By John Hospers
Star 80 is a product of producer-director Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), who imbues the film with his usual frenetic energy. The scenes flash forward and backward in quick staccato. The treatment of the theme is merciless and telling.
It's the (largely true) story of Dorothy Stratten, a waitress in a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, who is found and pursued by Paul Snider, a would-be entrepreneurial genius in show business who never quite makes it and is constantly inspired by fresh ideas that never pan out. When she outgrows him and wants to separate, he kills her as well as himself.
Mariel Hemingway suppresses her intelligence in this film to play the naive blonde Playboy centerfold. But the film revolves around Snider (played by Eric Roberts), a narcissistic punk, a victim of the male fantasies of being uniquely macho, starting at the top in show business, making quick bucks, and having the kind of life that leaves even Beverly Hills behind. What he fails to see is that his obvious maneuvers in pushing himself upward are immediately seen for what they are, and therefore those whom he tries to cultivate (including Hugh Hefner, played by Cliff Robertson) are merely repelled by him. There is no doubt that he adores and worships the girl, but at the same time he is boundlessly ambitious for himself, insanely suspicious, and devastated at the thought that Stratten might rise in her profession and leave him behind. His uncontrollable rages when he confronts her are the chief source of her alienation from him. In the depiction of this devoted but jealous and vengeful suitor, alternating between affection and fury, Eric Roberts delivers a stunning performance.
For cinematic skill, for never letting the tempo flag for a moment, for the virtuoso performance of Roberts, the film is eminently worth seeing. But the view of reality—show business, Beverly Hills cocktail circuit—is so unsparingly pessimistic and its revelation of the human potential for evil so inescapable, that although many people will justifiably admire the film, not many will like it.
Fanny and Alexander
One of the main functions of fiction, whether narrative or cinematic, is to convey to an audience what it feels like to undergo certain experiences. A few films do this superbly: Devil in the Flesh makes one feel wrenchingly the emotion of ripening adolescent love, together with its accompanying problems; A Place in the Sun evokes with painful vividness the devastation of sudden loneliness and deprivation; East of Eden shows us with unforgettable intensity what it is like to love one's father and be rejected by him.
One of the virtues of the medium of cinema is that, at its best, it can communicate intensely some aspect of the life of human feeling. Most films, however, just present us with the life-situations that generate the feeling, without communicating to us much of the quality of the feeling itself: they aim for the pearl but succeed only in getting the oyster.
Unfortunately Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander belongs largely in the second category. It's about two children growing up in a fairly wealthy Swedish household in the early 20th century. All the external trappings are there, but the gut-level communication of feeling is missing. Once in a while it comes close: when the boy is whipped by his new stepfather, then made to apologize, then forced to assent to its all having been done out of love, the viewer's empathy is at its maximum. But most of the time the viewer is confronted merely with Christmas parties and family trysts and confrontations while the children merely watch wide-eyed at these strange adult goings-on. No particular insight is absorbed, nor is the viewer any the wiser for seeing any of it.
Yet Bergman can do it. There are scenes of great empathetic effectiveness in The Virgin Spring, Wild Strawberries, and Autumn Sonata. He is a master at exploring the interior life, particularly of tormented individuals. But in the new film there is simply panorama and pageantry, with an occasional philosophical aside, with very little communication of genuine feeling in any of it. One deserves more from a film that lasts over three hours.
Clint Eastwood's Sudden Impact is a continuation of the Dirty Harry series, and in the same vein, only gorier than its predecessors. There's no doubt that Eastwood cuts a striking figure as the honest and conscientious cop who resents seeing killers go free through various technicalities. What he does goes beyond what the Police Department permits, yet it brings vicious men to justice, and it does it with verve combined with moral indignation at the perpetrators.
The moral problem posed by the film is, Under what circumstances should people take the law into their own hands? The liberal press says, "Never," and for this reason it has unanimously berated this film. Yet if a killer threatened them, would they not take action? ("A conservative is a liberal who's just been mugged.") Eastwood at least is a cop, authorized to track down and arrest felons, even if he stretches the rules in doing so. But his friend (Sondra Locke) is on a crusade of pure vendetta: the rape of her sister 10 years before has put the girl in a mental hospital for life, and Sondra takes it on herself to track down the rapists, which she does with cold and deadly efficiency.
Presumably the law is there for one's protection. But when it doesn't protect, when it is indifferent or corrupt and doesn't bother to arrest the culprits even when it can, what should one do? If one responds, "Take care of it yourself," one must face the fact that private vengeance often results in inordinate punishments; to delicate egos, death could seem an appropriate punishment for the crime of stepping on the aggrieved party's toe. Does a rapist deserve to be shot in cold blood? The film makes a case for the justifiability of individual (albeit illegal) action in such cases when the law fails.
