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Protecting Interests 2: Electric Boogaloo

I’m still subjecting myself to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast, in part because I still find Peikoff funny, even though he’s clearly kind of losing it. (And the fact that he sometimes mixes it up on his podcast by posting extremely old recordings where he had his shit together only hammers that point home.) I think I may have explained that, even though I’m increasingly disagreeing with Yaron Brook, I still think it’s important to listen to his podcasts… Because basically, if I feel compelled to defend attacks on Objectivism, I should know what one of the chief spokesmen for Objectivism is saying to make us all look like idiots.

In the podcast from February 2nd, Brook fields the following question:

Q: Okay, the first question we have is kind of a follow-up on a previous answer I gave regarding the responsibility of the United States to protect the rights of its citizens abroad. The questioner posits that for U.S. citizens, the government should always be protecting their rights abroad and helping them if their property is seized or if they’re in trouble in a foreign country that it’s the U.S.’s responsibility always to protect its citizens.

A: In a sense, that’s right, but I don’t completely agree with her, ’cause I think she’s excluding the possibility, for example, that U.S. citizens are doing things that are really, really stupid. If the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and some American decides to fly in there, or to sneak in there or whatever, I, as an American, do not want to be responsible for the action of this irresponsible individual. And they get captured by the North Koreans, and the North Koreans are doing all kinds of stuff…

I want my country engaged in activities that protect, in a sense, responsible citizens. If the government has already said, “Look, don’t go to North Korea,” and you do, I think you’re on your own. So I do think the government needs to present, in a sense, a list of countries, and what it’s willing to do given those countries. Certain countries should be off bounds for Americans in terms of government protection, where they know they’re not going to get that protection overseas.

Now, the second part of the question: she questions my arguing that the government should stand by American corporations whose property is seized overseas. She says, “Look, corporations are not individuals, and therefore, it’s not the role of government to defend them.”

So, what are corporations? This brings up a much bigger question. Corporations are just legal entities owned by individuals. So what’s the difference between a corporation and a self-proprietorship? If I have a business, and I own 100% of it, and I’m a U.S. citizen, and in the context of me running this business, the business opens up operations in Brazil, and I get tangled in some issue with the Brazilian government, is it the responsibility of the U.S. government to protect me? Well, I think she would say, “Yes, you’re a U.S. citizen. Even though it’s this business entity that’s in trouble, it’s 100% owned by you; therefore, it’s okay.”

But now we have a corporation, and the corporation is owned by a hundred different American citizens, or a thousand different American citizens, or a million different American citizens—it doesn’t matter. As an American corporation—the corporation is just a legal construct, but all it represents is the fact that it has lots of owners.

Now, here I’m not going to address all the issues of limited liability and so on; I’ve done that elsewhere. You can also get my course on the corporation from the Ayn Rand Institute eStore, where I delve into those. But here, just in the sense of protecting rights overseas, when you’re protecting the “rights” of a corporation, all you’re doing is protecting the rights of its owners. And its owners are—now, I’m assuming it’s an American corporation; therefore, its owners are Americans.

So, no, absolutely corporations’ property should be protected overseas by the U.S. government if it’s an American corporation owned by Americans. Your rights don’t end as an individual when you form a business with a bunch of other individuals, and form it in a legal way that’s called a corporation. We have to get rid of this whole animosity towards corporations that exists among so many people in the free-market world.

The same is true of free speech: it’s not that corporations have free speech; it’s that the individuals who own the corporations have free speech. Therefore, all the corporation is doing when it speaks is speaking for the owners. So, when we apply free speech principals to the corporation, it’s just extending the free speech rights that are with their owners to this legal construct. It’s the owners who have the rights, and through them, the corporation has rights. But again, a corporation is not an individual; it’s a legal entity which is owned by individuals, and those individuals’ rights don’t go away ’cause they formed this legal entity.

Boiled down to its essentials, the question is this: if an American citizen breaks a law overseas, is it the obligation of the American government to protect their rights? Brook’s answer is basically, “Yes,” with some conditions. For those unfamiliar with or confused by the Objectivist perspective on the role of government, answering “Yes” under any circumstances should be regarded as, at the very least, slightly insane.

