Save Stirner From the Burners
That was a curious assortment of literature selected by the contributors to your "What to Save When the Book Burners Come" (Dec.). The books selected might have been expected at a convention of librarians, but for a magazine presumably dedicated to the principles of liberty—my, oh, my!
Why no mention of the greatest of individualists, the one contemporary Karl Marx feared—Max Stirner? Some of your contributors listed works by Ayn Rand, but Stirner beat her to the arena by over a century. Most of Rand's thought derives from Stirner and Nietzsche. It's a pity that the intellectual world didn't listen to Stimer's warning, in 1844, that the Marxian program held the potential of being the most ruthless political system in history.
Stirner preached the doctrine of getting value out of oneself. This, he asserted, could be achieved only through a philosophy of complete personal liberty. The title of his famous book, Der Einzige und Sein Eignetum, has been translated as The Ego and His Own, but a more literal rendering might be "The Unique One and His Property." This embodies the concept of each individual as unique and the sole owner of his most valuable property—himself.
Surely, no single book has been more unrelentingly devoted to the exercise of reason in opposing the illusions and delusions of socialism and what we now know as the sentimental social ethic which demands the submission of the individual to the community. No book has probed more deeply into the contradictory relationship between the real and the ideal.
Your respondents' lists show a few surprising omissions. What philosophical writings are as profoundly liberating and intellectually stimulating as the works of the three great Austro-Hungarian/British evolutionary epistemologists: Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and F.A. Hayek? In each case, it is hard to pick a single best or most representative work; but at the least, Popper's Conjectures and Refutations, Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, and Hayek's Law, Legislation, and Liberty would make quite a difference in an otherwise authoritarian and anti-individualistic world.
As for works of fiction, I would certainly add The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Popper, Polanyi, and Hayek, Tolkien has the rare ability to inspire a deep love of liberty, of the other values it makes possible, and of the virtue of responsible personal judgment and action that is its most noble expression.
Thanks for yet another thought-provoking issue.
Redwood City, CA
How the DEA Could Be Out of a Job
The December cover story ("Inside the DEA") reminded me of an essay on NPR's "All Things Considered" that I heard last summer. The essay focused on the demise of the moonshiner and his industry in the South.
The commentator made it clear not only that many had derived their livelihood from this illegal manufacture and sale but that the cat-and-mouse game with the Revenuers was a serious one, pursued with vigor by the forces of the law.
Somewhere in the middle of the segment they happened to mention that the reason for the virtual disappearance of moonshining is that there are few if any dry areas anymore, and legal liquor is available everywhere. There was no attempt to suggest an extension of this successful method of eradication.
Avery R. Johnson
There's Defensive And Then There's Defensive
I commend Mr. Poole for his generally excellent pro-SDI editorial in your January edition ("Don't Trade SDI—For Anything"). However, parts of his closing remarks make hash out of sound strategic principles. He contends that even though we must "not ignore" the nature of the Soviet Union, we must "at least try to reduce" the numbers of "terrible" nuclear weapons; and he insists that defensive systems such as SDI "cannot be a bargaining chip" and "must become our primary form of protection in a dangerous and risky world."
First, nuclear weapons are not terrible except in the context of use—any more than is a pistol; for defense and protection of liberty, any weapon is a wonderful invention. Second, I submit that an accurate estimate of the nature of the present Soviet government means that we most certainly must not try to reduce our nuclear arsenal. Third, nothing—including offensive systems—should be bargained to the Soviets. Fourth, wise strategy requires a flexible mix of offensive and defensive weapons. That mix can change over time, and no one can say a priori that defensive systems such as SDI must be "our primary" emphasis.
Well-intentioned people often feel this way, though, because of a common yet crucial equivocation between technically defensive systems and morally defensive systems. For a nation dedicated to protection of individual rights, any technically offensive or defensive mix is morally defensive; for an aggressor, the opposite. This is akin to it being morally defensive for a mugger's victim to use either punching or blocking, moves that in boxing are technically offensive and defensive, respectively. But since the mugger's intent is assault, his use of either punching or blocking is morally offensive and unjustified. It's devastatingly confusing to fail to distinguish between the technical and moral contexts of defense.
Vonnegut's Brains Too Large?
While "It's No Sin to Like Vonnegut" (Dec.), neither is it a virtue. Despite Jeff Riggenbach's assertions to the contrary, Vonnegut's latest novel Galapagos is hardly an appropriate entree on a liberty-minded bill of fare. The entire thrust of Galapagos is that human brains too large for their own good, fueled by capitalistic greed, cause the destruction of the human race. Vonnegut's utopia consists of a modified human race incapable of intelligent thought. (Is it conscionable that a book such as this received a favorable review in a magazine entitled REASON?!) Lest we forget, Vonnegut sums up his view of life in his novel Sirens of Titan through the words of Malachi Constant, "I was a victim of a series of accidents as are we all."
As an antidote to the literary ptomaine served up by Mr. Vonnegut, I direct readers to this rejoinder issued by Tom Robbins in his wickedly funny novel Still Life With Woodpecker: "Don't let yourself be victimized by the age you live in. It's not the times that will bring us down, any more than it's society. When you put the blame on society, then you end up turning to society for the solution. There's a tendency today to absolve individuals of moral responsibility and treat them as victims of social circumstance. You buy that, you pay with your soul. It's not men who limit women, it's not straights who limit gays, it's not whites who limit blacks. What limits people is lack of character. What limits people is that they don't have the -ucking nerve or imagination to star in their own movie, let alone direct it."
A dash of Robbins's verve will leave you in much better spirits than the most innocuous slop served up by Mr. Vonnegut.
St. Lisle, IL
Has the Pyramid Flipped Yet?
Robert Chapman Wood's use of the word pyramid was apt in his article "Wipe Out!" (Dec.). Our Social Security system is a huge pyramid scheme—the present recipients are at the top of the pyramid, and those of us at the bottom may face the broken promises of a bankrupt, broken chain letter.
However, my research shows that your portrayal of the pyramid turning upside down is inaccurate. In 1960, we had 4.5 workers to support one individual on Social Security. In 1970, we had four workers for every recipient, and in 1980, we went to three workers per recipient, not one worker per 3.2 recipients as Wood claimed. It is estimated that by 2025, there will be only two workers per beneficiary. So, the pyramid scheme has not flipped yet. But give it a few more years. Thanks for an otherwise perspicacious article.
Mark J. Perry
Editor's reply: Mr. Perry is correct. The figure quoted in the article was taken from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce publication, which reversed the 1980 numbers. But, as Mr. Perry notes, the point remains the same—we're all victims of a pyramid scheme.
They Can Dish it Out, But Can They Take it?
While an excellent article, "Dishing Out Competition" (Jan. '87) leaves out some important facts. First, no cable service can ever hope to offer the variety of programs on the 140-plus channels available to dish owners (many of which will never scramble). Second, all satellite pictures are studio perfect—no ghosts, hum bars, bad color, etc. Third, nice systems are now available for less than $600 for those who do the nontechnical labor themselves. And fourth, black-box decoders, though quite expensive, again allow dish owners to get all programming for free. The only practical option HBO & Co. has to defeat these is to radically drop the price of their decoders and program packages.
Correction: "Inside the DEA" (Dec.) erroneously reported that Mallory Horne was convicted of money-laundering charges after he refused to take an FBI agent, who would have publicly posed as a legitimate lawyer, into his law firm. He was in fact acquitted of all charges. REASON regrets the error.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".