Does the Right to Life Trump Property Rights?

Aug 012011

For the past year-and-some, I’ve been re-reading Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand with a few local Objectivist gals. (We only read about 30 pages per month, so our progress is slow!) A few weeks ago, we read the chapter on “Government” — and doing so raised a nagging question that I’ve had related to last summer’s heated debate about the NYC Mosque.

On Facebook, I’ve seen some Objectivists defend Leonard Peikoff’s position that the NYC Mosque ought to be forbidden by law by saying “the right to life trumps the right to property.” At first, I thought that Peikoff must have said something like that in his podcast on the topic. However, I was pleased to discover that, although I still disagree with aspects of that podcast, that’s not true. Here’s what Peikoff said, according to Trey Givens’ transcription:

Let’s start with property rights. Property rights are limited and they are contextual. You cannot do anything you want with property even though it is yours, not if its ramifications objectively entail a threat to the rights of others. You can’t build a bomb in your home. You can’t even build a big bonfire in your backyard legitimately because the principle of rights is that property rights are a derivative of life as the standard and there can be no right to threaten anyone’s life nor indeed to threaten anyone’s property.

Second, rights are contextual. In any situation where metaphysical survival is at stake all property rights are out. You have no obligation to respect property rights. The obvious, classic example of this is, which I’ve been asked a hundred times, you swim to a desert island — you know, you had a shipwreck — and when you get to the shore, the guy comes to you and says, “I’ve got a fence all around this island. I found it. It’s legitimately mine. You can’t step onto the beach.” Now, in that situation you are in a literal position of being metaphysically helpless. Since life is the standard of rights, if you no longer can survive this way, rights are out. And it becomes dog-eat-dog or force-against force.

Now, don’t assume that any unsatisfied need therefore puts you in this metaphysical category. For instance, you are very poor and you are hungry. Well, you need feed. But in a capitalist society, even in a mixed economy, that is not a metaphysical deprivation. There’s always all sorts of choices and ways in a free society for you to gain food. Always.

I agree with that portion of his podcast, and I think that’s consistent with what he says in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand about rights as as unity:

In content, as the Founding Fathers recognized, there is one fundamental right, which has several major derivatives. The fundamental right is the right to life. Its major derivatives are the right to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

The right to life means the right to sustain and protect one’s life. It means the right to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the preservation of his life. To sustain his life, man needs a method of survival—he must use his rational faculty to gain knowledge and choose values, then act to achieve his values. The right to liberty is the right to this method; it is the right to think and choose, then to act in accordance with one’s judgment. To sustain his life, man needs to create the material means of his survival. The right to property is the right to this process; in Ayn Rand’s definition, it is “the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.” To sustain his life, man needs to be governed by a certain motive—his purpose must be his own welfare. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to this motive; it is the right to live for one’s own sake and fulfillment.

Rights form a logical unity. In the words of Samuel Adams, all are “evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.” It would be a crude contradiction to tell a man: you have a right to life, but you need the permission of others to think or act. Or: you have a right to life, but you need the permission of others to produce or consume. Or: you have a right to life, but don’t dare pursue any personal motive without the approval of the government.

I don’t think that Peikoff’s views in his podcast or book can be properly summarized as “the right to life trumps the right to property.” That implies a false theory of rights, according to which rights can conflict, and when they do, the “lesser” rights must give way to the “greater” rights. That’s not just wrong: it’s an outright rejection of the demands of logic in politics. That’s because the whole point of calling something a “right” is to identify it not just as one value among others to be weighed, but instead to say that it’s a “trump.” Rights are supposed to settle — authoritatively — what people should be permitted to do. If rights can conflict, then rights aren’t meaningful any longer. They’re just a mush of who-knows-what.

Of all the errors in modern politics, the idea that people’s rights routinely conflict is probably the most pernicious of all. It opens the door to any and all rights violations — from OSHA to Medicare to the ADA to the Drug War — because when logic is removed from politics, it’s deuces wild.

So if you want to summarize Dr. Peikoff’s position, I’d think that something along the lines of “property rights are contextual, and in the context of America’s war against militant Islam, the property rights of the enemy are null and void” would be more accurate.

As for my own views, I agree with Peikoff’s general claims about rights in wartime. I continue to disagree about the proper application of those principles in the context of American’s current foreign policy. In particular, I regard voiding anyone’s property rights by any means necessary in an undeclared and unfought war as extraordinarily dangerous to the liberties of all dissenting Americans, including Objectivists. However, as is true for all mosques, any terrorist connections should be vigorously investigated — and prosecuted if confirmed.

Over the last year, the controversy over the project has died down, but I’ve not heard whether the project has been abandoned, delayed, or continues. I hope that it’s deader than Bin Laden, but if not, I’d be interested to hear about its current state.

