What better way is there to return to academic conference life than to visit Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, as part of the Association for Private Enterprise Education?
The highlight for me was to see the magicians Penn and Teller win the Thomas Jefferson Award. Their Las Vegas act–and their Showtime television show “Bullshit” pull no punches about the role of reason in human life. They have taken on the federal government’s increasing grabs for power, demonstrating how the Bill of Rights is incompatible with the Transportation Security Administration. They also go out of their way–with humor, but also with a deadly serious mission–of showing their audiences that all claims to paranormal activity, extra-sensory perception, mind-reading and the like are “lies and immoral.”
So I went to see their Vegas show. The mix of humor with a serious message began with their bringing a full-size, real airport metal detector on stage, and having an audience member walk through it. “Beep beep beep!” The cause? A copy of the bill of rights slipped in his pocket, written on metal, which is incompatible with TSA (“The right of the people to be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures,” from the Fourth Amendment).
I ended up on stage myself, selected to read a joke from a book circulating through the audience. Before the show, a yellow envelope was on stage, and audience members were invited to sign it. Dozens did so. Later, I am brought up on stage with the book, and asked to open it at random, and to read a joke of my choosing to the audience. Don’t worry about the punchline, said Penn–the audience will say it at the right time. I began reading–and as I did, out of my eyesight, Penn opened the yellow envelope, took a white banner out of it, and held it up behind my back–so the audience could read the punchline. I have no idea how they did it–but I know, and their honesty leads them to pound this point home–that it is a trick, and not some supernatural ability.
At the conference I made two presentations. The first, in a History of Thought session, demonstrated how Jean Baptiste Say, the early 19th century economist, upheld the method of induction in his Treatise on Political Economy. For Say, “general truths” (also called principles) are derived from an understanding of the causal relationships between facts. He does not think one gains the truth by counting up hundreds of facts–that, he claims, is the province of Statistics–but rather in grasping the origin and consequences of these facts by grasping their causal relations.
My second presentation was in a session dedicated to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, dealt with the purpose and values of an independent contractor. A relatively minor character, the electrician Mike Donnigan, embodies the mastery of his craft, and the drive to do excellent work, that is central to a producer in the capitalist system. Donnigan is one of Howard Roark’s closest friends, because of their shared values. He also shows how, contrary to critics, moral praise is not reserved for heroic, world-scale creators, but is open to anyone who thinks and acts productively, to the limits of his abilities.