The Basileus Quartet
Many musicians consider the string quartet to be the ideal musical form. In it "the form stands out naked," never obscured by tidal waves of sound.
There is plenty of fine string-quartet music in The Basileus Quartet. But that isn't the reason why it is a memorable film; indeed, people who don't much care for classical music still have a treat in store. The quartet music is only a string on which the interrelated beads of plot are hung. It's a richly human story of the four members of a distinguished traveling string quartet. When one of them dies, the quartet disbands. But the lives of the remaining three rapidly disintegrate without a sense of purpose or mission. When a young conservatory graduate offers himself as a first violinist to replace the dead member and thus reconstitute the quartet, the other members, in spite of initial protestations, are secretly delighted.
But the new member, a full generation younger than the other three, while he helps without knowing it to revitalize their lives, also almost wrecks them with the dizzy pace of his youth. Latent impulses emerge in each of them as a result of association with the youthful violinist, and each becomes involved with life in ways that would never have occurred but for him. (The viewer should resist being tipped off in advance as to what these are.) Each member responds in his own distinctive way, and each one soon emerges as a distinct individual, interacting in his own unique way with the multifaceted life of the new member.
There is not a moment in this two-hour Italian film that is not totally absorbing. It is first and foremost a study in human nature—perceptive, unsentimental, yet moving. Even the ambiguous ending adds a touch of bittersweet to the already bittersweet story.
It's a study of youth interacting with age, of ideals and disillusionments, of false hopes and unexpected enjoyments, of life disintegrating and life renewed. The whole is so well crafted, so incisive in its perceptions, so imbued with psychological and philosophical observations, that the viewer receives here a rare cinematic banquet: not only Beethoven and Schubert and Debussy, but Freud and Proust and many others, all immersed in the atmosphere of (successively) Switzerland, Paris, Bavaria, and Venice. Such a fine story, so impeccably done, would rate at the top of the list of 1983 films, except that it was not released in the United States until 1984.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the editor of the Monist.
By David Brudnoy
Close Encounters of the Feline Kind
Of cats there is much, though of Cats there is somewhat less, to say—after, that is, one has said that the show is still going purringly in London, where it opened in mid-1981, and in New York, where it opened in the autumn of '82 and is sold out until, approximately, the tercentenary. Cats has dropped a litter—road companies have begun their captivation of the provincial audiences across the land, and it is or soon will be near you.
One awaits the construction of a theatrical based on the Book of Job—or is there one already? Troubles, it would be called, and the script credit would go to God. Cats, you see, boasts a most distinguished provenance: T.S. Eliot's almost never-read (there's a reason) Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which was published in 1939 as something of a courtesy to the distinguished poet-playwright-institution, though a fraction of Eliot's "Rhapsody of a Windy Night" and other of the Prufrock poems have made their way into the production, especially into the show's blockbuster, which cannot be escaped these days on the radio, "Memory." It is a gorgeous, albeit tritely emotional, song that is the lyrical work of Trevor Nunn, who, it is solemnly said, included…lines from those other Eliot works, not from the Cats book.
I am not suggesting that something bad is to be made of the fact that the Eliot connection to Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash hit is routinely stressed. I do, however, sense that to some who shell out the nowadays inordinate amount of dollars necessary to see a Broadway show, in Gotham or on the road, the fact that its source is certifiably literary makes it especially appealing. It is to be doubted, along these lines, whether your ordinary see-and-be-seen playgoer in New York City would have devoted two entire evenings of his life to Nicholas Nickelby had it not derived from Dickens. Imagine it: a musical with hardly any memorable music except "Memory," set in a junkyard, featuring none but cats (with a guest appearance by cockroaches and a rat and some dogs) all performed by humans, based on the unpublished scribblings of Joe Schmoe. It is not to be imagined.
Still, although Cats as the phenomenon of the '80s at the theater is not easily fathomed, it does have its points, among them, in addition to the aforementioned "Memory," a set of such prodigious utility and imagination that it may warrant the second-oldest tattered put-down of theatrical criticism: The audience left whistling the scenery. (The oldest tattered put-down of theatrical criticism is: There is less to this than meets the eye.) Not that whistling the Cats scenery is a bad thing, since as the ear begins to weary of a dose and a dose and a dose again of the same tunes, and as the eye begins to feel that the choreography is not notable, then the mind's eye recalls (if one has nodded off) or the actual eye delights in (if one is awake) the amazing virtuosity of the design.