Leonard Peikoff at OCON

Jul 012010

As you might recall, Leonard Peikoff clearly requested that he not be asked any further questions about the NYC Mosque in his recent podcast. I wanted to remind everyone of that, given that OCON starts tomorrow. For his sake — and for the sake of a fun-filled OCON — I ask that everyone respect his request.

See you tomorrow! Yay!

Reply To Amy Peikoff on NYC Mosque

Jun 302010

[Note from Diana: Alas, I spoke too soon! Shortly after I closed off the contentious debate about the NYC Mosque here on NoodleFood, Amy Peikoff posted a really excellent essay in defense of Leonard Peikoff's view. So an unpleasant debate has turned into a really fascinating and friendly discussion. Yay!

I'm so grateful for Amy's careful examination of many of the points that I and others raised: that's the kind of argument that I needed. At this point, I still lean toward my original view that the mosque should not be stopped using by unjust laws -- for the reasons that Paul articulates below. However, I've got a much better grasp of the merits of the opposing view -- and I'm glad of that.

As for the comments on this post, please restrict yourself to just one or two comments. I don't want the kind of fruitless back-and-forth that cropped up in other threads.

And now for Paul...]

Amy Peikoff has posted a nice analysis of the NYC mosque issue, and I wanted to thank her for it. She’s raised some excellent points and given me much important food for thought. I very much liked her principled approach to the various issues and I highly recommend everyone read her piece.

In particular, I’m glad she addressed my primary concern, namely the issue of rule-of-law and the specific question of using current bad non-objective laws (such as zoning regulations) to stop the mosque construction, even while opposing such laws in principle.

One of the many good points she raised was that if one takes a long-term vs. a short-term perspective, trying to adhere to proper legal procedure could put Americans at potential tremendous risk in the immediate future, and that the government isn’t strictly following those procedures anyways.

Others have made similar points online, for instance arguing that using these bad zoning laws wouldn’t create new victims but could help stop an immediate threat.

However I’m still extremely concerned about the danger of setting such a bad legal precedent, precisely because I view it as the greater long-term danger. I’d like to explain why, below.

First, I completely agree that the Islamists would love to destroy the US and/or impose totalitarian Sharia law upon us. And they are working hard to achieve this (as Amy notes) both “via immediate violence and via cultural/infiltration persuasion”.

However, I don’t think that the Islamists could actually impose Sharia law here in the US. (This is in contrast to some European countries where the Islamists are taking over the culture alarmingly quickly through both methods.)

Based on my best reading of the current American culture, I believe the Jihadists would fail in their quest to impose Sharia law here. Yes, they could do tremendous damage in the process, killing thousands of Americans. Because of our government’s failed policies, I believe we are at serious risk of future 9/11-style attacks or attacks along the lines of the failed Times Square bombing or attacks as have already occurred in London and Madrid.

And in my darker moments, I also fear “nightmare scenarios” such as the bad guys sneaking 10 Iranian-made nuclear bombs into the 10 largest US cities and detonating them all simultaneously. Such attacks would be devastating and kill millions of Americans.

But as devastating as such attacks could be, I don’t think this country would just roll over and submit to Sharia law. Instead, I believe we would face a much more serious danger — specifically, from the resultant backlash.

A renewed attack (or series of attacks) on American soil would be the one thing that could rouse the dying embers of the American sense of life — and channel it into a dangerous totalitarian direction. The populace would (rightly) demand that we “do something” and I fear that this sentiment would sweep into power extremely bad conservative ideologues who would (correctly) identify the enemy as Islamic Totalitarianism — but instead offer as their alternative a Christian right-wing tyrannical regime.

Already, such social and religious conservatives are working hard to exploit the anti-Obama sentiment at Tea Parties to advance their agenda. Any successful serious jihadist attacks on US soil could greatly accelerate this dangerous trend, and quickly propel American religionists into power. And they would have tremendous popular appeal. They would use all the right language of “protecting America”, demanding a “muscular response” in “self defense”, etc. And they would speak with a moral confidence that Americans desperately seek (and which our recent governments have lacked).

Just as one example, I heard Brigitte Gabriel speak at the same LPR 2009 conference that Yaron Brook spoke at. She is a staunch Christian who took an uncompromising stand against the Islamic threat to America. She told some heart-rending stories of life as a Christian under Islamist rule in Lebanon. She made a compelling case that the Islamists want destroy America. And she had the mostly-conservative crowd eating out of her hand.

And she’s just one of many eloquent Christian conservatives out there on the lecture circuit making their case against the Islamic threat — and arguing that the only solution is for this country to recommit to Christian values.

