It’s Oscar time again, and once again there are some Best Picture nominees of special interest to libertarians. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. 12 Years a Slave is a profound and painful movie about the horrors of slavery in a country conceived in liberty. Philomena is a tender personal story that sharply attacks the Catholic church and its censorious attitude toward sex, themes that would resonate with some libertarian viewers. This wasn’t the best year for libertarian movies – 2000 was pretty good – but libertarians will have some rooting interest Sunday night.
As I told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday in 2005, “America is basically a libertarian country, so Americans are going to put libertarian themes into the art they create, and sometimes it’s more explicit and sometimes it’s less so. But it’s not a big surprise to see individualism, anti-totalitarianism and fighting for freedom and social tolerance showing up in American art.” Here are some of my favorite examples (and of course they’re not all American):
Shenandoah, a 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, is often regarded as the best libertarian film Hollywood ever made. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who wants to stay out of the Civil War. Not our fight, he tells his sons. He refuses to let the state take his sons, or his horses, for war. Inevitably, though, his family is drawn into the war raging around them, and the movie becomes very sad. This is a powerful movie about independence, self-reliance, individualism, and the horrors of war. (There’s also a stage musical based on the movie that’s worth seeing, or you could listen to the antiwar ballad “I’ve Heard It All Before” here.)
War may be the most awful thing men do, but slavery is a close contender. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) tells a fascinating story about a ship full of Africans that turned up in New England in 1839. The question: Under American law, are they slaves? A long legal battle ensues, going up to the Supreme Court. Libertarians like to joke about lawyers. Sometimes we even quote the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — not realizing that that line was said by a killer who understood that the law stands in the way of would-be tyrants. Amistad gives us a picture of a society governed by law; even the vile institution of slavery was subject to the rule of law. And when the former president, John Quincy Adams, makes his argument before the Supreme Court, it should inspire us all to appreciate the law that protects our freedom.
Lawyers play an important role in two other fine libertarian films. The Castle was produced in Australia in 1997 but reached the United States in 1999. It’s a very funny film about a character who thinks that living near the airport is just great. He even likes looking up at the massive power lines near his house because they remind him of what man can accomplish. Shades of Ayn Rand! Anyway, a man’s home is his castle, and the protagonist is shocked when the airport decides to seize his property to extend its runway. He fights the system to no avail until a smooth, well-dressed lawyer — way out of the lead character’s league — shows up and offers to take his case. Again we see powerful interests forced to defend themselves in a law-governed society. A nice defense of private property, and very funny to boot.
That same season in 1999 I also enjoyed The Winslow Boy, a David Mamet remake of a Terrence Rattigan play/movie from 1948. Despite a very different atmosphere — a stuffy, bourgeois family in Victorian England vs. a comic contemporary Australian family — it has two things in common with The Castle: a proud father who will do anything to defend his home and family, and a distinguished British lawyer who comes to the family’s aid. Mr. Winslow’s teenage son is expelled from the Naval Academy. Convinced his son is innocent, Winslow challenges the expulsion. When the Academy refuses any sort of due process, Winslow exhausts his life savings in a fight through the courts. The theme is the right of every person in a decent society to justice.
So Big (1953) stars Jane Wyman as a wealthy young woman suddenly delivered into poverty. She becomes a teacher, marries a farmer, has a son, loses her husband, and must run the farm on her own, at a time when women didn’t do that. It’s an inspiring story of self-reliance, and the disappointment she feels when her son chooses money and society over the architecture he loves. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, the screenplay sounds almost Randian at times. Don’t see the 1932 version starring Barbara Stanwyck; it’s flat and boring. The difference is unbelievable.
The Palermo Connection (1990) is an odd Italian-made movie (but in English) cowritten by Gore Vidal. New York city councilman Jim Belushi runs for mayor on a platform to legalize drugs and take the profits out of the drug trade. The Mafia isn’t happy. His life is threatened. So he decides to go on a honeymoon, in the middle of his campaign — to Sicily. I said it was odd. But interesting, and very pointed.
Pacific Heights (1990) is a thriller that is almost a documentary on the horrors of landlord-tenant law. A young couple buys a big house in San Francisco and rents an apartment to a young man. He never pays them, and they can’t get him out, and then things get really scary. The lawyer lectures the couple — and the audience — on how “of course you’re right, but you’ll never win.” I just knew this happened to someone — maybe the screenwriter or someone he knew. Sure enough, when Cato published William Tucker’s book Rent Control, Zoning, and Affordable Housing, and I asked Pacific Heights director John Schlesinger for a jacket blurb, he readily offered “If you thought Pacific Heights was fiction, you need to read this book”; and he told me that the screenwriter had a relative who had gone through a tenant nightmare.
Finally, I’ll mention My Beautiful Laundrette, made for British television in 1985. What’s interesting about this film is that novelist/screenwriter Hanif Kureishi thought he was making a savage indictment of Thatcherite capitalism. But to me, the good characters in the movie — white and Pakistani, gay and straight — are the ones who work for a living, and the bad characters are clearly the whining socialist immigrant intellectual, who doesn’t like his son opening a small business, and the British thugs who try to intimidate the young Pakistani businessman. My favorite line: The enterprising brother of the layabout intellectual takes a young working-class Briton (Daniel Day-Lewis) with him to evict some deadbeat tenants. The young Brit suggests that it’s surprising the Pakistani businessman would be evicting people of color. And the businessman says, “I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani. There is no question of race in the new enterprise culture.” I think Kureishi thinks that’s a bad attitude. The joke’s on him.
