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Tom Wolfe, American Iconoclast

 

Tom Wolfe, American Iconoclast

by Marsha Familaro Enright

Originally published in The New Individualist, Fall, 2006

Tom Wolfe is one of the most original, honest and unfettered contemporary observers of American culture alive today. Originator of the New Journalism in the ‘60’s, Wolfe’s fiction-like forays in reporting have kept him at the leading edge of insight for decades. And he’s hilarious! He skewers pomp, pretension and preening evenhandedly–and his fellow members of the press are often well-roasted. His originality with language is phenomenal, his psychological insight and depth remarkable. Best of all, his entirely first-hand view of the world always shines through.

Just as Ayn Rand closely observed and essentialized American culture during the first half of the twentieth century, Wolfe studied our culture “in the field” during the second half and beyond. He ranged all over the country: geographically, culturally, artistically, and intellectually. His books offer the reader vivid accounts about the full range of the “American carnival,” from the outrageous car culture of Southern California (“The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby “) to demolition derbies (“Clean Fun At Riverhead”), to the inner workings of the ultimate in ‘high’ culture snobbery–the New Yorker editorial offices (“Tiny Mummies!”).

From the ‘60’s onward, he seems to be on a mission to discover what makes American culture such a vast array of paradoxes–and in his later works, he eyes philosophy for answers.

Who is this wild man of journalism and fiction? A hugely popular and prolific author, Wolfe is probably best known for his novelesque account of the NASA space program, The Right Stuff (1975), made into a movie of the same name. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia and educated at Washington and Lee (B.A., 1951) and Yale (Ph.D. American Studies, 1957) universities, Wolfe spent more than ten years as a reporter for such institutions as the Springfield Union, The New York Herald-Tribune, Esquire and The Washington Post. In 1960 as Latin Correspondent at the Post, he won the Washington Newspaper Guild foreign news prize for his coverage of Cuba.

Along with Jimmy Breslin, Wolfe became one of the original staff writers of New York magazine, which had started as the Herald’s Sunday supplement. While on staff there, he began writing articles for Esquire magazine, many of which later formed his first book, The Kandy-Kolored, Kool-Aid Streamline Baby, published in 1965. These essays birthed the new, colorful, dramatic, story-telling style of writing which was later dubbed “The New Journalism.”  The methods of this new style changed the face of reporting forever.

If you want a sample of an hilarious piece of journalism about journalism-and insight into Wolfe-read the essay “The New Journalism” in The New Journalism (1975). To begin with, he aptly summarizes his experience in graduate school, which motivated him to become a journalist in order to have exciting real-life experiences:

“I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has…Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it…No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know…the subject always defeated them…Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic overboil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.” (The New Journalism, 1975, 16)

He then analyzes what made “The New Journalism” new:  harnessing methods of the novel to infuse stories about real people and events with drama, local color and psychological depth.  This included describing whole scenes of a person’s life-witnessed directly by the journalist-extended dialogue, and shifting points of view. It required the writer to spend considerable time with subjects, questioning them about their thoughts, feelings and motives. “They had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after-and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.” (35)

This required that the reporters have “the moxie to talk their way inside of any milieu, even closed societies, and hang on for dear life.” Writers like George Plimpton trained as an amateur with the Detroit Lions football team and turned it into Paper Lion; Hunter Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang before almost being stomped to death by them; Gay Talese chronicled boxing great Joe Louis’ life.  This new style was in contradistinction to the “century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice. The idea was that the narrator’s own voice should be like the off-white or putty-colored walls that Syrie Maugham popularized in interior decoration…a ‘neutral background’ against which bits of color would stand out. Understatement was the thing.” (32)

And distinguish himself from understatement he did. Wolfe’s works became populated with wholly original turns of phrase that are so on-the-mark, many have migrated into our vocabulary. Tom Wolfe invented terms like “the Me Decade;” “the Right stuff,” and  “social x-ray,” but according to the biography on his publisher’s website, his personal favorite is a Southern turn of phrase he introduced to the written word–and the national scene-in 1964-“good ‘ol boy.” He also “found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along-and I must say I had a good time using them. I figured it was time someone violated what Orwell had called ‘the Geneva conventions of the mind’…a protocol that had kept journalism and non-fiction generally (and novels) in such a tedious bind for so long.”

