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Russell Means in Memoriam: Mitaku Oyasin October 25, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Political Philosophy, Teaching.
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Many of my students have heard me talk about Russell Means over the years. A complex man in complicated times, believing he saw a simpler solution to the culture war he believed still existed between the American Indian communities and mainstream America. A man who had his own vision, and sometimes version, of history. Russell Means passed away October 22 from throat cancer, and the spectrum of Americans in the public eye has lost a unique dimension.

So who was Russell Means? An Oglala Sioux Indian, with many different facets to his life. The American Indian activist Means was the chief organizer of the second Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, and was involved in various American Indian movements. His activist accomplishments are outlined here. The politician Russell Means ran as the vice presidential candidate to Larry Flynt’s presidential candidacy in 1983, and ran against Ron Paul as the Libertarian presidential candidate in 1987 (Paul won). The actor Russell Means was a significant Hollywood presence, playing the iconic character Chingachgook in the 1992 movie The Last of the Mohicans—and provided a special ambiance to the 2004 season of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. His film credits are numerous, as you can see on the Wikipedia site. The businessman Russell Means ran a website where he told his story, and the story of the plight of the American Indian, and sold CDs, art and t-shirts in support of the American Indian cause. And (this is where my connection to him comes in) the lecturer Russell Means would travel around the United States to college campuses, educating new generations of students to what became his own version of American Indian history. He was a speaker at San Diego Mesa College in the 1990s, and that was where I met him. (And I should also mention: the private citizen Russell Means had domestic problems, and was arrested for assault and battery toward his father-in-law back on the Navajo reservation. And he had more severe legal problems earlier on when he was indicted for murder on a reservation, but acquitted.)  And his image is familiar to Andy Warhol fans–Warhol painted Means 18 times.

But back to the lecturer persona. I wish I could tell you exactly when Means visited the Mesa College campus, but I don’t see any references to his visit on the Mesa College website, and all I remember is that it was in the early years when I was first teaching Philosophy of Women; so: the late 1990s. He was scheduled to give a talk in the room behind the cafeteria, and I decided to bring one of my classes to the talk. The room was packed with people, sitting on chairs, standing, sitting on the floor, and Means, 6 ft tall or more, hair in braids, was a very imposing sight, and a gifted speaker. Well, he kept on talking past the class period, and I ran back to the classroom and collected the students waiting for my next class, and brought them down to the cafeteria; Means was still talking. And he kept on talking for a good four hours, about what it is like to be an American Indian, about his battles and his careers, about American Indian traditions, about discrimination and near-genocide, and about the term “Indian” itself. He shocked most of us PC college people by declaring that he didn’t mind being called an Indian, and that the proper term to use was either “American Indian” or the tribal name such as Oglala Sioux Indian, but never Native American. He said it was a term invented by Washington for funding/political purposes (which is why I, to this day—and my students and readers of my books can verify that—always use the term American Indian). And the term Indian itself? Wikipedia (below) got his argument right, but whether it is also historically correct is something I can’t determine (and I have yet to find a historian who agrees with Means): 

Since the late 20th century, there has been a debate in the United States over the appropriate term for the indigenous peoples of North America. Some want to be called Native American; others prefer American Indian. Means said that he preferred “American Indian”, arguing that it derives not from explorers’ confusion of the people with those of India, but from the Italian expression in Dio, meaning “in God”.[17][18] In addition, Means noted that since treaties and other legal documents in relation to the United States government use “Indian”, continuing use of the term could help today’s American Indian people forestall any attempts by others to use legal loopholes in the struggle over land and treaty rights.

