Private property is one of humanity’s great discoveries, like fire, or DNA, or the scientific method. Like fire, property has the ability to release a kind of unseen power from nature, to transform a desert waste into a luxurious resort like Las Vegas, for instance. Like DNA, property represents something deeply ingrained in human nature; no society has ever been found that did not have some concept of property. The universality of property suggests immediately that the concept is not just an arbitrary social creation. Instead, property is something common to all human beings as human beings—it doesn’t have to be taught to people, because it is natural.
Humans naturally develop a concept of “mine” in parallel with their development of self. Children discover the word “mine” very early on, and they seek to exclude others, even their own parents, from things they identify as theirs. Such early development suggests that the concept of “mine” is not initially taught to children, or absorbed by them from the surrounding culture, but expresses a natural human tendency. A child’s “awareness of his own property rights,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Spock, comes naturally “because it fits with his growing sense of self and assertion of self. Early in his second year he becomes conscious of the fact that his body is his.” Indeed, what children need to be taught is how to share, not how to believe in private property rights!
My new book, coauthored with Christina Sandefur, is Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America. I say "new," even though it's a second edition, because Cornerstone has been almost entirely re-written, with a more thorough discussion of the philosophical meaning of property rights, the constitutional foundation for them, and the state of property rights in the U.S. in 2016. We discuss the Supreme Court's decisions in the Kelo, Kootz, and Sackettcases, recent disputes over the Endangered Species Act, civil asset forfeiture, laws restricting the "sharing economy," and many other things. We conclude with a specific proposal, including model legislation, for how state lawmakers can protect property rights, and the individual and social values that they promote. This is a new book, not just an update.
The book's official release date is Feb. 2, but as of today, it is available on Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback form.
Today is not the birthday of one of my great heroes, the scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski. He gave January 18, 1908, as his birthday, but in fact that was the date on which his parents registered his birth in Lodz, the Polish city where he was born, under the Russian law requiring such registration. He was actually born about six months before.
Here's a favorite clip from his masterpiece, The Ascent of Man, in which he discusses the nature of war.
On July 9, 1776, patriots in Manhattan, having heard the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time, marched down Broadway and tore from its perch the two-ton lead statue of King George III. They trucked the metal to Connecticut, where it was rendered into musket balls. Similar displays of civil disobedience took place in other American cities, including Philadelphia, where the King’s coat of arms was ripped down and burned behind Independence Hall. The American revolutionaries knew that monuments are symbols—and that destroying monuments is also a symbolic act. In this case, their iconoclasm would symbolize the overthrow of monarchical tyranny and the creation of a new body politic that called itself the people of the United States.
Today, Americans, particularly in the south, are reconsidering the value of the public symbols left to them by past generations—symbols that represent a disgraceful institution, and a painful history, that today’s citizens would like to regard as passed. Cities like Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, La., are moving to take down monuments that celebrate the alleged glories of the Confederacy and its leaders—Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and others—who fought to perpetuate slavery and white supremacy.
I just learned that my very favorite non-fiction writer, Florence King, has died at the age of 80. What a talent. She was less well known than other outstanding authors, but those of us who admired her will mourn her passing. And those of you unfamiliar with her should start right away, particularly with her masterpiece, the memoir Confessions of A Failed Southern Lady. Her other outstanding works include Southern Ladies and Gentlemenand With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy. She was classified as a humorist, but then, so was Twain, and so, often, was Mencken. Of the two, she hewed more toward the former style, but even so, what made King special was her smooth precision and a wit that can best be described as syncopated. You often didn't catch the humor until after it whizzed by and penetrated into truth. She was fond of Pope's line, "True wit is nature to advantage dress'd, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed," and few writers had this gift as much as she.
