Stephen Speicher

Rob Tracinski on "What Went Right?"

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==========NOTE FROM THE MODERATOR==========

I placed this thread in limbo when Rob Tracinski informed me that he had not given permission to a blogger to republish Rob's essays. Rob has now made those essays available on his own website, so I am now resurrecting this thread. The improper pointers are in strikeout and the proper ones I have inserted within brackets, with wording in blue.

When reading this thread please make note of Rob Tracinski's "Author's Note" which prefaces the web version of his essays. To his credit Rob has reworded and clarified some of the more contentious passages, so a number of objections voiced in the following posts no longer apply. Hopefully we can all now better focus on the positive aspects of his essays. I also note that Rob has made some non-essential editing changes throughout.

So, below is my original post, and all of the follow-up posts, and the thread is open for discussion again.

========END NOTE FROM THE MODERATOR=========

I must confess to not having read Rob Tracinski's writings for some time. Nothing personal involved, and not a judgment of Rob, but simply that my main interests lie in areas different from his. But, after reading some recent smears and personal attacks made against him in comments on Diana Hsieh's Noodlefood blog and other forums, I decided to take the time and read the recent series of essays referred to by his attackers.

It is my understanding that the first three parts of an intended six-part series have been made available for general viewing with Rob's permission. "What Went Right?" Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 [The first two parts are here, and Part 3 starts here]. Also relevant, A Note From Robert Tracinski.[Not currently available.]

I have now read this material and though I think there are some important identifications made in these pieces, my overarching concern is with what may be misunderstandings or confusions about Objectivism on Rob's part (or, at least, views presented that are in conflict with my own understanding of the philosophy). I do not here want to discuss the positive aspects of these pieces, nor do I want to dissect the negative ones. I just want to highlight what is perhaps the single most egregious point of my disagreement. (Note that the formatting in the reproduced copies of Rob's essays is not complete, and I have adjusted those in what follows):

Philosophy does have an indispensable role to play. It provides a crucial context for valid work in specialized fields, a context that provides the specialist with guidance on his basic method and with basic principles about the nature of the world and the nature of man. But philosophy does not and cannot dictate the content of a specialized field. A specialist cannot produce knowledge within his own field simply by "reading off" results from the assumptions taught to him by philosophers.

Unfortunately, that has been an implication of the standard Objectivist interpretation of the role of ideas in history. Here, for example, is how Leonard Peikoff describes it in his epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Philosophy is not the only cause of the course of the centuries. It is the ultimate cause, the cause of all the other causes.... The books of philosophers are the beginning. Step by step, the books turn into motives, passions, statues, politicians, and headlines.

This is a kind of trickle-down theory of intellectual influence, in which the philosopher is the originator and only source of the ideas that drive the course of history, while the public intellectuals and the men in the specialized sciences are mere transmitters and translators of those ideas.

Even without the material elided from the Peikoff quote, the quote itself does not imply what Rob has claimed, namely that philosophy dictates the content of a specialized field, or that a specialist in a field produces knowledge simply by "reading off" results from the assumptions taught to him by philosophers.

I am at a loss to explain how Rob can extract his conclusion from the quoted material provided. It may very well be that some Objectivists in some instances have done just what Rob claims -- I myself have seen some similarities in how some Objectivists deal with science -- but the Peikoff quote is not illustrative of this, nor do I think that Objectivism per se can validly be characterized as such. In my view, I do not think that Rob serves the purpose of his critque -- to the extent that his critque makes valid points -- by examples such as these.

To be fair, Rob does lend some perspective to his first three essays in the "Note" that I referenced above, where he states, in what seems to be a very direct and honest manner, the sense in which some of what he presents is still being developed in his own mind. And, he does promise evidence in future essays to back up his claims. Personally, I will hold off final judgment until Rob presents his full case, but I am rather disappointed with, and strongly disagree with, the evidence that has so far been presented. These are claims of import and substance, and they demand nothing less than completely accurate and precise evidence in support, which, so far, in my view, is lacking in these essays.

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I was going to add a commentary on the three articles published so far, but you had said that you don't want to discuss neither the negative nor the positive aspects, and to merely focus on the articles' relation to Objectivism proper. I agree with you that, though I personally find Tracinski's integrations (in regards to history, not Objectivism) fascinating and profound, the quip about Objectivism was unnecessary and overstated its case. It has been unnecessary ever since Dr. Peikoff released the Induction lectures (or perhaps ever since the release of Understanding Objectivism, from what others tell me about it), all of which explicitly put Objectivism on an inductive footing. Rationalism, in the isolated instances where it may sometimes be found, should be addressed in those isolated cases exclusively, without drawing the larger philosophy into the conundrum.

I hope Tracinski's articles are less about Objectivism and more about the importance of common-man thinking, and the relationship between intellectuals and the everyday people. As of Article 3, it is still unclear which direction he intends to go with all this, so we'll have to wait for the rest of the articles to find out.

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I was going to add a commentary on the three articles published so far, but you had said that you don't want to discuss neither the negative nor the positive aspects ...

Oh, maybe I was not clear. I had no intention of limiting discussion by members. I meant that I, personally, in my initial post, did not want to focus on anything but the one overarching concern that I expressed. You and others are certainly welcome to discuss Rob's series in this thread. In fact, I was sort of surprised that no one had done so. So, please, feel free to comment. Depending on what is said, I may participate too.