We are in an alley, strewn with junk, which alley extends outward, up the proscenium, and all around. The alley's junk is larger than life, of course, since the cats are done by people, of course, and they are to appear cat-sized, of course, in juxtaposition to the junk. But this alley has wonders, also, beyond the supersized mundane. It has a great circular thing that flashes lights and that descends, giving the audience members who also pay attention to the cinema the unmistakable impression of that humungous mother ship that descended finally at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Our encounter, quite close indeed, of the feline kind is thereby inextricably woven up in the fabric of science fiction.
The set has other wonders to reveal, most of them in the second act, which audiences are strongly urged to try to see, however bored they might be by the first act. For the precocious child, there would be few more sure-fire successful introductions to live theater than Cats, and for any child, the second act would surely suffice.
Nothing much happens in Cats, but a great deal is talked and sung of. Eliot gave vent, for Lord knows whatever reason, to a kind of unbearable cutesiness in his naming of these creatures, and the show covers great swatches of territory with its opening and closing songs on just the meaning of the names of cats and throughout on a kind of simpleton's delight in simply mentioning the names of the cats. There are, in alphabetical order, Alonzo, Asparagus, Bombalurina, Cassandra, Coricopat, Demeter, Grizabella (she sings "Memory," and she is invariably the star in a cast that resolutely refuses to have said of it that there is a star), Jellylorum, Jennyandots, Mistoffelees, Mungojerrie, Munkustarap, Old Deuteronomy (he's the patriarch, and the other cats pay him homage), Plato, Pouncival, Rum Turn Tugger, Rumpleteazer, Sillabub, Skimbleshanks, Tantomile, Tumblebrutus, Victoria, and a chorus of cats thankfully unnamed. Eliot also invented a category of cats called Jellicle cats, whose peculiarities we are instructed in, not that any of it makes the most remote sense.
But they are appealing cusses, these cats are, even as they wander through the audience and muss people's hair and hug folks, especially as a few of the idiosyncratic cats strut their stuff. There is a cat that is a dead ringer for Elvis, a stud of a Tom. There is the magician cat and the forlorn Grizabella who sings—twice, no less—of "Memory," of the lonely moon, of faded glories, of the shadow of beauty that lingers when beauty itself has fled. And there is the cat who used to be a noted thespian and through whose eyes we see a delicious bit of imagination, of his salad days, and another instance of the set's versatility.
Cats, as is now obvious, does not strike me as a particularly inspiring show, especially as its music is from the same hand that gave us the brilliant Evita and the breakthrough Jesus Christ Superstar. But it is loving, filled with surprise and zest, with characters to recall for a few hours after seeing the show, and with one splendid song. Cats is no masterpiece, but it has wonderful appeal; and in today's impoverished theater, that is welcome.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy reviews the arts for WRKO-AM and is film critic of the Tab group of newspapers. He is host of a nightly talk program on WRKO, writes regularly for the Boston Herald, and syndicates a thrice-weekly newspaper column.
A Will to Spend, A Way to Spend
By Jennifer Roback
Underground Government: The Off-Budget Public Sector, by James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 184 pp., $8.95 paper.
You may have noticed a series of articles by James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo appearing recently in prominent newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. These articles have addressed a variety of topics, ranging from the failure of the New York City bailout to the fiasco of the Washington Public Power System (WPPS). What all these works by Bennett and DiLorenzo have in common is the focus on off-budget government spending. The growth of off-budget government activity has come to public attention more and more in recent years. Bennett and DiLorenzo, economists at George Mason University, have contributed to this public awareness with their new book, Underground Government: The Off-Budget Public Sector. The book collects a large body of material not widely available, and the author's numerous other articles draw heavily on that material.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is "Empire Building in the Empire State: The Political Legacy of Nelson Rockefeller." The authors detail case after case in which a miffed Nelson Rockefeller created an off-budget enterprise (OBE) to circumvent voter defeat of his spending plans. By the time Rockefeller resigned from office in 1973, the debt accumulated by the various state OBEs was nearly four times the amount of voter-approved borrowing!
One of the political tricks that made this possible was an invention by John (Watergate) Mitchell called the "moral obligation bond." These bonds were issued by state agencies but were not legally guaranteed by the legislature; instead, they were "morally" guaranteed. What this rather Orwellian term means is that it is "incumbent on the Legislature to consider the apportionment and payment of amounts of money.…" to prevent the agency from defaulting. Since the legislature is not required to appropriate the funds, the debt so issued does not have to be approved by voter referendum. Very convenient; New York voters rejected bond proposals for the Housing Finance Authority, the State University Construction Fund, and the Urban Development Corporation. Rockefeller funded each one of them with moral obligation bonds, issued by OBEs.