Using these new writing inventions, Wolfe has spent decades describing wildly-changing, status-seeking American fashions in delicious detail, whether it’s taking a limo four blocks to a party or owning a plantation. From his sharp observations he has crafted pithy characterizations like that of renowned symphony conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his “radical chic” buddies (another phrase he coined) or fictional Charlie Croker of A Man In Full (1998). He’s wondered at the chasm between the people (the “proles”) and the intellectuals and literati, between the glorious productivity, abundance and creativity of American culture and the Intellectuals’ gloomy, apocalyptic evaluation of that self-same culture-all expressed with his usual, interwoven sarcasm.

The reader can find it in an early essay from a book about ‘60’s culture, The Pump House Gang (1968):

“What struck me throughout America and England was that so many people have found such novel ways of …enjoying, extending their egos way out on the best terms available, namely, their own. It is curious how many serious thinkers–and politicians–resist this rather obvious fact. Sheer ego extension–especially if attempted by all those rancid proles and suburban petty burghers–is a perplexing prospect. Even scary one might say…I was impressed by the profound relief with which intellectuals and politicians discovered poverty in America in 1963, courtesy of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. And, as I say, it was discovered. Eureka! We have found it again!…When the race riots erupted–and when the war in Vietnam grew into a good-sized hell–intellectuals welcomed all that with a ghastly embrace, too. War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.”

And he is still wondering about it in his most recent book of essays, Hooking Up, published in 2000. This book ranges from art to neuroscience, and even a Cato Institute seminar is examined. The title essay “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World” opens with:

“By the year 2000, the term ‘working class’ had fallen into disuse in the United States, and ‘proletariat’ was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts…Our air-conditioning mechanic had probably never heard of Saint-Simon, but he was fulfilling Saint-Simon’s and the other nineteenth century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential…Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.

“Our typical burglar-alarm repairman didn’t display one erg of chauvinistic swagger, however. He had been numbed by the aforementioned ‘intellectuals,’ who had spent the preceding eighty years being indignant over what a ‘puritanical,’ ‘repressive,’ ‘bigoted,’ ‘capitalistic,’ and ‘fascist’ nation America was beneath its democratic façade.  It made his head hurt. Besides, he was too busy coping with what was known as the ‘sexual revolution.’ If anything, ‘sexual revolution’ was rather a prim term for the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000…Sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty,” which Wolfe then goes on to describe.

As the reader can see in the foregoing, typical passage, Wolfe does not merely notice blatant contradiction and hypocrisy–he finds them like a homing device finds its target hidden in a dark cultural and intellectual labyrinth and reveals it to the world. Likely this skill, on top of his material success, accounts for the screaming fury of the literati. In “My Three Stooges” Wolfe recounts how his surging fame and success with the novel A Man in Full–which pre-sold 1.2 million copies–motivated the likes of ‘modern’ novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving to denounce him in public as beneath literature. Wolfe chuckled about it on national TV and thanked them for increasing his publicity.

A Man in Full is set in contemporary, dynamically growing Atlanta, teeming with vivid characters and detail about the New South. The bulk of the story revolves around real estate magnate Charles Croker and his attempts to hold onto his empire tooth and nail.  The story reveals many strata of Atlantan society, both white and black. However, the reader can see Wolfe’s concern for our contemporary culture in his sympathetic portrait of Conrad Hensley, a young man whose upbringing by déclassé middle class hippies leaves him lacking in most of the technical and social skills that make survival and success possible. In this story, Wolfe’s recognition of philosophy’s power is most apparent, through the aid a book of the ancient Greek philosopher Epitectus gives to the self-development of the young man. After an excruciating run of events leads Conrad to one of life’s nadirs, he turns it around by incorporating Epitectus’ principles of integrity and courage into his life. Later, the dramatic plot explicitly turns on issues of philosophy as the young man’s life intersects with Charlie Croker’s.

Wolfe’s fictional characters are not heroes on the grand scale of Victor Hugo, but they can be larger than life, and some, like Conrad, do achieve real values over multiple obstacles through honesty and fortitude. Wolfe admires and honors ingenuity, courage, honesty, hard work, self-responsibility, and science–and competence and achievement over status. In his 1975 The Right Stuff, his admiration shows for the many engineers and scientists who made the Space Program possible. At the same time, he marvels at the status and honor accorded the Astronauts before they had gone on any missions!

