James Taranto Defines Self as 'Idiotarian'

Thursday, January 06, 2005

I'd like to pause from sharpening my knife for a moment to say:

Welcome, Ego Readers!

I'd like to thank Martin Lindeskog again for recommending my review of Sam Harris's book, The End of Faith. Be sure also to read my partial retraction since (1) I made a fundamental error in one aspect of the analysis and (2) some more information came to my attention about Sam Harris as an "intellectual" since I wrote about his book.

Having my relatively new blog recommended by a more established Objectivist blogger is a first for this blog and is a significant milestone.

Rand, Rand Everywhere, and None Will Stop to Think!

I was still on holiday in New Orleans with my wife when I saw this William Raspberry piece on the war in Iraq. The name "Yaron Brook" jumped straight out of the page at me. Unsurprisingly, he was carping about some statements in a press release by the president of the Ayn Rand Institute. Brook places the blame for the mess in Iraq on the moral cowardice of the Bush administration.

"America must destroy the insurgency if we are to implement a non-threatening government in Iraq," said Dr. Brook. "This can be done, but to do so we must make the insurgency's complicit civilian population--those who harbor and support the insurgents--pay for the violence that they abet. We must enforce their complete surrender to our presence. Thanks to such a policy, during the occupation of Japan zero soldiers were killed by insurgents and the threat posed by the country was ended.

It is unsurprising that a liberal who opposed the war in the first place would say something about this and even less so that he later advocated that we cut and run. The good news is that Raspberry brought more attention to Ayn Rand Institute and therefore to Objectivism. The better news is that this is because he grasps that ARI cannot simply be ignored.

If Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute hadn't been around for so long, I'd be tempted to think Karl Rove invented them to make the Bush administration seem temperate and humane by contrast.

Translation: "Oh shit! The debate on the war might reach the point where people realize that war is for -- gasp! -- national self-defense. " Thanks for the admission, Mr. Raspberry, and for the free publicity you gave ARI in two nationally-syndicated columns! Anyone with a search engine and a modicum of intellectual curiosity will now know about Brook's remarks-- and be able to get them in their proper context.

And we should also thank Raspberry for being honest about where he stands, ideologically. This is better than what many conservatives do, when they advocate the free market or a strong military from one side of their mouths and then launch smears against Ayn Rand from the other. Two examples of this have surfaced recently. Robert Tracinski blogs one of them, a hilariously inaccurate and frantically dishonest hatchet job exhumed -- I mean retrieved from the dumpster -- no, wait, reprinted from the 1957 archives of National Review. Yeah. That's it.

Another example is from a web site I frequently visit and have linked to in the past, Best of the Web Today. (Martin Lindeskog also blogs it here.) In this edition, James Taranto calls Objectivists "idiotarians" for raising questions about whether our government should be involved in tsunami relief. From the article (which I could not find on the ARI website):

The reason politicians can get away with doling out money that they have no right to and that does not belong to them is that they have the morality of altruism on their side. According to altruism--the morality that most Americans accept and that politicians exploit for all it's worth--those who have more have the moral obligation to help those who have less. This is why Americans--the wealthiest people on earth--are expected to sacrifice (voluntarily or by force) the wealth they have earned [emphasis mine] to provide for the needs of those who did not earn it. It is Americans' acceptance of altruism that renders them morally impotent to protest against the confiscation and distribution of their wealth. It is past time to question--and to reject--such a vicious morality that demands that we sacrifice our values instead of holding on to them.

First, I'll call a spade a spade. I found some parts of the article to be poorly-worded and will admit that it made me cringe. Holcberg certainly helped Taranto hang him with this bit: "[M]ost of those affected by this tragedy are suffering through no fault of their own." But then Taranto does excerpt the following:

Every cent the government spends comes from taxation. Every dollar the government hands out as foreign aid has to be extorted from an American taxpayer first. . . . The question no one asks about our politicians' "generosity" towards the world's needy is: By what right? By what right do they take our hard-earned money and give it away?

If Holcberg is at fault here, it is in assuming too much of the intellectual context for capitalism on the part of the general reader. Many a reader will likely think of the pocket change he'll shell out for the tsunami victims and think something along the lines of, "How can you worry about money at a time like this?" This is good will. But this is not what Taranto means.