Underground Government is more than an expose, however. The authors attempt to explain the incentives that propel the government toward ever greater spending. The unifying theme of the book is this examination of incentives in the congressional appropriations process and in state and local spending procedures.
The authors have two insights that constitute the major contribution of Underground Government. The first is that a balanced-budget amendment or even a spending-limitation amendment is not likely to be effective, because much government spending can simply be moved off budget. The second is that the size of the government's budget is a large understatement of the pervasiveness of government. The incentive structure confronting the individuals in the government is crucial to both of these arguments.
Bennett and DiLorenzo make a persuasive case that constitutional amendments will not inhibit the growth of government spending. The exploits of Nelson, the Empire Erector—already recounted—certainly support this contention. The authors present data from several other states to show that "tax revolt" spending limitations are often accompanied by an increased number of OBEs. At the federal level, off-budget outlays seemed to expand rapidly in 1975. The Congressional Budget Impoundment Control Act of 1974 required congressional reporting of revenue and expenditure projections. Bennett and DiLorenzo suggest a causal connection between the budget act and the growth of off-budget federal spending. All of this evidence suggests that Congress would find ways to circumvent the spirit of any constitutional amendments designed to limit spending, as long as political constituencies can be built at taxpayers' expense.
Underground Government also demonstrates that the size of the budget is not a good measure of the pervasiveness of government. When governments routinely hide their activities in off-budget categories, the size of the budget is obviously a gross understatement of the government's impact. The authors make some less-obvious points as well. Government can substantially redirect the community's investment decisions by granting certain companies the right to issue tax-exempt industrial revenue bonds. The subtle effects of this will never show up on any government's balance sheet. Indeed, the subtlety of this policy is the very thing that makes it so appealing to vote-seeking politicians.
The book-length collection of valuable and interesting material has one serious shortcoming: the book needed a good editor. Many passages in the book cry out for further documentation and development. For instance, the authors assert that the Budget Act of 1974 "elicited a great deal of 'back-door spending.'" However, the growth in OBEs could have been caused by any number of factors, a possibility that the authors do not even consider. The arguments have intuitive appeal, yet the analytical and evidentiary support is not always all one would hope for. This will be disappointing to scholars trying to use this book for research purposes.
Other sections, such as the chapter "OBE's Overseas," don't seem to contribute much to the overall theme of the book. This lack of focus is sometimes frustrating to the reader. Despite these reservations, Underground Government is well worth reading.
Jennifer Roback is a professor of economics at Yale University and a commentator on the nationally syndicated Perspective on the Economy radio program.
Beavers and Buffalo—A Lesson from History
By Edward Dolan
Natural Resources: Bureaucratic Myths and Environmental Management, by Richard L. Stroup and John A. Baden, Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger; San Francisco, Calif.: Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research., 148 pp., $9.95 paper.
How does the institution of property rights in a society affect the use of natural resources therein? It is only in the last few decades that economists have turned to this issue. In Natural Resources, the latest of several books by this pair of analysts, Richard Stroup and John Baden summarize the literature of the economics of property rights as applied to environmental issues. The guiding principle of this approach is that people's interactions with their environment are harmonious or destructive according to the structure of incentives built into the property institutions of their society. The first two chapters of the book outline the argument in general terms, and the remaining chapters apply it to specific cases.
One case that aptly illustrates the whole approach concerns management of wildlife resources by two groups of American Indians. The first group, the Plains Indians, had long made use of the buffalo as a source of meat, hides, bone for implements, and so on. Before Europeans reached North America, buffalo were abundant, although hard to kill. The Indians and the buffalo lived in a stable population equilibrium. With the Europeans' introduction of the horse, steel tools, and firearms, it became technologically possible for the first time to kill buffalo at a rate that exceeded the maximum sustainable yield. On top of this, the white settlers' demand for hides gave the Indians a new reason to kill buffalo.
The Plains Indians reacted rationally to the new pattern of costs and incentives: they killed buffalo at an increasing rate. Unfortunately, rational behavior on the part of each tribe did not lead to efficient management of this resource as a whole. The reason, as Stroup and Baden explain, is that no tribe had property rights to the buffalo. The animals moved at will from one hunting ground to another. If one group of hunters "invested" in conservation by cutting back on the number of buffalo taken, this would mostly benefit others who could then take more; so no conservation efforts were undertaken. The buffalo was hunted nearly to extinction.