If you’d like more film recommendations, I’m delighted to report that Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film is available again—on Kindle. It offers more than 250 short reviews of movies with libertarian themes.
Posted on February 27, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Some people say innovation is dead in America, but NASA is always looking for innovative ways to extract more money from the taxpayers. The Wall Street Journal reports on some of their innovations in using our tax dollars to persuade us to give them even more of those tax dollars:
In William Forstchen’s new science fiction novel, “Pillar to the Sky,” there are no evil cyborgs, alien invasions or time travel calamities. The threat to humanity is far more pedestrian: tightfisted bureaucrats who have slashed NASA’s budget.
The novel is the first in a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” which grew out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.
The plot of Mr. Forstchen’s novel hinges on a multibillion-dollar effort to build a 23,000-mile-high space elevator—a quest threatened by budget cuts and stingy congressmen….
It isn’t the first time NASA has ventured into pop culture. NASA has commissioned art work celebrating its accomplishments from luminaries like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. …
Some see NASA’s involvement in movies, music and books as an attempt to subtly shape public opinion about its programs.
“Getting a message across embedded in a narrative rather than as an overt ad or press release is a subtle way of trying to influence people’s minds,” says Charles Seife, author of “Decoding the Universe,” who has written about NASA’s efforts to rebrand itself. “It makes me worry about propaganda.”
Lobbying with taxpayers’ money isn’t new. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” To compel him to furnish contributions of money to petition his elected officials to demand more contributions from him just adds insult to injury.
Posted on February 12, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Posted on February 11, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Volume 15 of the Collected Works of F. A. Hayek has just been published by the University of Chicago Press. This volume, edited by series editor and Hayek biographer Bruce Caldwell, is The Market and Other Orders. It contains many of Hayek’s most important papers:
- The Use of Knowledge in Society
- The Meaning of Competition
- The Results of Human Action but Not of Human Design
- Competition as a Discovery Procedure
- The Pretence of Knowledge, his Nobel Prize lecture
- and The Political Ideal of the Rule of Law, lectures delivered in Egypt in 1954-55 that served as early drafts of chapters 11, 12, 13, 14, and 16 of The Constitution of Liberty
That’s only the beginning in this impressive volume, which should be of interest to any Hayek scholar, and indeed any student of economics or complex social orders.
Lawrence Summers, former secretary of the Treasury and president of Harvard, said in an interview for The Commanding Heights, Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw’s 1998 study of the resurgence of economic liberalism,
What’s the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans. That’s the consensus among economists. That’s the Hayek legacy.
This volume is a great introduction to those key ideas.
Posted on February 11, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
Next weekend, February 14-16, the seventh annual International Students for Liberty Conference will be held at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C. Though it is now the largest annual gathering of young libertarians in country, I can remember speaking to a “large” crowd of 100 students at the first ISFLC in snowy New York City. This year more than 1,400 passionate young libertarians are expected to attend, and will bring with them smart ideas grounded in individual liberty and limited government, two concepts in short supply in our nation’s capital.
Cato will be well represented at the conference. On the main stage, Cato CEO John Allison will offer attendees “A Philosophic Defense of a Free Society,” and I’ll present “10 Ways to Talk about Freedom.” Cato scholars will also lead breakout sessions about their areas of expertise, including a live recording of a Libertarianism.org Free Thoughts podcast. See the schedule below for more details. Additional Cato scholars will be speaking on panels hosted by other organizations; look for them in the conference program.
If you are in the area, I hope you will plan to come out to support the next generation of liberty advocates. You’ll likely learn something new in the process. I encourage you to register, and be sure to stop by the Cato booth to pick up our newest research and chat with Cato representatives.
|Saturday, February 15|
|10:00 -10:30 AM||John Allison||A Philosophic Defense of a Free Society||Main Stage|
|12:30 - 1:00 PM||David Boaz||Ten Ways to Talk about Freedom||Main Stage|
|2:00 - 2:45 PM||Julian Sanchez
Amie Stepanovich (Senior Counsel at Access)
|Rise of the Surveillance State (and How to Fight It)||Franklin|
|3:00 - 3:45 PM||Chris Edwards
|How Can Government Spending Be Cut?||Franklin|
|4:00 - 4:45 PM||Alex Nowrasteh
|LIVE Libertarianism.org Podcast: The Philosophy of Free Immigration||Franklin|
|5:00 - 5:45 PM||Mike Tanner
|How Government Robs the Young to Pay the Old||Franklin|
Posted on February 7, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty
After 15 years, Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution is finally reaching socialism’s signature achievement: shortages of toilet paper. The Washington Post reports:
CARACAS, Venezuela — On aisle seven, among the diapers and fabric softener, the socialist dreams of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looked as ragged as the toilet paper display.
Employees at the Excelsior Gama supermarket had set out a load of extra-soft six-roll packs so large that it nearly blocked the aisle. To stock the shelves with it would have been pointless. Soon word spread that the long-awaited rolls had arrived, and despite a government-imposed limit of one package per person, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the decimated dairy case in the back of the store.
“This is so depressing,” said Maria Plaza, 30, a lawyer, an hour and a half into her wait….
Why is it always toilet paper? I understand why a poorly coordinated economy isn’t likely to produce complicated goods like cars (see the Soviet Lada, the East German Trabant, or the gleaming 1950s American cars still in use on the streets of Havana) or computers. But how hard is it to produce toilet paper? Not that toilet paper is the only thing in short supply:
Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.
“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.
“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.
The regime takes credit for what it can, making sure that
products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase “Made in Socialism.”
The queues in front of the stores should carry the same symbol.
Posted on February 2, 2014 Posted to Cato@Liberty