Dec 31, 2012

Specialized vs. general activism—which is better?

BACKGROUND: THE NATURE OF ACTIVISM. In my view, activism is the idea of working to change the circumstances—philosophical, cultural, social, or political—in which individuals live their lives. Activists for a more objective society work to improve the circumstances in which peaceful, productive, and honest individuals live by promoting reason and breaking down barriers to liberty. An architect designs buildings, and his clients pay him for doing so. The architect becomes an activist when he campaigns to abolish his city government's rights-violating regulations of architecture and construction. He is working to improve the legal circumstances in which architects design buildings.

Serious activism is long-term; the activist for a more objective society knows that influencing other rational individuals can be a slow process. Sometimes change—depending on the starting point and the depth of the problem —may happen only after years, decades, or generations of activism. The movement to end Prohibition of alcohol in the USA worked for thirteen years to abolish a single law.[1] The movement working to abolish slavery in the USA struggled for two centuries to destroy a set of pro-slavery laws and the slave society that had been built on them.[2] Some struggles, such as the war between reason and mysticism, have raged for thousands of years and will never end.

A LASER OR A CHANDELIER OF LEDS? Individuals who choose to be activists face an array of secondary choices. One choice is between general activism and specialized activism. General activism is broad in the scope of issues it covers. On Monday, a general activist might donate to a campaign to abolish a local sales tax; on Tuesday, he might speak to a local club in favor of abolishing narcotics laws for adults; on Wednesday, he might write a letter to a central African country to encourage it to release its political prisoners; and so forth. What makes a general activist general is the range of issues he can intelligently discuss. The generalist may be a full-time activist or one who dedicates a half hour per day, every day, for the remainder of his life. The generalist may operate close to home (carrying a sign while "demonstrating"; writing letters to a local newspaper; organizing neighborhood discussion groups; and so forth). Michael Neibel, a retired gentleman, is an example of a generalist. In his weblog and elsewhere, he comments on a range of issues.[3] 

Or a general activist may work at an international level (speaking to an economics club in London, appearing on national television programs in the USA, writing books, or conducting weekly radio programs reviewing and analyzing news events. Yaron Brook, president of The Ayn Rand Institute is an example.[4]

For some activists, one benefit of general activism is the opportunity to think about and research a variety of subjects. Such an activist, however, needs to be a quick study if he expects to keep up with the flood of news items that are common conversation among his friends or on radio talk shows. He needs to have the mental skills for rapidly identifying a problem (for example, identifying the issue underlying the debate over "gun control"), becoming familiar with the philosophical theory (the right of self-defense grounded in nature), and researching the facts (What kind of weapon is required for self-defense in various situations, while not endangering others?). 

Without adequate thinking and research, the general activist merely sounds ignorant when questioned by friends in discussions or challenged by opponents in debate. Therein lies one of the drawbacks of general activism: having knowledge that is wide but shallow and therefore not persuasive when confronting an opponent who has specialized in studying and debating the subject.

Specialized activism is narrow in scope. A specialized activist chooses one subject, a subject that he expects to master, that is, know so well that he can teach the subject: its fundamental principles, its key issues, and the problems of application. An example would be an activist specializing in a move to abolish federal anti-trust laws in the USA. He needs to know: (1) what those laws and accompanying regulations actually are, by reading and understanding them; (2) who among legislators (and their cronies) sponsored the original legislation and continue to expand it today; and (3) what would be the best plan for abolishing them.

Preparing for specialized activism may take years. During that time, the specialized activist need not be silent. He can: (1) conduct study groups on the issue,  (2) write a weblog that reports his findings as he conducts research, and (3) ask questions in specialized forums, for the purpose of collecting the type of responses he will encounter from the supporters of anti-trust laws.

For some individuals, a drawback of specialization is isolation. Few if any others will share his interest. The specialist may be off-stage for long periods of time while he is preparing. Likewise, years may pass before he acquires a reputation strong enough to attract supporters, financial contributors (if needed), and inquiries from journalists.

Specialization is a matter of degree. One form is specializing in a single, but broad abstraction. An example would be specializing in the promotion of the metaphysical principle of naturalism: We live in one world, the natural world, a world in which all entities have a particular identity and act accordingly.  This specialization is narrow in one way, because it is only one tenet of a philosophy of reason, but it is broad in its potential applications—for example, in the debate about a theory of evolution or in advocating the scientific method—but the activist's continuing focus would be on spreading the principle of naturalism, as a way of laying a foundation for a philosophical revolution.