Stroup and Baden contrast the inefficient exploitation of the buffalo with the situation of the beaver-hunting Montagnais Indians of the Labrador Peninsula. Before the arrival of white settlers, the Montagnais had treated the beaver as a common-property resource, just as the Plains Indians had treated the buffalo. When European demand created a market for beaver pelts, however, the Montagnais reacted by establishing a system of private property rights to hunting territories. This was possible because beaver tend to stay in the same place, rather than roaming widely. Within an exclusive territory, each hunter had incentives to engage in conservation measures, such as ensuring that each beaver house was always left with a breeding pair. A high sustained yield of beaver pelts was thus made possible.
The lesson that Stroup and Baden draw from the two cases is that property rights and incentives matter. In the remainder of the book, this lesson is driven home with a series of more modern cases. For example, the management of private wilderness lands by organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy is contrasted with bureaucratic management of public wilderness areas. On the private lands, a balance of uses—including income-producing uses—is accommodated with minimal disruption of the environment.
On the public lands, none of the competing users has an incentive to consider trade-offs. Each group, whether cattle grazers or environmentalists, seeks all-or-nothing use. The bureaucratic managers make their decisions according to political trade-offs rather than according to a concept of maximizing social benefits (however much they may invoke the latter). As a result, they err sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another. Stroup and Baden cite examples of wilderness areas that are destroyed in the process of uneconomic grazing and logging activities. At the same time, other public lands are put off-limits to less-disruptive and more economically justified activities such as mineral exploration.
I have only two criticisms of this generally excellent book. First, in emphasizing problems of bureaucratic management (both in the title and in the content of the book), Stroup and Baden do not always distinguish carefully enough between the legislative branch of government and the bureaucracy. Bureaucrats, too, are rational within the rules of the game that legislatures set for them. A complete picture of the problem of public lands management would need, I think, to explore in more detail the political origins of the legislative constraints placed on bureaucratic managers. Stroup himself is keenly aware of these constraints in his own work as an economist at the Department of the Interior; perhaps he will have more to say on the subject in future writing.
Second, the book sometimes takes on a tone of preaching to the converted. I am not certain the arguments are presented in a way that will be as persuasive as possible to readers who begin with strong prejudices against private property and the market economy. This is a pity, because there are few areas where economists and environmentalists have stronger reasons to cooperate than in the management of public lands.
Edwin Dolan is an economist. He serves as adjunct professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books and articles on economics and coauthored a popular textbook, Basic Economics (third edition 1983, Dryden Press).
A Torch for Freedom
By Laurence W. Beilenson
The Committed Observer, by Raymond Aron. Interviews with Jean-Louis Missika and Dominique Wolton, translated by James and Marie McIntosh, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 290 pp., $17.00.
The influence of intellectuals on politics is nowhere greater than in France. From the end of World War I until recently, that influence was exerted almost entirely via the left, with heavy emphasis on Marxism. The late Raymond Aron—a liberal journalist, sociologist, historian, and philosopher—bucked the trend to take issue with his fellow intellectuals, among them his classmate at the Ecole Normale Jean-Paul Sartre. In many books and articles and as political commentator for Figaro (1947–77), Aron steadily combated the Marxism that poisoned French intellectual life.
The Committed Observer, a series of interviews with two young leftists, tells little about Aron's life except as his fine character and utter honesty reveal themselves in his replies. The book, however, tells much about the history of Europe from the 1930s into the '80s, with Aron's torch burning away the obfuscations to find the essence.
History moved like a Greek tragedy from 1933, when Hitler took power, until 1940, when France fell. The underlying condition that paralyzed France in the face of Hitler's advance was the slaughter and devastation of World War I. Anything seemed better than a repetition. After the Munich Pact in which France and Britain permitted Germany to occupy the Sudetenland, all the intellectuals said, "We avoided war, and the mere fact of having avoided it is good." Paul Reynaud alone among the French politicians understood what this meant and was right all through the '30s. But soon after he finally came to power, his government collapsed in the wake of Hitler's invasion, and Reynaud had to relinquish the reins to Marshall Petain, who went on to govern Occupied France. "Reynaud represents the tragedy of a man destined to be the guiding light of his generation, but who [acceded] to power only on the eve of…catastrophe."
Ironically, the catastrophe would have been more severe for France if the nation had not been defeated so soon. The rapidity of the military collapse and the absence of civil war made possible the quick French recovery after the war.
While Aron, who had lived and taught in Germany, could "never imagine genocide" at the time it was occurring, he accepts the shame of the Holocaust. "All the measures that the French might take against the Jews," Aron said, "touched me deeply precisely because I am French…before I am Jewish…One of the easiest and most simplistic ways to parry Hitler's propaganda was to avoid proclaiming that the war was being fought to liberate the Jews.…[Instead] it was being fought against totalitarianism.…Churchill and Roosevelt failed to denounce the extermination of the Jews for the same reason."