Actually, she'd have been the first to say it was no gift: it was plain old hard work. King was such a perfectionist that when preparing her anthology, The Florence King Reader, she went through all of the articles (and her entire novel, When Sisterhood Was In Flower) and re-edited--no, re-wrote--them all. The result is a prose style planed so smooth that by the time you look up from the book, it's been an hour and you're 100 pages on. She wrote simply, but not stupidly, and she was not afraid to reach for the Latin. Nor was she ashamed to quote TV commercials. She knew the rules well enough to break them, because she knew, as good writers must, that readers read with their ears, not their eyes. Another line she was fond of quoting was the (alleged) advice of Margaret Mitchell's lawyer father: "take care of the sense, and the law will take care of itself," which is better advice than most lawyers are willing to admit. But she also weighed her sentences for rhythm and timing, to land her punch perfectly on target. And while she was primarily a wit, she also had the comedian's special gift for drama. Confessions starts out as a madcap southern farce, but she adds just enough tragic romance to catch your heart--just a pinch, that will last the rest of your life.
I first encountered her writing in National Review when I was in high school. I'm pretty sure the first one I read was "Ex Pede Herculem," about silly ad campaigns. It's prime King: what, 600 words? 800? But it's like the written version of a Godiva truffle: dark, smooth, sharp, the perfect amuse bouche, or, in this case, amuse d'oeil. I was soon poring over back issues for her other columns, and particularly the ones in which she dropped little hints of writing advice, such as the author's note that opens The Florence King Reader.
And she practiced what she preached. Take my favorite line from Confessions--a modest but telling example. The scene takes place in a bedroom; Florence, suffering depression, has been drinking too heavily and sleeping with random men, hoping to distract herself from a tragic incident. In the middle of the night, the white trash boy she's gone to bed with wakes up to find her crying and tries to cheer her up by telling Civil War stories, but passes out drunk. She looks down at him:
He had a clearly defined fighting side and woe to anyone who walked on it. He was entirely capable of killing, in a mob or alone.... The worst of the South? Yes, but also the best. There was no telling what he would do if he got riled, yet he had an underlying sweetness, an almost female tenderness, that had saved my life and sanity. He was that many-splendored thing called a good ole boy. He said grace, and he said ma'am, and he loved his countries--both of them.
Oh, that's lovely. The concision, the off-step elegance. When you can write like that, then you can call yourself a writer. It's a shame she was not more widely known. But thank you, Miss King (never Florence, and god forbid Flo), for so often being being funny, for usually being right, and for always being fine, even when you were filthy.
This is an exceptionally exciting—and exceptionally challenging—opportunity, and I’m grateful to Darcy Olsen and to Clint for their confidence in me. And, of course, to Christina, who's seen me at my worst sometimes, but still was okay with this! Actually, it's an exciting idea to be working side-by-side on something in which we both believe so strongly.
The congratulations go to Clint, however, who, among other things, is the reason I went to law school in the first place. It was his presentation at Hillsdale College in 1997 that persuaded me that I wanted to litigate on behalf of freedom.
Leaving Pacific Legal Foundation is not easy—it feels kind of weird, in fact, as I’ve been at the Foundation since I was in law school, 15 years. I’ve learned a great deal there, and I’m exceedingly grateful for that. And it’s been a truly remarkable 15 years—including PLF’s successes in the Merrifieldand Brunercases, and in the Supreme Court in thePalazzolo, Rapanos, Sackett, and Koontzcases…and the Court will hear a new PLF case soon! It’s been, so to speak, a great place for a young lawyer to grow up. And for years now, PLF and Goldwater have worked together in defense of a free society. I look forward to continued cooperation between these two advocates for liberty.
Joy is really two films, or perhaps a film which emerges from another film in which it is cocooned, and with which the better half seems to have little in common. The one that emerges is as fresh and compelling a portrait of the American businessman, or in this case businesswoman, as I can imagine. She is presented to us with all the affection and honor which other movies lavish on poets or soldiers. Given how rarely Hollywood honors the "bourgeois virtues," this is an outstanding achievement, whatever the film's other flaws.
Those flaws mainly take the form of extraneous matter, in particular director David O. Russell's ineffectual efforts at screwball comedy and supporting characters who, however faithfully rendered, are tangential and distracting. Against such a background, Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Joy leaps out like a bas relief sculpture. TheN.Y. Times' A.O. Scott put it well: the supporting characters seem like "grotesques who might have wandered out of a Roald Dahl novel." But Joy herself is different. She is a shown to us as a small miracle: the kind of miracle that happens every day in a magical land of opportunity and vision. What gives the movie its power is this energy, this certain slant of light that gives not death, but life. It is the magic of creation, and it is to Russell's credit that he doesn't just mention it or dramatize it, but gives it to us with all the lyricism of which he is capable.