In addition he talked about what I referred to above as a culture war between the mainstream Euro-American tradition and the American Indian peoples. He said, the Euro-Americans are a culture of swords and violent domination, while the American Indians are a sharing culture, a culture of partnerships symbolized by a bowl or drinking cup. At that point my ears perked up, because I had just been reading Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade, about the ancient gynocentric (female-oriented) partnership cultures of Old Europe symbolized by the chalice, vs the invading patriarchal dominator cultures worshipping the “lethal Blade.” So I asked Means if there was a connection, and he said, “Yes, there is this woman who wrote a book about the same phenomenon in Europe, and it fits the situation in this country between the indigenous peoples and the invaders. ” From from a gender-philosophical standpoint I found it fascinating that he would adopt the Eisler theory as an explanatory model for the American Indian culture (even if Eisler is also considered an activist and in no way a historian).  I tend to be skeptical of such arguments which tend to simplify very complex matters, and fan an ongoing (and possibly outdated) tension and enmity, and I see no reason to find Eisler’s theory more historically accurate because of the fact that Means liked it, but I found the confluence of research, activism and tradition to be intriguing.  If you want to experience him talking about the topic of partnership cultures and gynocentric (matriarchal) cultures, watch this YouTube clip.

Means ended his 4-hour lecture at Mesa by teaching his audience the end of every Oglala and Lakota prayer: two words that embrace all of creation, everywhere and for all time: Mitaku Oyasin: We are all related. And while much of his lecture was, to a scholar such as myself, a creative journey into personal interpretations rather than facts (and sometimes interpretations that were hard to swallow), his passionate sincerity rang true, and has stayed with me as a cherished memory. And his prayer still comes to mind sometimes when I’m looking for connections and common ground rather than analytical differences. So: Thanks for the lessons, Russell, and Mitaku Oyasin…

Cross-posted at Rosenstand’s Alternative Voice blog for Rosenstand’s Mesa students.


Habermas on Rawls on Religion December 14, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy, religion.
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In his blog on Habermas and Rawls, Thomas Gregersen has published a link to a new afterword by Habermas about the young Rawls’ analysis of religion in his senior thesis from 1942, “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.” This piece apparently wasn’t known to exist until after Rawls’ death in 2002. In 1942 Rawls was 21, and since I’m right now grading what seems like a stack of several thousand papers 🙂 from students in that age-bracket, I am acutely aware of the quality of writing and argumentation…however, I’ll pursue Rawls’ own text at a later date, and leave it to Habermas to “grade” Rawls!

I thought you might find it interesting to (1) see Gregersen’s blog, (2) read the Habermas piece .

An excerpt from Habermas’ review, quoted by Gregersen:

“I will limit myself here to four observations. (1) This confident work, which is strikingly mature for a twenty-one-year-old, merits interest in the first instance as a surprising biographical testimony concerning the work and personality of the most important political theorist of the twentieth century. (2) The philosophical substance of the senior thesis consists in a religious ethics which already exhibits all of the essential features of an egalitarian and universalistic ethics of duty tailored to the absolute worth of the individual. (3) At the same time the posthumous insight into the biographical sources of the author’s work offers an outstanding example of the philosophical translation of religious motives. It is as if one were examining the religious roots of a deontological morality based on reason alone under a magnifying glass. (4) The student’s senior thesis also foreshadows his later recognition that the secularisation of state power must not be confused with the secularisation of civil society. Rawls owes his unique standing in the social contract tradition to the systematic attention he devotes to religious and metaphysical pluralism.”

Of course it is always fascinating when precursors to a thinker’s prominent contributions can be found in his or her early writings. But that shouldn’t detract from the significance of a good thinker being able to change his or her mind…

The Myth of Equality September 9, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics, Uncategorized.
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In 1915, the richest 1% garnered 18% of the nations income, according to Timothy Noah, writing a serious of articles about inequality on Slate

This was the era in which the accumulated wealth of America’s richest families—the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies—helped prompt creation of the modern income tax, lest disparities in wealth turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy. The socialist movement was at its historic peak, a wave of anarchist bombings was terrorizing the nation’s industrialists, and President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Alexander Palmer, would soon stage brutal raids on radicals of every stripe. In American history, there has never been a time when class warfare seemed more imminent.

[…] Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income. What caused this to happen?

Over the next couple weeks, Noah will try to explain this trend toward greater inequality. But getting the timeline right is essential for a coherent account.

Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s.  Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have termed this midcentury era the “Great Compression.” The deep nostalgia for that period felt by the World War II generation—the era of Life magazine and the bowling league—reflects something more than mere sentimentality. Assuming you were white, not of draft age, and Christian, there probably was no better time to belong to America’s middle class.