If they ever gained power, these American religious statists would also have tremendous staying power compared to the current secular statists for precisely the reasons Leonard Peikoff has discussed multiple times.

Furthermore, these religious statists would have no qualms about using bad legal precedents set by prior secular leftist statists for their own ends — another danger that Leonard Peikoff warned about in one of his recent podcasts. So even assuming these American religious statists took some better (and much-needed) military actions against the jihadists at home and abroad, they would very likely also use the precedents of non-objective law to destroy freedoms at home in the name of “protecting American values”.

So although we wouldn’t create any immediate new victims, we could create many more later victims under a future government which would tell us:

“We’re denying the Ayn Rand Institute permission to expand its building facilities. According to our zoning board, the ARI has been violating anti-blasphemy laws by criticizing the religious agenda of our new President.”

“The philosophy of selfishness has no place in America’s schools. The books sent to our impressionable youths under the ARI Books for Teachers program are corrupting their morals and undermining core Christian American values of selflessness and sacrifice for the greater good. The works of Ayn Rand are hereby placed on the banned list for K-through-12 schoolchildren.”

“Dr. Paul Hsieh has been making pro-abortion statements on his blog. Now that the Congress has recognized a fertilized egg as a legal person with full rights, such statements are an incitement to murder. Because he is not a licensed journalist, his actions fall outside the scope of protected free speech, and we are thus issuing this warrant for his arrest.”

In short, my biggest concern is that if we use non-objective law to stop the mosque, we may help temporarily stop creeping Sharia law and we may stop some immediate attacks (which could save many lives). But because we still wouldn’t have dealt with the underlying problem in a proper fashion (i.e., by declaring and fighting a proper war), the danger from abroad will not be prevented — but merely delayed.

And because of the non-objective means we chose to stop the mosque, reality will extract its inevitable price in the form of accelerating the trend towards a home-grown religious tyranny.

Again, I’m not unmindful of the danger posed by the jihadists. The prospect of a new NYC mosque inspiring jihadists at home and abroad as a rallying point (and as a symbol of American weakness) fills me with dread. The prospect of further attacks on US soil make me sick to my stomach. And the prospect of thousands of needless American deaths fills me with horror.

But in my personal judgment, I don’t think the jihadists — as violent and barbaric as they are — can ultimately conquer and enslave Americans. On the other hand, we Americans can enslave ourselves.

Or to quote from Shakespeare’s “Richard II“:

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world…
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

(Just substitute “America” for “England” and you’ll have our current unfortunate circumstances.)

In other words, we may be on the verge of falling into the trap that Benjamin Franklin warned about of “trading essential liberty for a little temporary security”.

As before, I recognize that others who I know and respect have come to the opposite judgment call on the NYC mosque issue. Again, this is a consequence of the fact that the only good option (of waging a proper war) has been taken off the table.

I also again acknowledge that if the specifics of this particular situation were different, then I might come to the opposite conclusion and make that painful trade while hoping to best avert the dire downstream consequences. Likewise, if there is sufficient evidence that the mosque and/or its supporters are planning terrorist attacks against the US, then we should use all appropriate means to protect ourselves, including closing the mosque.

As someone else who I respect noted on Facebook, during the Cold War we properly respected the free speech rights of Marxists (as odious as their views were), yet also properly employed government force against members of the Communist Party of the USA (who were receiving orders and funding from Moscow with the intent to overthrow the US government). We can and should apply the same principles to the current situation.

I don’t want to leave this post on a too-gloomy note, so I want to end by thanking Amy for her post.

She raised good points that I had not thought of before. She advanced the discussion in a positive direction and helped me understand the issue better. And she helped me re-examine and re-affirm my love for this great country in which I can still work, speak, and live as a relatively free man to pursue my own happiness and self-interest — something I will be especially thankful for this July 4 at OCON.

My Comment Policy: Judge, and Prepare to Be Judged

Jun 292010

Due to the debate about the NYC Mosque, the comments have been unusually busy these past few days. I’ve been unusually busy too, such that I’ve not had time to do more than skim many comments. That’s not going to change for the foreseeable future, so I wanted to clarify my position vis-à-vis the comments, not just the comments here, but also on my Facebook page. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m satisfied with everything that’s being said — because I’m not.

Ordinarily, I screen the comments for personal attacks, albeit in a loose way. I’m not so concerned if people posting in the comments lob the occasional insult at each other, provided that the discussion stays reasonably civil overall. However, I don’t want people launching personal grenades aimed at Objectivist intellectuals not involved in the discussion. That’s unfair to them. In general, I want people to argue the issues, not to attack their opponents.