The insanity is reflected in the fact that he starts out with a reasonable point—sometimes American citizens do stupid things abroad, so they’re on their own—and then pretzel-logics his way into supporting the neo-con perspective on foreign policy. Neo-con foreign policy is pathologically obsessed with nation-building, specifically building nations in the image of America. But neo-cons, like Brook, are a bunch of pussies. As you might remember from 2003, neo-cons only pick fights they think they can win. The endgame is to remain a global power, which we can’t do if we declare war on China. China will fight back, and even if they don’t win, they’ll hurt us. Nosiree, it’s better to slip into destitute dictatorships and prop up trusted friends. The more countries we sculpt in the American image, the more global power we retain.

As foreign policy, this is bullshit. I wouldn’t be blogging the equivalent of trumpets heralding the greatness if Ayn Rand if I didn’t think the American system, at its core (not the distorted beast it has become), was the best system. But part of believing in the American system means believing that it’s not up to us to decide what’s best for everyone else.

“But wait,” some of you Yaron Brook fans might be saying, “aren’t you putting words into Brook’s mouth? He didn’t really say anything about nation-building.” No, not in this answer. But you’ll note he begins the question by noting it’s a follow-up to a previous podcast. I took the liberty of digging up the previous podcast (from November 7, 2014), which I think is equally relevant to this post:

Q: Does the U.S. government have the duty to protect the property of its citizens in foreign countries? For example, what kind of response should the government have if an American oil company was nationalized?

A: Yes, the government has a responsibility to protect the property of its citizens in foreign countries. Now, how it does that, where it does it, when it does it, is very complicated and requires somebody to really do some original work around this. You really have to think the issues through.

So, if the government of France takes away your property in some way, what should the U.S. response be? France is a relatively free country, it has a legal system… I think, in that case, the U.S. government should protest, should try to use the legal system within France to help you out, to fight to get your property back in some way.

If, in the 1950s, oil was nationalized by random countries in the Middle East, should the U.S. government have done something? Yes! In that case, there’s no protection of property rights, there’s no rights respecting government, there’s no legal proceeding you can go through. The U.S. government should have been willing to use force in order to protect the rights of its citizens in those countries.

But let’s say China does it. It’s kind of a powerful country. You don’t really want to go to war with it, because they have nuclear weapons, but they also don’t have an objective legal system that you can use in order to arbitrate disputes. What should happen then? Well, I think what the government would do—and, again, I’m speculating here because I’m not an expert, so this is the first pass at this, and I encourage someone to do some serious thinking about this—one thing is, I think the government should have a list and say, “If you do business in these countries, with these governments, we’re not responsible. We’re not going to protect you.” Because the threat is so high, why are you even doing business with them?

The Middle East is different, ’cause when companies went to the Middle East first to drill for oil, they cut deal with those governments, and those governments were so weak, it’s insignificant. But if we know Venezuela is a horrible country… We don’t want to go to war with Venezuela, but it’s a horrible country. You can’t do business with them. We should tell our companies, “If you do business with Venezuela—your problem, we’re not going to protect you.”

But let’s say it’s okay to do business with, I don’t know, Colombia, and we’ve told our companies it’s fine to do business with Colombia, and they’re overthrown and a new government comes in and steals all the property of Americans, yes: then, the U.S. government has a responsibility to to protect those companies, even if it involves military force.

For those whose eyes glazed over, here are the salient points: yes, according to Brook, the government has this responsibility, but it’s “very complicated.” In France, they should use the legal system (since it’s “relatively free”); China, unlike France, is not relatively free, they “don’t have an objective legal system,” but they do “have nuclear weapons”—so this is the first time he trots out the brilliant plan of the government making a list of countries where they won’t provide help. We’ll call this the “CIA World Factbook’s List of Countries We’re Ascared Of.” But the Middle East, in the 1950s as well as now, “is different.” Like Venezuela of today, they were horrible countries; unlike Venezuela of today, “those governments were so weak, it’s insignificant.”

Therefore: war with France is out, because they’re “relatively free”; war with China and Venezuela are out, ’cause they’re scary; war with the Middle East and Colombia are A-OK, because they’re weak. Be honest with yourself: does this version of foreign policy sound rational in any way, shape, or form? Or does it sound like someone tasked with speaking for a rational, objective philosophy trying to cram bullshit neo-con ideology like a square peg in a round hole?

In the February 2nd podcast, Brook makes the same sort of blunder, trotting out his “list” idea again. Here, he’s exploring an individual’s rights rather than property rights, so naturally, he separates out the stupid from the smart. In another echo of neo-con thought, stupid American citizens don’t deserve protection of their rights; smart American citizens do. Let’s see, I’m checking his premises, and… Nope, no contradictions found. This totally makes sense, Dr. Brook. Way to think it through!

