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The Grasping Hand and other anti-social tendencies, &c.

February 3, 2010

Via City Journal and German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk comes The Grasping Hand, a gem of an anti-redistribution screed. My favorite passage:

Free-market authors have also shown how the current situation turns the traditional meaning of exploitation upside down. In an earlier day, the rich lived at the expense of the poor, directly and unequivocally; in a modern economy, unproductive citizens increasingly live at the expense of productive ones—though in an equivocal way, since they are told, and believe, that they are disadvantaged and deserve more still. Today, in fact, a good half of the population of every modern nation is made up of people with little or no income, who are exempt from taxes and live, to a large extent, off the other half of the population, which pays taxes.

1. I call bullshit on that “a good half of the population of every modern nation has no income and are exempt from taxes” line because a. I live in a modern nation, b. my household pulls in the median national income and we are quite comfortable, and c. we still pay taxes. How did that one get past the fact-checker?

2. H.L. Mencken described puritanism as the fear that someone, somewhere may be having a good time. Anti-tax psychosis, it seems to me, is the fear that somewhere, some welfare recipient found himself with discretionary income after paying the rent and went off to buy his friends a round of beer. Horrifying, I know. Sloterdijk makes it sound really tough not being a member of the (exploitative) poor.

Speaking of Free Marketeers, here’s the grandmother of them all, Ayn Rand, rhapsodizing over a psychopath:

Her diaries from that time, while she worked as a receptionist and an extra, lay out the Nietzschean mentality that underpins all her later writings. The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” She called him “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy,” shimmering with “immense, explicit egotism.” Rand had only one regret: “A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough.”

Which makes me wonder: Who is John Galt?

On a brighter note, John B. Judis describes Obama’s “Quiet Revolution.” I appreciate these passages, which hint of an alternate reality in which sociology could have been a careerist major:

The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–1914, 1932–1938, and 1961–1972) of the last century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism–from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”

That wide latitude could invite abuses of power, but the old-time progressives who fashioned the regulatory state rested their hopes on what could be called “scientific administration.” Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly–to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-century progressives–believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision-making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure. Brandeis’s famous concept of states as “laboratories of democracy” comes out of his defense of state regulation of industry and was meant to conjure an image of states basing their regulatory activities on the scientific method. For his part, Croly often made the progressive case for disinterested expertise. The success of the regulatory agencies, he wrote, depended upon “a sufficient popular confidence in the ability of enlightened and trained individuals … and the actual existence for their use of a body of sufficiently authentic social knowledge.”

Many of the last century’s presidents–from Theodore Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton–subscribed to this progressive ideal of regulation based on expertise. But, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush, the notion of scientific administration came under attack from Republicans and their allies. They began to subvert the agencies by bringing in business executives, corporate lawyers, and lobbyists–the very opposite of the impartial experts envisioned by Brandeis and Croly.

Finally, as a D.A.R.E graduate who would like to see marijuana legalized, I appreciated this L.A. Times headline: D.A.R.E. generation wants marijuana legalized. Inasmuch as D.A.R.E. stands for “Drug Awareness … Education,” I’d say this is proof that D.A.R.E. has succeeded.

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