It has been unnecessary ever since Dr. Peikoff released the Induction lectures (or perhaps ever since the release of Understanding Objectivism, from what others tell me about it), all of which explicitly put Objectivism on an inductive footing.

I personally would not put Peikoff's induction lectures anywhere near the level of Understanding Objectivism. The latter is Objectivism, but not the former. And, Objectivism is already "on an inductive footing." Perhaps you mean the "Objectivist solution to the problem of induction," which words were removed from the course description. I also seem to recall that Peikoff stated in the induction lectures that his theory was not official Objectivism. Anyway, this is far afield from the thread topic, so let's put this aspect of things aside.

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In fact, I was sort of surprised that no one had done so. So, please, feel free to comment.

I was out of town over the weekend so have not had a chance to think about his essays other than my initial readings. One issue that I am thinking about is how do Objectivist intellectuals separate their theories and hypothesis from Objectivism? How should these new theories be classified? I do not think Neo-Objectivism would be appropriate.

As an expert in teaching snowboarding, I am troubled about some of the claims Rob Tracinski is making. Over the weekend, I made some new discoveries and applied these discoveries while training some new snowboard instructors. The integrations I made I attribute to the philosophy that I use on a daily basis not inspite of it. I look forward to his future essays on this subject.

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One issue that I am thinking about is how do Objectivist intellectuals separate their theories and hypothesis from Objectivism? How should these new theories be classified? I do not think Neo-Objectivism would be appropriate.

They should be classified for what they are: someone's theory. It would be proper for the originator to state his intellectual debt to Objectivism, and to state that, in his judgment, his theory is consistent with Objectivism, but it would not be proper to claim it AS Objectivism, which is, properly, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

With this, let's please put this aside and focus instead on Rob Tracinski's essays.

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As an expert in teaching snowboarding, I am troubled about some of the claims Rob Tracinski is making. Over the weekend, I made some new discoveries and applied these discoveries while training some new snowboard instructors. The integrations I made I attribute to the philosophy that I use on a daily basis not inspite of it. I look forward to his future essays on this subject.

I think this highlights a crucial issue, namely the process by which knowledge is achieved. On the one hand, RT acknowledges the role of philosophy in providing the framework by which knowledge in a specialized field is induced from the facts of reality. He says:

Philosophy does have an indispensable role to play. It provides a crucial context for valid work in specialized fields, a context that provides the specialist with guidance on his basic method and with basic principles about the nature of the world and the nature of man.

Though these words could certainly be amplified and extended, they do provide a succinct identification -- a bare framework -- on the role of philosophy. After all, Miss Rand herself characterized philosophy and stated its relation to the specialized fields thus:

Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man's relationship to existence. As against the special sciences, which deal only with particular aspects, philosophy deals with those aspects of the universe which pertain to everything that exists. In the realm of cognition, the special sciences are the trees, but philosophy is the soil which makes the forest possible.

In essence, RT's statement above seems in accord with Miss Rand's own stated view.

But, then, consider this:

Any valid new observation or theory in a specialized field is based on an immersion in facts and observations, and on a whole range of lesser integrations and preliminary conclusions derived from those observations. Thus, there is a very important sense in which specialized knowledge is independent of philosophy. It is independent because it is based on and integrated directly from observation of reality. It is induced up from the facts, not deduced down from philosophical principles.

This last sentence is unquestionably correct; said another way, we look to reality for the facts, we do not deduce the facts of reality from philosophy. But, then again, all new knowledge stems from the facts of reality, including philosophical knowledge. However, RT's use of "independent" in the penultimate sentence and the sentence preceeding that one, is, at best, confusing, and, at worst, entirely mistaken.

The most generous interpretation I can make of the statement "specialized knowledge is independent of philosophy," is "independent" in the sense of not direct, of not springing forth from philosophy. But that interpretation would seem to make those sentences redundant, being restatements of the repeated point made regarding inductions from the facts of reality.

Unfortunately, RT's further statements on this do not help clarify his meaning for me.

Historically, it was only on the basis of the early achievements of science that men were even able to conceive of such a field as epistemology. It was only on the basis of the achievements of science that philosophers were able to distinguish reason as a method distinct from reliance on authority or claims of divine revelation, and it is only on the basis of the continued and unchallengeable achievements of science that it was possible to claim that reason is the only valid method of acquiring knowledge.

If these thoughts are meant as support for the notion that "specialized knowledge is independent of philosophy," then I think at least one major point is being overlooked. The philosophy by which one operates can be implicit, and an implicit philosophy is not the same thing as operating "independent of philosophy." To the extent that early knowledge was formed it was formed by the use of reason, whether the knowledge of and adherence to reason was implicit or explicit. It is true that the field of epistemology, the study of knowledge, certainly did not appear spontaneously as an abstraction in some philosophically-minded person. But, epistemological issues, like all knowledge, are first and foremost tied to reality, and even when epistemological issues are not yet formed explicitly in terms of fully-formed and broad-ranging concepts, they are implicit in the myriad of choices made in the achievements of science that RT refers to above. This can be true today, just as it was true then. To wit, the many reality-oriented reason-guided physicists who are in direct touch with reality in their work, achieving fantastic successes advancing scientific knowledge as never before, yet who, apart from their work, may hold the most silly philosophical notions explicitly.