Another form of specialization deals with particulars. For instance, an activist in the USA might focus on abolishing Social Security. He would need to know its history, its laws, and possible plans for phasing it out. He would accumulate a vast amount of information that he can use to establish his authority on the subject and to illustrate his broader points about ethics.

An example of specialization is maintaining a website——that collects examples of frivolous or absurd lawsuits, as an effort to make the legal system focus more seriously on the issue of rights.

MAKING A CHOICE. Which approach is better—specialized activism or general activism? A direct response to that question must be another question: Better for whom—the individual activist or the individuals he hopes to influence or both?

First, which approach to activism is more effective in changing a culture? Based on my reading of history, observation of the culture today, and personal experience, I would say both approaches are required for a movement to succeed. In a particular field, such as nuclear power, a specialist is needed to persuade decision-makers (in the industry and in Congress) and decision-influencers. In a division of labor society, a generalist can spread the word about particular issues or the principles that underlie them to the man in the street, the honest but ill-informed man who might vote for a political candidate proposing change toward a more objective society.

Second, which is best for the activist? This is the most important question. I would say that the approach best for the activist himself is the approach that is most likely to sustain his activism for the remainder of his life, given his abilities, his interests, his personality, and his ability to acquire the necessary skills. The activist knows himself. He can discover which approach will give him the fuel to walk the long road ahead.

For me, specializing is the best way to work because it allows me plenty of opportunity to study, which I enjoy, and to create a range of intermediate and long-term products that might have some influence on a few individuals who might, in turn, influence a few others.

The choice is yours. Which do you choose?

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here

[1] For a brief sketch of Prohibition and the movement to end it: [2] For a sketch of the history of the movement to abolish slavery: [3] For Michael Neibel's weblog: [4] For Yaron Brook, see (a), and (b)

Sep 26, 2012

Predicting the USA's future: 2013-2017

This post contains notes for a four-year exercise in studying history and in predicting the future. I am collecting predictions of specific, measurable events that will result from the election of either Romney or Obama.

The predictions come only from activists fighting for a more objective world, that is, a world guided by reason alone. If you are submitting a prediction (in the comments thread or in an email to me), please briefly state your form of activism.

EXAMPLES. An example measurably specific prediction  is: "Under Romney's presidency, for the four years, the cost of goods, measured by the current CPI, will rise on average at least 23% per year.

An example prediction not measurably specific is: "Under Obama, the nation faces disaster." This prediction would be acceptable if "disaster" were defined and if specific examples were offered, such as 138 million people dying of starvation or six cities attacked by nuclear bombs set off by Muslims.

DISASTER. My definition of disaster (and its synonyms, "catastrophe" and "calamity") is: A situation -- economic, political, or military -- in which the victims are so injured by adverse events that they are incapable within a single generation of returning to their previous, more prosperous state without help from the outside. For the USA, the War Between the States (the U. S. Civil War) was not a disaster, as defined here; but for Japan, World war II was a disaster -- though aid and guidance from the USA did help Japan become a civilized and prosperous nation. Individuals named below might not agree with this definition.

The following predictions are generally stated in my words (usually working from the predictors' original comments), not the exact words of the courageous predictors.


1. "If Obama wins there will only be one party--the Communist Party." 
(Facebook, Sept. 26, 2012, Charlotte Cushman, a published political writer and a Tea Party activist.)

2. Exponentially rising USA federal debt -- if either Romney or Obama is elected. 

(Facebook, Sept. 30, 2012, Keith Weiner, PhD, Economics, an advocate for capitalism; his discussion of gold backwardation is here.)

3. Calamity in the following forms, with two side effects listed last -- if Obama wins the election. 

Violent riots in major US cities.
- Federal debt increasing over $1T/year.
- Downgrades of federal USA credit.
- Open discussion about quashing the First Amendment.
- Massive US equities correction, probably globally.
- Nuclear Iran creating a regional nuclear arms race among Muslim countries
- Regional Mid-East war
- China becoming more powerful in Asia
- Gold over $3000 per ounce.
- Impeachment hearings against Obama.
(Facebook, Sept. 30, 2012, Chip Joyce, Sept. 30, 2012, a donor to ARI and a general activist.)

