orange, Ca., (with Christina Sandefur), about the lawlessness of Obamacare - noon info
Apr. 9: New York University Federalist Society about The Conscience of The Constitution - noon info
The Missoulian today carries my article about PLF's latest economic liberty case.
Today is the birthday of one of our greatest—and least well-known—founding fathers, Thomas Paine. Although one of the best-selling authors in history, whose Common Sense largely persuaded the public to endorse American independence, Paine is often overlooked in the roll-call of American founders. That’s in part because of his notoriety as a religious free-thinker later in life, and it’s in part because his variety of classical liberalism led him to endorse early forms of wealth redistribution which gained disrepute among many of those who would otherwise be expected to keep his memory alive. It’s really a shame. Paine was a great genius and a brilliant spokesman for liberty, who deserves to be mentioned alongside Jefferson and Adams in every evocation of our founding.
For a very nice brief introduction to Paine, I recommend Christopher Hitchens’ little book about Paine’s Rights of Man. For a more in-depth, extraordinarily objective and fair discussion of Paine’s ideas, I recommend Yuval Levin’s recent book The Great Debate. But I want especially to endorse Craig Nelson’s superb biography, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, which is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. Given how few materials are left to the biographer of Paine, Nelson does an astonishingly good job of detailing Paine’s life and influences—and yet does it all with an elegant, smooth, often humorous writing style that makes his book compulsive reading. It’s a great tribute for a writer of Paine’s great skill to be memorialized by a writer who has similar facility with the pen.
Incidentally, for those of us who cherish economic liberty, check out this passage from Rights of Man, in which Paine—making the case for the superiority of the revolutionary French constitution over the mish-mash of corruption and rent-seeking that was Edmund Burke’s prized British “constitution”—emphasizes that the former protects the right to earn a living, while the latter does not:
The French Constitution says there shall be…no monopolies of any kind—that all trades shall be free and every man free to follow any occupation by which he can procure an honest livelihood, and in any place, town, or city throughout the nation. What will Mr. Burke say to this? In England…with respect to monopolies, the country is cut up into monopolies. Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself, and the qualification of electors proceeds out of those chartered monopolies. Is this freedom? Is this what Mr. Burke means by a constitution?
In these chartered monopolies, a man coming from another part of the country is hunted from them as if he were a foreign enemy. An Englishman is not free of his own country; every one of those places presents a barrier in his way, and tells him he is not a freeman—that he has no rights. Within these monopolies are other monopolies. In a city, such for instance as Bath, which contains between twenty and thirty thousand inhabitants, the right of electing representatives to Parliament is monopolised by about thirty-one persons. And within these monopolies are still others. A man even of the same town, whose parents were not in circumstances to give him an occupation, is debarred, in many cases, from the natural right of acquiring one, be his genius or industry what it may.
How sad that much of the same can be said of the United States today.
(Cross-posted at PLF Liberty Blog)
The measles outbreak has led to much concern about the number of people who refuse to vaccinate their children, often on the basis of false claims that vaccinations are associated with certain maladies. But while these concerns are well-grounded, it’s also rapidly become a stick with which people seek to beat their political opponents. Hillary Clinton—who contributed to the vaccine hysteria herself only a few years ago—immediately took occasion to blast Rand Paul for his perpetuation of the same myth, for instance. And since all good, right-thinking, secular scientist types know that Republicans are evil troglodytes, they’ve taken to exploiting Paul’s comments as an opportunity to replay the “Republican War on Science” trope—ignoring the fact that anti-vaccine pseudoscience is overwhelmingly associated with political liberalism. Whatever its basis, scientific illiteracy is deplorable and dangerous. But at least equally bad is economics denialism—supply and demand denialism—a phenomenon that is also found on both sides, but leans heavily left. The principles of economics are well-founded, robust, testable, confirmed, and economics can tell us with remarkable certainty that certain government policies will have harmful effects for the industry and innovation—and, consequently, for the goods and services that we all rely on—the lessons of economics are routinely ignored or tuned out by those devoted more to political ideology than economic reality.