His own personal values are most clearly apparent in the subdued tone of his celebratory essay, “Two Young Men Who Went West” in Hooking Up. In it he recounts the history and achievements of Robert Noyce, founder of Intel. Noyce is little-known outside of Tech circles but lionized there, a legend in the semi-conductor industry, “a national treasure” as one writer testified in all sincerity. Noyce forged a new corporate culture, the culture of achievement and single-minded work, the entrepreneurial, independent and self-responsible culture of Silicon Valley, through the principles and practices he instituted as head of his young company. Wolfe traces his ideas and values back to Grinnell, Iowa and its 19th century, Dissenting Protestant individualist roots. Wolfe respectfully reports that at his death, the unreligious Noyce was celebrated by “swarms of people [who] left [a memorial service] with the mournful feeling that some sort of profound–dared they utter the word ‘spiritual’?–force had gone out of the life of the Silicon Valley.”

Apparently, Wolfe deeply resonates with 19th century Dissident Protestant values. In a Brown University interview some years ago, Wolfe revealed this about himself: “Some years ago at a conference a student in the audience asked me why I write. I never asked myself that question in my life. I started free associating. I thought of the Presbyterian catechism for some reason. The first question is who created heaven and earth? The answer is God. The second question is why did he do it? It’s interesting, the answer is “for his own glory.” So I used that as my answer. It was probably a more honest answer than most.

“To me the great joy of writing is discovering. I started out as a journalist. I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.” (Mahdesian interview)

Wolfe comes by his appreciation of modern intellectuals honestly. He drew the ire of the art world with his essays-cum-books on art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). In the first, he argues…so to speak…that the fame of modern artists is wholly dependent on the trumpeting of art critics–not on any value or skill of substance might actually possess. When it came out, the art world howled at this characterization and Wolfe–ever the incendiary–fed the fire by appearing on TV in his trademark white Southern Gentleman’s suit, homburg and gloves.

In the second, he perforates the pretensions of Modern Architecture, the sort Ayn Rand describes as the new fashion near the end of The Fountainhead.

“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within they blessed borders today?

“I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse…Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery.” (From Bauhaus To Our House, 1981, 1).

The books maps out how plain white walls and glass and steel boxes became the cynosure of architectural style in the wealthiest country that ever existed. He traces this fashion back to economical worker housing designed by Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe after World War I, and fawning American intellectuals me-too-ing European fashion.

Amid the acerbic observations and witty descriptions, I have seen him searching for an answer to the following questions:  why does the U.S.-the greatest civilization in history-self-flagellate, and why has it descended into hypocrisy and perversion rivaling the Roman Empire? This paradox peoples much of Wolfe’s work.  He sees U.S. culture and events through classic American eyes of common sense, respect for productivity and hard-work, and no-nonsense skewering of hypocrisy.  As a self-made man, he appreciates the good fortune of our freedom and individual expression. And he struggles to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values–in other words, a philosophy that supports and realistically grounds the basic American values of common sense, productive creativity, self-respect and the individual pursuit of happiness.

Some feel Wolfe’s approach to events and characters is cynical. I think he strives to present an unvarnished view of American culture, with its warts as well as its gold nuggets. He is a reporter, after all. In his fiction, his characters are not idealized portraits, but neither are they journalistic: his characters are highly stylized examples of human possibilities, extracted from Wolfe’s perspicacious observations. He knows that status is a driving motive among men–he doesn’t like it, because he believes in merit. That’s why he seems to have some admiration for even mixed characters like real estate tycoon Charlie CrokerCharlie has created, he’s produced real wealth. Wolfe lauds him for this and spears him for his craven status seeking. He does not romanticize real people beyond their actual achievements–we see this in The Right Stuff-but he does present real heroes in all their glory, like Bob Noyce and Chuck Yeager (whom Wolfe made famous).

Wolfe shares with Ayn Rand the ability to deeply parody social-climbing antics. He could be describing Kiki Holcombe of The Fountainhead when he scrutinizes the “social x-ray” women of ambitious New York society in his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1975). This book, as his other novels, is replete with detailed accounts of self-aggrandizement and blatant status seeking. In an interview, he declares “My real interest is in the subject of status, which has to do with how people group themselves, rank themselves.” However, unlike Rand, he is not morally affronted by it. As a philosopher, Rand rails against the energy spent social-climbing and presents an alternative-a new, secular ethics and approach to self and others based on achievement and merit, qualities Wolfe clearly admires.

