Why We Need Principles

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Matt Drudge links to a story detailing what I regard as my worst nightmare: A government that has decided to actively violate freedom of speech. No excerpt can do this justice, but here's a taste.

An internet blogger and a writer who disguised an attack on Burma's dictator in the form of a love poem were among dozens of activists sentenced to draconian jail terms as the junta ordered a fresh crackdown on dissidents.

Nay Myo Kyaw, 28, who wrote blogs under the name Nay Phone Latt, was sentenced to 20 years and 6 months in jail by a court in Rangoon. The poet, Saw Wai, received a two-year sentence for an eight-line Valentine's Day verse published in a popular magazine.

Aung Thein, the lawyer for the men, was given four months in prison on Monday for contempt of court during his defence.


Mr Saw Wai’s poem, entitled 14th February, was ostensibly a Valentine's Day verse published in January last year in a weekly magazine. "You have to be in love truly, madly, deeply and then you can call it real love," it read. "Millions of those who know how to love, Laugh and clap those gold-gilded hands."

The first word of each line, however, spelt out a message about the leader of the country's military government: "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe". Mr Saw Wai was charged with harming "public tranquillity". [bold added]
That is just the sort of thing I could imagine doing (and have done, but not in a political vein). I suspect that the "alternative" being immorally forced on Saw Wai by his government is: "Your life or your life!" That's what being silent or -- worse, being told to write only what one knows to be ugly and wrong -- is for someone who loves to write. And, now that I think of it, that is the ultimate, though not always so stark, choice any tyranny puts to us, and which gives meaning to the motto, "Live free or die."

But that's not what got me going. What really got my attention was the following foolishness from the reader comments by one James Beckton of Airstrip One:
Socialism has nothing to do with Burma's situation. The country is run as selfish regime. China supplies regime expertise and equipment while all the big powers including China extract raw materials and profit. The population are treated as a disposable nuisance. Just the same as Congo and Zimbabwe.
First of all, given that freedom of speech can and does greatly accelerate the discovery of the truth, which man must have to survive and flourish, to call a regime that suppresses freedom of speech "selfish" borders on the patently absurd. This is not to say that it is unimportant to defend the virtue of selfishness whenever possible, for its opposite, altruism, is what is used to justify socialism and dictatorship, including the poet's very sentence! The rulers of China, Burma, Congo, and Zimbabwe are anything but "selfish".

No, what got my attention was that asinine statement that socialism has "nothing to do with this". Socialism is a political system in which the government owns the means of production (i.e., it fails to recognize the property rights of its citizens to the point of perpetually violating them). As such, it is a species of tyranny and it is one step down the road to Rangoon. (Yes. I know, it's "Yangon" now. And it's no longer the capital. And I bet quite a few Burmese would take colonial status over this any day. So let's do talk about keeping up to date.)

The very idea that a government that violates individual rights in one area (property) will not eventually also do so in another (speech) is folly. In such a case, either the principle that man has rights is unknown or it is already being flouted, and sooner or later, some lowly prole -- I mean, individual human being -- will inconvenience the government by exercising what rights haven't yet been trampled.

I have often spoken of a "dictator fantasy" in which people like this apologist for socialism (or Obama's more fanatical supporters) seem to think that the despot they want in power will rule as he, personally, sees fit. This is clear evidence of a lack of principled thought, and the proliferation of people with this fantasy is a direct result of the prevalence of the philosophical approach of pragmatism.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

This morning I finished reading Tara Smith's article on pragmatism, in the Fall 2008 issue of The Objective Standard--to which you have linked in your last line.

I found it to be very valuable. I took notes on her description of the historical roots of, nature of, consequences of, and ways to fight against the pragmatism saturating US culture. I folded my sheet of notes and inserted them next to the "Pragmatism" article in my tattered copy of The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

I highly recommend the article.

Anonymous said...

That kind of comment comes from the same pedants who insist that Russian wasn't really "true" Marxism because it didn't follow some particular detail.

My metphor of ideas as roads is the counterweapon I use: essentially, it amounts to declaring that socialism is not defined by its alleged goals, but by its end-of-road, which is independent of stated goals.

In that light, socialism is defined as the form of society where sovereignty is vested in the State, and individuals are not free to opt out and go their own way. Burma fits the bill, as did National Socialism.

If someone tells you that you don't have a choice, it's socialism.

Of course, the same can be said of fascism, communism, and democracy (as the Left sells it). That doesn't mean that my idea is simplistic, no -- it means that all the subdivisions of tyranny used to sell each new instance to an intellectually unarmed populace as something new and original, is of no moral consequence beyond the academic study of political history.

I have yet to figure out how to pack all that into s snappy blog commen, though.

Gus Van Horn said...


All I could add to that recommendation would be to emphasize that even Objectivists familiar with what pragmatism is should read it. It's that good.


You hit the nail on the head regarding where that argument comes from, although "pedant" is too good a word.

You could call that type of "argument" "the dictionary game", and it is not just anti-principle, but it actively attacks the opponent for thinking in terms of principles.


Anonymous said...

"Socialism is a political system in which the government owns the means of production...
...The very idea that a government that violates individual rights in one area (property) will not
eventually also do so in another (speech) is folly."

The majority of people are sloppy, and they don't know or don't care to find out what that
actually means. To be exact, Socialism is a system in which the government is the sole owner of
all property. Us Objectivists understand that property is inextricably linked to all (legitimate)
rights; that it is the only way to express and translate all other rights into Reality. That's why,
for example, our concept of "freedom of speech" is not divorced from a concept of property. So it
doesn't surprise us that whenever people decide to grab or vote away property, speech is the very
next right to follow. Of course, most everyone else is always baffled ... somehow!

Another interesting question to ponder is what exactly is the ultimate mean of production.
The Marxists have succeeded in convincing everyone that it consists of machines and infrastructure,
and the like. But we know all production is the result of an active, independant human mind. Now,
what it really means to "own all the means of production" should come clearly into mind ... pun

This "disconnect" between property and speech/freedom/etc is the source of that
"dictator fantasy" you mention. People think that if "their guy" just happened to be in charge,
he would sack the rich, spread the spoils and still let them have all the "freedom" they crave.
That's why the Soviet Union was never "really" communist nor socialist. Same with North Korea,
China, Burma, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Nazi Germany,Pol Pot's Cambodia, and the whole lot of them.

Gus Van Horn said...


Very good connection regarding "means of production". Had not quite made that connection explicitly, so thanks!

I think you're on the right track with the origins of the "dictator fantasy", although it is not peculiar to leftists. Just look at all the theocrats out there who seem to think THEIR SECT will prevail.