Consider the minimum wage. It’s a simple policy to understand: the government makes it illegal to employ any person at below some specified number. This prohibition, backers tell us, will enrich working people who find the cost of living just too high.
This is economic illiteracy, plain and simple. Simple supply-and-demand (as basic to economics as gravity to physics or evolution to biology) tells us that the actual effect of a minimum price rule is to create a surplus, as buyers choose not to buy as many of what they previously bought. Set the price of widgets at $100, and people who would have bought widgets at $50 just won’t—leaving you with an oversupply of widgets. In labor markets, “oversupply” is called “unemployment.”
While a minimum wage law might benefit those lucky enough to have jobs, it comes at the expense of those seeking jobs—and particularly at the expense of those who lack skills or experience, and might otherwise have found employment by offering to work for less than the market rate. A minimum wage law doesn’t make people richer—it just makes low-paying jobs illegal. That’s one reason labor unions have long supported minimum wage hikes, which price their competition out of the market. And because it raises the cost of doing businesses, firms will be forced to cut back, or even to shut down—as San Francisco’s landmark Borderlands Books just did, in consequence of the city’s recently enacted “living wage” ordinance. As people often say, if the minimum wage is a good idea, why not make it $500/hr.? The answer makes the fallacy behind the minimum wage obvious.
Rent control, too, harms the poor by diminishing the incentive for landowners to lease out their property to people who need it. At the very least, rent control forces landowners to cut costs elsewhere, since they’re barred from charging what the property is actually worth. Thus they skimp on maintenance or upgrades. Many just choose not to rent their property at all.
More deeply, minimum wages and rent control do not help the poor because they’re based on a misunderstanding of how prices work. Prices are not arbitrarily chosen dollar amounts; they are signals that indicate the value of an item relative to other products or services on the market, and relative to the ingredients that make it up. The reason a piece of jewelry costs what it does is because it is made up of raw materials and craftsmanship, each of which could be used for some alternative purpose, but which is instead used to make that ring or necklace, instead. Prices are a way of signaling to everyone in the market how much of these ingredients go into a thing, and how much other uses for those ingredients might be valued. Commanding a shopkeeper to change the pricetags in his store, or barring a landlord from charging what the apartment is worth, or forcing an employer to add an extra zero to a paycheck—none of these things changes the economic factors—they just mess up the system of price signaling.
That’s why laws prohibiting “price gouging” are also foolish. Prices go up in emergencies because there’s greater demand. When a hurricane’s coming, and stores mark up the price for plywood to reinforce windows, they’re typically denounced as evil exploiters of the needy. What they’re really doing is telling plywood suppliers that there’s a great need for plywood in that place. If they were allowed to, plywood suppliers would then rush more wood to the site—to reap profits, and to supply a big need. Forbidding high prices doesn’t cure the shortage—it worsens it, by depriving suppliers of that information and opportunity.
Prices are also a good indication of the foolishness of many environmental policies. The price of a product or service is the consequence of countless factors: all the people who want that thing, or who could use its ingredients for something else, comparing what they’d be willing to pay for it, compared to other things. It’s all a tradeoff. But the fetish for recycling ignores these facts.
This afternoon, I saw a sign in the Sacramento airport promoting a state-sponsored recycling business that, the poster said, “creates jobs.” Yet these jobs are paid for, not by people who voluntarily support the recycling center, but by government subsidies. Why? Because there is no market demand for that service—people would prefer, if they had the choice, to spend their money on something else. Instead, the state is forcing them to pay for recycling and to “create jobs.” (Incidentally, “creating jobs” is another phrase only economic illiterates use: we do not work to “create jobs,” but to create wealth. If we could create wealth without having to work for it, we’d be better off. Labor saving devices that “destroy” jobs are a good thing because they free up people for other pursuits.)