(For the record, I made some mistakes in that regard early in this debate, for which I’ve apologized in the relevant venues. I’m not immune from error, but I’m trying hard to stay above the fray.)

Right now, I don’t have time to screen the comments, although I’ve seen much that I’ve found objectionable. Rather than shut down the comments entirely, I’m operating them on a “judge, and prepare to be judged” policy for the next few weeks. Basically, unless the sight of another comment from you makes me want to puke my guts and tear my hair out, I’m going to allow it. You’re welcome to judge other people for their comments — and be judged for your comments in turn. I would ask, however, that you keep those judgments out of the comments. If you don’t … well … you can expect to be judged for that.

Personally, I’m disheartened to see some personal attacks on Leonard Peikoff in these comments. I respect Leonard Peikoff hugely, despite this disagreement. He’s an honorable man in my book, whatever his anger toward people who hold my views. He cares about the future of this country deeply — and he’s fought for decades to save it. He deserves better than to be casually dismissed, as if he’s not thought about his views, even if you think his position utterly wrong.

If I can keep that context — even though I’m deeply, personally hurt by some of his remarks in his podcast and distressed by the unjust attacks on me by some people unleashed as a result — then you can too. Please, make an effort.

Also, please remember that you’re to wrap up any discussion of this topic by the end of today.

Take A Deep Breath

Jun 292010

I’m grateful that Paul took the time to write the post below on the NYC mosque debate. I agree with his analysis completely, and I’ve found that it gave me a better perspective on the debate as a whole. While my views remain the same, I’ve got a better grasp of the merits of the opposing view. I hope that I’m not alone in that.

I’d like to see everyone involved in this debate take a step back and a deep breath. It’s very much needed.

I would hate to see OCON marred by unpleasant sniping, belligerence, or worse. OCON should be nothing but wonderfully fabulous delightful enjoyment. That’s what I aim to make it for myself. Personally, I don’t want to hear any sniping about this debate, nor hear any reports about sniping. Instead, I hope that people who dislike and disrespect each other can politely avoid the other without undue fuss — and avoid bitter chatter about each other too. That’s what I aim to do. If I falter in that, I hope that my friends will gently correct me.

To help calm the waters before OCON, I’ve decided not to write any further blog posts on this topic — nor comment much on it — for the next few weeks. I’m just too busy to indulge in the distraction, and I don’t want to start OCON feeling like I’m entering a war zone. (I was planning to write up a post featuring these excellent comments from Tony Donadio and Ray Niles, as well as Ari Armstrong’s blog post What About the Forty Other Islamic Centers?. Alas, these links will have to suffice.)

In addition, I’d ask that people wrap up any debate about the mosque in the comments by this evening. Let’s step away from that debate before OCON, as much as possible.

Personally, I plan to spend the next few days preparing for OCON, plus indulging in the fantastic pleasure of buying a stellar horse. (Yup, details will be forthcoming… although all depends on Thursday afternoon’s vet check. I’m absurdly excited.)

In the comments, why don’t you tell me about something special that you’ll be doing over the next few days? I think we’d all like to hear about something positive!

Observations on the NYC Mosque Debate

Jun 292010

I hadn’t intended to make any public comment about the NYC mosque issue, primarily because I’ve been busy working on a couple more health care articles, as well as helping edit another friend’s article.

But given the recent outbreak of often-heated arguments between Objectivists in the blogosphere and in social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) over this issue, I decided to take a break from my other work and speak my mind now — before OCON 2010, when many of us will be seeing each other in person.

1) For the record, I agree with Diana’s position as articulated in her blog posts of June 16 and June 28 and the position taken by Steve Simpson in his guest post of June 24. I also agree with these comments posted by Tony Donadio and Ray Niles (aka “Galileo Blogs”).

(As a corollary, this means that I although I have tremendous respect for Dr. Peikoff as a philosopher and although I agree with much of what he said in his recent podcast on this topic, I must respectfully disagree with his conclusions about the proper actions the government should take towards the proposed NYC mosque in the current context.)

2) This isn’t the first time that Objectivists who agree on basic principles disagree sharply on how to properly apply those principles to specific concrete situations. Nor will it be the last time.

This particular dispute happens to be especially heated precisely because it concerns an issue of vital importance to all of us — namely the future (and quite possibly the very survival) of our great country.

3) I want to highlight the fact that the reason that many Objectivists who otherwise agree on many important issues are finding themselves at loggerheads on this particular issue is because it is a lose-lose question.

Objectivists generally agree that Americans are being threatened by Islamic Totalitarian ideologues who seek to destroy the US. And we agree that the proper response would be for our government to identify that threat and wage a proper war with the goal of defeating and destroying the enemy.