4. Implementation of the following three points of the neoconservative platform, if Romney
 wins, even though he himself is not a neoconservative: 
- (a) His continuation of the War of Sacrifice against "terrorists," resulting in the death of at least 2,000 more Americans -- soldiers or civilians -- during the next four years. 
- (b) His complicity in the expansion of the national welfare state, in terms of dollars; 
- (c) His calls for support of God and country, but not the country of the Founders. 
(Burgess Laughlin, October 17, 2012, an author whose activist purpose is to expose the state of the war between reason and mysticism in our time in the USA.)

5. Over the next ten years, after President Obama's re-election in 2012:
- The USA equity market will have Fed dollars booms that go bust at least once and achieve no lasting real increases in protected asset value.
- The Fed will try to keep interest rates low. But as they are now [January, 2013] about as low as they can be, long-term Treasury bonds will see no new capital gains. If interest rates do move up, you will see loss ranging from significant to catastrophic.
- The CPI will continue to show losses in purchasing power of at least 2% a year, so at minimum, the cash element of a Permanent Portfolio [described in the bookThe Permanent Portfoliowill see a loss of over 20%.
- Gold will show fits and starts, but will trend toward requiring more and more paper dollars to buy it. Thus three of the four sectors of a Permanent Portfolio have no future in today's context. 
- Both the Permanent Portfolio approach [developed by Harry Browne, Craig Rowland, and others] and the value-investment approach [used by Warren Buffet and Bruce Berkowitz] were written for periods in which the economy was less controlled and manipulated. Neither assumed eight or more years of trillion dollar deficits, multi-trillion dollar "stimulus" packages, Dodd-Franks, the coming tidal wave of regulations, or ObamaCare. The context has changed. Ignoring that will be disastrous for investors. 
(Bob Gifford, retired investment advisor, author of the weblog Krazy Economy, here.)

6. At the end of Obama's second term
- Gold will be within +/- 20% of January 2013 levels.
- The SP500 will be 50% higher than January 2013 levels.
- The Fed's printing of money will have slowed. 
- "Experts" on TV will have declared the recession over.
- Obama will take full credit for navigating us through the recession.
- These stocks will have doubled: AIG, BAC, JCP, and ACAS.
(Hoyt Chang, a mechanical engineer and part-time investor with no formal instruction in economics or politics. He follows the value-investing strategy of Warren Buffet and others, as outlined here: The Little Book That Still Beats the Market.)

Apr 8, 2012

Benefits of Conflicts in Movements?

Like all movements, the Objectivist movement has suffered conflicts. The drawbacks of conflicts are easy to identify, but are there benefits that rational individuals can gain from them?

Wherever two or more individuals associate, conflicts can occur. A movement is a group of individuals, a group defined only by a common goal of changing the world in some way. If all the members of a movement were to act as isolated individuals, conflicts would not arise. However, most members of movements do associate: They communicate; they trade; and they form networks, ad hoc organizations, and institutions. They differ in their senses of life, strategies, tactics, communication styles, personalities, level of knowledge, social skills, level of morality, and degree of mental health. Conflicts arise.

Within a movement, a conflict is a disagreement between two or more individuals that leads at least one of them to devote resources to making a change that ends the disagreement -- one way or the other.

Conflict is not merely the presence of different viewpoints, such as differing opinions about the style of clothing one should wear to a formal dinner for local members of the movement. A conflict, as I am using the term, is a disagreement that lasts long enough and is painful enough, at least to one side, that the aggrieved side takes action to change the situation. The other side reacts. Tension flares.

Example changes one side might seek are: persuading other members of the movement to donate or stop donating to certain projects; convincing members of the movement to adopt a particular strategy or tactic for achieving the movement's goals; and ostracizing a destructive individual from the movement.

DRAWBACKS. The potential drawbacks of conflicts within a movement are clear. Conflicts take attention and resources away from directly supporting the common, defining goals of the movement -- as when time and effort spent gathering evidence about a member's behavior might have been spent advocating the movement's principles to the society outside the movement. Second, conflicts can lead to schisms (refusals to associate), which might reduce the effectiveness of the movement. Third, conflicts can destroy friendships. Fourth, for those individuals who choose to become involved in them, conflicts are emotionally draining and can lead to abandoning the movement.

BENEFITS? Are there any ways in which rational individuals might gain from conflicts? I am basing my answer here only on personal (not systematic, scientific) observation of the Objectivist movement for fifty years, plus observations of other movements for much shorter periods. (I was briefly a participant in the movements against the Vietnam War, against the military draft, and against restrictions on abortion; and for several years, I was a member of the conflict-ridden libertarian movement.)