But why do people not want recycling, when given the choice? The answer is suggested by the one form of recycling people do willingly pay for: aluminum recycling. When it comes to plastic or paper, you’re forced to pay for recycling. When it comes to aluminum, the recycler pays you. Why? Because it’s cheaper for him to reuse aluminum than to make more. But it’s not cheaper to reuse plastic or paper. It’s more expensive. What that means is, it uses more resources—it costs more time and energy to reuse plastic or paper—and that means that resources that might have been devoted to something people really do want (let’s say, cancer research or safer cars or more beautiful art or food for their babies) is instead being used on recycling. And that, in turn, is bad for the environment, because it diverts resources from their most efficient use—which is to say, it creates waste. Recycling is typically worse for the environment in the long run, because it costs more resources to reuse than to make new—expends more energy, requires more fossil fuels, wastes more time and money that could be used to make human life better.
These are not mere opinions, any more than evolution is “just a theory.” It is the basic operation of supply and demand, about which there is broad consensus in the profession, and which cannot be simply waved away under political slogans or emotional appeals to the plight of the underprivileged. Yet every year, politicians and constituents shout these lessons down, or latch on to the unusual study that seems like it might somehow finally be the exception to these economic rules. Yet if a study ever really did show that, everything else being equal, the minimum wage did not reduce employment or raise the cost of living, or that rent control laws actually increased the supply of housing, or that recycling requirements actually allocated resources efficiently—well, such a study would be as much an outlier as a physics study showing that a rock dropped from a height failed to fall, or that non-random selection of randomly mutating genes failed to result in evolution. Any such study would be revolutionary, if true—but for that very reason, should be regarded with skepticism.
Economic illiteracy, like other forms of scientific illiteracy, is dangerous. Ideologues blinded to reality, and power-hungry politicians, are just as likely to exploit it as they are to exploit the public’s ignorance of biology or medicine. Its real-world effects are the destruction of economic opportunity and the stifling of innovation that might bring about cures for some of society’s worst problems. Yet while the media focus attention on the scientific illiteracy that has caused the measles problem, or that manifests in the popularity of creationism or other pseudosciences—they ignore, and even perpetuate, supply-and-demand-denial.
"[W]hilst Men have their five Senses, I cannot see what the Magistrate has to do with Actions by which the Society cannot be affected; and where he does meddle with such, he does it impertinently or tyrannically. Must the Magistrate tye up every Man's Legs, because some Men fall into Ditches? Or, must he put out their Eyes, because with them they see lying Vanities? Or, would it become the Wisdom and Care of Governors to establish a travelling Society, to prevent People by a proper Confinement from throwing themselves into Wells, or over Precipices? Or to endow a Fraternity of Physicians and Surgeons all over the Nation, to take Care of their Subjects Health, without being consulted; and to vomit, bleed, purge, and scarify them at Pleasure, whether they would or no, just as these established Judges of Health should think fit? If this were the Case, what a Stir and Hubbub should we soon see kept about the established Potions and Lancets; every Man, Woman, and Child, tho' ever so healthy, must be a Patient, or woe be to them! The best Diet and Medicines would-soon grow pernicious from any other Hand; and their Pills alone, however ridiculous, insufficient, or distasteful, would be attended with a Blessing.
"Let People alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient Punishment will follow their Neglect, without the Magistrate's Interposition and Penalties. It is plain that such busy Care and officious Intrusion into the personal Affairs, or private Actions, Thoughts, and Imaginations of Men, has in it more Craft than Kindness; and is only a Device to mislead People, and pick their Pockets, under the false Pretence of the publick and their private Good."
The audio version of my book, The Conscience of The Constitution is now available on Audible.com! I understand it'll be on Amazom and iTunes soon.
Then on Jan. 29, I'll be speaking to the University of Kentucky law school chapter about Obamacare as an assault on the rule of law. More info here.
About a year and a half ago, a friend gave me a T-shirt with the slogan “Peace - Love - Liberty.” This is also the unfortunate title of a new book by my friend, Tom Palmer. But I can never see this slogan without wincing and thinking, “Pick any two.”
