Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Hero of Freedom, RIP

I heard last night that Aleksander Solzhenitsyn had died late that on that day, August 3, 2008.
Like all of us, he had his flaws. But he had strong moral courage in standing up against the enslavement of the masses by the communist tyranny of the USSR. For that he paid a huge price, partly in the form of the years of forced labor in the prison camps that he carefully documented in his massive The Gulag Archipelago. (I must admit that I never read The Gulag, although I believe my father, to his credit, read every page.)
I remember my mentor Ben Rogge reading The First Circle and highly recommending it to us. The book’s title is based on Dante’s Inferno which describes the nine circles of hell, where each successive circle assigns increasingly horrendous eternal punishments, for those guilty of increasingly terrible sins. In the first circle, good people born before Jesus, are allowed to pursue their interests much as they had on earth. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for instance, engage in eternal dialogue.
In Solzhenitsyn’s version, Stalin allows a group of scientists to have better living conditions, and somewhat more freedom than ordinary Soviet citizens, so long as the scientists make progress on projects that enable Stalin to extend his power.
One of the revelations in the book is that those who imposed the tyranny, had motives that were not always evil. One bureaucratic candidate for villainy, for instance, did bad things, in order to protect his family. At the top there is Stalin, but he is portrayed as insane.
The point is one that Rogge often made—people are pretty much the same everywhere. What mainly explains the differences in different societies are different institutions that provide differing incentives and constraints.
It is a fitting tribute to Solzhenitsyn that the first unabridged English translation of The First Circle will soon be published.
I salute Solzhenitsyn for his insights, and even more, for his courage at standing up against an evil system.

William F. Buckley, Jr. Will Be Missed

BuckleyWilliam.jpg“William F. Buckley Jr. in 2004.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary cited below.
I write on Weds., Feb. 27th, at about 1:30 PM. As I ate an early lunch a couple of hours ago, I was listening to U.S. Senate speeches on C-SPAN. After a good speech on Iraq by Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Joe Lieberman appeared and interupted the proceedings, asking the Senate’s indulgence for him to speak for 10 minutes on a special topic.
He announced that William F. Buckley, Jr. had passed away today (2/27/08); and then he delivered a heartfelt, sometimes humorous, and wholly appropriate tribute to Buckley.
I have mentioned a couple of my favorite Buckley stories in an earlier entry.
Lieberman emphasized that Buckley cared about ideas, and that is most important to emphasize. Listening to Buckley speak was entertaining, and educational.
Strange what we remember–when I think of Buckley, the following episode always comes to mind.
Sometime while I was an undergraduate at Wabash (1971-1974), my mentor Ben Rogge arranged to have his friend Bill Buckley give a speech on campus. Ths speech was paid for by another of Rogge’s friends, Pierre Goodrich, the founder of Liberty Fund.
After the speech there was to be a special reception for members of the John Van Sickle Club, the small libertarian club on campus, of which I was a member.
The speech was well-attended, and some non-members of the Club got wind of the reception and tried to gain admittance. They were turned away, and were miffed, and complained.
The issue made it into the college newspaper, and I wrote a letter to the editor defending the John Van Sickle Club, using one of Rogge’s favorite sayings: “he who pays the piper, calls the tune.”
Some of the details are fuzzy, but I ended up in Rogge’s office, and heard from him that he was not happy with my letter. He felt that Goodrich might be embarrassed by the campus turmoil on the issue.
I remember feeling devasted that Rogge was annoyed with me. I apologized profusely (although I still think I had a point). Rogge must have seen my cresfallen appearance, because he changed his tone and ended the conversation by saying that I shouldn’t worry about it, because Goodrich probably would never see the newspaper article and letters, anyway.

The online version of the New York Times obituary for Buckley is at:
DOUGLAS MARTIN. “William F. Buckley Jr. Is Dead at 82.” The New York Times (Weds., February 27, 2008): ?.