So, at least for me, I await further clarification from RT as to the full meaning of his statement "specialized knowledge is independent of philosophy." I want to add, though, that I am very sympathetic to RT's frequently offered and eloquently stated recognition of and urging towards the importance of paying attention to the facts of reality, and for explicating and making the process real. As I said in my first post, I do not think that Objectivism per se, or Miss Rand in particular, can validly be critiqued for failing to recognize and adhere to such an approach. However, Objectivists themselves are people, and RT's several criticisms may indeed have validity there. I can speak with firsthand knowledge of some Objectivists who, in effect, determine in their own minds how the world of science and its particpants SHOULD be, based on their understanding of the underlying cultural philosophy, rather than looking at the facts and seeing what the world of science IS, and what those scientists ARE, in fact. But, this is an error of specicific people who misuse Objectivism, not an error of the philosophy itself.

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The issue is specifying the role philosophy plays in the development of other, more specialized fields. In making observations of concrete facts (e.g., identifying new species of animals in zoology or observations of new planets in astronomy) as well as inducing new principles (e.g., Newton's laws in physics or Say's law in economics) the initial focus is on the relevant concretes. As a secondary step, this new knowledge must be integrated with existing knowledge. Part of this existing knowledge is explicit philosophy, in terms of both content and method. For instance, a new law of economics must be integrated with our philosophical knowledge of the nature of man, and the method for proving this law and for establishing evidence for it must align with a rational epistemological theory and the metaphysical axioms. If there is a contradiction, then one's premises should be checked: is the new idea mistaken, or is the philosophical principle?

This is not a process of deriving the content for the specialized field from philosophy directly, a la rationalism. Rather, philosophy serves as a guide and referee for the content, as a means of integrating particular new knowledge with the whole of one's conceptual context. This process puts reality first, and integration with the rest of one's knowledge second.

I think this is what RT had in mind, but I could be mistaken. Upon close examination, it is unclear.

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Even without the material elided from the Peikoff quote, the quote itself does not imply what Rob has claimed, namely that philosophy dictates the content of a specialized field, or that a specialist in a field produces knowledge simply by "reading off" results from the assumptions taught to him by philosophers.

I am at a loss to explain how Rob can extract his conclusion from the quoted material provided.

Yes, I'm not sure why it was necessary for RT to claim that Objectivism holds the view you summarize above in order to make his point. His idea that knowledge in specialized fields is gained through direct observation of reality and identifying facts, relationships, principles, etc. is undoubtedly true. But I don't see how this deviates from Objectivism, especially given the full Peikoff quote and quotes from Ayn Rand others have pointed out. It seems like an odd mistake.

However, I think your point in a separate post about a possible equivocation between an implicit philosophy and independence from philosophy makes sense. HB made a similar point in his recent posts on HBL when he asked (paraphrased here), who would actually exert the necessary effort to understand some aspect of reality if he honestly believed that reality is a chaotic flux and/or reason isn't capable of understanding it?

In other words, man cannot escape the need for or power of philosophy in his life; he has no choice about that, as it is part of his nature as a conceptual and volitionally conscious being. Even scientists who hold their philosophies almost entirely at a subconscious level nevertheless hold a philosophy, and act on it.

I, too, will await further clarification and support for the idea that Objectivism is at odds with the ideas that RT is putting forth.

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That philosophy is fundamental and indispensible (even if held implicitly) can be seen by thinking of the effects of bringing Western science and technology to backward cultures. The Middle East practically screams out as a real world example. There you have the products of the highest tech available, in many places, including advanced TV broadcasts - pumping out the most virulently anti-civilization religious insanity (see http://www.memritv.org/). Or think of the Nazis in one of the most industrially advanced countries on earth at the time. Or Chinese communists in a country exploding with industrial activity.

I think the idea that specialized sciences are sufficient on their own, can be a rationalization of the desire to see the world improved simply by the spread of advanced technology without a rational framework for its development and use. Ayn Rand addressed this brilliantly with "Project X" in Atlas Shrugged. Stadler was a real genius but failed to grasp the power of philosophy, unlike Galt - and that was his (and a great many others') undoing.

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I have just completed a quick internet survey of 'Armed Conflicts in the 20th Century.' I need more time before I provide links, but I think RT's assertion below is incorrect. I am wondering what sources he has used to conclude that 'the number of armed conflicts across the globe, and the number of people killed in them, has dramatically decreased.' My brief survey indicates that armed conflicts have changed from state to state conflicts and are now predominately civil wars.

The Non-Collapse Of Civilization

TIA Daily • November 7, 2006

What Went Right?

Part 1: The Collapse of the Collapse of Civilization by Robert Tracinski

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, war has collapsed: the number of armed conflicts across the globe, and the number of people killed in them, has dramatically decreased.

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Not that it's a major point, and I don't know about the number of armed conflicts, but I don't see anywhere near the millions killed in WWI and WWII being killed in the last 40 years. The numbers are generally in the hundreds or thousands at most are they not?

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Not that it's a major point, and I don't know about the number of armed conflicts, but I don't see anywhere near the millions killed in WWI and WWII being killed in the last 40 years. The numbers are generally in the hundreds or thousands at most are they not?

Wars and Genocides of the 20th Century

1998-: Congo/Zaire's war - Rwanda and Uganda vs Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (3.8 million)

1983-2002: Sudanese civil war (2 million)

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1971:

After a well organized military buildup in East Pakistan the military launched its campaign. No more than 267 days later they had succeeded in killing perhaps 1,500,000 people, created 10,000,000 refugees who had fled to India, provoked a war with India, incited a counter-genocide of 150,000 non-Bengalis, and lost East Pakistan.
http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP8.HTM

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Apologies in advance for the length of this post. I wanted to get all of my thoughts down so I could address what I think is the heart of the Tracinski's argument. I think Tracinski makes a number of interesting observations though I don't think he is drawing the correct conclusions from them.