That’s the proper function of government — to protect our individual rights from aggressors abroad and from criminals at home. One of Ayn Rand’s many brilliant philosophical insights was that human survival in a social context requires a limited government which protects individual rights, specifically by placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of government right now. Instead, we live under a government that refuses to properly identify the enemy, refuses to wage a proper war of self-defense, and refuses to protect our individual rights.

Given that unfortunate fact, we are left with no good life-promoting options — only bad death-promoting choices.

On one side are those who argue that allowing the NYC mosque to be built would further weaken the few remaining restraints stopping the bad guys from killing us — and the result would be our destruction.

On the other hand are those who argue that stopping the building of the mosque by allowing the government to exercise force in a grossly non-objective fashion would further weaken the few remaining restraints keeping us from descending into tyranny — and the result would be our destruction.

Both sides raise important concerns, particularly about the dangers of adopting the course endorsed by their opponents. That’s precisely what happens when the only good option (of waging a proper war against our enemies) has been taken off the table. Once that happens, all we are left with are bad options.

In essence, when Good Option A has been taken off the table, and we are left only with Bad Options B and C, supporters of Option B can justifiably claim that “Option C will lead to our destruction” and supporters of Option C justifiably claim that “Option B will lead to our destruction”.

Because long-range human survival requires a government that protects our rights through objectively controlled retaliatory force, the corollary is that absence of such a government will lead to our deaths and destruction. The only question is what form that death will that take — from enemies abroad or from a tyranny at home. And that’s why too much of this debate is over a lose-lose question.

4) I believe there can be legitimate disagreements as to which of those two bad options would be more immediately disastrous.

Similarly, I believe there can be legitimate debates over a variety of related issues such as whether we have enough information to know that the NYC mosque constitutes an objectively-proven threat to our lives, and how imminent that threat is. Those arguments are already occurring in other venues, so I won’t rehash the details here.

My personal judgment, based on my best understanding of the facts and relevant principles, is that the long-range threat to American freedoms and American lives would be significantly greater if the government further violated basic principles of objective law and chose to destroy the mosque.

I’m not ignorant or unmindful of the concerns of the other side. But in the current context, I judge that the danger of rapidly accelerating tyranny would outweigh the real (but not quite as imminent) danger of death and destruction from the bad guys.

I also recognize that if some of the specifics were different (for instance, if the Iranian government were using the mosque to hide a nuclear weapon which would detonate in NYC in a few days), then I would take the opposite position and instead urge the immediate destruction of the mosque, while hoping to best deal with the problems of expansion of tyranny later.

These are the sorts of issues that make for good dramas like the television show 24 (and which I hope stay purely in the world of Hollywood fiction.)

Likewise, I would endorse shutting down the mosque via appropriate due process if it were shown to be used to recruit terrorists or plot terrorist acts. Or if we established with reasonable certainty that the funding of the mosque was coming from states that sponsor terrorism (not Qatar).

5) I’m not an expert on foreign policy or Islam. Most of my recent intellectual activism has been in other arenas, such as health care and free speech. So I’m open to reasoned criticisms that I’m wrong on some important relevant facts.

Likewise, I’m not a philosopher or an expert on Objectivism. Hence, I’m open to reasoned criticisms that I’m misunderstanding or misapplying the relevant principles of Objectivism to this particular concrete issue.

To quote from Galt’s speech, “When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.”

Hence, I’m willing to be held fully accountable for my views by other rational men — and judged accordingly.

In turn, my own self-interest demands that I judge those on both sides of the debate considering the full context of their words and actions, not just now but over the entirety of time I’ve known them.

I know, like, and respect people on both sides of this dispute. And I regard many of the people on the other side of this debate as fundamentally good people, even though I may think that their position on this issue is deeply wrong (and correspondingly harmful to my interests). But they’ve earned the right to be treated with respect. And I hope that they will afford me whatever corresponding degree of respect that I may have earned in their eyes.

6) Finally, I don’t plan on engaging in much more (if any) public discussion on this particular issue — I have too much other pressing work that takes higher priority for me.

But given that I will see many of you soon at OCON 2010 and that I will also run into many of you in various online venues, I wanted to state my views as clearly and unambiguously as possible now in order to minimize any possible future misunderstandings.

Leonard Peikoff on the NYC Mosque

Jun 272010

Note from Diana Hsieh, 22 Feb 2012

If you’ve come to this page via “Checking Premises” or something similar, please note that I’ve written a length commentary on the criticisms circulating about me, including explaining my views of various controversial matters, in this post: On Some Recent Controversies. I’d recommend reading that, then judging me based on my full range of work, not just a few out-of-context snippets. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me privately at [email protected].