When disagreements cannot be resolved amicably, I see several potential benefits of conflicts within a movement. First, if the conflict is mainly about ideas, conflict can lead to more individuals within the movement becoming aware of the ideas at issue. Conflicts involving debate over fundamental principles of the movement can help educate members of the movement and thereby make the movement more effective in the long term.

Next, and closely related, is the benefit that comes from considering, discussing, and debating background issues. An example background issue is standards. In a conflict over a particular individual's behavior, what is the proper standard of judgment?[1] Another example background issue is method. If one member of the movement makes an accusation against another individual within the movement, what method should he use to present his accusation? How much evidence does he need to provide? How detailed should his argument -- the chain of inferences connecting the evidence to the accusation -- be for his particular audience?

A third benefit for many members of the movement is learning more about the individuals involved in the conflict. Individuals acting under the stress of a conflict may reveal aspects of their psychology or level of skills that were unknown before. Is a particular individual thoughtful? Does he do the research required to reach an informed judgment? Does he listen to those who might know more than he does? Does he present his evidence, proof, and conclusion for an objective audience or does he appeal to emotionalists? Negative answers to those questions may disqualify some individuals from being leaders, organizers, or consultants -- but positive answers may qualify them for a greater role in future projects.

A fourth potential benefit is greater long-term effectiveness. Quality control matters. A movement that regularly sheds individuals who do not in fact share the defining principles of the movement is a movement that stays focused. With those individuals out of the movement's network, the movement may be able to concentrate more on the key issues that define the movement and less on internal friction.

WHAT ABOUT AN HONEST MISUNDERSTANDING? In all conflicts that I have seen, there are individuals on both sides who act irrationally: emotionalists, moralizers, bomb-throwers, and the arsonists who pour gasoline on the flames of ideational conflicts that degenerate into personal conflicts. Their presence, in itself, is not automatically an indictment of the side they choose to support.

Other individuals, honest ones, sometimes make errors in judgment because of inadequate information or because of flawed methods of judging. Will a movement die as a result of honest errors that lead to a split? It should not. If individuals on both sides genuinely support the defining principles of the movement, then those individuals will continue working toward the original common goals even after an unfortunate and unnecessary split. While there might then be two smaller streams, with little socializing between them, they might be even more effective in changing the society around them. The reason is that after a split there would be two sets of voices calling for essentially the same changes in society. An increase in the number of voices advocating a certain idea will, other factors being equal, improve chances of success.[2]

EFFECT OF SPLITS. From the sidelines, I have witnessed several "splits" in the Objectivist movement. The seemingly most destructive was the split in the late 1960s following Ayn Rand's disavowal of Nathaniel Branden. The Nathaniel Branden Institute at that time was the only institutional voice for Objectivism. It closed at the very time that the communist and other irrationalist movements were marching victoriously around the world. Objectivist social networks fractured, friendships ended, and heated conflict erupted. Yet, through all of that turmoil, dedicated students of Objectivism -- led by the example of Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff -- continued working to articulate the philosophy of Objectivism and to change the culture around them. Their successes have accumulated through the decades.

CONCLUSION. Internal conflict itself does not cause a movement to fail. The most rational and skilled individuals in the movement can even gain from conflict when it does emerge but cannot be amicably resolved.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

[1] A comment from Betsy Speicher reminded me of the importance of always asking: "By what standard?" [2] Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate, of the Ayn Rand Institute, make the point about multiple voices, not splits, in their excellent 4.5-hour series of lectures, "Cultural Movements: Creating Change," at

Jan 26, 2012

Should a movement have watchmen?

A movement has no gatekeepers. That means there is no way to stop destructive individuals from entering the movement. Yet, there must be quality control at some level to prevent damage to efforts to reach the goals of the movement. To detect dangers, a movement needs watchmen as lookouts.

JOB REQUIREMENTS. The individuals who choose to be watchmen and exercise quality control, in some manner and at some level, are necessarily "self-appointed." Such a function is open to anyone who sees a danger worthy of action and has the skills to take appropriate steps -- which means mainly the ability to present an objective argument proving his charges against other individuals in the movement.

Objectivity means drawing all ideas logically from facts of reality. To be objective, an indictment of one individual by another must present facts as well as an argument leading from those facts to the indictment. The facts must be presented with specificity; pointing in the general direction ("Look at his writings!") is not specific. The argument must cover the steps required to move from evidence to conclusion. The indictment must be clear.