Aron rejects what he calls "the legend of Yalta." "It was not because of Yalta that Eastern Europe became Communist"; it was because the Russian army occupied the satellite countries, and the West could not eject them. During the great schism that followed the war, Aron believed that division was inevitable, but war was improbable, partly because—and here Aron is far more perceptive than most commentators—Stalin was and always had been a prudent man.
The events after World War II Aron treats practically: He favored decolonization, but with no sense of mission. The French attempt to hold Vietnam, though an error, was ineluctable because of the surge of French nationalism. The cost in blood and money of holding Algeria was unacceptable. Intervention by the United States in China against Mao Tse-tung would have tragically failed; President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson were correct not to make the attempt. American intervention in the Korean War, however, was necessary as a display of national will. And Aron strongly approved the North Atlantic Alliance and the rearmament of Germany. All these positions represent the politics of the possible. The worst fault of the intellectuals, Aron concludes, is criticism without answering, What would I do?
He follows this thesis on detente, cold war, and nuclear arsenals. Detente did not and does not prevent the Soviet Union from taking over any country it can, and a return to "cold war" would not increase the danger of real war. The flaws in the policy of "mutual assured destruction," he saw; he deplores Soviet nuclear superiority; but he contributes nothing original to the nuclear debate. Trade with the Soviet Union has not served detente but "has, rather, increased the military potential of the USSR."
"Isn't there a contradiction," his questioners ask, between this position and his advocacy of helping China? "No," answers Aron. "Unfortunately, foreign policy is a game for thieves and gangsters. When one has a proximate enemy, one tends to help a distant future enemy against the proximate one." No honest student of international history can dispute the first sentence. That the conclusion of the second sentence is wise on the premise of the first is more doubtful.
Raymond Aron was a great friend of the United States. He had no use for those who damned both the superpowers.
The essence of his political thought emerges from the writers with whom he identified. Early on he explains to his questioners that although he learned from his stay in Germany "what political life can be when it manifests its horrible side," he tells them he could have reached the same conclusion by reading Aristotle and Machiavelli. "All that was necessary was to understand them well." Toward the end he said: "Montesquieu earlier explained liberalism through sociologic analysis, as did Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber. Since I claim kinship with all three—based on a study of modern economic societies—I see the dangers that result from the concentration of all power in a single party. So I seek to determine the economic and social conditions that permit pluralism to survive, that is, both political and intellectual liberalism."
Whereupon his questioners ask him why then he is not a Socialist, since "socialism, particularly social democracy, defends pluralism." Aron answers: "Most Socialists…are not as firmly liberal as they should be.…A number of French socialists continue to be antagonistic to…market forces.…For economic reasons…I think it is important today to maintain free market forces."
Free minds and free markets at home, resistance to totalitarianism abroad, and the politics of the practical—these are the enduring legacies of Raymond Aron. Without tedious discussion, and through examples from the history of five decades, The Committed Observer sheds a shining light on these themes.
Laurence Beilenson, a lawyer, has for many years devoted himself to research and writing. His books include Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age and The Treaty Trap.
The Genesis of the Invisible Hand
By Ellen Frankel Paul
The Soul of Modern Economic Man, by Milton L. Myers, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 131 pp., $17.50
In The Soul of Modern Economic Man, Milton L. Myers explores an arena usually much ignored in the history of economic ideas, namely, the intellectual environment out of which Adam Smith's notions about self-interest and the division of labor arose. The notion that individuals' pursuit of their self-interest leads to the welfare of society played a central role in the development of Smith's economic thought in The Wealth of Nations; but as Myers lucidly argues, this connection was not one posed uniquely or originally by Smith. Rather, Smith was responding to a debate that had been ongoing in the philosophical and intellectual community throughout the 18th century, a debate triggered in large part by the writings of Thomas Hobbes—most particularly, his Leviathan.
Hobbes portrayed a human nature almost devoid of redemptive qualities, a nature driven by self-interest to create a socially unfit being compelled by his rapacious self-seeking to war against his fellows. Given such a gloomy vision of human nature, Hobbes's sole hope for social life lay in man's willingness to acquiesce to certain articles of peace that would allow him to escape the brutal, unstable, and precarious state of nature. But the price for this peace was a steep one; for according to Hobbes, only by agreeing to surrender practically all of his rights to an omnipotent ruler could man escape his perfidious condition.