I want to start by clarifying the argument as I understand it (without endorsing any of the premises at this stage,so that I can at least determine if there is a shared understanding of his argument.)

Peikoff says in OPAR with respect to the role of philosophy in history:

Philosophy determines the essentials, not details. If men act on certain principles (and choose not to rethink them), the actors will reach the end result logically inherent in those principles. Philosophy does not, however, determine all the concrete forms a principle can take, or the oscillations within a progression, or the time intervals among its steps. Philosophy determines only the basic direction -- and outcome.

Tracinski is arguing that the direction of the world has improved since the 1980s, but there has not been a corresponding change in philosophical trends. His conclusion that something in additional to philosophy can determine the basic direction of history.

I think where he is going is that one can have an economist (to use one of his examples) who is not an Objectivist or who may mixed or entirely mistaken metaphysical or epistemological premises who still comes to a conclusion that coincides with a correct conclusion derived from wholy objective premises. When these true principles are applied, their effect is beneficial because they are true, even if the economist (or intellectual) grounds them in shaky foundations.

Is such an economist a net plus to the world or a net minus? Tracinski is arguing that it is a net positive and that their contributions can also effect the basic direction of world events. Moreover, we are not simply seeing one such economist, but to Tracinski, we are seeing trends in enough areas that it is not simply an oscillation or a mere coincidence that so many positive developments are happening all at once.

I think he also believes that some Objectivists unfairly downplay the contribution of these individuals because they have mixed or outright bad premises.

At least this is how I understand the underlying issue of Parts 1 through 3 (which is all that is available at this point).

I am not quite sure where attempt to separate the specialized sciences from philosophy fits in and I am not even sure it is necessary to address the underlying issues.

***

I have been trying to come up with a concise evaluation of the argument, but even after a few days of thinking about it, I don't think I have a complete and integrated response to all of the issues raised, but this what I have brainstormed.

What went right was that individuals with mixed premised came up with conclusions that coincide with reality. and have created, at least a short term benefit.

It was not "accounted for" by Objectivists because, in specific instances, you can still come up with the right answer to a question even if your analysis is all wrong. For instance, if someone with poor math skills says that 1+2+3 equals 6, the statement is still true, even if such a person reasons that 1+2 is 4 and 4+3 is 6. One wouldn't ordinary suppose someone with such poor skills would ever come upon anything true in arithmetic. But the fact that I would not anticipate that such an individual would come across the right conclusion is not my failure.

Where I think I take issue with the argument (at least my understanding of it) is that the direction of history in the long run has changed. I concede that the positive development (and not all of the developments in the last 25 years are positive) are not a blip. The question is, in the absence of a reality grounded philosophy, are they sustainable. Classical economics gave us the Industrial Revolution, but the utilitarian moral foundation was defenseless as interventionist and socialist challenged it. Hence, the England of today.

So that while we are seeing the positive developments Tracinski describes, there remains the possibility that insufficient metaphysical, epistemological or moral grounding may still overturn all the good eventually. I say possibility rather than likelihood because interest in pro-market reforms may generate interest in either Objectivism or at least relatively more rational approaches in philosophy (something like a long run return to the Enlightment, which even with its inconsistencies would still be a step -- though only a step -- in the right direction).

In short, it remains to be seen whether this is an oscillation or whether the developments in economics and crime control, etc. are a precursor to the adoption of reason. Therefore, I don't think Peikoff's or Objectivism's view of the role of ideas in history is contradicted. (At least not on this evidence.)

I also think there is a question of ethics in Tracinski's analysis. If a true principle is developed but is not rationally grounded, how do we respond to such principles when they are advocated and implimented?

I would like to take something of an extreme example by way of illustration. For example, much of the Austrian school of economics has a strong thread of German philosophical influence. It is nevertheless a defense of laissez-faire capitalism. If the doctrines of Von Mises's Human Action were being proposed in a bill before Congress, would America be better off, even with all of the underlying philosophical flaws? Is the correct approach to support such a bill, while at the same time arguing that while the measure is correct in its conclusions about the proper relationship between the government and the economy, it does so for the wrong reasons and argue for passage of such of a measure for reasons other than those proposed? Or should the proper approach be to argue that because of the underlying foundations are so tenuous, it does not matter if the ultimate conclusion about the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism are correct because the underlying philosophical premises are so dangerous that it is better to wait until a laissez-faire capitalism bill is proposed grounded in Objectivism?

I think Tracinski would argue that we are better off with enacting laissez-faire capitalism now, arguing for support of the measure on Objectivist terms even though others might be supporting it who endorse the under German influence. Moreover, even if the bill passed because of support for the "German premises" you still have the opportunity after enactment to convince people that this was the right measure for the wrong reason and persuade them of the right reason.

At the moment, I am more persuaded by this approach. It is not because I believe in pragmatism and that underlying principles are not important. It is because an objectively moral policy is being enacted that will improve my life, plus I have the opportunity to convince people that it is objectively moral. If I advocate opposition until the perfect bill comes along, I can still argue for a morally objective economic system, during the intervening years, I must still live under the same interventionist/socialist system with all of the negatives that go with it.

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I have just completed a quick internet survey of 'Armed Conflicts in the 20th Century.' I need more time before I provide links, but I think RT's assertion below is incorrect. I am wondering what sources he has used to conclude that 'the number of armed conflicts across the globe, and the number of people killed in them, has dramatically decreased.'...