In his most recent podcast, Leonard Peikoff offers his view of the controversy surrounding the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. I encourage you to listen to his podcast for yourself.

I agree with much that he says, including his view of the threat posed by totalitarian Islam. However, I cannot regard this mosque as an objective threat to the rights of others without concrete evidence of ties to terrorism. For all the reasons outlined in my original post and Steve Simpson’s post, I regard Dr. Peikoff’s recommendation of stopping the building of the mosque by “any way possible” as wrong. That’s a grave threat to my life and liberty, and I cannot support it.

In Dr. Peikoff’s commentary, as well as in the recent round of Facebook comments, I’ve noticed a serious equivocation in the claim of my opponents that “we are at war.”

Undoubtedly, the west is in a cultural war with Islam — a war that most governments, organizations, and people refuse to acknowledge, let alone fight. Undoubtedly, our government should be at war with the states that export totalitarian Islam, pulverizing them into dust if necessary. Nonetheless, the fact remains that our government is not at war with our Islamic enemies, not in any real sense. Our political and military leaders are not willing to declare, let alone fight, a proper war in our self-defense.

As a result of that failure, the actions of the government toward those enemies are limited. For example, our government cannot prosecute imams for treason when they give aid and comfort to enemy terrorist groups like Hamas. Yes, that’s wrong — but that’s what happens when a government refuses to identify its enemies. Similarly, our government cannot regard the proposed mosque as an enemy outpost, as it might, if we were truly at war.

The solution is not to pretend as if war has been declared — and thereby empower the government to violate people’s rights willy-nilly. The solution is not to eliminate the few remaining limits on government power that protect our capacity to speak freely. The solution is press hard for a proper war — a war against our true enemies, a war fought purely on the basis of American self-interest.

Until we get that explicit declaration of war against our Islamic enemies, the hands of our government should be tied. That’s a frightening prospect, as the Muslim terrorists will take advantage of that weakness. Yet if we loose the hands of Uncle Sam, others with seemingly threatening views will soon be crushed too… and that means you and me. Once that happens, we’ll not have a civilization worth saving from the Muslims.

As much as I respect Dr. Peikoff’s philosophic judgment, I cannot ignore that risk to my life and limb.

Update as of 26 January 2012: I wrongly attributed the phrase “any means possible” to Dr. Peikoff in the original version of this article. According to Trey Givens’ transcript, Dr. Peikoff said, “Any way possible permission should be refuse[d] and if they go ahead and build it, the government should bomb it out of existence, evacuating it first, with no compensation to any of the property owners involved in this monstrosity.”

Steve Simpson: Rule of Law in the Case of the NYC Mosque

Jun 242010

I’m delighted to present this guest commentary on the contentious issue of the New York City mosque from Steve Simpson, regular NoodleFood reader and lawyer:

Like Diana, I view the NY Mosque issue as a basic question of property rights. The owners of the land should have the right to build on it whatever they please. If evidence exists (now or in the future) that they support terrorism or are supported by terrorists, there are laws under which the government can proceed against them (the Supreme Court upheld just such a law this week). But absent that, the fact that they want to build a Mosque is not a legitimate reason to deny them the right to build on their own land. They are called property rights for a reason. Just as the right to free speech protects one’s right to say things others find offensive and odious, so the right to property protects one’s right to own and use property regardless of what others think.

One thing that is particularly disturbing about the efforts to prevent the Mosque is the disregard for due process and the rule of law. The argument seems to be that we don’t have laws on the books to prevent terrorists or their supporters from operating here–or we lack the political will to use the laws that do exist–so let’s just try to cajole a zoning board into doing that job for us.

That is akin to a mob mentality. Asking a board of bureaucrats to wield arbitrary and illegitimate power to run people off of property they legally own is not fundamentally different from just picking up torches and pitchforks and running them off their land ourselves. In fact, it is arguably worse, because it sets a precedent–or supports a preexisting one–of arbitrary government power exercised via arbitrary means. Bureaucrats armed with arbitrary power cannot be disbursed as easily as an angry mob.

It doesn’t help that the cause may be moral. Morality is necessary to objective law, but it is far from sufficient. Objective law also requires, well, that we actually have objective laws and processes on the books and that we use them. It is not enough–it is never, ever enough–to say that it would be morally appropriate to proceed against someone if we only had the laws to do it, but since we lack the laws or the political will, our ends justify whatever means we decide to use under the circumstances.

Knowingly prosecuting a guilty man for the wrong crime is just as bad as prosecuting an innocent man who has committed no crime. In some ways, it might even be more dangerous, at least to the legal system, because it is so tempting and so easy to do. Like appointing Ellsworth Toohey chief judge or prosecutor, it would lead to a softening of standards and would ultimately destroy the rule of law. In A Man for All Seasons, the character Sir Thomas More chides an acquaintance for wanting to “cut down every law in England” to go after the Devil: “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide… the laws all being flat?”