Joy makes an interesting comparison with another of the exceedingly rare instances in which Hollywood has chosen to celebrate the businessman, 1954's Executive Suite, except that Jennifer Lawrence's character is...well, perhaps the best word is feminine. In the earlier movie, the main character is Don Walling, the vice-president of a furniture company who believes so strongly in the integrity of his products that he strives to rescue the firm from the owner's blasé heirs. He's driven by his vision of the ultimate product, as something that, in an effective masculine metaphor, he can be proud to have his name on (a line from William Holden's climactic speech). Joy, on the other hand, is a creator, and she strives to build a life--to create a new thing that, without her, would not exist at all. This fact is beautifully underscored by one scene without dialogue, in which Lawrence peers through a Christmas display window over which artificial snow is falling. We sense that here is a wholly artificial, man-made (woman-made) world, now available to us, exclusively on account of the perseverance and vision of this unique individual. The owner of that store, like Lawrence's character, has created a space for joy.
That is the singular feeling that gives so much light to the best parts of Joy. In its most powerful sequence, Lawrence's character meets with QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) who explains to her in passionate detail just how massive an opportunity the meeting really offers her, as an unknown entrepreneur. If her newly-invented mop is accepted for sale on the shopping channel, she stands to sell 50,000 units, and to become an overnight success. It will be only the beginning of her hard work, but it will be the first motion toward the new world she dreams of. Such a scene might have proven fairly ordinary, except that David Russell films it with a loving, almost lyrical quality, and does not let up. Russell has said that the film is about "living a fairy tale," and the movie gives to moments like this a fairy tale feeling, that sweeps Joy and the audience along with a gentle but unmistakable power. Most movies can do this only with giant CG armies arrayed for battle, or musclemen screaming "We are Spartans!" Others must always smuggle in some element of snarky self-betrayal under the badge of "irony." Not here. This film gives us its miracle straight. With sincerity comes vulnerability, which is why so many directors are afraid of it. But only with sincerity do we see true beauty. That Russell gives us so much sincerity in a movie about a woman who invented a mop is a testament of its own kind.
But of course it's not about the mop. It's about the creator. In one scene, we see Joy taking command of a small but devoted group of workers, offering them jobs and opportunities they would not otherwise have had. In others we see Joy confronting the corrupt contractors who conspire to rob her of her creation, and the jealous and meddling family members who try to sabotage her efforts. Throughout it all, Joy is driven by an energy that seems to come from nowhere except from her own creativity, and that creativity is the only real energy in her world. Almost everything else in the movie depends upon it, or sits like a vulture waiting to feed off its morbidity. Only Joy creates. She alone gives life to lifeless things.
Here, of course, one thinks of Ayn Rand, who sarcastically nicknamed one of her characters, a banker, "Midas." John Chamberlain was one of the few critics to spot Rand's irony. The Midas of legend was cursed because everything he touched turned to lifeless gold. But the banker, the creator, the entrepreneur, the capitalist, do the opposite: they have the "faculty for changing unsentient metal into glorious growth." When we speak of wealth creation, we should always keep in mind that we mean that phrase with the utmost literalness. The wealth creator does not merely rearrange raw materials and sell the result at a markup. She makes something unique that never existed at all before her. She does what in a physicist's sense is impossible: true creation ex nihilo. That such a thing ever occurs is, compared to most of humanity's violent and meaningless history, a mind-boggling fact. That such things are the source ofall progress is simply staggering. That we have a culture and a nation in which such things are not merely possible, but rewarded, is too precious a thing to let go unsaid. In America, said Tocqueville, all honest callings are honorable. I have seen too few films that celebrate this seemingly humble fact as it deserves. Without it, life would be bleakness itself.