Debates among various watchmen are inevitable and desirable. The accusers are akin to prosecuting attorneys. There are defendants, rightly or wrongly accused. There are also the ladies and gentlemen of the jury: anyone who studies the issues, makes a judgment, and acts accordingly. However, there is no judge to set rules of procedure. Nor is there a bailiff, a policeman, or a jailer.

EXAMPLE APPROACHES. There are many optional approaches available to watchmen who are ready to make charges. Here are two examples to consider for their particular methods:



They are widely separated in time. In some ways, they are different in their purposes and methods. The first consists mainly of an annotated list of links to the author's own discussions on particular topics of false friends of Objectivism. The second, in most (but not all) of its tabbed pages (as of the day I viewed it), also consists mainly of links to other writings critiquing individuals the accusers think are pseudo-Objectivists. (The second site is new and the content is evolving.)

A third effort to consider is an apologia, a coherent essay which offers a defense against charges:


I have identified the particular writings above because of their virtues, whatever faults they might also have (which must be judged within the context of each project's purposes). Generally, in the links cited both sources are serious and dignified. They deal with issues, which here means individuals and their ideas. They eschew foul language, "hot headed" outbursts, hyperbole, street talk, and other symptoms of profane culture.

CONCLUSION. Does a movement need watchmen? Yes, to protect the movement's efforts to reach its goals. The responsibility of being watchmen is heavy. It requires diligence in research, thought, and argumentation. It also requires the strength to withstand scrutiny.

PERSONAL NOTE: A BRIGHT FUTURE. I judge a movement by the actions of its best individuals, which includes, in part, their efforts to (1) set an example for rational behavior and (2) discourage violations of etiquette. (By "etiquette" I mean principles and rules of behavior that facilitate trade among individuals in a society.)

I have been a student of Objectivism for fifty years. In looking at the best behavior of particular individuals in recent controversies, on both sides, I see some signs of increasing personal maturity and interpersonal civility -- both of which are prerequisites for the trade of ideas, a trade that strengthens a movement. I also keep in mind a generalization: In controversies, the best individuals in a movement are often quiet until they are ready to make a thoughtful statement, if one is even worth formulating.

In preparing to write The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, I read about conflicts in several movements (such as the movement to overthrow the Enlightenment). Compared to those movements, the Objectivist movement is healthy and growing stronger. For this and other reasons, I am objectively hopeful for the future of the Objectivist movement.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. -- I "know" some of the individuals involved in the controversy above, but only through the internet. For personal reasons, I dislike a few and I have ceased communicating with them. The issues in the sites above, however, are not personal issues, but issues of individuals accused of misrepresenting or otherwise damaging the Objectivist movement.

Jan 18, 2012

Ayn Rand on Selecting a Presidential Candidate?

In Vol. 3, No. 3 (March, 1964) of The Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand published "Check Your Premises," an essay that offers "a few basic considerations, as guidelines in deciding what one can properly expect of a political candidate, particularly of a presidential candidate" (p. 9, col. 1). What were those guidelines?

(Caution: My notes below are not comprehensive. The following quotations are passages that I have selected because I think they make points applicable to all times, including our own. Occasionally I have summarized intermediate steps in her presentation. Reader, beware. Read the article for yourself; you can purchase the TON collection at the Ayn Rand estore or, printed, on Amazon:

A FOCUS ON POLITICAL PRINCIPLES. "One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate's total philosophy -- only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job. It is only a political consistency that we can demand of him; if he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours" (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

(Does the statement above mean that Ayn Rand was advocating either (1) not investigating or (2) ignoring the results of an investigation of a candidate's more fundamental principles, that is, his metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics? I think she was advocating neither. Why?

1. Six months earlier, in "A Suggestion," October, 1963, TON, p. 40, col. 2, Ayn Rand -- who always emphasized (a) the causal nature of fundamental ideas and (b) the necessity of non-contradictory integration -- said, "If [the candidate] ... should ... tie his candidacy to some doctrine of a mystical nature -- we will, of course, be free not to vote for him." That means, I think, one cannot evaluate what a candidate says about his principles in isolation from his ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical roots.