Those who are concerned about the Obama administration’s thuggish tactics should take this to heart. Look what has happened to Wall Street and BP. BP and its affiliates are almost undoubtedly liable for the Gulf oil spill and all damages that flow from it, but that is ultimately a question for the legal process to sort out. But that is not good enough for those who want action now. They’ve taken a more expedient approach by appealing to the Obama Administration to do something. The Administration has obliged them by issuing a six-month moratorium on drilling in the Gulf and decreeing that BP pay into a damages fund and even pay the lost wages of workers laid off because of the moratorium. How are these actions any different in principle from the efforts to prevent the NY Mosque from being built?

Those who support denying the land owners in NY the right to build a Mosque might consider just how far they are willing to go. Yesterday, a federal judge invalidated the Gulf drilling moratorium as arbitrary and capricious–essentially, an action taken without due process of law. What if the efforts in NY were successful and the land owner sued on essentially the same grounds? Are those who support the efforts to prevent the Mosque from being built prepared to go to court and say that zoning or land use boards possess the legitimate power to prevent land owners from building on their own land? That denying them that right is not arbitrary and capricious? That we need an exception to due process for people who want to build Mosques? How many laws are they willing to knock down to get at the devil?

There’s an odd sort of contradiction at the heart of the argument in favor of cajoling a zoning board into denying the land owners the right to build. It consists in saying that the government will not use legitimate anti-terror laws to prosecute the owners if they support terrorism, but it will use illegitimate, non-objective laws and processes to accomplish the same ends. But if officials lack the will to use legitimate means to go after terrorists, why would they possess the will to use illegitimate means? Supporting this effort seems destined to fail, in which case those who have done so have thrown away principle for nothing at all. And if government is willing to go after the terrorists, why would we ever support using illegitimate means when we could support using legitimate means? Trusting the government with arbitrary power is always a bad bet.

Government, as Ayn Rand pointed out, “is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control–i.e., under objectively defined laws.” Objective law “requires objective rules of evidence to establish that a crime has been committed and to prove who committed it, as well as objective rules to define punishments and enforcement procedures. Men who attempt to prosecute crimes, without such rules, are a lynch mob.”

We ignore this at our peril.

NYC Mosque: Respect Property Rights

Jun 162010

Note from Diana Hsieh, 22 Feb 2012

If you’ve come to this page via “Checking Premises” or something similar, please note that I’ve written a length commentary on the criticisms circulating about me, including explaining my views of various controversial matters, in this post: On Some Recent Controversies. I’d recommend reading that, then judging me based on my full range of work, not just a few out-of-context snippets. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me privately at [email protected].


On Facebook, I’ve been involved in some heated debates on the proposed building of a mosque near the World Trade Center lately. They were spawned by Ed Cline’s note in support of conservative Pamela Geller’s since-resolved dispute with PayPal. (For the record, I find Geller’s use of Playboy’ed Atlas Shrugged images for her conservative politics offensive in more ways than I can count.)

Here’s the problem: Geller wants to use the power of the state to prevent the mosque from being built, even though it’s private property. That’s wrong.

For people to protest the building of the mosque at that site would be entirely proper. (They could write letters to the editor or picket the site, for example.) For the government to investigate the builders of the mosque for any ties to terrorism is likely warranted. (Mere foreign funding is not evidence of terrorist ties though.) However, to forcibly block the construction of the mosque by using unjust laws that violate private property rights is morally wrong, not to mention politically dangerous.

People should not be judged guilty by the law and stripped of their rights just because they accept or advocate certain ideas. A person has the right to hold whatever beliefs he pleases — however wrong — provided that he does not attempt to force them on others. He has the right to practice the religion of his choosing, so long as he does so without violating the rights of others.

Even in times of war, a government cannot justly treat all immigrants from the enemy’s country or all adherents of the enemy’s religion as enemies. To strip a person of his rights to life, liberty, or property without some concrete evidence of his sympathy for or assistance to the enemy is to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty. It’s pure collectivism.

Yet people on that Facebook thread — including some Objectivists — claim that we’re at war with the religion of Islam per se, that all Muslims are terrorists due to the Koranic command to wage war against the infidel, that to respect the property rights of Muslims would be suicidal, that Muslims should be barred from entering the country, that all Muslims should be treated as suspected terrorists, etc. That shocked me. It’s not a view that’s consistent with individual rights, nor with Objectivism.