We in the United States have had our experiences with censorship.
At the close of the American Revolution, many hoped that slavery, that embarrassing hypocrisy in a land devoted to freedom, would eventually wither away. As the founders reached retirement age, it seemed to them that slavery was economically unfeasible in the long run, and that all eyes were opening to the Enlightenment principles of equality and freedom.
That optimism proved unfounded, even disingenuous. At the opening of the nineteenth century, several factors, including the invention of the cotton gin, made slavery more economically attractive, and the south’s willingness to defend it became more virulent. By the 1830s, southern intellectuals were promoting a new “positive good school” of slavery: arguing that it was not a scourge, but a benefit to society and even to the slaves themselves. This was not a fringe movement. The Vice President of the United States, John C. Calhoun, was among its most prominent spokesmen.
When I was a junior in college, I sent Harry Jaffa a copy of a paper I’d written in a seminar on the American Revolution. I harshly criticized one of my school’s professors for his rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence—so harshly, in fact, that my professor marked me down half a grade for my tone. When I spoke to Jaffa about this on the phone, he was philosophical. “Tim, you and I are gadflies,” he said. “We need bigger and better gadflies.”
I had come to know Jaffa my senior year in high school, when I read his book Original Intent. I had fallen in love with the Constitution and the American founding some years before, and after devouring the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, picked up a copy of Robert Bork’s Tempting of America. I was knocked backwards—genuinely mortified—that the man many considered the day’s chief conservative intellectual had managed to misunderstand, indeed, to consciously misrepresent, the principles of the American Constitution. When I saw Original Intent advertised as a rebuttal to Bork, I bought and devoured it, and wrote Jaffa a fan letter. He called—no, he had one of his grad students call; Jaffa never phoned or wrote—and invited me to attend a session of the Publius Fellows seminar, not far from my home. I showed up, nervous, in a suit and tie. Jaffa, I knew, was a famous and influential intellectual, author of Barry Goldwater’s famous line “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Jaffa sat at the head of the table in his shorts and polo shirt, before a table of equally timid listeners. I remember little of what followed except that I challenged him sharply on gay rights—one of the many subjects on which we never saw eye to eye.
Jaffa, after all, was not a libertarian. He was a Goldwater Conservative, which comprises a series of beliefs I consider incompatible, but which includes at least the virtue that Jaffa was relentless in defense of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Like his hero, Abraham Lincoln, Jaffa insisted that we hold firm on these, as with a chain of steel. And he was relentless in their defense, most especially when he detected his allies betraying them.
They often did. Jaffa never ceased to be scandalized by such things as Irving Kristol’s statement that Jefferson never wrote a thing worth reading, or Chief Justice Rehnquist’s claim that the Constitution’s protections for liberty derive their value, not from truth, but merely from the fact that they’d been adopted into the Constitution. Jaffa was a deeply learned man, conversant in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare—if, as Nietzsche said, philology is the art of reading slowly, Jaffa believed the same was true of political philosophy, and he mined these works for the truths they had hidden in their pockets. He knew the abstruse academic debates about their authorship and styles. But he was a passionate man, too: passionate to get at the truth. And in this, he remained always a young man, even in old age. At 80, when I last saw him, he remained still the kind of man who no doubt would have, like a little-known Springfield lawyer, challenged a Senator so respected as to be titled “the little giant” to a series of debates on the meaning of the nation’s first principles. Like Lincoln, he would’ve won those debates, too.
The reason was that Jaffa was in love with the truth. He once quipped that as “philosophy” means “lover of wisdom,” a “professional philosopher” must be a professional lover, or a whore of the intellect. But in his own case, wisdom was not a profession; it was a calling. Thus Jaffa always pictured himself, I think, not as a Socratic gadfly—challenging the Athenians’ deepest beliefs—but as a Lincolnian gadfly, who challenged Americans to rediscover them.