The Great Compression ended in the 1970s. Wages stagnated, inflation raged, and by the decade’s end, income inequality had started to rise. Income inequality grew through the 1980s, slackened briefly at the end of the 1990s, and then resumed with a vengeance in the aughts.

…from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20 percent. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.

Why don’t we pay more attention to this increase in inequality?

One reason may be our enduring belief in social mobility. Economic inequality is less troubling if you live in a country where any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can grow up to be president. In a survey of 27 nations conducted from 1998 to 2001, the country where the highest proportion agreed with the statement “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill” was, of course, the United States. (69 percent). But when it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick.

Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, not to mention Germany, France, and the UK have income distributions more equal than ours, yet this seldom is a successful campaign issue. The myth of American commitment to equality dies hard.

If we are to get a handle on this issue, we will need to know the cause of the growing inequality—so I will be following Noah’s installments as he lays out the explanation.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Self-Deception of the Overlords April 20, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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Matt Yglesias is shocked:

Financial advisor Mike Donahue whines in the WSJ: “I have more than most only because I’ve worked harder than most and because I am a saver.”

I find it literally shocking that people say things like this. And I always go back to the case of the Salvadoran guys who moved all my furniture into my current apartment. I certainly make more money than those guys. But whether or not I work longer hours than they do (which is definitely possible, I work pretty long hours), you’d have to be clinically insane to think that writing my blog entails working harder than they do. In the real world, the reason I earn more than Salvadoran movers is the same as the reason I work less hard—I have more valuable skills, and people with valuable skills can demand both more money and cushier working conditions. But it’s not as if those guys were too lazy to become American political pundits, they were born in El Salvador in the middle of a civil war and never had a chance to obtain the relevant skills.


I don’t find Donahue’s comments shocking but only because I have heard them so often they no longer make me cringe. But I quite agree with Yglesias’s take on this.

There just is not much of a relationship between how hard someone works and how much money they make.

The job market doesn’t reward effort; it rewards having a skill or ability for which the supply falls short of demand. And our social norms reward having wealthy parents.

None of these are factors that individuals have much control over.

But, for some reason, successful people place great stock in convincing themselves that their success is entirely their own doing.

I put in lots of hours thinking, writing, teaching, explaining, grading, etc. The only part of my job dull enough to reasonably be called work is grading and going to meetings. But I certainly don’t work harder than movers, miners, construction workers, K-12 teachers, or farm laborers.  The difference is that society values what I do. I’m grateful for that, but it isn’t my doing.

Highly paid newspaper pundits are always lecturing us about “welfare queens” , self-reliance, the vices of the poor, and how giving people aid makes them lazy. If they actually had to do real work they might not be so quick to criticize.

Here are some key facts about economic mobility in the United States:

  • Children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.

  • Children born to the middle quintile of parental family income ($42,000 to $54,300) had about the same chance of ending up in a lower quintile than their parents (39.5 percent) as they did of moving to a higher quintile (36.5 percent). Their chances of attaining the top five percentiles of the income distribution were just 1.8 percent.
  • By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.

So much for the American Dream.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Revolution Is Late February 21, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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Unemployment is high, stubbornly high, and many economists, including Administration economists, think the employment situation will not improve quickly.

The New York Times on Sunday had a story about this chronic unemployment, which contains the following quote by Allen Sinai:

“American business is about maximizing shareholder value,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics. “You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”

Allen Sinai is no left wing academic—he has been for many years a prominent forecaster of economic trends for major corporations and governments.

As Brian Leiter asks:

“One wonders if Mr. Sinai knows the pedigree for this insight about capitalism?  Or if he understands the consequence of this logic?”

The idea that capitalism will destroy itself by seeking efficiencies that will ultimately throw the people who buy its products out of work was one of Karl Marx’s main ideas.

Now it is being confirmed by the capitalists themselves.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Caring about Fairness February 18, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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New research in neuroscience continues to have important implications for philosophical debates in ethics and political philosophy.

Via Colin Farrelly:

Political philosophers interested in abstract debates about equality vs priority and sufficiency should find this recent study in Nature Neuroscience of interest (as well as this News piece).