No, Wolfe doesn’t like the status-seeking, but he accurately and incisively reports it–and prods it with his razor wit and clever neologisms. Ever the journalist, Wolfe accepts the constant competition for status as basic to human life, even in such apparently rational groups as scientists and philosophers. I think he can sharpen readers’ eyes to this competition, enabling them to recognize it more often in their own social circles, and in themselves-however rational they may seem. He revels in the creativity and exuberance of American culture, with its open expression of personal values–of ego. He also worries about the descent into decadence and depravity in the past 40 years, and the lack of self-respect characterized by such phenomena as MTV and contemporary fraternity practices. He understands the siren call the current culture has on youth, with the concomitant drowning of personal self as illustrated through the main character in his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. He is not a hard and fast traditionalist–how could he be, with his independent views? He seems to be struggling to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values.

Over the years, I have felt like a detective–finding the clues for Wolfe’s deep love of country in work after work, but never hearing an open admission from him. The clues are there in The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Painted Word, Hooking Up, and other books. Finally, in an interview this year in the Wall Street Journal, he voices his opinion:

“I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world. Find me one country, just one country in the entire world that would let a foreign people-different culture, different language, and in many cases different color than the majority of the native stock-take over politically an entire metropolitan area in less than one generation. I’m talking about the Cubans in Miami . . .”

“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” (the precise reporter!)

“I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it’s the simple principle of freedom. . . . Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we’re doing I think we’ve done it extremely, extremely, extremely well.” Silence. “These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world.”

Ever the jokester…its one of the things to which some people point, I’m sure, to prove his cynicism. I find it more in the vein of Mark Twain: caustic and always ready to puncture pretensions, even his own. His tone is not deeply serious or ironic in a weighty, European way. He’s led a rebellion against European intellectual domination-at least in journalism. His tone is distinctively American–light-hearted, irreverent and with an intellectual innocence nonetheless–like Mark Twain rather than Dostoevsky. Some might take exception to his style–as many have to Mark Twain-but his trenchant observations communicated through fresh eyes always delight me. I envy all the literary gold a new Wolfe reader will find.

References

 

Mahdesian, Linda. “Tom Wolfe, Zeitgeist Czar.” http://www.brown.edu/Administration/George_Street_Journal/v20/v20n24/wolfe.html

Picador Publishers’ Official Tom Wolfe Website.  2006.  www.tomwolfe.com/bio.html#.

The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby 1965

The Pump House Gang 1968

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test 1968

Radical-Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers 1970

The Painted Word 1975

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine 1976

The Right Stuff 1979

In Our Time 1980

From Bauhaus to Our House 1981

The Purple Decades 1982

Bonfire of the Vanities 1987

A Man In Full 1998

Hooking Up 2000

I Am Charlotte Simmons 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ayn Rand Explained: From Tyranny to Tea Party

Written by Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, and edited by Enright, Ayn Rand Explained is now available at Open Court Books, Amazon, on Kindle, and in bookstores everywhere.

Ayn Rand and her ideas are in the news more than ever – 50+ years after her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published. What’s driving this rising interest and influence – even politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama talk about her?

Who was this Russian fireball? Why do her ideas speak to the hearts of Americans generation after generation? How are her ideas giving courage to people of all walks of life, from business to art?

Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her work in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.

Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.

Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and designated heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.

In 1969, Branden himself was expelled by Rand, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.

Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism and dedication to a consistently rational method of thinking and acting. This includes a rejection of all religion and outright atheism and a view of the arts as expressions of deeply held, mostly subconscious, philosophical views of the world. It also advocates personal freedom from political interference, a moral defense of laissez-faire capitalism, and radically limited government as a protection of the individual, positions deeply aligned with the project of the American Founders.

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican party. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Yaron Brook) and the Atlas Society (David Kelley).

Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991. It includes not only new information about Rand’s rocketing influence, but new stories about her personal relationships, and new analysis of her life and ideas.