I cannot speak to how tenably he connected all of this to his Straussianism. I have not read enough Strauss to say. But in his best work—his “Equality As A Conservative Principle,” his “False Prophets of American Conservatism,” and, of course, his Crisis of The House Divided—Jaffa came to the defense of the founders, not because they were the founders, but because they were right. “One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true,” wrote Lincoln. “But, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.” Those who deny—or ignore—the Declaration’s principles are, Lincoln warned, “the van-guard—the miners, and sappers—of returning despotism.” He was right, and Jaffa knew it. He wouldn’t stop till you knew it, too.
He was often criticized for the harshness of his writing; his opponents usually said this from the mat, while the referee counted down the remaining seconds. I recall one particularly severe, and entertaining, National Review exchange with Bork that ended with bitter accusations. But the reason for his intensity was that Jaffa was right, and about important matters. He was wrong sometimes, and there will be time to debate those things later. The most important thing here is what he was right about. Liberty, he insisted, really is the birthright of every person. The Declaration’s principle of equality really is the sheet anchor of American republicanism. The vindication of the union and the liberation of the slaves really was the destiny of the American nation. Calhoun and his modern admirers really were wrong about the sources of political obligation and the primacy of liberty. The intensity of his writing rose from the crucial importance of the task before him. How could one compromise on the central ideas of the American Constitution?—the central ideas of mankind? Yet many of his fellow conservatives were lightly tossing these ideas overboard in his lifetime. Such ideas, Jaffa thought, were not to be treated as mere academic exercises; they were the staff of life. He fought fiercely for them because he saw how much depended on them. Paine, of whom he was fond, said that we have it in our power to begin the world anew. That is worth more than tenderness to the feelings of misguided friends.
Thus to Jaffa, the ideas of the Gettysburg Address were as alive and as present now as they had been to those who fought over liberty and slavery only fifty years before his birth. The ideas of Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Douglass, were timeless principles, applicable to all men and all times, and seemed to him to sit upon his shoulders as he wrote. He could not bear to see them slighted. He thought they were urgent—and on that, he was, and remains, and always will be, right.
Some years ago, I was on my way to speak at the University of Kansas. It was late, around midnight, and I was roaring down the interstate as the moon rose, huge before me. Somehow I felt around me all the powers of past ages, all the permanent truths that for Jaffa always remained so present. That led me to compose a poem I would like to dedicate to him:
The Valley of Siddim
An Indian Summer night, plunging down I-70,
the countryside near Lawrence
a smear in pale beams,
I felt the time beginning to unwind,
and saw the Moon, all wreathed in red like magma,
uprise as though to pour a fire on the land
of silent prairie grasses
and the layered dermis of sediments
here and there incised,
that flaked the centuries patiently to dust
while I raced by.
Oh, the majesty of that crimson!
It seemed less like light than judgment.
It glared from mists in starlessness,
in static air, where all was still
—except a shock of white
when predatory wings
snapped and with a muffled shriek
vanished again in stealth.
Meanwhile, trees dropped ragged leaves,
revealing skinny claws;
Others, scarlet-stained, only shivered in a wind
that converged from all around
toward the unrelenting light
that once stared down on Quantrill,
on Beecher’s men, and Brown;
that haloed roaring prophets,
and shone in lithic eyes
aiming over rifle stocks.
Suddenly the blackness swallowed up that moon,
and I knew that I was going back,
back through testaments of ancient blood,
past Zoar, past Admah, past Zeboiim,
and as I searched the dismal sky,
I heard from veiny, tangled creeks
that loomed beside the road,
the groaning ghosts of millions,
all their destinies flaring up
to some unheard-of crossroads,
then flying past in blackness;
my wheels now were of caissons
careening over hillsides toward the burning cities
obscured on the horizon.
I thought of wrath unpent,
of unsanctified defiance,
of the verdict deserved, foretold,
and disbelieved. And then I thought
of Abraham, who asked,
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”