If life is a kind of fire, a special state of matter that creates itself out of a lifeless background, then we see the circle come to completion in the concluding scene, when Joy, now wealthy and sophisticated, listens to a product pitch from a young and idealistic inventor and her husband. "I know how it feels," she tells them, when they are overjoyed at her approval. She does, indeed, as few others could. She is not Cinderella, who waited for someone else to take her off to a better life. She is, at least in this respect, the author of her own fairy tale.
Joy is not a philosophical film, and as I've said, it includes clumsy comedic elements that distract from the pearl at its center. But Jennifer Lawrence's character is rendered in such good faith, with so much undisguised admiration, with such an unashamed appeal to the values of freedom and opportunity, that it stands out like a torch. It makes you long for a world in which everyone saw and celebrated this little miracle: this joy of creation.
This morning, my colleagues and I filed the reply brief in support of the petition for certiorari in Sissel, PLF's Origination Clause challenge to Obamacare. You can read about it at the PLF Liberty Blog.
The argument that “terrorism is so rare that it’s not reasonable to fear it” seems to have become increasingly popular in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks. The President himself has repeated it a few times. The problem with this meme is that it is accurate only up to a point, and that point probably unhelpful. In fact, it begins to sound a bit desperate.
For one thing, as Fred Schwarz points out, the same could be said for any number of atrocities that we have nonetheless rightly found it worthwhile to address seriously. Lynching in the Jim Crow south was, relative to the black population as a whole, a rare occurrence, and the likelihood of any particular black southerner being lynched was vanishingly small. Should Civil Rights activists have therefore stopped complaining or focused on “more pressing” matters? The likelihood that any particular American would fall victim to predation by the combined forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1941 was almost infinitely tiny. Nevertheless, we rightly recognized fascism as a threat to humanity. The likelihood of being incinerated by a nuclear weapon during the Cold War was quite small. But it was a serious enough risk to move many people to action in protest.
Nor are the statistics as simple as the meme suggests. Reason says “your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million…. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.” Fair enough. But being killed by a terrorist is not the same thing as being a victim of terrorism; indeed, the two things are basically entirely different, since the dead cannot be terrorized. A victim of terrorism is a living person who sees, hears, feels, experiences a terrorist incident—and the people who know and care about that person. Barbara Olson was not really a victim of terrorism—she was just a murder victim. Those of us who knew her are the actual victims of September 11. What makes terrorism a political act, as opposed to a lawbreaking act such as murder, is this exponential, reverberating quality. In this sense, I and all my friends and all readers of my blog are victims of the San Bernardino attack.
If the broader definition of victim is used, and I believe it should be, the simple calculation of your odds of dying (or being injured) is not a fair measure of your likelihood of being a victim of terrorism.
It is, of course, true that Americans are more at risk from, say, car accidents, not to mention illness, than from terrorism. But this only teaches us that it would be wise to take precautions against these risks, too. It does not mean, as some writers claim, that terrorism should be regarded as essentially a "nuisance." And it's true that we should not let terrorist threats alter our way of life. But as with the lynching example, the numbers don’t tell the full story. Like the racial terrorism of the Jim Crow days, the terrorism of our age is the manifestation of a much more disturbing malady, one that Americans have perfectly sufficient grounds to fear, and which justifies their demand for action by those sworn to defend the country. Merely citing the likelihood of actually being murdered oneself does nothing to diminish that.
Update: Perhaps I should add that I continue to believe that the United States should welcome Syrian refugees.
Libertarianism.org has posted a podcast on the politics of Star Wars as a followup to my podcast on the politics of Star Trek (which was based on this article). It features my friend and fellow SF fan, Ilya Somin. I think it makes the case very well that Star Trek is a vastly more interesting and intelligent franchise, not to mention more politically palatable. My favorite part of this podcast is Aaron Ross Powell's rather desperate question, whether Star Wars isn't libertarian "...at least, just a little bit?"
(Like all good Americans, I love Star Wars. But it is morally abominable in almost every way. To get a sense of why, check this out.)
George Will quotes me in his latest column on what due process of law means. It doesn't just mean whatever procedure or ritual the lawmaker decides to implement. It means a process that is lawful, regular, rational, and respects individual rights. To learn more, check our chapters 2 and 3 of The Conscience of The Constitution.