Here’s what people are saying about it:

“Ayn Rand is in the news now more than ever—but the media consistently misunderstands her. Read Ayn Rand Explained for a thorough and clear introduction to her ideas!”—JIMMY WALES, founder of Wikipedia

Ayn Rand Explained takes us on an exciting exploration of Rand’s provocative worldview and expertly traces its huge contemporary impact on politics, economics, art, and culture. Marsha Familaro Enright provides much new information and probing, in-depth analysis. A surprising, intriguing take on a controversial writer.”—CHRIS MATTHEW SCIABARRA, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical

“I immensely enjoyed reading Ayn Rand Explained. Packed with fascinating information, much of it new, the book is a real page turner—and a reminder of why Rand’s novels are continuously making their way onto best-seller lists.”—VERONIQUE DE RUGY, Senior Research Fellow, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

“Co-authored by two thoughtful admirers of Rand’s, Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, this modest volume is full of new tidbits about her life, the evolution of her thought, under-recognized aspects of her ideas, the ongoing development of the Objectivist movement, and Rand’s influence on society. An updated revision of late entrepreneur Merrill’s “The Ideas of Ayn Rand”, educator-author Enright adds biographical details, sociological updating, and thoughtful summaries of Rand’s ideas to this little gem.

“Ayn Rand has penetrated our societal conscience. Deceased since 1982, her books continue to be best-sellers, decades after their original appearance. She is known to have inspired VP candidate Paul Ryan; a second movie based on her 1,000+ page magnum opus is currently in theaters; and she is even discussed in a current Rolling Stone magazine interview with the President. Her cultural presence is remarkably polarizing – she seems to inspire either deep-seated admiration or equally passionate resentment. The opinion-less commentator is as rare as the proverbial black swan or an independent voter. Love her or hate her, Rand continues to draw widespread attention for her passionate defense of rationality, self-interest, capitalism and atheism.

“For those interested in what “all the fuss is” about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism — especially those afraid to commit to her ultralong novels — will find this concise summary of her life, ideas, and influence a godsend. Those who are already familiar with her life and work, but who are looking for a fresh perspective, will find that here, too.

“Enright is responsible for bringing novel material with the brand new first three chapters. They add excellent material on Rand’s life, her thought, and her impact on our society. This is especially helpful given that Merrill’s original book was published in 1991, so updating is welcomed. Also, Enright’s own experiences with the Objectivist movement from the beginning, including personal interactions with Rand herself, add intriguing material, interweaving these up-close observations with the development of the wider movement. The remainder of the book is a thoughtfully edited version of Merrill’s thoughts, intertwined clearly with Enright’s own insights, especially at points of disagreement, which are clearly delineated. It is a model of even-handedness.

“One welcomed aspect of this book, given the subject matter, is its consistent tone of critical admiration of Rand, her life, and her ideas. Too many books are either fawning, sycophantic cheerleading for Rand or harsh, condemning diatribes against her. This supportive volume, with a critical, independent touch where needed, is a welcome addition to the growing literature surrounding this unique Russian immigrant to America.” — William Dale, M.D., Ph.D.

http://www.amazon.com/Ayn-Rand-Explained-Tyranny-Party/dp/0812697987

A Sad Birthday for Jefferson by Gen LaGreca and Marsha Familaro Enright

On a spring day in 1743, a towering figure in our country’s founding was born: Thomas Jefferson. His skillful hand carved much of the character of America.

Today, however, what Jefferson so painstakingly crafted lies pulverized almost to stone dust. Were he alive to celebrate his birthday this April 13, instead of sipping champagne, he might want to drown his sorrow in whiskey.

What has happened to the revolutionary ideas he penned on the parchment that is the soul of America, the Declaration of Independence? How many of today’s citizens—and elected officials—understand the stirring proclamation that every person possesses certain “unalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?

Today, most Americans don’t understand their rights; the entire concept has been hopelessly muddied. Many now believe that if they want or need anything—from health care, to a “decent” salary, to help paying their mortgage—that they have a “right,” through government taxation and regulation, to compel others to provide it for them. As a result, our actual rights have been eroded at an ever-increasing pace.

So, in homage to Thomas Jefferson, and with his guidance, let’s examine some features of our real rights, to set the record straight.