Rob's comment came from an essay I wrote for him last year in TIA Daily, "The Short Dark Age." For the big picture data I used in that essay on the reduced scope of war and genocide after 1945 and after 1989, I quoted two editor's essays in Military History Quarterly written by Rod Paschall.

Based on the conclusions of studies by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Mr. Paschall states that the number of major wars decreased from 33 in 1992 to 19 in 2003.

Based on studies by the Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management, Mr. Paschell writes that the total material loss rates from wars today--in terms of people killed, populations displaced, and property destroyed--are ocurring about half the rate they were during the last Cold War peak in the mid 1980s.

1998-: Congo/Zaire's war - Rwanda and Uganda vs Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (3.8 million)

1983-2002: Sudanese civil war (2 million)

These are interesting figures, but they paint a picture of what is happening in only two small areas of the world (and part of the period of the Sudanese civil war falls into fequent war period of the Cold War era that I cite as the context for saying the level of warfare in the world has dramatically decreased over the past 17 years).

These figures don't say anything about whether or not the world's 6-1/2 billion people are suffering from more wars or more devistating wars today.

The dominant world trend over the past 30 years is globalization. This world changing trend ocurred against a backdrop of smaller and less frequent wars, continued order and security of the interational sea lanes, reduced import/export restrictions and--most importantly--the rise of representative government in many parts of the world.

Globalization is not merely one trend among many. It is a greatest of the changes in the world over the past couple decades. It has produced effects that reach all of the way into middle America. From the products we can buy at Wal Mart (upon which a substantial part of our increased buying power depends), to the costomers our companies gets work from (upon which much of the growth in our incomes depend), most of us have personally experienced the benefits of the increase in peace, order, and liberty in most parts of the world that have occured over the past 17 years.

In Part 4 of his series, "What Went Right?" Rob Tracinski indentifies the results of a Freedom House survey that concludes that the number of "free" nations has doubled since 1971. At military History Quarterly Rod Paschall writes, "During the past 30 years, the proportion of free states has steadily risen from 29% to 46% of the whole."

Is Rod Paschall the world's greatest authority on liberty and war? No. But he has been a good, rational and reliable reviewer of the history of war in the years over which I subscribed to his magazine.

Are Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management the most reliable possible sources that Rod Paschall could have picked for his accounting of the toll of modern wars? I don't know. I'm not an expert in the area. I rely on Mr. Paschall's judgement in this matter.

What I know is what I've read in the newspapers over the past 30 years and what the newspapers report is wars that are fewer in number and less destructive in their effect than WWII, the Chineese civil war and "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution," the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide, the mujahadeed conflict in Afghanistan, the dozens of guerrillia wars througout Central America, and the dozens of civil wars and genocides in Africa during the '70s and '80s.

Africa is the only continent upon which war and genocide are currently commonplace.

Admittedly, the number of nations at war and the body count of wars are potentially on the brink of a great increase right now. In an arc from Cairo to Islamabad, the Middle East and Central Asia are on the verge of a great, bloody regional war--and, unlike the genocidal civil wars of Africa, these wars would directly affect the security of the United States and would result in great loss of American life.

But, for better or worse, a general regional war envolving the U.S., Israel, and some NATO countries--a war of great scope and destructiveness--has not in fact begun in the center of the Islamic World.

The War Department: The Short Dark Age

The 20th Century Was a Dark Age Endured at the Speed of Industrial Society

by Jack Wakeland

Trying to stay on top of the story of the world as it unfolds sometimes leaves us here at TIA Daily little time to reflect. I recall back in December of 1999, Shrikant Rangnekar invited Rob and Sherri Tracinski and I to celebrate the achievements of the 20th century. I informed Shrikant that we would be getting together for what I wanted to be a "more sober" celebration:

"The passing of the 20th Century should be marked with a combination of 'good riddance' to the would-be destroyers of reason--and their millions of murders and continents reduced to rubble--and 'congratulations' to our heroes, our brothers-in-arms, who fought the century's battles of annihilation, defeated wave after wave of killers, and delivered the institutions of reason from destruction.

"Politics is at the center of history and the history of the 20th Century was a struggle on a scale and with an intensity never before seen by man. It was a struggle for the survival of the rule of law, representative government, private property, and individual liberty. It was a struggle for the survival of industrial civilization. It was a struggle to save a world in which private pursuits and individual happiness are possible. It was the Armageddon for reason."

In May of this year, an alert reader, Kurt Snavely, sent TIA Daily an e-mail that took this idea one step further. "The years from 1914 to 1989 seem like a kind of miniature Dark Age now."

When he showed me Mr. Snavely's e-mail in July, Rob Tracinski said that he's been thinking through just such a thesis himself.

Ask yourself if a Dark Age beginning in modern times wouldn't be shallower (because it is a fall from a much greater height), more violent, and pass much more quickly?

We are in the middle of the story of the world, so it surely is premature to step back and say with relief that the carnage that was a world of modern philosophy, 1914-1989, will not return. But there is evidence that it is over. In contrast to today's world, take a look back at those 75 dark years and what caused them.

The Short Dark Age followed a collapse of civilization. The takeover of the universities by modern Platonists in the mid 19th Century was followed at the end of the 19th Century by the collapse of art into "non-representationalism," the collapse of literature into incoherence, and, in the early decades of the 20th century, the collapse of the entire culture of Western Civilization into socialism, in varying degrees.