So a few days ago, I briefly stepped into that thread to lend my support to an Objectivist philosopher under attack for arguing that law-abiding Muslims have a right to build what they please on their own property.

Here’s what I wrote:

Private property must be respected, even when we find the views and actions of its owners odious, provided that they’re not acting to violate rights. Totalitarian Islam is a major threat, but that threat needs to be fought by the military — by destroying the states that sponsor terrorism — not by violating private property rights in order to prevent a mosque from being built.

It’s standard conservative strategy to use the rights-violating machinery of the state to achieve some (supposedly) noble purpose, rather than working for the kind of fundamental change necessary to eliminate the problem at its root. That fundamental change isn’t “practical” or “realistic,” conservatives say. It’s “pie in the sky” fantasy.

Hence, for example, conservatives advocate “right to work” laws, rather than advocating for repeal of the unjust legislation (like the Wagner Act) that gives unions so much power. Fundamentally, that’s because conservatives don’t care about liberty, despite their occasional pro-rights rhetoric. They’re just in a political struggle with the left: they want power, nothing more.

Ayn Rand, in contrast, always took a principled approach. That’s why she opposed “right to work” laws — and that’s why she upheld the rights of communists to speak, provided that they weren’t attempting to overthrow the US government. In her “Screen Guide for Americans,” Ayn Rand wrote:

“Now a word of warning about the question of free speech. The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas–which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense. The Constitutional guarantee of free speech reads: “Congress shall pass no law…” It does not require employers to be suckers.

“Let the Communists preach what they wish (so long as it remains mere talking) at the expense of those and in the employ of those who share their ideas. Let them create their own motion picture studios, if they can. But let us put an end to their use of our pictures, our studios and our money for the purpose of preaching our exploitation, enslavement and destruction. Freedom of speech does not imply that it is our duty to provide a knife for the murderer who wants to cut our throat.”

Based on that, do you really think that Ayn Rand would have advocated violating the private property rights of Muslims? If so, then you’re thinking like a conservative, not an Objectivist. You’re being pragmatic, not principled. As the trajectory of modern conservatism into more and more statism has shown, that’s a losing strategy.

I was hoping that the Objectivists on that thread might see fit to check their premises. I was disappointed, so I decided not to post further. However, I’d like to add a few more comments here.

If, without any known terrorist or criminal connections, the government need not respect the property rights of the Muslims seeking to build this mosque, then why respect the property rights of any Muslims? Can the government prevent the building of mosques elsewhere? Can it destroy existing mosques? Can it seize the home of Muslims? Can it shut down Islamic web sites, even if unconcerned with the infidel? Can it ban Muslims from advocating their religion? Can it imprison Muslim leaders? Can it intern Muslims in camps? Can it execute people for refusing to renounce Islam?

These are serious questions. If the rights of Muslim citizens need not be respected, then logic demands that a person answer “Yes” to all those questions. That person must endorse totalitarian control over Muslims — solely for their ideas — even when lacking any evidence of criminal activity or intentions. He must endorse the idea of thoughtcrime, i.e. punishment by the state for unwelcome ideas. The slope here is very, very slippery.

As Paul argued in his recent op-ed on free speech:

Free speech is essential to human life. Man’s primary means of survival is his mind. In order to live, we must be free to reason and think. Hence we must be left free to acquire and transmit knowledge, which means we must be free to express our ideas, right or wrong.

That’s what’s at stake here.

Personally, I regard the principles underlying the call to ignore the property rights of these Muslims as a major threat to my liberty. Suppose that Muslims are stripped of their rights and shipped off to the gulag. Do you imagine that our government — statist behemoth that it is — wouldn’t use those same powers to silence other critics? How long before Paul and I would be declared enemies of the state, stripped of our property, and sentenced to years of “re-education” or “labor”? Do you think that Leonard Peikoff, Yaron Brook, and Craig Biddle wouldn’t be silenced, if not worse? Do you think that you’d be safe?

I’m not keen on the gulag. (Amazing, but true!) So if you’re supporting political action that will get me there sooner, then we’re not political allies. In fact, you’re nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing to me. You might be smart, pleasant, and conscientious; you might not wish me any harm; you might wish to promote liberty. Nonetheless, you’re a danger to me and mine. I can’t ignore that, and I hope that this post will give you pause.

I’m appalled that our government is not waging anything remotely like a proper war against the states that sponsor terrorism. Yet that problem cannot be solved by violating the rights of random Muslims in America. If our government is permitted to strip people of their rights based solely on ideology, the Muslim fanatics will be the least of our worries.

Update: Ari Armstrong just posted a great analysis of prominent conservative arguments for forcibly preventing the building of the NYC mosque. He found that all clearly reject the principle of individual rights.

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