2. Two years earlier, in the first question in the Intellectual Ammunition Department of the March, 1962, TON, Barbara Branden, then writing under the editorship and approval of Ayn Rand, said: "A rational advocate of capitalism should repudiate any individual or group that links capitalism to the supernatural. He commits treason to his own cause if and when he cooperates with the mystical 'conservatives', if and when he sanctions them as creditable spokesmen for the cause of freedom." The immediate context was different, but I think the guideline applies to voting as well as to campaigning for a candidate.

These two earlier quotations show, I think, that Ayn Rand was not advocating an evaluation of a candidate's statements of political principle in isolation from the remainder of his philosophy.)

PRINCIPLES VS. PARTICULAR POSITIONS. "If [the candidate] has mixed premises," Ayn Rand writes, "we have to judge him ... by his dominant trend. ... A vote for a candidate does not constitute an endorsement of his entire position, not even of his entire political position, only of his basic political principles." (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

A particular position -- such as advocating withdrawal from the United Nations -- is not a principle. It is, Ayn Rand says, a "concrete." A candidate's "view on whether a nation should or should not protect its sovereignty is a principle, which covers many issues besides the U. N." (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

"If a candidate evades, equivocates and hides his stand under a junk-heap of random concretes, we must add up those concretes and judge him accordingly. If his stand is mixed, we must evaluate it by asking: Will he protect freedom or destroy the last of it? Will he accelerate, delay or stop the march toward statism?" (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 2)

A VOTER'S RANGE OF CHOICES. "[O]ften, particularly in recent times, a voter chooses merely the lesser of two evils" (TON, March, 1964, p.10, col. 2).

"There are many forms of protest open to us, if [an unacceptable candidate is actually nominated]: we can vote for a write-in candidate of our own choice -- or vote a straight Republican ticket, leaving the presidential and vice-presidential spaces blank -- or vote a mixed ticket -- or vote for any Democrat who is not fully committed to statism -- or not vote at all. But we cannot vote for the proposition [held by some self-styled Republican "mainstream" candidates] that we, as advocates of capitalism, are lunatics -- or for the candidate who so regards us" (TON, March, 1964, p. 12, col. 1).

A CHOICE OF INCOMMENSURATE EVILS? Sometimes both major candidates are philosophically unqualified, but one represents a short-term, grave danger, a danger so great that even subsequent free elections are threatened by his becoming president. Ayn Rand wrote about one such situation, the electoral conflict between Richard Nixon and George McGovern:

"I am not an admirer of President Nixon ... but I urge every able-minded voter ... to vote for Nixon -- as a matter of national emergency. This is no longer an issue of choosing the lesser of two commensurate evils. The choice is between a flawed candidate representing Western Civilization -- and the perfect candidate of its primordial enemies. If there were some campaign organization called 'Anti-Nixonites for Nixon', it would name my position. The worst thing said about Nixon is that he cannot be trusted, which is true; he cannot be trusted to save this country. But one thing is certain: McGovern can be trusted to destroy it." (Quoted to me by Robert LeChevalier, as coming from "Preview," an article which appeared through three issues, Nos. 22, 23, and 24, of Vol. 1 of The Ayn Rand Letter; the quoted passage, RL says, comes from No. 22. I no longer own a copy of TARL.)

The problem here is deciding whether a particular election involves a choice of two incommensurate evils -- that is, inconsistent destruction caused by one candidate's pragmatic folly versus consistent destruction caused by the other candidate's principled, ideological design.

GENERAL PERSPECTIVE ON ELECTIONS. "An election campaign is not the cause, but the effect and the product of a culture's intellectual trends. It is, perhaps, too early to fight for capitalism on the level of practical politics, in a culture devoid of any intellectual base for capitalism" (TON, March, 1964, p. 12, col. 1).

The full article contains many other insights applicable to today. It also provides detailed examples that illustrate the guidelines Ayn Rand offers.

SUMMARY. As an answer to the historical question -- What were Ayn Rand's guidelines for voting? -- I say she generally recommended focusing on the fundamental political principles of each candidate, while being alert to the candidate's deeper philosophy if the candidate himself tied his politics to mysticism.

MY ELABORATION. If, as I think, a John Locke sort of candidate were to say, "I have faith in God; he created man; he gave man the faculty of reason for living in this world; and reason leads us to the need for a free society," then such a candidate would be acceptable because his supernaturalism and mysticism are detachable, so to speak, in public political discussions. We have common ground with the idea that man is a rational animal.