Logically enough, this collapse was followed by war. The first war was a war of senseless destruction perpetrated by men of ordinary knowledge and competence--hereditary kings Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas II--deciding they could use the extraordinary earthly power of entire industrial division-of-labor economies as bludgeons in the traditional European role of kings as the thieves of land. But this, the bloodiest war in the history of the world up to that point, was merely a prelude to the general destruction of the entire civilized world.

Totalitarian-inspired ideas led to the unraveling of the capitalist economic order. From America to Russia, people across the industrialized world were reduced to standing in food lines. Then the worst monsters in man's entire history--Stalin and Hitler, the depraved mass murderers for whom totalitarian ideas were created--rose up and took over the industrial machines of European civilization in order to pursue an unprecedented orgy of killing.

This 6-year orgy of death was ended by the American liberation of Western Europe, followed by a 44-year game of ugly small wars and threats of nuclear annihilation in which the United States, the child of the Enlightenment, easily outlasted Stalin’s decaying Soviet Union--though it didn’t seem easy at the time.

Rod Paschall at Military History Quarterly has commented on academic studies on the scope of the carnage of the Short Dark Age. In the Winter 2005 issue of MHQ, he reviewed Prof. R.J. Rummel’s book, 'Death by Government':

"After 1914, cross-border clashes greatly accelerated in frequency and intensity, with many armed conflicts--including two world wars. Civil wars continued at about the same pace as before, but democides [government-sponsored mass murder of unarmed civilians] skyrocketed beginning in April 1915, when the Turks drove Armenians into the desert in present-day northern Syria, resulting in between 600,000 and 1.5 million deaths by slaughter or starvation. That was followed by about 2 million peasant deaths during the brutal Soviet collectivization program. Other similar tragedies include Josef Stalin's 1930s-era Great Terror, Hitler's Holocaust, Mao Tse-Tung's Great Leap Forward, and Pol Pot's bloody elimination of almost one-third of Cambodia's people. Rummel estimates that since the beginning of the 20th Century until the end of the Cold War, there were almost 170 million democide killings as compared to 34.4 million battle deaths."

If that passage brings back a familiar feelings of nausea, alienation, and doom, welcome back to the 20th century. It was a world in which every tenth person on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa had just been slaughtered.

But today, the sensation of ever-present death--unpunished mass-murder--is no longer a routine part of the life of the well-informed citizen of the world. This is not an arbitrary feeling. There are reasons that this feeling has passed. The facts are behind it.

In the Spring 2005 issue of MHQ, Mr. Paschall notes that the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management computed that, "the effects of armed conflict (scored by deaths, numbers of combatants, size of battle areas, dislocated populations, and infrastructure damage) had diminished globally by 50% since the peak post-WW II period in the mid 1980s." He goes on to note that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that the number of major armed conflicts in the world had dropped from 33 in 1991 to 19 in 2003. (They considered a "major" conflict to be one in which there were over 1000 war-related deaths in the current year.)

Rod Paschall concludes, "Clearly interstate wars are in precipitous decline and repeat performances of events such as the failed 1990 seizure of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraq are becoming rare. Of the 19 wars of 2003, only two could be described as being between two or more nations; the rest were intra-state conflicts…limited to a deadly dispute within one nation's borders."

Why these reductions? In the Winter 2005 issue of MHQ, Mr. Paschall states the cause for the reduction in the frequency and destructiveness of war throughout the world. "During the Cold War, there was a vast increase in insurgencies due to Moscow's support of 'wars of national liberation.' The post-Cold War era has seen the near disappearance of cross-border wars, chiefly because of Anglo-American policies, punishing those nations that invade their neighbors and depriving attackers of their gains."

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the elder George Bush's "New World Order" was to be an international sphere in which free trade and free markets reign--under the protective umbrella of an Anglo-American foreign policy that banishes the use of force between nations. And the end of Communism created nations that won't make war on each other--and created them by the dozens. Rod Paschall reports that "During the past 30 years, the proportion of free states has steadily risen from 29% to 46% of the whole."

This is an empire policed by and inspired by, but not controlled by, the United States of America.

In the Autumn issue of MHQ, Mr. Paschall observes that over the past 15 years, the creation of republics has accelerated to an average of "three additional states meeting minimal standards for free and fair elections each year." He wonders if this may eventually lead to an era of "perpetual peace."

The defeat of Nazism, the end of Communism, the blooming of republican government, the incremental banishment of war--this is the end of the Short Dark Age, 1914-1989. It is the global achievement of every man everywhere on earth who looks to himself to make a better life on earth and demands the liberty to pursue it. It is an achievement made possible by America's powerful military, economic, political, and cultural influence on the world.

The wars are not over. More than a dozen American fighting men die every week fighting the Muslim menace. But the fact that America exists, the extent to which American liberty still exists, the spread of liberty across the globe, and the rise of an Empire of the Pursuit of Happiness are evidence that the Short Dark Age is over.

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These are interesting figures, but they paint a picture of what is happening in only two small areas of the world (and part of the period of the Sudanese civil war falls into fequent war period of the Cold War era that I cite as the context for saying the level of warfare in the world has dramatically decreased over the past 17 years).

These figures don't say anything about whether or not the world's 6-1/2 billion people are suffering from more wars or more devistating wars today.

I chose these figures to answer jdperren's question about armed conflicts in the last forty years. There have been armed conflicts in the last 40 years in which deaths have totaled in the millions not in the hundreds or the thousands.