On Myers's account, Hobbes served to inspire his successors, who took his bleak prescription as a challenge. Could man's propensity to concern himself above all with his own welfare lead to positive implications for society as a whole? In other words, if self-interest were not an impulse with such deleterious attributes, perhaps, then, individuals could achieve an accommodation with one another that would not necessitate establishing an absolute autocrat.
By the time we arrive at the writings of Adam Smith, Hobbes's dismal view of man's self-interest has been utterly transformed. Intending only his own gain, man is "led by an invisible hand," wrote Smith, to promote the public interest. Myers strives to discover how this transformation came about, tracing the idea of self-interest through the writings of men not customarily examined by historians of economic thought: poets, writers, and most importantly, moral philosophers. As he pursues his novel quest, Myers discerns four major categories of responses to the problem of how self-interest relates to the public welfare.
In the first, represented principally by Richard Cumberland, a Protestant cleric and author of De Legibus Naturae, self-interest is an important motive embedded in human nature but not as yet the most important. Cumberland's explanation for man's sociability relies heavily on the principle of design, whereby nature is perceived as orderly, with mankind constructed to fit comfortably within this patterned universe. Relying on the transcendent laws of nature to ward off the Hobbesian nightmarish war of all against all, Cumberland's man limited his self-interest by another powerful motive: benevolence.
Cumberland's emphasis on the principle of design would greatly influence the next group of thinkers, primarily Antony Shaftesbury and Joseph Butler. Once again, man was perceived to inhabit a harmonious and orderly universe, but the analysis of man's innate motives was more richly developed. For these thinkers, self-interest is implanted in man's psyche but also serves as a motive inducing man to care for the public welfare and leading men to a life of virtue. In fact, for Butler a proper self-love is indivisible from an interest in the welfare of society; our innate mental composition produces a harmony of motives, and thus self-interest and the public welfare are entirely compatible.
The next group of thinkers, which included Francis Hutcheson, Henry Saint John Bolingbroke, and Soame Jenyns, was less impressed with innate psychological motivations and more enamored of quasi-scientific explanations. Impressed by the new discoveries in the physical sciences that served to buttress the principle of design, these men sought to apply the new tools of analysis to man as well as nature. They were particularly intrigued by the possibility of applying the principle of gravitational attraction to an analysis of self-interest; they hoped to demonstrate how self-interest, like gravity, could produce order in the behavior of men.
Finally, Smith's immediate intellectual progenitors replaced analogies between gravitation and self-interest with a more concrete notion: that of the division of labor. For Joseph Priestley and his intellectual compatriots, the division of labor served as the connecting link between man's self-interest and the good of society. By pursuing his own self-interest, his own pleasure, man labors; and the products of that labor serve the needs of other people and hence of society. What separated these thinkers from Smith, however, was their unbridled optimism, faith in the perfectibility of man, and lack of an empirical bent.
Thanks to Myers's careful examination of the work of these often-neglected figures, Smith's seminal work on self-interest and the division of labor can be viewed with a much greater understanding of both his debt to his predecessors and the uniqueness of his argument. While Smith embraced an empirical method and eschewed abstract speculation whenever possible, he did build on the thought of these individuals. To a certain extent, Myers views Smith as a great synthesizer but also as an original thinker who brought economic analysis to bear on the problem of self-interest and the public welfare.
The Soul of Modern Economic Man is a valuable addition to the literature. It does suffer from a few noticeable omissions, however. It is curious, indeed, that if the entire debate on self-interest throughout the 18th century is viewed as a response to Hobbes, one thinker of indisputable importance is left out of the discussion. That theorist is, of course, John Locke. One of the strengths of Myers's work is that he does explore the contributions of frequently neglected figures; yet it seems a shame to ignore Locke, especially since his Second Treatise of Government is largely devised as a response to Hobbes. Would it not be useful to hear what Locke had to say about self-interest and the public welfare?
Though Myers has written an interesting, slim volume, that points to a second weakness in the book: Except for a very brief epilogue on David Ricardo, the tale ends with Smith. Yet in his introduction Myers claims that he will trace the soul of modern economic man (his self-interest) through the classical political economists. Perhaps he ended his study too soon, because in the epilogue he contends that Ricardo effectively put an end to the 18th century's fascination with the problem of self-interest and the general welfare. But this is simply not the case. Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, to name but a few of the luminaries, would expend considerable effort on the attempt to differentiate those cases where self-interest does lead to the general welfare from instances in which it does not. For the sake of completeness, it would have been useful for Myers at least to have discussed superficially the way 19th-century figures dealt with his problem. Despite these reservations, the book remains an eminently readable volume.