Puzzle: Entrepreneurial Silicon Valley Donates Mainly to Democrats

 

    Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Entrepreneurship thrives when government is small, so it puzzles me when the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley embrace the Democrats, who generally advocate bigger government.
Of course, my Wabash professor Ben Rogge used to point out that there are always cross-currents that go in a different direction from the mainstream. And among the Democrats, there are what used to be called “new Democrats” who appreciate Schumpeter, and entrepreneurship, and dynamism.
Plus, some Democrats are more respectful of personal, lifestyle choices, and in Silicon Valley, that may be what is given the most weight.
Or, more cynically, maybe there’s a public choice explanation—that Silicon Valley donates to Democrats as a form of ‘insurance,’ in the hope that if the Democrats are elected, they will refrain from over-regulating and over-taxing Silicon Valley. (Even more cynically, compare the case of Florida’s sugar-subsidy-rich Fanjul brothers, one of whom donated huge bucks to the first Bush, while another donated huge bucks to Bill Clinton.)
(Another factor is that, alas, entrepreneurs often do not pay much attention to what conditions encourage entrepreneurship.)

(p. C4)  In a flip from the primary season for the 2000 presidential election, 60 percent of the contributions so far from people in the technology field here are going to Democrats. The Democratic candidates raised $1.4 million from the industry in the first half of this year, while Republican candidates raised $890,000. That total is up from $1.2 million in the first six months of each of the last two presidential primary races.

 

For the full story, see: 

LAURIE J. FLYNN.  "In Primary, Tech’s Home Is a Magnet." The New York Times  (Fri., August 24, 2007):  C1 & C4.

 

Pyramids Can Take Many Forms: More on Why Africa is Poor

 

My Wabash economics prof Ben Rogge used to say that rulers have always liked to spend the people’s money to build pyramids intended to proclaim the glory of the ruler.  But in modern times the rulers have to be a tad more subtle than the Egyptians, so, for instance, in Brazil they build Brazilia, instead of actual pyramids. 

And according to the story below, summarized from the May 2007 IEEE Spectrum, in Africa, they build large dams.

 

Small dams could help deliver electricity to much of Africa’s population, but since they lack the prestige of larger-scale projects, few of them get built.

. . .

In Uganda, which has plenty of rivers and streams to supply power, Mr. Zachary describes how a small water-power generator, supplied by a small nearby dam, delivers 60 kilowatts of energy to a nearby hospital. The generator would barely be enough to run a single magnetic-resonance imaging machine, a staple in Western hospitals. But it does provide enough power to light the hospital and keep basic equipment running for the 100 nurses and doctors who work there. The entire generation system cost $15,000 to build.

Still, Africa’s leaders are unlikely to abandon their preference for big public works, says Mr. Zachary, since they create thousands of construction jobs and reinforce the political might of the central government. 

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; ENERGY; Small Dams Might Help to Electrify Africa."  The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 8, 2007):  B10. 

(Note:  ellipsis added; the original article in IEEE Spectrum is by G. Pascal Zachary.)

 

Dinner with Hayek

 

Recently (6/10/07) at dinner with a group of foreign graduate students at George Mason University, I learned that one of the students was from Venezuela, and so I mentioned to her that one of my friends during my graduate student days at the University of Chicago had been from Venezuela, and that he had been responsible for bring F.A. Hayek to speak at the University.  When I said his name was “Cartea,” she said that she had had a professor named Cartea who was an admirer of Hayek, but who had unfortunately died in an accident a few years ago.

This was surprising and distressing news.

Cartea had charisma, and was not afraid to use it.  He was not always a model of responsible behavior, but he had such child-like enthusiasm, that it was hard to be mad at him for long.  One of his main weaknesses is that he loved books.  Often he would bring me his latest purchase from the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, hold it up, and say in his inimitable accent and cadence:  “Pure Gold!”    

In Chicago, I had a car, and Cartea did not.  He asked if I would drive him to pick up Hayek and Hayek’s wife at the airport.  When we got to the airport, Cartea was hungry and wanted to stop and get a hamburger.  I thought it was not prudent to take the time to do this, but Cartea was insistent, and we stopped. 

We ended up getting to the gate just barely by the time of the Hayeks’ scheduled arrival (these were the innocent pre-terrorism days when you could actually meet guests at their gate).  But to our dismay, we learned that the flight at arrived early, and apparently Hayek had grabbed a cab to the University.

So we drove to the Center for Continuing Education where the Hayeks were staying.  There we learned that they had headed to the then-best restaurant in Hyde Park, called something like the “Courtyard.” 

At some point along the way, while still in the airport I think, Cartea purchased a single rose.  We walked into the restaurant, and found the Hayeks.  And then, with a charm that I could admire, but not imitate, he flamboyantly presented the rose to Mrs. Hayek, to her obvious delight.  (I do not remember what he said, or how he explained-away our absence from at the airport—I do remember that the word “hamburger” did not pass his lips.

