Saturday, October 22, 2011

My piece in the Commercial Appeal (Memphis): "Forward Rebels, or a Big Step Back?" from 10/22/11

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Today, my piece came out in the Commercial Appeal, the major Memphis newspaper.  You can read the piece on their Web site here for now.  Pending permission from the paper to repost the article word for word here, I'll do so.  For now, above is the thumbnail for the article.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Rand's Appeal Curious: Politics of Individualism," my op-ed published today in The Clarion Ledger, pages C1&2, July 24, 2011

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Here's a scan of the article:

In case some people would like to read it in Html format (you can read it here without a fast connection for downloading the scan), I post the article here.  This is because Gannett newspapers often take articles down after about a week on their Web sites.  Here's The Clarion Ledger's Web site.  Here's the article:


Rand's appeal curious
The ideas of writer Ayn Rand strangely attract politicians of all stripes

Since President Barack Obama's election, the works of Ayn Rand have surged in popularity. Among the fans of Rand's work is U.S. Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky. Contrary to popular misconception, Paul was not named after the famous author. He has been vocal, however, in calling attention to her ideas.
Rand is a strange heroine in American politics. She has fans and critics in both parties. Beyond her ardent defense of free markets, she favored free love and sex. She was for birth control and presented idolized lead characters in her books who committed adultery time and again. She was a strong supporter of abortion rights. The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights calls abortion "an absolute right."
She is also a role model for some working women, presenting examples like Dagny Taggart, the brilliant vice president in charge of operations at Taggart Transcontinental and protagonist of Atlas Shrugged.
A compassionate person should have trouble with Rand's elitism, however. People who advocate for families, for religion, for children, or for persons with disabilities should feel a great tension with her ideas. Rand despised psychological weakness, counting religion as one, as well as dependency. Children have no clear place in books like Atlas Shrugged.
How can a medical doctor like Sen. Paul be such a fan? As a doctor, he nobly provided treatment to underserved areas, offering "eye exams and surgery to needy families and individuals," according to his website.
Paul's idol would be unimpressed with such selfless behavior. She believed charity is sometimes acceptable, but is not a good thing. In her view, it usually perpetuates reliance on others. The ideals of Christian charity and goodwill toward fellow citizens, which John Winthrop and later on, President Ronald Reagan espoused, run counter to the approach she thinks is best for society. So her match as a heroine for many GOP leaders is at least surprising.
Where does Rand fit in American politics?
Most would probably call her a libertarian. She certainly was an advocate for free markets. It is odd, however, for Christians and conservatives to idolize her. Simply put, Ayn Rand was strongly opposed to conservatism, explicitly rejecting the label "conservative." Some of her followers, who call themselves Objectivists, argue for legalizing prostitution and drug sales, even if they find the practices unwise. So, while Rand is for free markets, conservatives usually do not want them to be quite as free as she would have them.
Sen. Paul and other fans, like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin or commentators Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, surely do not look to atheist Rand for religious guidance. But, many accept her economic ideology. More mainstream economic liberalism holds that industry is the path to peace and improved standards of living for all. This means ultimately, though, that the value of markets has to do with when and how they benefit everyone's lives.
Hardline believers in industry see limitations on free enterprise as obstacles to individuality and to the benefits of competition and association. It is reasonable to ask, however, why it is a Christian or a conservative should necessarily have unwavering faith in markets and self-interest, particularly when excess focus on oneself is such a central vice according to Scripture, and desire for dollars is commonly taken to be worship of worldliness.
Rand's most famous follower today is Alan Greenspan. Greenspan believed thoroughly in the power of markets and in the virtue of deregulating them. People right and left have credited the economic growth during Greenspan's chairmanship of the Federal Reserve to his efforts. He was shocked, however, to see the recent economic downturn.
In light of the last few years' economic hardships, it is remarkable that people today can continue to follow Rand as thoroughly as her fans like Sen. Paul do. After all, when markets undermined themselves, Greenspan admitted that his ideology was clearly flawed.
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included," Greenspan said in 2008, "are in a state of shocked disbelief."
When asked about his ideology and whether he still believes it to be right, Greenspan conceded: "I've found a flaw. I don't know how significant or how permanent it is. But I've been very distressed by that fact."
Some ideologues will want to lay the blame on government whenever they can, calling attention to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those respondents are surely right to add all players into the mix of responsibility for the recent recession. At the same time, economic wizard Greenspan did not forget about those institutions when he made his admission. He realized that markets can foolishly sabotage themselves, devastating not only them and their shareholders, but also the nation's and the world's economies.
Excessive belief in any ideology is the problem. The answer is not communism. It is not anarchy. The right thing to do is almost always a matter of reconciling competing values. The trouble with the recent surge in Rand's popularity is that it has directly correlated with a widening schism of ideologies that close their eyes even to lessons from their champions, like Greenspan.
Though Rand's ideas are quite radical, she could be a heroine to many groups. Liberal Democrats may like some of her social ideas. Small government Republicans may love her views about industry and the individual. But conservatives who like Ayn Rand are an odd match. Rand would be an ardent critic of many of their initiatives, including the proposed "personhood amendment" initiative, which may end up on Mississippi's 2011 ballot.
If conservatives or economic liberals of any stripe want a more mainstream hero, why not look to Adam Smith? Smith was not dismissive of charity. He believed the central value of industry was its contribution to the general welfare of humankind.
It is well known that Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, but he also wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, largely unknown to advocates of free enterprise.
Smith was a moral philosopher who would welcome the following questions: What are markets good for? Why seek economic growth? If the answers are to raise the standard of living for all, to improve the welfare of the worst off in society, then he would think the goal is noble. Markets are good when they help people. When they do not, regulation becomes necessary and either charity, government action, or both must fill the need to help fellow human beings flourish.
The belief that people are better off when industry is entirely free clashes with conservative values and constraints on many markets. It also ignores the abuses some businesses commit.
Of course, representatives of government can make mistakes or do wrong. When troubles spread, however, the common denominator is neither business nor government. It is people acting carelessly and unchecked.
So yes, value industry highly and watch over government, Smith would argue, but never forget to be thy brother's keeper.

Eric Thomas Weber, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi. His second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, comes out this July and his third book, Democracy and Leadership, will be released in 2012. He is expressing his own viewpoint in this article. To contact, visit

Friday, June 10, 2011

News about a Book in Development, Plus Upcoming Piece on Ayn Rand

(As always, you can learn more about my writing at

In May, my wife and I had the most relaxing vacation that I can remember.  One day, I decided to do a little writing just for fun while Annie was napping.  It felt great.  I put together a few pages on a topic that I think is important and that would be relatively easy and fun to write more about.  I have since been thinking of it as a book project.  I've pitched the idea to a literary agent contact in NYC, who has responded well to it.  The book would (tentatively) be called The Meaning of Moderation: On the Virtue of Centrism in Politics.

The main idea is to talk about the amazing divide that has widened between the political voices in the public sphere.  Aristotle, as well as a number of other important philosophers, have argued quite persuasively that virtue is a matter of the mean between extremes of behavior.  I don't want to say too much about this project at such an early stage, but it is pretty exciting and has gotten me energized about a new writing project.

Working on the issue of moderation, however, has made me more attuned than usual to the voices that push hard lines.  Lately, we've seen Senator Rand Paul (KY) and others talking about Ayn Rand, even quoting her in official meetings.  Thinking about her and others like Senator Bernie Sanders's (VT) socialist stance got me thinking about how odd a match Ayn Rand is for G.O.P., but for others as well.  She has fans across the political spectrum, given her stances on small government as well as her liberal social views.

Questions about how to think about Rand and the odd kind of political inspiration she must be for some folks inspired me to write a piece about her fit in American politics.  I thought it might be a stab at thinking about political moderation on the topic of business and government regulation, therefore connected to the Meaning of Moderation project.  The piece is a newspaper op-ed that will come out in The Clarion Ledger around early July.  When that comes out, I'll post it here on my blog, as I've done with earlier pieces.

Finally, some general news about my writing: My second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, is now out in the U.K. and will be released in the U.S. in July.  Plus, my third book, Democracy and Leadership, will be done this summer, to come out in 2012 with Lexington Books.  I'm still working on revisions to my proposal for my fourth book, Culture Bound: Overcoming Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Failure in Education.  Plus, I've started hearing good news about the sales of my first book, a pretty technical one called Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism.  This is welcome news, mainly because once it has sold a certain number of copies (getting close, I think), the publisher may decide to release it as a paperback, which would be much cheaper and would be much more accessibly priced, therefore, for a lot of people (poor scholars and grad students!).  Finally, two reviews have come out about RDC.  One by Shane Ralston is on here and the other by Richard Cotter will come out in Political Studies Review, but is available now here on

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Liberty, Health Care Reform Fit," my piece in the Clarion Ledger, 1/30/11.

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To read a scanned PDF version of this article, click here.  The following is the text from the article:


Liberty, Health Care Reform Fit

(The Clarion Ledger, Sunday, January 30, 2011, p. 13B)

OXFORD -"It's about liberty," said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, explaining his opposition to the health care mandate. He continued, "Even the president and Congress must act within the boundaries set by the Constitution." Of course, on both counts Cuccinelli is right.

Federal judges have ruled in conflicting ways recently on the health insurance mandate, which will require all Americans either to buy health insurance or to pay a tax penalty. Federal Judge Henry Hudson of Virginia argued that the government did not make its case successfully in demonstrating the limits of the commerce clause in the Constitution. The worry is that without a clear limit on congressional power, the people could suffer endless encroachment on individual liberty. So, if the government will be successful in defending its federal mandate, it needs to clarify a limiting principle for interfering in people's lives.

There is a rich and complex tradition of thought about liberty that defies oversimplification. What is fascinating about the debate on health care is that the federal mandate is justified by the idea that not having healthcare is said to affect others. How can one person's inactivity harm others? We have answers to this question in a number of areas. If Tom is drowning and Jack chooses not to throw him an available life preserver, Jack can be charged with negligence. Jack's inactivity is seen as a choice for which we hold him responsible.

More directly, the argument is that individuals who do not have health insurance show up at emergency rooms all the time. Hospitals with emergency rooms cannot turn them away. Imagine a doctor who confronts a choking child. If he were to start looking for the child's wallet and insurance card, we would be astonished. The same problem for hospitals translates to hugely expensive emergency room costs. People with insurance, therefore, are charged more money so that hospitals can stay in business. That means that people who have insurance pay indirectly for all the people who do not have insurance. So, the inactivity of choosing not to purchase health insurance can clearly raise costs for others.

One could argue, of course, that some people may not choose to go to emergency rooms when they are sick and have opted out of health insurance. Two issues arise here. The first is that many instances of taking people to emergency rooms do not allow for choice. If Alice is hurt in a car accident and is unconscious, we treat her. We do not wait until she wakes up to then ask whether she wants emergency service. Second, the mandate for health insurance does not actually require you to purchase health insurance. This is perhaps the most startling point. You can opt out if you are willing to pay a tax penalty.

Tax penalties are a form of coercion, of course, but people choose them all the time, such as in seeking extensions for paying income taxes later than is required. Think about other forms of government coercion, furthermore, like the military draft we had just a generation ago. An option to accept a tax penalty instead of serving would have represented a significant expansion of freedom for those who opposed war.

The problem remains that unless we know the limits to the government's justifiable encroachments on individual liberty, we should all be worried. In that sense, it is important to agree with Cuccinelli that the point here concerns liberty. Liberty can be our guide in deciding about the proper limits of government interference. Among the most important writers on the subject of liberty was John Stuart Mill. He argued that the only time government is justified in limiting an individual's liberty is when that person limits the liberty of others or harms others without their consent. So, boxing is OK as long as the boxers agree to the match. But, it is not all right when Lisa punches Sam without Sam's consent to fight.

A number of libertarian thinkers have refined Mill's formulation. Joel Feinberg, for instance, explained that the idea of harming others is not so simple. It does not always involve direct injuries. We hide pornography behind magazine counters because Brad's freedom to purchase his magazines indirectly affects Maxine's desire to raise her children free from exposure to such adult matters. Also, think about why tax evasion is a crime. Al Capone's tax crimes did not directly hurt others, but affected citizens indirectly. The people had to take on more responsibility for public needs than if Capone had paid his fair share. This is an indirect form of harm, but one that is important and troubling. We make it illegal for a good reason.

In the case of the Affordable Care Act, the mandate is intended to address indirect harms. The claim is that to lack insurance coverage leaves the rest of us on the hook for taking care of you when you get into an accident or show up at an emergency room, something that happens regularly. So, the justification one could give from the libertarian point of view is that it is permissible to limit an individual's liberty regarding health insurance when that person's exercise of liberty harms others. In the end, then, the issue is indeed one of liberty, but that does not mean we should abandon the health care mandate. It means instead that the debate is really about whether or not individuals who choose to opt out of health insurance negatively affect others.

So, when cases about the federal mandate reach the U.S. Supreme Court, one way to explain the limit to the government's justifiable encroachments upon liberty could be this libertarianism principle, known as the harm principle. We can say that Congress ought to limit its interference in people's lives when there is no great social cost to individuals in the form of non-consensual direct or indirect harms. Where people are not harming others without their consent, let them be.

I have only argued here on the basis of what libertarians call negative freedom, freedom that has to do with avoiding imposition or encroachments on people's liberty. There is a complex set of values built on the idea of positive liberty, which we see represented in American public schools and universities, for example. The motivation behind support for positive liberty is the idea that individuals ought to have a chance to pursue happiness and meaning in life. That form of argument could be offered about health care, but I have focused instead here on the less controversial approach to make a point.

In countless cases, individuals who lack health insurance are taken to emergency rooms or go to them on their own. The indirect harm done is clear. Thus, it seems that the health care mandate can be supported even with the less controversial libertarian harm principle based on negative freedom.

Cuccinelli is right about one thing: the issue of the federal mandate is indeed about liberty.

Eric Thomas Weber, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi. Here he is expressing only his own point of view. His second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, will be published in June and his third book, Democracy and Leadership, will be released in 2012.

You can visit the Clarion Ledger Web site here.