According to Jefferson, our rights are unalienable. This means that individuals possess rights in virtue of being human. They are neither granted nor invalidated by any person, king, congress, or group. Might does not make right; individual rights are a sacred temple that even the will of the people must respect. “[T]he majority, oppressing an individual,” says Jefferson, “is guilty of a crime . . . and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”[i] Further, because they stem from universals of human nature, these rights are legitimate in all societies and all eras. As such and properly understood, they form the rock-solid foundation of our freedom.

Contrary to modern misinterpretations, our real rights—to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—are rights to take action; they are not entitlements to goods and services. Jefferson defined liberty as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”[ii] This means we may act in our own behalf, for example, to earn money and buy health care, but we may not expect the government to tax and regulate others to provide us with health care for free.

Rights belong to us as individuals, with each of us possessing exactly the same ones. There are no “rights” of groups—be they farmers, seniors, students, workers, homeowners, or the like—to any special privileges at the expense of others. According to Jefferson, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated [in the Constitution].”[iii] What, then, would he have thought of our current government’s using taxpayers’ money to provide privileges to countless special-interest groups—through bank bailouts, government-backed mortgages, programs for the arts, government housing, car-company loans, etc.?

As understood by Jefferson and his contemporaries, our rights include the right to property, which entitles us to keep the things that we legitimately acquire. Does a rich person have less of a right to property than a poor person? According to Jefferson: “To take from one because it is thought his own industry . . . has acquired too much, in order to spare others who . . . have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”[iv] What, then, would he have thought of the recent referendum passed in Oregon—typifying the practice of many states, as well as the federal government—in which a majority levied substantial additional taxes on businesses and the wealthy? Wouldn’t that seem like a few sheep and a pack of wolves deciding what to have for lunch?

Jefferson valued productive work as a noble part of the American character. When his Monticello farm fell on hard times, he began producing nails, and did so proudly because “every honest employment is deemed honorable [in America]. . . . My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility . . . [is] in Europe.”[v] He scorned the “idleness”[vi] of the European aristocracy, calling their courts “the weakest and worst part of mankind.”[vii] He expected people to use their minds to judge conflicting ideas, overcome obstacles, and achieve goals, extolling reason as the autonomous person’s tool for successful living: “Fix reason firmly to her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.”[viii]

When his 15-year-old daughter had difficulty reading an ancient text, he admonished: “If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him. It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate—to surmount every difficulty . . .” Americans, he continued, “are obliged to invent and to execute; to find the means within ourselves, and not to lean on others.”[ix] What, then, would he have thought of today’s government “entitlements,” which encourage idleness while discouraging people from making their own decisions?

Jefferson swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,”[x] ardently defending the spiritual and intellectual freedom of the individual. He held that a person’s beliefs and values were an entirely private matter and that “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”[xi] What, then, would this champion of freedom of religion, speech, the press, and conscience have thought of recent threats and insinuations by public officials to influence the content of radio programs? What would Jefferson have thought of a president, able to wield the full coercive powers of the state, discouraging people from listening to the opposing viewpoints of private individuals?

As individuals possessing the right—and glory—of self-sovereignty, what, then, is the proper role of government in our lives? The Declaration explains “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” Wise government, Jefferson elaborated, “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”[xii] Government’s exclusive purpose is to protect us from acts of force or fraud, which violate our rights—e.g., to apprehend and punish aggressors who would pick our pockets or break our legs—but otherwise, to refrain from regulating or controlling our lives.

Jefferson’s vision provides “for a government rigorously frugal and simple . . . and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans . . .”[xiii] What, then, would he have thought of today’s ever-growing swarms of agencies, commissions, and departments that, following King George III, “harass our people, and eat out their substance”?[xiv] What would he have thought of the 2,700-page health-care reform bill passed in the dead of night, with backroom bribes used to obtain the votes of congressmen unclear about its massive contents and implications? Do we have any doubt that Jefferson would be horrified by such corruption and by the dangerous, unprecedented powers this legislation has granted to the state?

Thomas Jefferson fought for a country in which the government had no power to encroach on the mind, the life, the liberty, or the property of the individual. He fought for a country in which the individual, for the first time in history, could live for the pursuit of his own happiness instead of being a pawn in the hands of the state.

Within a mere page of the calendar of history, the world-shaking recognition that freedom is every person’s natural state and sacred right led to the abolition of slavery, the suffrage of women, and the spread of human freedoms in nations around the globe. The dawn of liberty upon the modern world began with the founding principles of America, which the author of the Declaration of Independence so ably articulated.