On the other hand, if a candidate says, "I have faith that God created man; man is corrupt; and his faculty of understanding is too limited to justify having power over others -- except that we must ban sinful behavior, at least at the local level, and wage a perpetual war of sacrifice against our foreign religious enemies," then the candidate is not acceptable.

Today another main type of candidate is the Pragmatist. (In the 1964 article, Ayn Rand discusses political pragmatism in detail.) By definition, we cannot discover his essential principles because he has no principles and therefore his job performance is unpredictable. In my view, the Pragmatist is dangerous because he can be attacked for imputed principles that he does not actually hold. Today a Republican pragmatist becomes "Mr. Capitalism" to his Democratic collectivist opponents.

With Ayn Rand's guidelines, making a choice is easier.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Jan 16, 2012

An Activist's Choices

This post is a set of notes, not a treatise. I am basing it on my experience, my reading of history (especially for The Power and the Glory), and my observation of activists during my fifty years as a student of Objectivism.

WHAT IS ACTIVISM? If you design and build skyscrapers, you are an architect; if you campaign to eliminate your city's controls on construction, you are an activist. If you make steel rails, you are a manufacturer; if you speak against tariffs on imported steel, you are an activist. If you are hired to explain elementary math to children, you are a teacher; if you work with others to abolish governmental schools, you are an activist.

If you are in business, then offering a product on the market directly benefits both you and your customers. You and they are traders. In contrast, activism for objective people means taking some form of action in society to improve the social circumstances in which individuals trade material and spiritual values. The benefits of activism are indirect.

An activist is free to choose his subject matter, scope of operation, form of action, and other factors. The choices are personal; they are shaped by one's intelligence, ability to learn new skills, and, most of all, one's deepest personal values.

In the battle for a more objective society, the battleground is wide. On one side are ranks of the enemy, standing shoulder to shoulder from one end of the battleground to the other end. They control or threaten every aspect of life. On the other side, the side of advocates for a more objective society, there are many empty spaces waiting to be filled by revolutionaries.

THE CHOICES TO MAKE. Following are some of the factors that an activist can consider in planning his activism. Planning is important because successful activism requires a long effort -- to accumulate skills, acquire specialized knowledge of subject matter, select allies, and make contacts in the appropriate media (decision influencers) and centers of power (the decision makers).

Which Issue? The essential factor in activism -- the factor that shapes many of the other factors -- is the issue you choose to work on. Beyond that, the order of the factors to consider is generally optional.

Example issues are: Regulations enforced by your local government's "Planning Bureau"; the international slave trade; the national prohibition against narcotics; the lack of civility in debate and discussion; ignorance or antipathy toward the scientific method; racism; legislative threats to your profession; altruism vs. egoism in personal life and politics; the latest in a long series of attempted tax increases proposed by your state legislature; or the whole deluge of philosophical, social, and political problems in general.

Brian Phillips, author of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs: A Defense of Capitalism As the Only Social System That is Both Moral and Practical, has chosen to write broadly about government and individual rights. He has spoken out for years in his own weblog, in a local activist network, and in national publications.

Specialist or generalist? Rather than choose a special, long-term interest, an activist can be a generalist. That means keeping up with the ever-changing parade of issues that are "hot topics" for the mass media and their audiences. Being a successful generalist requires an ability to quickly study an issue, uncover the deeper principles involved, learn the particulars of a few examples, and develop a rational alternative to the present problem.

The danger of general activism is shallowness; and generalists speaking in public forums cannot speak authoritatively. They are therefore less persuasive than specialists who have long studied the issue and practiced presenting their side to a variety of audiences. On the other hand, specialized activists must be prepared to be out of the spotlight of mass media attention most of the time -- and then be in the center of the spotlight for a brief but intense time. Socialized vs. free market medical care is an example of an issue that comes and goes in public attention; the specialists quietly continue their work regardless of the immediate attention they receive.

An example of a specialist is Bosch Fawstin, a highly accomplished illustrator and graphic-novelist who focuses on fighting Islamic aggression. He also writes and speaks out in radio interviews and at conferences.

Geographic scope? An activist can work on an issue in a geographic area small enough that he can easily and repeatedly meet, face to face, all the individuals involved. For example, a local activist could meet the city council members who are considering privatizing city-owned utilities, as well as the other activists who want privatization or who oppose it. Or an activist can work on a larger scale: county, state, region, nation, or world. An example of the last are the activists who work in organizations such as Amnesty International, which pressures governments to release "prisoners of conscience," individuals imprisoned for their beliefs, not for crimes of aggression or fraud. (I am using AI as an example, not endorsing all of its actions; I did volunteer work for AI about 35 years ago, but I have had little contact with AI since then.)