The pleased Hayek invited us to join them for dinner.  We did.  It was just me, Cartea, and the Hayeks, and it stuns me to think that of the four, only I am still alive.

I would like to be able to report that some deep issues of classical liberal political theory were discussed, but if they were, I have no memory of that.  My memory is that the discussion was mainly of a personal, small-talk variety.  For example, one or both of the Hayeks had long wanted to view a solar eclipse, so they had recently flown to somewhere in the world where such an eclipse had occurred.

And I remember Hayek teasing Mrs. Hayek for delaying their being together by marrying someone else before Hayek, and I remember her teasing him back that he should have made his intentions clear earlier.  (This was the second Mrs. Hayek; at some point I learned that he had divorced the first Mrs. Hayek.)

I only have a couple of other memories of this visit of Hayek to Chicago.  One was when (the next day?) Cartea had me drive Hayek to a press conference downtown.  Hayek thought I was going the wrong way, and was annoyed.  I was pretty sure I was going the right way (and it turned out I was right), but it was stressful for a graduate student to be disagreeing with an insistent, and highly admired, Nobel-prize-winner.

Another disjointed memory is that sometime during the visit I asked him to sign my copy of the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty.  This he did with a disdainful frown, seeming to be annoyed that I would bother him with such a foolish request.

 

(Note one:  I do not remember when the dinner described above occurred, although it could be learned; I bet David Theroux of the Independent Institute would remember.  I was at the University of Chicago from the fall of 1974 through the spring of 1981; and I think the Hayek visit occurred sometime during the latter half of this period.)

(Note two:  this was not the first time I had encountered Hayek.  I drove down to St. Louis with Joe Cobb and another libertarian Chicago student whose name I regrettably cannot remember.  I believe that it was on this occasion that I had a good talk with Phylis Schlafly’s son, who made an articulate economic argument against patents; I think he even gave me an article by someone to bolster his case.  Ben Rogge introduced Hayek.  What I remember about the introduction was that in part of it, Rogge made a polite, but strong, swipe at Ayn Rand, saying I think, that Hayek’s thinking was a much sounder grounding for a libertarian philosophy.  Rogge knew I was a strong Rand enthusiast, so I imagined that he was making the comment mainly for my benefit.  Before the introduction, Rogge offered to take me over to introduce me to Murray Weidenbaum, who was at the event.  I regret that out of some temporary shyness, I declined the offer.  Anyway, on the way back from St. Louis, the discussion was so intense and interesting that I neglected to attend to the gasoline indicator, and we ran out of gas in some small town in Illinois.  I managed to get us to the town gas station, but it was closed because the owner, and all employees, were attending some local social function.  We ended up having to stay overnight in this God-forsaken berg.  Joe was very mad at me.)

(Note three:  the blog entry above was written on 6/11/07.)

 

Communist Dictator Chavez Destroys Freedom of the Press in Venezuela

 

   Supporters of freedom in Venezuela protesting communist dictator Chavez’s shutting down the television network that dared to criticize him.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article that is quoted and cited below. 

 

My Wabash College economics professor, Ben Rogge, used to say that political freedom ultimately depended on economic freedom:  how could you depend on a socialist government to provide a printing press to those who seek to undermine socialism?

(In his article "The Case for Economic Freedom" published in his Can Capitalism Survive? Rogge gives credit for the argument to his friend Milton Friedman in his Capitalism and Freedom, which was based on lectures given at Wabash.)

Well, if there is a heaven, I can imagine Rogge there, reading the following passages, and reacting with his sad, knowing, half-smile.

 

(p. A3)  CARACAS, Venezuela, May 27 — With little more than an hour to go late Sunday until this country’s oldest television network was to be taken off the air after 53 years of broadcasting, the police dispersed thousands of protesters by firing tear gas into demonstrations against the measure.

. . .

The president has defended the RCTV decision, saying that the network supported a coup that briefly removed him from office in 2002.

RCTV’s news programs regularly deride Mr. Chávez’s Socialist-inspired transformation of Venezuelan society. “RCTV lacks respect for the Venezuelan people,” said Onán Mauricio Aristigueta, 46, a messenger at the National Assembly who showed up to support the president.