And let's not acquit Taranto just because of someone else's badly-worded statement. Don't conservatives say they favor tax cuts and reduced social services? But how much taxation is "too much"? Which babies do we decide not to make taxpayers feed? How much confiscation of private property is too much?

Or should we have to endure confiscation of our property at all? Do we not all, as human beings, have inalienable rights? Let me help clear up this little conundrum.

At the root of our individual rights is the fact that man is the rational animal. His mind is his tool of survival. His mind can be rendered ineffective by other human beings only by the initiation of force on their part. We form governments by ceding our right to use force in self-defense to the government, whose sole purpose is to protect our rights. A proper government protects our ability to profit from the unfettered use our own minds, but does not feed us, clothe us, provide us shelter -- or make us do any of these things for other people. As Taranto and any other intelligent adult knows, the difference between taxation and charity is that in the former, the government is forcing you to part with your money.

If you don't cough up to the IRS, you can have your assets attached or even face jail time. And why is this? Again, it is because the government is a unique social institution: it is the one with the legal monopoly on the use of force. Any other action by the government, whether it is something we would want to do out of goodwill or not relies, at its root, on the misuse of force. That is, the government, rather than using force in retaliation to those who violate our rights, is instead initiating force against those whose rights it should be protecting. As a result, when we violate the principle that the government should stay out of the business of ordering us around, even for something so kind as to help the tsunami victims, we open the door to tyranny. This is because we can't answer the questions I asked above. When we say that it's OK for the government to take our money, when do we say it has taken enough? And why do the lives of the tsunami victims take precedence over our own. I'd like to know why.

So this is what Taranto is advocating: a government that can confiscate what you need to survive (and is rightfully yours because you produced it) and hand it over to someone else. This compounds the tsunami tragedy abroad with the atrocity of tyranny at home.

"Idiotarianism" is the Conservatives' Answer to "Extremism."

When I first started blogging, I learned of a blog called the "Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler." That was my first encounter with the word, which is defined here, but among conservatives is often used as a slur against leftists. Perhaps I was predisposed to dislike the term "idiotarian" by my own dislike of vicious dogs, but I always sensed something wrong when I heard the term. But now, thanks to James Taranto, I know what that something is.

As Ayn Rand would put it, the term "idiotarian" is used to sell a "package deal." That is, it falsely pretends that two unrelated ideas go together. Here, altruism and benevolence are being associated and used to slam egoism. Furthermore, the nuttiness of the far left is associated with Objectivism simply through the currency and most common meaning of the term.

Since conservatism is "the opposite" of leftism, if a conservative commentator wants to marginalize someone, he can just call him an "idiotarian." With leftism in full retreat, it's a great way to avoid having to make an argument. In fact, the conservative movement is a shaky coalition of religious conservatives and classical liberals, and now it governs through the Republican Party. Ever since Bush's reelection, there has been a struggle for power, mainly by religious conservatives attempting to claim Bush's mandate for themselves contrary to evidence. Part of the power struggle may very well be attempts like these to marginalize the classical liberals by smearing them and lumping them together, by implication, with the loony left. Back in Raspberry's day, when the left ruled the roost, the equivalent term was "extremism."

So now we have a conservative basically saying that the intellectuals at ARI are extremists for individual rights! Sounds like a badge of honor to me.

In the cause of a more fruitful public debate, I shall propose a new definition of "idiotarian."

"An idiotarian is someone who attacks someone by calling him an 'idiotarian' -- rather than attacking his ideas by means of rational argument."

Now that I've saved myself the trouble of using this cumbersome, odious term, I'd like to thank NRO and BOTW for giving better ideas than theirs free publicity, and for showing their true colors.

Thinking men, take note.

-- CAV

P.S. In the "I should've said" department, let me add that Taranto, by ignoring the explicit reference to the morality of altruism in Holcberg's statement, is evading one of the fundamental contradictions inherent to conservatism: that altruism is morally incompatible with the concept of individual rights and therefore with the concept of limited government. When forced to choose between the two, Taranto sided against the latter.


1-7-05 Added reference to another blog of Taranto's idiotarian outburst.

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