On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we must grasp again and hold dear the fragile gem of freedom that he so carefully carved. We must protest the hammering away at our individual rights by the ignorant, the deceived, and the unscrupulous. And we must polish the ideals for which Jefferson pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.

***

Gen LaGreca is author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today. Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States


[i] Letter to P. S. Dupont de Nemours, 1816

[ii] Letter to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819

[iii] Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1817

[iv] Letter to Joseph Milligan, 1816

[v] Letter to Jean Nicolas Démeunier, 1795

[vi] Letter to Peter Carr, 1787

[vii] Travelling Notes for Mr. Rutledge and Mr. Shippen, 1788

[viii] Letter to Peter Carr, 1787

[ix] Letter to Martha Jefferson, 1787

[x] Letter to Benjamin Rush, 1800

[xi] Address to Danbury Baptist Association, 1802

[xii] Inauguration Address, 1801

[xiii] Letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799

[xiv] Declaration of Independence, 1776

Copyright © 2010 by Marsha Familaro Enright and Gen LaGreca. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the authors and inclusion of their byline.

Permanent Link: http://fountainheadinstitute.com/a-sad-birthday-for-jefferson/

Originally published at: http://dailycaller.com/2010/04/09/a-sad-birthday-for-jefferson/

Published April 9, 2010 at The Daily Caller

A lesson in profit by Gen LaGreca and Marsha Familaro Enright

Addressing a joint session of Congress on health care, President Barack Obama reiterated his often-expressed aversion to the profit motive:

“[B]y avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private [health insurance] companies by profits and excessive costs and executive salaries, [the public insurance option] could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better . . .”

Is this true? Is profit wasteful, as Obama implies? Does it lead to higher prices and lower value to consumers? Can the government, unburdened by profit, do the same job as a private company, only cheaper and better?

To answer, let’s consider one business, one product, and one profit-seeking man who lived at a time when the market operated largely free of government subsidies, bailouts, regulations, taxation, and other “progressive” intrusions.

Henry Ford, at age 13, saw a steam-driven land vehicle, a “road locomotive,” which filled his imagination with the vision of a horseless carriage and fueled a passion to create one. As a young man, he worked day jobs, while trying to build a car in his free time. Realizing a viable car could not run on steam, he sought to develop a new kind of engine.

On Christmas Eve 1893, the 30-year-old inventor clamped his first gasoline engine to his wife Clara’s kitchen sink. With the home’s electricity providing ignition, the motor roared into action, sending the sink vibrating and exhaust flames flying while Clara prepared the holiday dinner.

In pursuit of his dream, Ford and Clara moved eight times in their first nine years of marriage. He quit a secure job at the Edison Illuminating Company, banking everything on his vision. He co-founded the Detroit Automobile Company—a venture that failed. Jobless, Ford moved his wife and child into his father’s home. But he kept working on his car. “It is always too soon to quit,” he said.

Ten years passed from the roar of the little engine on Clara’s sink to the launch of the Ford Motor Company. It took five more years to produce his big success, the Model T, and additional years to master its mass production.

Why did Ford persist through years of hardship and uncertainty? How much would his love for the work have sustained him without the hope of eventual profit? Imagine if he had lived in a system where politicians could, at the stroke of a pen, seize his profits or decide how much he could keep. Would he have risked so much or worked so ferociously to bring a world-changing invention to market?

Would an Amtrak employee devote a decade of free time inventing a new train, only to rise a notch on a civil-servant’s pay scale? Dream big, work hard, create something earth shaking, but be paid small is the antithesis of the American dream.

The pursuit of profit not only motivated Ford, but also his bold investors who had the foresight to realize the horse was doomed.

In 1903, a school teacher invested $100—half her life savings—in the Ford Motor Company. Sixteen years later, she sold her stock for a total gain of $355,000. Why would she and others place their money on a highly experimental venture, were it not for the hope of tremendous gain should the enterprise succeed? What kind of person would deny her the reward for recognizing Ford’s vision and risking her own money?

The pursuit of profit also impacted every aspect of Ford’s business operations.

Ford didn’t need a politician’s scolding to lower prices—only the desire to make huge profits by reaching mass markets. Because early cars were expensive, people viewed them as mere playthings of the rich. But Ford sought to “build a motor car for the multitude.” This led him to develop his moving assembly line, significantly reducing manufacturing costs and, consequently, prices. The original $825 price of the Model T finally bottomed at $260. That price-lowering strategy brought him the millions of customers that made him rich.

Similarly, Ford’s pursuit of profit didn’t result in bare-subsistence wages for employees, but in phenomenal pay increases. He shocked the world by introducing the $5 workday, more than doubling the era’s prevailing wage. Why? To attract the best workers, whose talents increased product quality and company efficiency. High pay also decreased employee turnover and training costs, again increasing Ford’s profits.

Ford typifies the successful capitalist, whose profit-driven innovations lower prices, while raising wages and living standards for all.

Even today’s Ford Motor Company, a much-fettered child of our mixed economy, demonstrates the superiority of private- over government-run companies. Ford refused TARP bailout money, choosing to operate without government strings. The result? Ford’s profits are up 43 percent, while bailed-out GM and Chrysler lag behind.

In Henry Ford—a thin man who was the fattest of fat cats—we see an embodied refutation of President Obama’s worldview. Ford developed a new form of transportation vastly cheaper, faster, more convenient, and superior to the old mode. He continually lowered prices so that everyone, rich and poor, would have access to his product. He created thousands of jobs. He raised employee wages. He did all this good without government grants, bailouts, stimuli, subsidies, or coercion, but simply as a result of the honest pursuit of personal gain.

This achievement was possible only because a private individual had the freedom to pursue his own self-interest, in cooperation with others who supported his vision and shared in the rewards, unencumbered by government.

By eliminating profit, Obama implies that everything else about an enterprise would remain the same, only the product would be cheaper and better. Actually, by removing profit, nothing at all would remain the same.

Contrary to Obama’s notions, profit is not an overhead cost, but a vital gain sought over and above costs in order to reward a company’s risk-takers. According to economist Ludwig von Mises, “Profit is the pay-off of successful action.” And “The elimination of profit . . . would create poverty for all.”

Eliminate the hope of profit, and you extinguish that spark which ignites the human engine and powers it to explore uncharted roads: the creative mind. Profit is the proud product of the creative mind, and the creative mind is an attribute of the individual. Obama’s attack on profit is an attack on human creativity and innovation, which is an attack on the individual.

Obama’s antipathy for the self-interested individual is explicit. “In America, we have this strong bias toward individual action,” he said in an interview in the Chicago Reader. “But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”

It was Henry Ford’s individual actions and individual dreams that brought motorized, personal transportation within reach of everyone in the world.

America is rooted in the “pursuit of happiness”—which means the right of each of us to create, to produce, to rise, to succeed, and to profit from the fruits of our labor. Contrast this worldview with that of a president who disparages the individual and seeks to limit or expropriate his profits on behalf of a faceless “collective.” Obama’s war on profit is a war against the individualist heart and soul of America.

Profits are a badge of honor earned by someone who offers others something they value enough to buy. The first buyer of the first car of the Ford Motor Company was a doctor. He was tired of hitching up his horse and buggy for nighttime emergencies. Ford’s product enhanced his life, as it later enhanced the lives of millions. Profit is the medal Ford received from his customers for a job well done.

If our nation is to cultivate productive geniuses like Henry Ford, it must proclaim that the quest for profit is moral and noble.

POSTSCRIPT: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” This means that the federal government, with its vast powers to fund highway projects, “liveability” initiatives, and other aid programs, as well as to tax gasoline, now intends, in LaHood’s stunningly brazen words, “to coerce people out of their cars,” in favor of walking or cycling. A century ago, Henry Ford, through capitalism and the profit motive, brought motorized transportation to the world. Now, an alarmingly anti-capitalist government is reversing that historic achievement and pulling us back to the pre-industrial age.

Gen LaGreca is author of “Noble Vision,” an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today. Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States. Incidents from the book “Young Henry Ford,” by Sidney Olson appear in this article.

Copyright © 2010 by Marsha Familaro Enright and Gen LaGreca. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the authors and inclusion of their byline.

Permanent Link:  http://fountainheadinstitute.com/a-lesson-in-profit/

Originally published at: http://dailycaller.com/2010/03/31/a-lesson-in-profit/