Mr. Chávez has left untouched the operations of other private broadcasters who were also critical of him at the time of the 2002 coup but who have changed editorial policies to stop criticizing his government. That has led Mr. Chávez’s critics to claim that the move to allow RCTV’s license to expire amounts to a stifling of dissent in the news media.

“The other channels don’t say anything,” said Elisa Parejo, 69, an actress who was one of RCTV’s first soap opera stars. “What we’re living in Venezuela is a monstrosity,” she said at RCTV’s headquarters on Sunday, as employees gathered for an on-air remembrance of the network’s history. “It is a dictatorship.”

 

For the full story, see: 

SIMON ROMERO.  "Dueling Protests Over Shutdown of Venezuela TV Station."  The New York Times  (Mon., May 28, 2007):  A3.

(Note: the excerpts above are from the updated online version of the article that appeared online under the title: "Venezuela Police Repel Protests Over TV Network’s Closing.")

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

On 5/28/07 CNN broadcast a Harris Whitbeck report on students protesting the Chavez censorship under the title "Hear No Evil, See No Evil."

 

   Monica Herrero protests Chavez closing down the television network that dared to criticize his government.  Source of photo:  screen capture from the CNN report at http://www.cnn.com/video/partners/clickability/index.html?url=/video/world/2007/05/28/whitbeck.chavez.tv.affl

 

Better than Socialism, but Not Free Market Enough: More on Why Africa is Poor

 

     Voters in line to vote for President in Senegal on 2/25/07.   Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

My old Wabash professor Ben Rogge used to say that rulers liked to build pyramids to proclaim their glory.  He mentioned the Egyptian pyramids, and he mentioned the whole government-created capital city of "Brasilia" in Brazil. 

When rulers in a poor country invest a lot of tax money in infrastructure, such as roads, how much of that is due to their belief in mistaken economic theories, and how much to their wanting to build their own version of the pyramids? 

In either case, at least it can be said that the people probably benefit more from their taxes being used to build roads, than from their taxes being used to build pyramids.  At least the roads can be complementary to transporting goods, and to the mobility of labor. 

But the people would benefit even more if they could keep the tax money to use for their own purposes.

 

(p. A3) DAKAR, Senegal, Feb. 25 — Moudou Gueye was confident that Senegal’s presidential election on Sunday would turn around his fortunes, at least in the short term.

Seven years ago he voted for Abdoulaye Wade, a rabble-rousing professor who, after decades in opposition to Socialist Party rule, sailed into office buoyed by the votes of frustrated young people like Mr. Gueye, who is now 32. They hoped that Mr. Wade, a free-market liberal, would transform this impoverished nation’s economy, which had been stunted by generations of ineffective central planning.

. . .

. . .   Senegal has had relatively robust economic growth that has hovered at around 5 percent over several years (it was lower last year, owing in part to high fuel prices, according to government officials), compared with the 1 percent achieved during much of the Socialist era, and dozens of huge public works projects.

While in some ways the country is better off, economic growth and a building binge have not produced large numbers of jobs in a country struggling to make the transition from an agrarian society based largely on peanut farming to one that harnesses the wealth of a global economy.

. . .

Countering criticism that Mr. Wade is too old to serve another term — his official age is given as 80, but many people suspect he is older — his daughter, Sindiély, who has worked as a special assistant to the president, said he was as sharp and agile as ever.

“It is not a question of age,” Ms. Wade said as she waited to cast her vote in downtown Dakar. “It is a question of dynamism and ideas and what you have planned for your country.”

Along Dakar’s seaside roadway, young men marveled at the cars whizzing below a brand-new overpass, one of Mr. Wade’s long-anticipated public works projects.

Pap Ndiaye, an 18-year-old street vendor who sells baby clothes to people stalled in traffic, said the newly completed road was a sign that the country was moving in the right direction.

“Wade has done a lot for this country,” Mr. Ndiaye said. “Our hope is that he will stay and finish his work.”

Less than a mile away, the road abruptly ends with a bright yellow sign that says “déviation,” or detour. With a hard turn to the right, drivers pour off the broad new highway, and back into the tangled, chaotic streets of one of Dakar’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods.

 

For the full story, see: 

LYDIA POLGREEN.  "Senegalese Vote Hinges on Views of Economic Growth."  The New York Times  (Mon., February 26, 2007):  A3.

(Note:  ellipses added.)