Pro, con, or mixed? In your activism do you want to mainly express support for an objective alternative -- such as explaining the nature and benefits of science -- or do you want to mainly oppose a threat -- such as a particular organization (like the Council on American-Islamic Relations), particular news agency (The New York Times), or even a particular fallacy (like the Broken Window)? If you mix the positive and negative approaches, the proportions are of course optional.

Alex Epstein is the founder and director of the Center for Industrial Progress. A model activist -- indeed an activist "entrepreneur" -- he calls his positive approach "aspirational advocacy".

In-line or off-line? Do you want to make your activism an application of your central purpose in life (CPL)? That approach is in-line activism, which means your activism is in line with, an extension of, or application of your productive purpose in life. An example would be a nuclear engineer who, in the evenings and on the weekends, fights political restrictions on building nuclear power plants.

Or do you want to move away from your CPL to pick an area of activism that has a deep personal value but no direct connection to your CPL -- as when an accountant decides to fight drug laws because he sees the destruction such laws cause.

One example of an "in-line" activist is Paul Hsieh, MD. He is the founder of the weblog Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine. He writes letters to editors, "op-eds," and other essays, criticizing proposed and current statist medical programs or advocating separation of Medicine and State. His portfolio has grown steadily through years of effort.

Social relationships? Do you want to work alone (for example, writing letters to editors). Or would you like to network with other activists focused on the same issue? Or do you want to associate with like-minded individuals on a series of intense but occasional, ad hoc projects (such as a temporary committee opposing a proposed state tax increase). Or would you prefer to be the founder or employee of an institution such as the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights? Examples are employees of The Ayn Rand Institute.

Jared Rhoads, founder of The Lucidicus Project, works directly with medical students who are looking for a philosophical foundation for freedom in medicine.

Cognitive level? To be most effective, all activism for a more objective society must be an integration of the deepest philosophical principles and the most particular facts. Which do you mainly want to focus on -- for example, propagating principles (such as rational egoism vs. altruism) or working with legislators to change the details of certain existing or proposed laws?

In other words, in the stream of philosophical ripples from the philosopher to the man in the street, do you want to be mainly a philosophical activist, an intellectual activist (who applies philosophical principles to current issues and offers alternative solutions), a principled political activist (stressing the guiding principles of proper government), or a political tactician who takes care of the detailed "mechanics" of political campaigns, such as scheduling a candidate's speaking engagements and so forth?

Apply a particular skill set you already have? Are you now a researcher, writer, accountant, filmmaker, office manager, speaker, salesman, trainer, legal adviser, clerk, or website designer? Would you like to do the work you love, but for an activist organization whose goals you support? The Institute for Justice may be an example of such an organization.

What medium? Through what medium do you expect to propagate ideas -- writing (speeches, weblog posts, magazine articles, books), speaking (in online or face-to-face interviews on radio or TV, or to "live" audiences); or focused personal communication in which you are a salesman?

Investment of time and money? Do you want to eventually work full-time as an activist, or do you want to devote part of your time each week? How much of your own money are you willing to invest in your activism; or would you like to find or create a job as an activist? Mike Neibel, author of the weblog Mike's Eyes, engages in a part-time, low-expense form of activism.

A small-scale example. My own activism is the one I know best. In influence, it is very small scale -- but I love doing it. The issue that fascinates me is broad: the war between reason and mysticism in our time. I am "specializing" in that war, but in certain defined ways.

Since I am retired (I am 67), I can devote full time to it. However, my activism is a by-product of my continuing central purpose in life, which is to tell success stories from history. Two earlier products of that central purpose in life are The Aristotle Adventure and The Power and the Glory. Indirectly both support my activism. They help spread ideas I support.

The next major product I plan to create is also a book (in eight or ten years). Between now and then, intermediate products will be mainly the posts I write for my weblog, The Main Event, but occasionally other, related articles such as book reviews for The Objective Standard, here and here. Those short-term writings are, in effect, entries in my work journal; they should become a base for the book.

As I learned initially from philosopher Ayn Rand, fighting for a better world is in fact living in a better world, a world in which I meet individuals who share my values, and we take action toward those values.

If you do choose to become an activist, welcome to a better world.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith