To the Editor:
Charles Murray recommends that we renounce current taboos and forthrightly begin to discuss group characteristics [“The Inequality Taboo,” September]. This would be a beginning step, he believes, toward developing more appropriate social policies, one of which would be an end to affirmative action in university admissions.
It is hard to imagine that Mr. Murray is unaware that the world he would like to see today actually existed a century ago. Then, political leaders, university professors, businessmen, writers, and cartoonists were (by modern standards) thoroughly uninhibited about discussing and portraying the presumed group characteristics of women, blacks, American Indians, Jews, the Irish, Italian immigrants, etc. Most of the portrayals tended to be somewhat negative, reflecting the racism, anti-Semitism, and (to a lesser degree) anti-Catholicism of those in influential positions.
Over the course of the 20th century, the children and grandchildren of these bigoted elites learned better manners and acquired better and fairer attitudes toward their fellow citizens, helping to create the United States of today, where open expressions of racial and ethnic prejudice are largely absent from public discourse. This was a good thing, in fact a triumph of the American democratic ideal.
I, for one, want to preserve that gain in civility and social decency, and in order to do so would gladly continue to forgo the dubious pleasures of discussing the relative “vivacity” of Scots and Italians (to borrow one of Mr. Murray’s examples) or the other less anodyne group comparisons that have done so much harm in human history.
Peter M. Connolly
To the Editor:
Charles Murray states that since the 1970’s there has been a steady convergence in the mean scores of black and white takers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) academic achievement tests in mathematics and verbal skills—not yet complete convergence, but respectable gains nevertheless, with the prospect of further gains in the future. With respect to IQ tests measuring the “general mental factor” (g), however, there has been virtually no significant improvement since the tests first began to be given in the early years of the 20th century. Mr. Murray cites in particular the “backward digit span” test, which measures the test-taker’s ability to repeat correctly in reverse order a random sequence of one-digit numbers.
But this raises a big question. If blacks, on average, possess knowledge at roughly equivalent levels to whites, and can perform tasks at such levels as measured by achievement and aptitude tests, what difference does it make that they cannot repeat numbers backward, or do any of the other things g-loaded tests measure, as well as whites can?
Barton L. Ingraham
Santa Fe, New Mexico
To the Editor:
I applaud Charles Murray’s call for free debate on race and gender, and for a lifting of the taboos of political correctness. But when dealing with such emotionally charged words as “race,” “gender,” and “intelligence,” one must adhere to scientific correctness by working with clear, operational definitions. For the most part, Mr. Murray has made a sincere effort to do so, but I have a few objections.
At the beginning of his essay, he places the issues of gender and race differences side-by-side, implying that they are identical. But while gender can be attributed to an XX or XY set of chromosomes, race cannot be operationally defined in such a way. Scientific studies of brain development or endocrinology can test hypotheses about the two biological gender groups. Where is the comparable biological underpinning for race? Mr. Murray alludes briefly to statistical “cluster[s] of genetic markers,” but what do these really consist of?
Even if the theory of race as a purely social construct is not valid, that would not establish race as a valid biological entity analogous to gender. When Mr. Murray notes that “the average American black is thought to be about 20-percent white” and then says that “to the extent that genes play a role, IQ will vary by racial admixture,” it seems that he is assuming some kind of essential biologic “blackness” and “whiteness.”
As for intelligence, I do not think Mr. Murray would claim that it is one solitary, operationally definable property. He himself writes that it “really does manifest itself in different ways and with different profiles.” There are various cognitive, as well as social and interpersonal, capacities that combine in myriad ways to produce human intelligence. Mr. Murray is correct that some of these, like the “general mental factor” (g), have been operationally defined and shown to be heavily influenced by genes. What is less clear is the real-life importance of g to success in life. How relevant is George W. Bush’s or Bill Clinton’s “backward digit span” to either man’s capacity to lead the free world?
The fact that neither race nor intelligence can be operationally defined does not mean that they should not be discussed; quite the contrary. Mr. Murray has made an important contribution to the debate, particularly in emphasizing data over blind prejudice. Yet when it comes to statements about the relationship between race and intelligence, I suspect he would admit that we still have much to learn.
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
Charles Murray is certainly correct that taboos concerning biogenetic factors in group differences have stifled serious discussion of these matters and helped create an intellectual climate dominated by lies, evasions, and doubletalk. Still, he does not distinguish in his article between biological factors that are genetic in origin and those that have an environmental basis. The reader is left with the impression that all biological differences between races must be genetic in origin.
But we know that human brain development can be greatly influenced by, say, a child’s early nutritional environment, both intrauterine and extrauterine, and by the effects of pathogenic diseases. The fact that researchers have found a persistent black-white group difference in things like “backward digit span” tests, brain pH levels, brain glucose metabolism, nerve-conduction velocity, and reaction times certainly establishes the existence of some kinds of black-white brain differences. But one cannot conclude from this research alone the degree to which the differences are the result of genes or environment.
If a significant portion of the racial differences are due to environmental factors, they may be subject to environmental intervention, and hence (contrary to what Mr. Murray suggests) are at least partially tractable. The distinguished British IQ researcher Hans Eysenck, who for many years believed that the black-white IQ difference was mainly genetic, later came to the conclusion that vitamin and nutritional differences probably accounted for much more than he had previously thought. Other researchers, including Roger Masters of Dartmouth, have stressed the harmful effects on brain development of high ambient levels of lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals, and shown racial differences in exposure to such toxins. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the decision to breast-feed or bottle-feed a baby seems to have a significant effect on brain and IQ development, and there are probably racial differences here, too. There is a whole lot in the area of biological makeup that we still do not know.
Princeton, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Kudos to Charles Murray for exclaiming that the emperor of equality wears no clothes. Those who define and police our cultural dogma deny this truth because they have lost sight of the reality and primacy of the spiritual. Only in that realm are we equal with one another. The ability to solve differential equations or to dunk a basketball is not identically distributed among individuals, or across groups. But everyone is equally created in the image of God, and every mortal of normal mind has equal freedom and responsibility to make moral choices.
Daniel Love Glazer
To the Editor:
Charles Murray writes that “specific policies based on premises that conflict with scientific truths tend not to work. Often they do harm.” If the leaders of the Democratic party had recognized this 40 years ago, they might have avoided the mistakes that have resulted in the present Republican dominance.
In the 60’s and 70’s, the Democrats tried to eliminate poverty and racial inequality in the United States. Their efforts were well intended. Unfortunately, they were based on two assumptions that Mr. Murray has disproved: that the poor are the same as everyone else, only less fortunate; and that the problems of blacks are ultimately caused by white racism.
Increasingly, capitalism restricts the rewards of economic growth to the very brightest. This is a Democratic issue. But if efforts to alleviate the income gap are to be successful, they will need at least tacitly to acknowledge the reality of genetic inequality and the relationship between intelligence and income. As long as Democrats pretend that genes do not matter, Republicans will get away with the pretense that the only thing that does matter is moral character.
To the Editor:
Charles Murray writes that “talking about group differences does not require any of us to change our politics.” But he belies this statement when he notes that establishing social policies genuinely blind to gender and race “will require us to jettison an apparatus of laws, regulations, and bureaucracies that has been 40 years in the making,” by which he means, at the very least, affirmative action in education and employment.
Nor is it clear why Mr. Murray considers the concept of superiority inappropriate in discussing inequalities among groups. True superiority is every bit as real, observable, and measurable as group differences. History has determined the relative importance of various human traits and abilities. As a result, the natural inequality of nations, leveraged by their size and power, has made some superior to others for protracted periods. There is thus a sociobiological foundation for such historical phenomena as colonialism, relations between the West and the Muslim world, the rise-fall-rise cycle of Germany and Japan in the 20th century, and the steep ascent of China and India in the last two decades.
Idaho State University
To the Editor:
On average, Americans are taller than Chinese. Notwithstanding this statistical truth, Yao Ming is 7-foot-5 and averages eighteen points a game for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. This example should be kept in mind by those tempted to take umbrage at Charles Murray’s statements about group differences in IQ. Mr. Murray propounds no outlandish theory but merely analyzes available data. Factual statements on this topic ought not be more controversial than statements about differences in height between Americans and Chinese.
There would be no need for Mr. Murray or anyone else to make a public issue of this sort of aggregated data were it not for the ceaseless agitation of radical egalitarians who insist that every inequality is an injustice. Until they relent in their advocacy of perverse policies of preference, Charles Murray must continue to speak about the inconvenient facts.
Robert Stacy McCain
To the Editor:
I commend Charles Murray for thinking clearly about the subject of inequality. In reading his essay, I was reminded of Emerson’s observation that “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Well done, Mr. Murray, for having the intellectual conscience to publish this article.
San Clemente, California
Charles Murray writes:
The thoughtful letters sent to Commentary accord with others I received after publication of “The Inequality Taboo”—some agreeing, some disagreeing, but none hyperventilating. Perhaps this is relevant to Peter M. Connolly’s worries about what would happen if it were once more acceptable to talk openly about group differences. In my personal experience, we seem to be doing this better than we did eleven years ago when The Bell Curve appeared.
I have no argument with Mr. Connolly’s characterization of the conversation a century ago. But can we not move toward greater openness without moving all the way back to the world he invokes? Let me propose a more optimistic view of history. The civil-rights legislation of the 1960’s did not pass because courageous politicians were morally ahead of their constituents, but because a sea change had already occurred in the attitudes of the white electorate. A more open conversation about race would not take us back to blackface and overt anti-Semitism for the same reason that the nation would not resegregate hotels and restaurants if the civil-rights legislation were repealed. We live in a different culture from the one of our great-grandparents, based on changed standards of behavior. We can argue about who gets credit for the change but not about whether a fundamental change has occurred.
Barton L. Ingraham asks a sensible question: who cares about black-white differences on the abstract items in g-loaded tests if the differences on real-world items in achievement tests are diminishing? The problem is that the gap in achievement-test scores is still large, and we also may not have “the prospect of further gains in the future” that Mr. Ingraham sees. Convergence effectively stopped in the mid- to late 1980’s, a plateau that is now almost two decades old.
It is hard to think of contemporaneous trends in the economic, educational, or social conditions of blacks since the mid-1980’s that can explain this plateau. Those who see a large genetic component in the black-white difference have a parsimonious explanation. Part of the black-white difference in test scores, they stipulate, is environmental in origin. The period from World War II to the 1990’s saw dramatic improvements in the environment for black children, and the environmental source of the black-white difference diminished accordingly. Prog-ress stopped, they contend, because the capacity of environmental changes to close the gap was exhausted.
The results from highly g-loaded tests offer a way to test the consistency of this logic. Psychometric g is the most heritable component of cognitive ability and, accordingly, the least influenced by environmental changes. The implication is that convergence in highly g-loaded tests over time will be smaller than convergence in achievement tests. That implication seems to be borne out by the available data. The case isn’t closed, but such findings make me pessimistic about the likelihood and speed of future convergence.
I agree with Peter Heiman that race as a biological entity is qualitatively different from gender and also that the race variable does not consist of “essential whiteness” on one end of a continuum and “essential blackness” on the other. I think of race as a multi-dimensional continuous variable. Until now, constrained by limits on our ability to categorize race, we have been compelled to ignore subgroups and admixtures that are obvious to all. Progress in genetics has already made it possible to attach a metric to the continuous variable of race. The next step, probably still some years away, is to discover the nature of the dimensions buried in the aggregate variable (in the same sense that a measure of socioeconomic status has, buried within it, dimensions measuring income, occupation, and education). Even now, however, it is within our capability to answer many questions about the co-relationship of race, measured continuously, and IQ scores.
Mr. Heiman and I also agree that picking Presidents according to IQ score is not a good idea. But I think he underestimates how much we know about the importance of g to success in life. I recommend a reading of the first twelve chapters of The Bell Curve, and the very extensive literature reviewed there.
The short answer is that g is to real-world success as weight is to an offensive tackle in the NFL. Heaviest isn’t best, but if you do not weigh at least 250 pounds, forget about it. Similarly, the best physician, CEO, or astrophysicist is probably not the one with the highest IQ; but there is a minimum that aspirants to those jobs have to bring to the table, and the more they have, on average, the better. Psychometric g is a flexible, all-purpose tool that enhances all of one’s other abilities.
I am indebted to Russell Nieli for noting biological factors that are environmentally instead of genetically determined; it is a distinction that I should have included in the article. Their role in explaining group differences, however, is limited.
For example, nutrition is indeed important to IQ, and, worldwide, the distribution of nutrition is worse for black children than for white children. That discrepancy must explain some part of the worldwide black-white difference in IQ. But large numbers of American blacks have had good nutrition from birth. Studies of blacks and whites in upper socioeconomic brackets, where there are no major differences in such things as nutrition, exposure to lead, or pathogenic disease, consistently find that the absolute black-white difference as measured in IQ points is smaller than in the population at large, usually by 30 to 40 percent, but the relative difference measured in standard deviations remains unchanged or increases. Mr. Nieli’s comments are well-taken, but we have no reason to think that equalizing the physical environment will get rid of a large intractable component of the black-white difference.
Leonid Hanin correctly identifies an implication of intractable group differences that is associated with conservative politics: namely, that strong affirmative action is misguided and ought to be dismantled. But I think the Left also has a potentially sweeping and powerful argument for its redistributionist ambitions. It goes like this: science is demonstrating that no one deserves his IQ. If, then, IQ is important in determining economic success in life—increasingly important, as John Engelman points out in his letter—why reward lucky people with high incomes? We should not be surprised if, ten or twenty years from now, leftists seize upon the genetic origin of individual and group differences as passionately as they now deny it.
As for my observation about the irrelevance of superiority and inferiority that Mr. Hamin criticizes, it applies to individuals, not to civilizations, and I deeply believe it. My higher-IQ friends do certain things better than my lower-IQ friends. They are not superior people.
Civilizations are more amenable to superior/inferior designations than individuals, but even in those cases, disaggregation is necessary. Having lived for an extended period in a Southeast Asian culture, I am convinced that, on certain dimensions, such a culture is superior to our own. But on others, it is inferior. How one assesses a civilization’s aggregate score depends on how one values the components.
To the Editor:
One need not be an “oil hawk,” as Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills refer to some members of our Set America Free Coalition, to lose sleep over the prospect that tens of trillions of dollars could be shipped to the Persian Gulf in the coming decades in order to satisfy the world’s appetite for oil [“Getting Over Oil,” September]. Such a transfer of wealth would contribute materially to the terrorist threats we face, and should be of concern to every American.
In a time of global war against radical Islam, it is imperative that our national expenditures on energy be directed away from those who would use them against us. The only way to accomplish this is to achieve in the transportation sector of our economy, where two-thirds of our oil is consumed, what was achieved in the power sector following the 1973 oil embargo: a shift from oil to domestic sources of energy.
We agree with the authors that the electrification of transportation through massive deployment of plug-in hybrid cars is a critical part of the solution, but we strongly object to their laissez-faire approach that would leave our future to the forces of the free market while the government sits on its hands.
In a perfect world, it would not be the role of the government to intervene in the energy market or to pick technological winners. But at a time when we are at war, when Communist China competes with us over access to the world’s oil, and when most oil companies acknowledge that (in the words of Chevron’s CEO) “the age of easy oil is over,” we do not have time to experiment with textbook theories of economics. It is the role of government to advance public policy that provides for the common defense.
Messrs. Huber and Mills’s thesis that the free market can solve our energy crisis fails on another ground. The energy market is not a truly free market but one that is heavily rigged in favor of the big oil and automobile companies. The recently passed energy bill, which includes billions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks for oil and gas companies, is a stark reminder of this. While we do not advocate rolling back government support for the petroleum industry, we do think the government should level the playing field and promote free competition among alternative-energy suppliers. Purely on national-security grounds, it should also encourage Americans to shift from petroleum- to non-petroleum-based fuels like electricity and liquid fuels made from plentiful domestic resources like coal, agricultural material, and waste products.
Messrs. Huber and Mills’s aversion to a government push for fuel efficiency ignores those cases in which government intervention has effected positive change. They wrongly suggest, for example, that the successful market penetration of hybrid cars happened “not because of decrees from Washington,” but thanks to “market forces alone.” It is true that the new hybrids are attractive and perform well, but the rapid adoption of the technology would not have been possible without the federal and state tax credits that consumers have used to cover the premium they pay for such a car. The authors’ favorite technology, plug-in hybrids, which we support wholeheartedly, will demand an even higher premium from early adopters, and rapid market penetration will require a helping hand from Washington.
The pervasive role of government has long been a source of concern to Americans, but considering the threats our country is facing, leaving our oil supply and transportation sector suspended in limbo between jihadists and free marketers is far scarier.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.
Set America Free Coalition
To the Editor:
Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills state correctly that the peaking of our oil reserves need not lead to a catastrophe, since oil, for most of its purposes, can be replaced. But the authors miss key points.
The first is that we are running out of natural gas and have started to import it in large quantities from the same unstable Middle East that we have relied upon for oil. It makes no sense to switch to a “hydrogen economy” that uses natural gas to make the hydrogen. There is no alternative to obtaining 60 percent of our energy from non-fossil-fuel sources. Coal may be plentiful, but replacing oil with coal (as the authors advocate) would increase its consumption fourfold, and our more easily recoverable reserves would be depleted in less than 30 years. Moreover, greater coal consumption might accelerate global warming and increase pollution.
Other solutions, like solar thermal energy with storage, could supply most of our energy needs and could be coupled with wind, nuclear energy, and, in the future, solar cells. Switching to these sources would take at least thirty years at a cost of at least $200 million a year. With the future so uncertain, private industry will not invest in building new plants without incentives. Thus, government intervention is needed. On the bright side, the technology needed to solve our energy problems already exists; we lack only the will.
The authors are wrong to think that energy consumption cannot be decreased. The 1974 “corporate average fuel economy” (CAFE) laws were so effective that in twenty years gasoline consumption decreased by 30 percent despite an increase by 50 percent in the number of cars. This achievement was wiped out completely when President Clinton allowed SUV’s to be produced through a loophole in the law. His decision is the main cause of our current oil crisis.
If we do not change our ways substantially, the peaking of the fossil-fuel supply can catch us unprepared and lead to the total breakdown of our society. Unfortunately, the analysis presented by Messrs. Huber and Mills lulls the reader into an illusory complacency. It is based on the belief that the free market will always solve our problems and that new resources can always be found if the price of extant resources is increased. They fail to recognize that the increase in prices may be highly nonlinear and thus much greater than our economy can absorb.
Clean Fuels Institute
City College of New York
New York City
To the Editor:
The optimism of Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills is unwarranted. They argue that switching from oil to electricity will alleviate our dependence on the former. The energy for the production of electricity will come from coal, uranium, natural gas, and, at the margins, from the harnessing of non-stored solar energy in its various forms: hydropower, wind, photovoltaics, biomass, etc. But all these sources of primary energy have their own constraints.
A reversion to coal, the main primary energy source before the oil era, will be hampered by finite availability, environmental rules, and a scarcity of miners. Uranium is scarcer than coal, and the long-term storage of nuclear waste still awaits a solution acceptable to all parties. Natural gas as a resource is indistinguishable from oil not only because it represents the lighter end of the hydrocarbon continuum; it is, or will be, mainly imported, and gas resources geographically overlap oil resources. The contribution of solar energy will increase with time, but it will be decades before its contribution to our total energy needs will be meaningful, and its cost will far exceed even the recent, seemingly exorbitant, cost of oil.
Finally, Messrs. Huber and Mills suggest that the quest of a billion people in China and another billion in India to move from “carbohydrate power” to hydrocarbons, which exerts a sharp upward pressure on the cost of oil, will be satisfied by hypothetical, super-efficient engineering marvels. They magnanimously accord these masses the use of hybrid rickshaws but not of Hummers. The decision-makers in China, India, and elsewhere are nevertheless trying frantically to assure themselves oil supplies just to be on the safe side.
A further illustration of the unwarranted optimism of Messrs. Huber and Mills is their description of hydrogen as “technically easy” to extract from water or natural gas—despite the fact that each step in its production, distribution, and storage is a potential show-stopper. The last ten years of hype and heavy outlays on hydrogen have hardly made an advance toward practical use.
Tightness in the oil supply and consequent price increases in the next few decades are a virtual certainty. The experience of the last 40 years should be sufficient to disabuse the authors of any facile possibility of “getting over oil.” The getting, if any, will be painful and disruptive and fraught with dangerous conflicts.
Bloomfield Village, Michigan
To the Editor:
I was surprised that Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills did not mention nuclear fusion technology. As I understand it, nuclear fusion is the ultimate answer to our energy problem. When this technology is perfected we will have available to us virtually unlimited, nonpolluting, radiation-free energy. We ought to be devoting the same level of funding and scientific application to nuclear energy as we did to the Manhattan Project.
John E. Bright
Fairfax Station, Virginia
Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills write:
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., Anne Korin, and Gal Luft do not want Americans to buy oil from people who fund, harbor, or incite our enemies. We, too, would like to bankrupt those people; but we differ on how that can be done.
As we pointed out in our article, the United States, by itself, does not buy all that much oil from the Persian Gulf—but the rest of the world certainly does, and the global economy is growing rapidly. Short of a quarantine, or an invasion, the only way to make the current owners of oil poorer is to lower the price of oil.
One way to do that is to produce more oil, or more of a good substitute. The oil hawks named in our article have concluded that the best way forward is to grow lots of corn and switchgrass on the prairies and convert it into alcohol fuel. They might be right—but, then again, they might be wrong. Reuel Shinnar apparently prefers solar and wind to grass. John E. Bright likes nuclear fusion.
We invite Messrs. Gaffney, Shinnar, and Bright to work out among themselves whether the first hundred-billion dollars in government subsidies, tax credits, and so forth should chase the sun above (right to its core, if we want to put our money on fusion), the grass below, or the wind in between. What is clear is that without direct government subsidy, each of these alternatives remains prohibitively expensive in all but a few niche applications.
Meanwhile, global oil sales at current prices generate about $1.5 trillion a year. Speaking for ourselves, we doubt that the U.S. government can have any useful impact on a market of that size by regulating, spending, taxing, or crediting. Even if (say) one or two countries can spare 50 million fertile acres to grow corn and switchgrass, most of the world’s oil-consuming nations cannot.
The most obvious and sensible place to look for alternatives to oil is where they are already established and in widespread use—which is to say, in the 60 percent of our energy economy that is powered by other fuels. As we noted in our article, and as Mr. Gaffney and his colleagues acknowledge, the electric sector of our economy shifted decisively away from oil—not to corn and switchgrass but to coal and uranium—following the oil shocks of the 1970’s and 80’s.
Mr. Shinnar objects that we will run out of coal. Sure we will, but not until the year 2834, give or take a few centuries; the U.S. has truly vast deposits of the stuff. Mr. Shinnar also states that we are running out of natural gas; but what we are really running out of is drilling permits and gas-transportation facilities. We have placed most of the Rockies off-limits, we refuse to build docking facilities for liquefied-natural-gas tankers, and we make it very difficult to build new pipelines connecting fields with gas to cities that need it.
Is uranium “scarcer than coal,” as Mordecai Shelef contends? Ton for ton, it certainly is—but per unit of energy supplied, uranium deposits are, for all practical purposes, infinite. It is true, as Mr. Shelef writes, that all non-oil sources of energy “have their own constraints,” as no one is more keenly aware than the nuclear industry. But those constraints arise mainly from domestic politics and perceptions, both of which may evolve quickly as Americans come to grips with the thoroughly nasty politics of foreign oil.
Looking forward, we join Mr. Gaffney and others in applauding the coming convergence of the electric and transportation sectors of our energy economy. More energy moves through our electrical grid than through the drive shafts of our cars; hybrid engines and batteries are coming that can bridge the divide; and gasoline at three dollars a gallon creates strong market incentives to bridge it. Also helpful, as we argued in “Getting Over Oil,” would be a more rational regulation of the price of electricity and flatter energy taxes across the board. (Contrary to Mr. Shinnar’s supposition that we see hydrogen as an alternative fuel, we believe only that it could serve as one possible bridge between the electric and transportation sectors.)
As for our preference for market solutions over government intervention, is today’s “rapid adoption” of hybrid technology a product of such intervention in the form of tax credits, as Mr. Gaffney and his colleagues believe? No serious student of the matter would agree. Hybrid drives were incorporated into diesel locomotives and monster trucks as soon as the high-power semiconductors at their core matured. Falling prices and rising performance are now moving those same technologies into our cars. Without benefit of tax subsidies, all car manufacturers use them to electrify valves, brakes, steering, and radiator fans. The rest of the drive train will follow because it is now cheaper to build cars that way, and the cars perform better.
So much for the supply side. The other way to depress the value of Persian Gulf oil is to lower global demand. But how? According to Mr. Shinnar, fuel-economy standards have reduced gasoline consumption by 30 percent. If he truly believes that, he must be measuring against some imaginary curve 30 percent above current levels of consumption. U.S. gasoline consumption has in fact been rising inexorably since the days of Henry Ford. The curve has flattened only occasionally, and very briefly, in times of serious economic slowdown. No such flattening is imminent in today’s vibrant global economy.
The simple, direct, and invariably effective way to curb demand for oil is to raise taxes on its end products. Principled conservatives who really believe in the need to control demand should have the political courage to back such increased taxes. It is timorous and unprincipled to continue to promise painless, government-prescribed, subsidized techno-fixes in the form of thousands of pages of regulation and tax-jiggering, all packaged in the name of “efficiency” and “conservation.” As a review of the historical record confirms, that approach has never—never—worked in the past.
It fails not because consumers hate efficiency but because they like it so much. The faster we build more efficient engines, the more of them we build, and the more we use them—and the faster our energy consumption rises. Mr. Shelef complains that we are willing to consign the masses of China and India to “the use of hybrid rickshaws but not of Hummers.” Quite the opposite: exotic and expensive new technologies invariably become cheaper, and any energy-consuming technology that begins as an expensive curiosity in San Francisco will end up as a staple in Shanghai. They will get the hybrid Hummers, too.
The experience of the past 40 years, Mr. Shelef writes, teaches that there is no “facile possibility of ‘getting over oil.’” But what the 1960’s and early 70’s taught was in fact very different: a huge ramp-up in production of Persian Gulf oil in those years made it politically painless for the U.S. to ban almost all new drilling off the Florida and California coasts, and then in much of Alaska. As for the ensuing 30 years, what they have taught is that the pundits who kept telling us that we’d run out of oil were wrong, and so were all those who assured us we could slash demand by turning to the sun, wind, fusion, efficiency, and conservation.
Oil does present serious problems—which makes the position of the oil hawks doubly depressing. However well some of them may understand the world’s political pathologies, they do not know more than the market does about supply and demand when it comes to oil, coal, gas, uranium, heat, shaft power, electricity, passenger miles in cars, freight miles in trucks, air miles in planes, hybrid-electric drive trains, and lithium batteries. So, to keep it simple, they tell us to grow corn and switchgrass.
The Zionist Left
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin begins his review of my book, The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege [September], by observing that the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO—about which he himself was initially ambivalent—were “a horrendous blunder on Israel’s part. Rarely in history has a country so foolishly opened its gates to a Trojan horse.” Yet his review is curiously defensive of those responsible for this blunder, which has severely compromised Israel’s security at a cost of thousands of dead and wounded.
I argue that the Israeli embrace of Oslo reflected a psychological phenomenon common among chronically besieged populations. Elements of such populations often take to heart the indictments of their besiegers, however bigoted or outrageous they may be, in the hope that by reforming themselves they will assuage their enemies and win relief—and peace. This was a common response of Jewish communities throughout the history of the Diaspora, and the ongoing Arab war against Israel has evoked a similar reaction in some Israelis, particularly in the decade-and-a-half preceding Oslo.
Mr. Halkin concedes that the “Oslo syndrome” as I construe it may have been a “necessary” condition for Israel’s entering into the 1993 agreements, but insists it was not a sufficient one. Missing in my explanation, he argues, are political events that led Israel rationally in the direction of Oslo.
But there was nothing rational about Oslo. Mr. Halkin asserts that the PLO “had gradually softened its public positions” and was “indicating a readiness to recognize Israel in return for a Palestinian state.” True, PLO spokesmen made ambiguous statements in English that could be interpreted this way. But, as the Israeli government well knew, Yasir Arafat continued his terror campaign and assured his constituency in Arabic that any softening of rhetoric for Western and Israeli consumption should be understood in terms of the PLO’s “plan of phases.” This meant negotiating for territory that it could then use as a base for pursuing Israel’s annihilation.
Mr. Halkin’s misplaced sensitivity for the Zionist Left leads him repeatedly to misrepresent my arguments. I discuss the adoption by early Russian socialist Zionists of attitudes toward religious and bourgeois Jews that parroted anti-Semitic caricatures. Many of the socialist Zionists chose to believe that it was those other Jews who were the targets of the anti-Semites, and that by peopling Zion with “new,” secular, socialist Jews, they would end anti-Semitism. In response, Mr. Halkin suggests that I fail to appreciate that rebellion against traditional Jewish institutions was a necessary element of the Zionist movement.
In fact, I note that traditional institutions were not meeting the needs of a desperate Russian Jewry—not least because of czarist depredations—and alternatives were necessary and inevitable. But one could have rebelled against institutional inadequacies without embracing anti-Semitic perspectives. Herzl’s vision, too, was a rebellion against established Jewish ways, but he conceived of the Jewish state as a refuge for all Jews. By contrast, many socialist Zionist leaders were insisting, even in the 1930’s, that the new community in Palestine must avoid being contaminated by the immigration of too many religious or entrepreneurial Jews.
Mr. Halkin suggests that I wrongly characterize Jewish self-blame as a distinctly modern phenomenon. On the contrary, I give examples from the medieval period and argue that Jews were always vulnerable to such delusions. Mr. Halkin’s point here, in any case, is to show that self-blame is not limited to the modern Jewish secular Left.
This defensiveness is unfortunate. The Oslo debacle was a creation of the Left, and it is vital for Israel that those who identify with the Left engage in soul-searching. The Arabs’ demonization of Israel is not about to end, and the nation cannot afford, in its eagerness for “normalcy,” once again to risk everything by chasing mirages of peace.
Hillel Halkin writes:
After reading Kenneth Levin’s letter, I fail to see how my review of his book was “curiously defensive” of the Israeli leaders who blundered at Oslo. Why is it defending a blunder to attribute it to political miscalculations rather than to deep-seated psychological determinants? Isn’t it a serious enough accusation to charge Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres with catastrophically misreading Yasir Arafat’s intentions, without also imputing to them feelings of Jewish self-blame that there is not the slightest evidence of them having had?
As for my “misplaced sensitivity for the Zionist Left,” as Mr. Levin calls it, this certainly does not include justifying many of the things that that Left stood for or did, such as its policies on Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British mandate. (It needs to be said, however, that in the years in which there were restrictions on Jewish immigration, every Zionist party fought to maximize the number of visas given to its own supporters, the less powerful right-wing parties as well.) The major point that Mr. Levin continues to miss is that, for large numbers of young Jews in pre-World War II Europe, the choice was not between joining the Zionist Left and joining the Zionist Right, but between the Zionist Left and the anti-Zionist Left. Does he really believe it would have benefited Zionism had tens of thousands of Jewish youngsters ended up as Bundists or Communists in Poland or Lithuania rather than as members of left-wing kibbutzim in Palestine?
Kenneth Levin is not the first to assert that the Zionist Left “parroted anti-Semitic caricatures.” He wishes that, instead, it had had “Herzl’s vision,” which “rebelled against institutional inadequacies without embracing anti-Semitic perspectives.” This is not the place for a discussion of what the anti-Semitic perspectives on European Jewish life had in common with Zionist perspectives—how could they not have shared certain critiques, when both repudiated that life?—but I would point out that Mr. Levin is again creating a falsely simplistic dichotomy, this time between a “self-blaming” Zionist Left and a “self-affirming” Zionist Right as represented by Herzl. Would he care to guess, for example, who declared in 1899, when the Zionist Left hardly existed, that “Zionism is a kind of new Jewish care for the sick. We have stepped in as volunteer nurses, and we want to cure the patients—the poor, sick Jewish people—by means of a healthful way of life on our own ancestral soil”?
The answer is Theodor Herzl. And it was also Herzl, in an article in the Zionist organ Die Welt entitled “Mauschel” (a derogatory term for a haggling Jewish merchant—and by extension for Jews in general—used by German anti-Semites), who wrote in 1897 (I am quoting only a small part of the passage):
Who is this Mauschel anyway? A type, my dear friends, a figure that keeps reappearing over the ages, the hideous companion of the Jew and so inseparable from him that the two have always been confused with each other. A Jew is a human being like any other—no better and no worse, possibly intimidated and embittered by persecution, and very steadfast in suffering. Mauschel on the other hand is a distortion of human character, something unspeakably low and repugnant. . . . These irreconcilable, inexplicable antitheses make it seem as though at some dark moment in our history some inferior human material got into our unfortunate people and blended with it.
Was Herzl too, then, a self-hating Jew? Or was he simply describing what he, no less than the Zionist Left, took to be the deleterious effects of Diaspora life on his own people? This is something for Kenneth Levin to ponder.
To the Editor:
Algis Valiunas criticizes Ayn Rand’s “unlimited faith in reason,” complaining that “there are no mysteries in her world” [“Who Needs Ayn Rand?,” September]. She certainly did hold reason as an absolute—except, of course, that one cannot do so on “faith,” since the very concept of faith names a belief held in contrast to reason. Accordingly, she repudiated all forms of mysticism—from the subjectivism of the wanton emotionalist to the dogmatism of the fervent religionist. Mr. Valiunas suggests that Rand’s philosophy—Objectivism—is impractical, that it is born of “girlish daydreams” and ends in “utopian fantasy.” But which approach is actually disconnected from reality: one based strictly on reason and the world we perceive, or one based on blind faith and feelings? To endorse reason is to endorse principles—unequivocal, unbending standards. Though Mr. Valiunas criticizes Rand’s refusal to accept any watering down of what he concedes are her “fine ideas,” Rand’s opposition to compromise was . . . uncompromising. She held that man survives by using reason—not by using reason sometimes and unreason at other times.
In championing rational self-interest in ethics and laissez-faire capitalism in politics, Rand held that your life belongs entirely to you—not partly to your neighbor or partly to the state. Any attempt to compromise with one’s moral opposite, she argued—any attempt to find some “middle ground” between reason and mysticism, between egoism and altruism, between capitalism and statism—can achieve only the advancement of evil. Since Mr. Valiunas believes that one is not responsible for one’s own moral character, he insists that human interactions should be governed not by justice but by compassion—that is, the acknowledgment and forgiveness of moral failings. Thus, he derogates Rand for making sweeping judgments of certain people as “looting lice” or “subhuman creatures.” But how would he characterize such abject repudiators of reason as the Hurricane Katrina looters, or the creatures in Iraq who behead Americans to the gleeful chants of “Allahu akhbar,” or, even worse, the subhuman intellectuals who try to justify such irrationality? The one point on which Mr. Valiunas is completely correct is that Rand would indeed regard compassion for them as “a triumph of sloppy feeling over lucid reason.” Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism has had a vast cultural influence. On the centenary of her birth, she deserves to be celebrated by those who understand that the values on which man’s life depend—science, technology, production, progress, capitalism—require, at their root, an unwavering dedication to reason. Peter Schwartz Ayn Rand Institute Irvine, California To the Editor: Algis Valiunas’s scornful article on Ayn Rand was artfully crafted. It gives many details (not all of them correct) about Rand’s life and achievements and carefully avoids any discussion of the content of her philosophy. Let us consider the factual errors first. Ayn Rand’s name was not taken from her typewriter. Her husband Frank O’Connor was never an alcoholic, and though he was not an intellectual genius, he was a man of impeccable character. Rand did not reject her lover Nathaniel Branden out of jealousy, but because he spent many years deceiving her. She was not opposed to all charity.
Now let us consider what Mr. Valiunas fails to discuss: Rand’s stunning achievements in philosophy. (See L. Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.) She was the first philosopher: to identify and validate the axioms of philosophy; to validate free will and identify its actual nature; to present an objective theory of concept formation, a problem that had plagued philosophers for over two millennia; to tie fully logic to reality; to present an objective theory of ethics based on life as the ultimate standard; to validate (rational) egoism and show the anti-life nature of altruism; to prove that rationality was the highest virtue; to give the concept of individual rights an objective foundation; and to provide a moral defense for capitalism. She also developed a totally original theory of aesthetics, including an objective definition of art.
As for Mr. Valiunas’s claim that Rand is no longer a “commanding figure,” the exact opposite is true. The sales of her books have increased dramatically in recent years. There are now twenty Objectivists teaching at universities (up from only two some fifteen years ago), and the demand for them has outstripped the current supply. There are nine Objectivist programs at universities (up from zero several years ago), and more are in the wings. New books presenting Rand’s ideas are constantly being published. Her name has been mentioned favorably in Congress. A number of world leaders have read and admired her books. In short, she is commanding more respect than ever.
Edwin A. Locke Westlake Village, California To the Editor: Like too many critics, Algis Valiunas relies on tendentious accounts of Ayn Rand’s personal life, misstates events in her novels and public life, and ignores much of the evidence that demonstrates Rand’s importance, namely, her considerable nonfiction writing in such works as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Whether or not one agrees with Rand’s ideas, anyone familiar with the history of Western philosophy and with her own philosophy of Objectivism should recognize her as a major figure. But from Mr. Valiunas’s article one does not learn any of the arguments she advanced to support her philosophical system. He describes her arguments as “half-truth and alluring lunacy” without ever presenting them.
Ayn Rand was a radical thinker, who originated a new philosophical system that defends the absolutism of reason. Because she focused on the essential issues in philosophy and offered alternatives to millennium-old views and assumptions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics, her thought is of interest even to those it does not convince. Any serious student of fundamental ideas should take note of her arguments. Onkar Ghate Ayn Rand Institute Irvine, California To the Editor: Algis Valiunas expresses contempt for the reading public by smugly suggesting that the reason Ayn Rand’s works continue to sell is merely that “there are certain effects she pulls off as well as anyone.” He does not allow that almost 50 years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, over 100,000 readers per year might still find her ideas compelling.
More than anything else, Ayn Rand was an effective proselytizer on behalf of philosophy in general. She showed how our explicit ideas and implicit assumptions about arcane questions translate into economic and political policies. That her own philosophy may have been incorrect in many places is unimportant; Rand could dramatize the relation of philosophy to practical life in a way that young people first discovering ideas would probably never see from reading F.A. Hayek or Karl Popper. Peter Corey New York City To the Editor: Algis Valiunas’s essay on Ayn Rand is a smear job that says more about the state of American intellectuals today—particularly those of the Right—than it does about Rand or her philosophy of Objectivism.
During my years teaching Atlas Shrugged at a college in Ohio, I witnessed professors become unbuttoned psychologically when they learned that students were reading Rand’s work. That virtually all liberals fear the influence of Rand’s ideas is not surprising; Atlas Shrugged is arguably the most powerful critique of socialism ever written. But I saw even conservative professors intimidate and threaten students to prevent them from discussing her ideas. There is something in her philosophy that they fear. What is it? A few dislike Rand because she chose Athens over Jerusalem, reason over revelation. But there is something else.
Ayn Rand believed that America was the most moral society in world history. She also felt that the principles on which our country was founded were never properly defended philosophically from assaults by the likes of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. She therefore set out to defend reason, rational egoism, individual rights, constitutionalism, and capitalism as objectively true. Unlike conservatives, Rand did not rely on faith (including “faith” in reason), tradition, or folksy speeches to defend America. Perhaps conservatives fear her because they do not think America is defensible philosophically. C. Bradley Thompson Clemson University Clemson, South Carolina To the Editor: Algis Valiunas admits to relying on The Passion of Ayn Rand, “an admiring but clear-eyed biography by her disciple, Barbara Branden.” Yet Branden and her ex-husband Nathaniel were thoroughly excoriated and ditched by Ayn Rand in 1968 after she learned of their deceptions and moral turpitude. To present Branden as an impartial, objective biographer is outrageous. After decades of Rand-bashing by the likes of Mr. Valiunas, James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics has laid bare the Brandens’ profoundly unjust characterization. Critics are now faced with the daunting task of having to read Rand’s work firsthand.
Edwin R. Thompson New York City To the Editor: Judging by his article “Who Needs Ayn Rand?,” Algis Valiunas cannot get simple facts right and is a stranger to basic tools of research. Let me enumerate just a few of his factual errors. He claims that “in his youth” Alan Greenspan wrote for one of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist publications. But Greenspan, born in 1926, was thirty-six when his first essay for Rand appeared. Youth indeed! Mr. Valiunas claims that Rand’s novel We the Living was published in 1933; it actually appeared in 1936. He claims that “her educational foundation, the Ayn Rand Institute, helped spread the word,” but the Institute was created only after her death in 1982.
Mr. Valiunas’s claim that Ellsworth Toohey, the villain in The Fountainhead, hated the hero, Howard Roark, because of his “perfectionism,” is an indication that Mr. Valiunas has never actually read the novel, as is his absurd claim that Gail Wynand was “regenerated” at the end of it. One need only take a look at the closing pages of chapter 19 to read about Wynand’s total demoralization and despair. Discussing Atlas Shrugged, Mr. Valiunas refers to the “New Deal,” to “virtual Stalinism,” and to “Marxist imbeciles,” terms that have no relevance at all to the novel, which he apparently has not read, either.
But Mr. Valiunas’s greatest lapse of scholarship is his preposterous claim that Ayn Rand’s “centenary has gone largely unmarked.” In fact, more than 100 articles and a new biography have marked it, as anyone could easily discover by way of the Internet. Robert Hessen Hoover Institution Stanford, California Algis Valiunas writes: After one has cut through the Randites’ rant and pettifoggery—I will admit to having gotten wrong the publication date of Ayn Rand’s first novel—one serious question remains: the quality of her thought.
There is a crucial difference between being reasonable and having “unlimited faith in reason,” as Rand had. Socrates, that paragon of reason, famously declared that he knew what he did not know; this awareness of reason’s limitations distinguishes him from those pretending to knowledge they do not actually have. Rand is one of the pretenders: she believes—never proves—that human reason can answer every question, and that indeed her own philosophy does precisely that, once and for all. One can rave all one likes about her philosophical achievement, as her acolytes ceaselessly do, but the entire structure of her thought rests on a fundamental misconception. That misconception represents not only inadequate reasoning but the triumph of sloppy feeling over disinterested mind—the unpardonable failing in Rand’s own estimation.
In fact, Rand’s reasoning is founded on the very gobbledygook of imperious sentiment that she loathes as reason’s nemesis. She cannot demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God: rather, her pride tells her there cannot be a God, for to acknowledge that a perfect Being exists would be to admit her own inferiority, something her emotional constitution makes unthinkable. So she thought—more precisely, so she felt—at the age of fifteen, when she decided she was an atheist, and, as I noted in my article, she never really refined her basic thoughts or feelings on the matter. The glaring flaws in Rand’s metaphysics are fatal to her ethical and political thinking as well. Human beings in her view are entirely “self-made souls”: if there is no Creator, then man must be purely his own creation. But even reasonable atheists acknowledge that man is a creature who arrives on earth through no will of his own, and whose nature, both as a human being and as an individual, is circumscribed by genetic endowment and other inscrutable strokes of fate. Most individuals are of course responsible for their actions—there are exceptions among the mentally defective—but no man is sole master of his destiny. That every man simply makes himself what he is by virtue of right or wrong reasoning, as Rand asserts, is a half-truth at best, and one that, as I showed, plunged her into ridiculous thought and sordid behavior. But Rand has no idea what being reasonable means, and no sense of men as creatures, each graced—whether by chance or design—with his own particular gifts, lacking others he may wish he had, and subject to all the pains of his individual nature and of human nature. That is why her world has the moral clarity of horse opera, with all the heroes on her side and all the villains on the other. As a champion of American democracy, finally, Rand is blind to the foremost democratic virtue, namely, compassion. She claims that reason scorns compassion, but that which she despises is in fact rooted in human rationality. Compassionate men of faith accept their gifts as an obligation to help others less gifted, while compassionate agnostics or atheists recognize that chance has a great deal to do with their own excellence, achievement, and prosperity, and, at best, they pity those whom fortune has not dealt with so generously. There are of course reasonable limits to compassion: no one can be held responsible for everyone else, nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition, and some individuals are so depraved by their own choices that they deserve no compassion from others. But Rand sees compassion as simply evil, an unreasonable obstacle to the pursuit of happiness by nature’s aristocrats, who owe everything to themselves and nothing to anyone else. In this sense, too, her failure as a writer and thinker is her failure as a human being, and her idea of what life should be is inimical to life itself.