But seriously, folks, the question I would ask is this: where is the line between the calculated risk of a smart citizen, and the “irresponsible” recklessness of a stupid citizen? The answer, following Brook’s logic, comes down to whether or not a person gets in trouble in a country we’re ascared of (like North Korea). That’s the wrong answer, and not solely because it’s contradictory to the point of incoherence.

Brook’s half-“Yes” depends less on his interest in protecting individual rights than on part two of the question, where the questioner asks if U.S. protection of citizens abroad also extends to corporations. Which returns to the kneejerk neo-con attitude that Americans have the right to participate in business ventures abroad (I agree), but that they are above the laws of the country they’re doing business in (nope), and if the country passes any laws or takes any action violating their rights as Americans (notably private property rights), the corporation has the right—no, the duty—to crawl up the U.S. government’s ass until they send the military and/or the CIA to return their property (absolutely not!!).

The basis of this argument a crude distortion of Objectivist philosophy. Ayn Rand believed two of the (very few) duties of government is to protect its citizens against force and fraud, and to protect against foreign invaders. Brook, through his rhetoric, implicitly suggests that this extends to foreign countries, and that property-seizing governments are equal to foreign invaders—hence advocating use of force (as long as the country is weak). Objectivism is not a war-mongering philosophy, nor a nation-building philosophy—but neo-conservatism is. The only way Brook can square the two is through distortions.

Sadly, Ayn Rand didn’t write much about foreign policy. She was much more focused on how to make America the best it can be, from which I infer she believed that sculpting other countries in the American image was not a particularly high priority (admittedly, I’m putting words into her mouth, so please keep in mind this is my opinion, not a presumption of fact). She believed that free trade “liberated the world” in the nineteenth century. Strangely, she neglects to mention the Roosevelt Corollary or Wilsonian Idealism, arguably the tangled roots of neo-con foreign policy.

It’s ironic, because Brook’s argument that a corporation is little more than a group of people—and thus, they should be protected as an individual citizen would be—is exactly the reason I would use to argue that they don’t have the right to U.S. protection abroad. I’ll lose some humanist street cred for saying this, because my view also applies to “innocents” like journalists who run afoul of beheading-happy terrorists or citizens imprisoned as the result of arcane/archaic laws. I genuinely don’t think an Objectivist can make an honest argument that the U.S.—or any other country—has the right to say, “Your local laws don’t apply to this guy, because he’s our citizen. He only has to follow our laws, no matter where he is.” Imagine the world if every country adopted a policy like that.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about this very topic, which outlines my view as it pertains to corporations. Because Brook is correct that a corporation is little more than a collection of individuals, the core of the argument remains the same when considering individual rights abroad: if you are going to go to a foreign country, you take on risk. End of story. If you choose to ignore their laws, you are subject to their punishments. If you choose to ignore the probable danger of a particular region, you are subject to kidnapping and beheading. It is not right—and it’s not a right of its citizens!—to live in a bubble where we still hold on to the rights and protections of our native country no matter where we go. We don’t get to hold on to seized private property just because we would in the U.S. We don’t get to commit acts that are not crimes in the U.S. but are in the country in which we commit them.

When foreigners enter the U.S., for a visit or to live, we expect them to obey U.S. laws. They don’t reserve the right to follow the laws of their native country, and they aren’t protected by their native country if they violate an American law that doesn’t violate the laws their used to. As many traffic cops have said over the decades, ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Neither is “just visiting.” You lose your rights as an American the moment you cross our borders, end of story. That’s the way it should be, because we’re not the only country on Earth. You and I might think the American way is the best way, but if everyone else agreed with that, they’d all have the exact same set of laws. (And shit, even within our borders, we can’t agree with what “the American way” is. That’s why different states have different laws, different municipalities within those states have different laws, and many people choose to ignore those laws.)

In contemplating this, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Brook, like pretty much every neo-con, is only trumpeting in favor of U.S. protection for citizens abroad when it comes to protecting them from punishment for committing what are crimes abroad but not at home. What about going overseas specifically to commit what would be crimes in the U.S., but are not abroad? I’m thinking about using cheap sweatshop labor in Southeast Asia, setting up shop in South and Central America to avoid American environmental regulations, venturing out to the Middle East to find a harem of child brides… Why must the U.S. protect rights abroad but not prosecute egregious rights violations abroad?

Demanding U.S. protection when it’s “needed” abroad is no different from obeying U.S. law only when it’s convenient abroad. You can’t have it both ways.

Fucking Yaron Brook, dude.

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