The website I linked to lists 100+ armed conflicts and genocides in the 20th century. 50+ of those armed conflicts have occurred after 1969. The last thirty years of the 20th century had half of the armed conflicts for the century. Explain to me how this can be considered a collapse on war.

Another statistic I have seen is that in today's wars 90% of the deaths are civilians as opposed to military personnel. Yesterday, the news reported one American soldier died in Iraq but 100 civilians were executed. This report has been the norm over the last several weeks. If civilians are accounting for a majority of the deaths in todays wars than I would also say that the 'world's 6-1/2 billion people are suffering more.'

The fact that there were more civil wars at the end of the 20th Century as opposed to the beginning of the 20th century, indicates to me that the governments of the world can not protect their citizens. This is an indication of a collapse(on a global scale) in civilization not an expansion.

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The fact that there were more civil wars at the end of the 20th Century as opposed to the beginning of the 20th century, indicates to me that the governments of the world can not protect their citizens. This is an indication of a collapse(on a global scale) in civilization not an expansion.

Isn't it that the governments of the world do not protect their citizens, rather than can not? In most places, it is the government itself that is at the root of the problem (e.g., Zimbabwe and Sudan). In almost every other internal conflict, the Islamic fascists are the direct cause--and have been for some time now.

The problem I have with Rob's thesis is that, while it is true that good ideas and innovation can prosper even in a semi-free atmosphere, how long can this occur if the evil continues to persist and grow? What will China do, for instance, when we get into a truly hot war in the Middle East? (This is a question I've asked myself since 9-11.) Not long after we went into Afghanistan and Iraq, China began pushing the Taiwan question to the forefront. China has skillfully used N. Korea against us as well. China constantly probes and pushes us to see how far we will go, as they ally themselves with every tyrant on earth (Mugabe, Chavez, and the mad mullahs of Iran come immediately to mind). How long will globalisation last if China decides it is time to push hard against America? The fact that it isn't in their best interest to challenge American power hasn't stopped our enemies before, nor has doing so been without success.

America is strong, but there are crucial weaknesses that are not being addressed at any level I can discern. We continue to be dependent on sources of energy that leave us vulnerable, and we can't even decide to open up a postage stamp sized area of Alaska for drilling, much less allow the building of nuclear power plants, etc. What would happen if we were to be cut off from our major sources of oil, or needed to do so because of the war? Worse yet, and the underlying cause of the above, is that this war has shown just how weak our resolve, and even the ability to recognize what our own best interest consists of (much less how to act on it) by a large portion of our population, has become. That particular problem is a philosophical problem and it is a deep one. Even people who are for our self-defense use language that is laden with altruist rhetoric and statist rationals, usually without awareness that they do so because such language has become ingrained in our daily commerce.

As far as I can figure, Rob's position and Dr. Peikoff's position are the two ends of the conundrum that can go either way at this point.

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Isn't it that the governments of the world do not protect their citizens, rather than can not? In most places, it is the government itself that is at the root of the problem (e.g., Zimbabwe and Sudan). In almost every other internal conflict, the Islamic fascists are the direct cause--and have been for some time now.

This is an important distinction. do not vs. can not I said can not because most governments do not have the proper philosophical base so they can not protect their citizens. The Islamic fascists will always have internal conflicts because they value the Koran over individual rights.

China is also a country that does not protect individual rights. I have seen several reports where government officials have seized land from peasant farmers and sold this land to industrial concerns taking the profit themselves instead of passing it on to the rightful owners. The peasant farmers in some cases have launced protests.

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I think those who say that the cultural trends are bad because we don't have a proper philosophical base are missing something. What they are missing is whatever accounts for what is going right. It looks like Rob Tracinski is struggling to explain what went right in non-philosophical terms and that is where he may be making a mistake.

What is going wrong is the result of bad philosophy. What is going right is the result of good philosophy.

Don't assume that ONLY Objectivism has the right ideas and ONLY Objectivists can implement them. While only Objectivists have the possibility of advocating and practicing consistently good ideas -- true ideas derived from and consistent with reality -- non-Objectivists can and do preach and practice good ideas too. They are just not as consistent as we are.

Everybody has to act to continue his life and, to the degree he does the wrong thing, he will suffer and/or die. While an Objectivist can be consistently good, nobody alive can be consistently bad. This works to the advantage of the good and is one example of the strength and power of a rational philosophy: you can't be successful and happy without it.

All the things that went right in the culture are the result of people practicing parts of a rational philosophy, whether the person who did it knows it or not. I can't say it better than John Galt speaking to, and about, all men: "Whatever living moments you have known, were lived by the values of my code."

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.......

All the things that went right in the culture are the result of people practicing parts of a rational philosophy, whether the person who did it knows it or not. I can't say it better than John Galt speaking to, and about, all men: "Whatever living moments you have known, were lived by the values of my code."

Well said.

(Does this mean Robert Magabie is partly Objectivist?) B):D

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What is going wrong is the result of bad philosophy. What is going right is the result of good philosophy.

Don't assume that ONLY Objectivism has the right ideas and ONLY Objectivists can implement them. While only Objectivists have the possibility of advocating and practicing consistently good ideas -- true ideas derived from and consistent with reality -- non-Objectivists can and do preach and practice good ideas too. They are just not as consistent as we are.

All the things that went right in the culture are the result of people practicing parts of a rational philosophy, whether the person who did it knows it or not. I can't say it better than John Galt speaking to, and about, all men: "Whatever living moments you have known, were lived by the values of my code."