It is commonly assumed that the impulse to maximize one’s own self-interest is automatic and can be contrasted with the deliberative, reflective sentiments of prosocial actors who care about equality. But it seems that the decision-making of the latter is also automatic emotional processing. Here is the abstract of the paper:

‘Social value orientation’ characterizes individual differences in anchoring attitudes toward the division of resources. Here, by contrasting people with prosocial and individualistic orientations using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrate that degree of inequity aversion in prosocials is predictable from amygdala activity and unaffected by cognitive load. This result suggests that automatic emotional processing in the amygdala lies at the core of prosocial value orientation.

This is important research in support of an ethic of care and its political implications. It suggests that our concern for fairness and equality is rooted in the emotions, not in our capacity to reason impartially.

It supports my main argument in Reviving the Left.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Philosophy Talk February 17, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy.
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I am giving a talk on Friday for our Occasional Lecture Series at Mesa College.

The title is “How an Ethics of Care Can Transform Politics.”

It is open to the public so if you are interested in politics, ethics, and their intersection (and you live in San Diego) check it out.

The talk will be on Friday at 12:00 noon in LRC (Library Resource Center) 435.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Wealth, Inequality, and Europe January 15, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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American political writers constantly claim that Europe, although a nice place to visit, doesn’t really produce enough wealth to make it livable. This column by Ross Douthat is the most recent of the genre. This belief is part of the narrative that social democracies, because they devote lots of resources to public goods and a social safety net, are less efficient than full-blown capitalist economies.

Matt Yglesias has the right response to this argument.

There are three main differences in living standards between the United States and Europe. One is that the US has long been somewhat wealthier than the biggest European countries, dating back to the 19th century. Two is that the US is much less egalitarian than Europe—a bigger share of European output is in the hands of the poor and the middle class, and a smaller share in the hands of the rich. The third is that Americans work more than most western Europeans…

These last two show us what I think is the real meaning of social democracy for a developed country—you get more equality and more vacation, with no real impact on the rate of growth. There’s a case to be made that less vacation and better televisions are a better deal than more vacation and worse televisions (the two things I like to do on vacation are go to Europe and watch TV, so I have mixed feelings about this) and there’s a tradition of philosophical argument which holds that the failure of modern mixed economies to be sufficiently solicitous of the interests of the wealthy is a major source of injustice. But though some level of income inequality would seem to be necessary to achieve economic growth, within the range that actual developed countries exist at there’s no evidence that inegalitarian policies boost growth.

This article by Lane Kenworthy contains a primer on the correlation between inequality and growth—it turns out there isn’t any. Here is one of his charts:


Aside from the outlier, Ireland, it is hard to see a correlation between growth rate and inequality.

This is another right-wing talking point that needs to be scrapped.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Why Obama Deserved the Nobel Prize October 11, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy, politics.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, America was a world power that would on occasion do the right thing. We often made horrible mistakes and failed to live up to our ideals. But we seemed to grasp the fact that our welfare depended on supporting the welfare of others. Thus, the U.S. took some interest in human rights and used some of its power and wealth to promote human development in other parts of the world. There was moral purpose behind our actions even when the purpose was derailed by stupidity. The same could not be said of other world powers—Nazi Germany, U.S.S.R, or China—so in comparison, the U.S. was on balance a force for good.

All of that changed with the conduct of foreign policy under the Bush Administration. Under that singularly malicious regime, we engaged in an enormously destructive, unprovoked war in Iraq, suspended moral norms regarding humane treatment of prisoners, and refused to cooperate on a host of important issues from climate change to nuclear non-proliferation, all the while relishing our willingness to thumb our nose at the rest of the world when it raised objections to our policies. The fact that the regime ended by precipitating global economic freefall put an exclamation point on the nearly universal judgment that the U.S was  no longer a force for good.

The clear intent of the Bush Administration was to set a new direction in world affairs, one in which the U.S government and its corporate backers would continue to amass power by any means necessary while refusing to take the interests of anyone else into consideration.