Ellen Frankel Paul is research director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches political science.
By Joy Dee Anthony
The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, by Martin Gardner, New York: Quill, 452 pp., $22.50.
Seventy-one-year-old Martin Gardner, having retired from his post as columnist-célèbre at Scientific American, thought it a good idea to put down his beliefs and opinions in a book. At times, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener reads like the midterm exam of an "A" student. Gardner quotes sources so dutifully that the reader begins to feel exhausted before chapter one is over.
To fill out explanations of his 20 "Whys," including why he is not an anarchist, an atheist, or a Marxist, Gardner culled from his file a lifetime of snippets from the famous. A select public, ready for anything from Gardner's pen (out of respect for his work on mathematical puzzles and paradoxes), may be patient enough for this long credo.
Not I. I found myself counting pages to the end of a chapter, reawakening, and then wondering why the section that piqued my interest had to be so short.
The free will versus determinism issue is a case in point. Gardner states that unfortunately he has not enough space to do justice to the subject. One wishes, then, that he had cut out much of the speculation on topics like paranormalism, whether there is sex in heaven, or whether God intervenes on the micro-level when he answers a prayer by changing the paths of photons and electrons.
Of course these digressions can be entertaining, especially when anecdotal. At his best, Gardner is a superb journalist and raconteur, sifting through memories and philosophies for gold.
Take William F. Buckley's first encounter with philosopher Ayn Rand. Gardner tells us, "Her opening icebreaker was: 'you ahrr too intelligent to believe in a Gott.'" Then we hear of George Gilder's dog, Laffer. Gilder calls the dog's tail "Laffer's curve."
To commence his book, Gardner explains why he is not a solipsist, one who believes that he or she alone exists. Even that reality may be shaky for some. Gardner relates an incident in which philosopher Morris Cohen was asked by a student: "How do I know I exist?" "Who's asking?" returned Cohen.
Though few would agree with solipsists, Gardner says that the recent interest in quantum mechanics gives even the arguments of a few eminent physicists a solipsistic tinge. To some, these arguments convey the feeling that the external world is an illusion, that solid substances are really only subjective space-time events, imperfectly observed.
To counter such idealism, Gardner gives three reasons for calling oneself a realist, that is, a believer in a world separate from one's will and perceptions. First, there are pragmatic reasons. To facilitate communication, it is more practical to assume that a world exists separate from one's will and perceptions.
Then there is the empirical argument. Realism is the simplest and most verifiable hypothesis for explaining regularities in nature.
Yet Gardner gives a more important reason for calling himself a realist, and in so doing sets the stage for the remainder of the book. He believes that where the mind fails to decide truth, the heart rushes in, justifiably. Gardner is a pragmatic realist, not just because it's useful, but because he finds it emotionally satisfying.
Commenting on a number of other philosophical conundrums, Gardner often concludes that many such controversies have been primarily semantic. Though this explanation is sometimes reasonable, the repeated appeal to language differences seems overworked. It is almost as if Gardner is saying we all really agree.
Except the economists. Gardner is too much a man of common sense to pretend otherwise in this sticky field. He sees the distinctions, has read Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among others.
As a democratic socialist, Gardner would like to see our economy head towards further governmental intervention. The reasons he gives are scanty. First and foremost, he thinks a technological society means ever larger corporations, with ever greater need for restraint. Gardner would like wage and price controls imposed on big farming, big labor, and big corporations. It's hard to believe he's really read Mises if he fails to see the problems resulting from manipulation of economic signals, and it's hard to imagine that he's read Friedman either. A Nobel laureate with The Monetary History of the United States and other serious endeavors under his belt should hardly be likened to a radical mystic. Yet Gardner, certainly no economist himself, not only does so but also criticizes Friedman as if economics were just another field in the realm of personal experience in which he is as competent to judge as any.
He likens Friedman to a chiropractor: someone with a prescription for each of the patient's ills. In the meantime, he notes, "real" doctors advise that the signs are too obscure for diagnosis. Funny, but this is why Friedman advocates a monetary rule. It's too hard to predict the bends and dips in the monetary road, Friedman says—better instead, curtail the manipulative power of the Federal Reserve to throw the economy off course.
The overall theme in Gardner's philosophy is summed up by an ode to the color gray in the book's last paragraph. If in doubt, he counsels, choose a course of action that is not extreme. For Gardner, this implies belief in a socialistic state, in reason influenced by emotions, and in petitionary prayer.
Lord help those who follow his economic advice.
Joy Dee Anthony is a free-lance writer and a correspondent for the Daily Pilot in Newport Beach, California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Arts & Letters".