Bingo. I often read comments on conservative blogs that are rational and well argued. As you say, most are not consistent, and some hold the seeds of destruction to their own arguments. But to the extent that they are rational, I applaud them.

I think one of the problems is in seeing cultural trends in collectivist terms. That is what I meant by my comment on the way the language has incorporated these terms so that they are used even by people who would blanch if they realized the mistake. This ignores, or dismisses, the actions and influence of individuals, which is the point I get from Rob's writings (though I think he errs on the other side of the question). It is the problem I see with Dr. Peikoff's hypothesis, I.e., he makes broad generalizations which ignore the thinking, actions and influence of individuals, especially individual Christians. I don't think that one can use the term "Christian philosophy" to define the myriad Christian systems of belief in this country. While they all use the bible, there are many different interpretations of the same text. It is one thing to tolerate a Baptist when one is a Catholic in a civilized society that allows both to exist in peace. Any attempt at an actual theology, however, would demand an agreement about fundamentals that has proven historically impossible. This doesn't even address what would have to happen to the Constitution, which most Christians in this country hold dear.

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Perhaps I'm giving Mr. Tracinski more credit than is yet deserved. But I believe what he is struggling to identify goes beyond merely observing that good consequences are flowing from good philosophy, wherever it is found.

He observes, correctly, that those good ideas can be derived by any thinking individual and acted on accordingly. He also, implicitly, is rejecting a notion that is (implicitly or, in some cases, explicitly) held by many Objectivists: that the bad must necessarily destroy the good in the long run. The latter is simply inconsistent with what we actually observe.

It is this pernicious idea, whether a part of Objectivism proper I'm not yet sure, that in any mixture of bad ideas and good the bad must necessarily win in the long run if not consciously rejected. He is seeing that this view is not consonant with the actual events of the real world.

There are some who are still insisting, despite all the evidence Tracinski cites (and much more that could be) that it's just a wiggle in the data and that the trend is overwhelmingly down - as it must be, they argue, so long as men are in the grip of nihilsim, Christianity, altruism, collectivism, and the host of other ills such people see everywhere they look.

It is these premises such people need to check -- by looking at the world around them more broadly, as Tracinski is doing.

Jeff

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(Does this mean Robert Magabie is partly Objectivist?) B):D

Objectivism is Ayn Rand's philosophical system and it is right across the board. Magabie is like a stopped clock that may only get it right twice a day.

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Perhaps I'm giving Mr. Tracinski more credit than is yet deserved. But I believe what he is struggling to identify goes beyond merely observing that good consequences are flowing from good philosophy, wherever it is found.

He observes, correctly, that those good ideas can be derived by any thinking individual and acted on accordingly.

Of course they can and they are. That is because they are practicing the right implicit philosophy.

He also, implicitly, is rejecting a notion that is (implicitly or, in some cases, explicitly) held by many Objectivists: that the bad must necessarily destroy the good in the long run. The latter is simply inconsistent with what we actually observe.

It is this pernicious idea, whether a part of Objectivism proper I'm not yet sure, that in any mixture of bad ideas and good the bad must necessarily win in the long run if not consciously rejected. He is seeing that this view is not consonant with the actual events of the real world.

I believe it is also inconsistent with Objectivism. Isn't it the Objectivist view that evil is impotent and only survives by the sanction of the good? Doesn't that imply that all that good people have to do to win is to say "No" to evil?

There are some who are still insisting, despite all the evidence Tracinski cites (and much more that could be) that it's just a wiggle in the data and that the trend is overwhelmingly down - as it must be, they argue, so long as men are in the grip of nihilsim, Christianity, altruism, collectivism, and the host of other ills such people see everywhere they look.

There certainly is a lot of that junk around. I can even see why that would get a rational person down from time to time. What I don't think is justified is always failing to see, or discounting, the true ideas that are there and the virtues of all the good men that discover and act on those ideas.

It is these premises such people need to check -- by looking at the world around them more broadly, as Tracinski is doing.

Indeed! Virtue exists and is real too, and I have always thought virtue, for an Objectivist, was loyalty to existence and reality.

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The fourth installment of Rob Tracinski's "What Went Right?" series of articles has been posted here [The correct pointer to this is here, about half-way down, titled "The Metaphysics of 'Normal Life'."] For now, on first reading, I have only two brief comments.

First, Rob addresses an important aspect of the concern I expressed about the role he sees for philosophy. He states, in part:

I've had a few people object to the earlier installments of this series by saying that, while the examples I have cited don't involve the influence of explicitly stated philosophical ideas, they do involve men's implicit philosophy. But that is precisely my point, and spelling out exactly how good ideas are grasped implicitly, in what form and by what process, is part of what I want to address in looking at the global influence of scientific and technological education, global capitalism, and representative government.

I personally am willing to accept this at face value. But, I do think that at some point Rob must directly address some of his earlier statements that led at least a few of us to wonder about the role Rob envisioned for philosophy.

Second, this fourth installment seems by far to be the clearest and most direct explication of the perspective that Rob has struggled to communicate in the prior parts of the series. I see a payoff in this current essay, a romp, so to speak, through the world we live in as seen through Rob's eyes. Offhand, I see a lot of truth in what Rob says here, some truths with which I have firsthand knowledge and experience. Rob's words, and examples, reflect a postive spirit that I admire and deeply share, when the facts allow. I am not convinced of all that is presented as fact, but I am willing to think twice about some. I eagerly await the remaining essays of this series.

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