The rest of the world was rightly horrified at the prospect of a global order ruled by a cynical hegemon that had given up on moral purpose. Because of our size, wealth, strength, and influence, the welfare of the world depends on the actions of the U.S. Putting that much power in the hands of a conservative political ideology that refuses to be constrained by moral purpose was recognized by much of the rest of the world as a recipe for disaster.

It is that prospect that has greatly diminished under Obama. He has made clear in both word and deed that he will be guided by moral purpose. That is no small change. With moral purpose, trust is available. And with trust many things are possible, especially prospects for a relatively peaceful future and cooperation on challenges that confront the globe.

In the aftermath of Friday’s surprising announcement by the Nobel committee, commentators across the political spectrum have argued that Obama hasn’t done anything to warrant such a prize.

I disagree. The decision to be guided by moral purpose is a fateful and monumental act, because it determines whether we approach each day with hope or fear, emotions that regulate our sense of what is possible and what is not. Obama’s rhetoric of hope is not empty and not a mere aspiration. That hope conquers fear is a necessary condition for stable cooperation—even the cynical monarchist Thomas Hobbes recognized this when he deemed the decision to abide by the social contract the very first political act. That contemporary conservatives have forgotten this fundamental fact of political life is testimony to how far they have fallen.

In contrast to the carping coming from the American media this past weekend, the rest of the world has largely praised the award. People who are not blinded by ideology can see a clear difference between an America guided by moral purpose and an America run by people like Bush and Cheney. Yet, it is not merely a thank-God-you’re-not-Bush award. It is a positive affirmation of the role that morality plays in our common life.

In a sense, of course, this is faint praise. In essence, the Nobel Prize Committee has given a prestigious award to someone for choosing moral purpose over moral catastrophe—a choice most human beings make routinely. Why place Obama in the company of the other recipients of the award—such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King Jr.—who made uncommon, heroic sacrifices to inch humanity toward peace?

All peacemakers have one thing in common—they are willing to take the first step toward peace, which is always a gratuitous act of faith with no assurance it will be reciprocated. Obama has announced to the world that the U.S. is willing to take that step. As with the other recipients of the prize, he confronts destructive forces with an act of generosity. Unlike most of the other recipients, he does so from a position of power. The powerful renouncing power is an event sufficiently rare to warrant celebration despite lacking personal sacrifice.

It remains to be seen how much Obama will accomplish as President. Wars must be unraveled in a way that does not increase violence—a difficult task at which he may fail. There is a real danger that his sense of moral purpose will founder when it runs up against the military/industrial complex and the avatars of corporate greed who still run this country. It may be that the seeds of moral corruption are so deeply embedded in American life that recovery in the short run is impossible.

But Obama receives this award because he has re-certified the moral purpose of American conduct. If there is to be a new beginning, it will be because of that act.

Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Rand On the Ropes October 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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Via Brian Leiter, here is another take down of Ayn Rand:

The year 2009, however, has shown us that this is hardly the time for such faith. The privatising and non-regulatory urges pervading the US Government since the beginning of the century (and particularly since the 1980s) have brought many of us to the very end of our patience and to a finale for our faith in the capitalist system, or in the wealthy, or in those captains of industry – and especially of finance – in whose hands we are supposed to place our lives and hopes […]

This is more than a question of timing or bad luck, however; for there is an even bigger snag, a bigger poison in the pudding, which destroys any so-called philosophy invented by Rand. An article in a 1986 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, although it remains too often ignored, leaves no hope whatever for the many defenders and apologists for the allegedly “free” market. The co-authors of this contribution assert and prove that there is no such thing as a “free-enterprise system”, simply because all the bargains taking place in a market system are characterised by an information deficit on one side or the other. This gap reflects an information advantage that one side invariably holds over the other in any deal so that there are, in fact, no truly equitable financial agreements to be had. And it is because of this absence of equity that free enterprise can achieve only what can be regarded as a mythic status. This not only applies to the free-enterprise myth itself, however; it applies to all its constituent elements, such as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, which was perennially held to be a kind of guarantor of self-interest that allegedly made the whole system work. But there is no invisible hand, just as there is no free enterprise.

This is one aspect of the case against Rand, to go along with her utter failure to recognize the importance of moral conscience in our lives.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com