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I recently watched the movie The Monuments Men and found it to be a reasonably enjoyable film. While there is no doubt that restoring the stolen works of art to the owners or their heirs is a legitimate government function, should artworks be accorded a stronger government response than the restoration of any other plundered property?

What about artworks without private provenance like those plundered by ISIS from Iraqi museums or archaeological treasures of no particular ownership like the Buddhas of Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001? What, if anything, should Western governments do in such situations?

asked Mar 05 at 17:16

c_andrew's gravatar image

c_andrew ♦

I haven't seen the movie and can't comment on it firsthand, but the Wikipedia link provided in the question contains a very helpful summary of the main story. The article explains, in part:

In 1943 during World War II, the Allies are making good progress driving back the Axis powers in Italy. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) persuades the American President that victory will have little meaning if the artistic treasures of Western civilization are lost in the fighting. Stokes is directed to assemble an Army unit nicknamed the "Monuments Men", comprising seven museum directors, curators, and art historians to both guide Allied units and search for stolen art to return it to its rightful owners.

The Nazi military had been engaging in "theft of art for either Adolf Hitler's proposed Führermuseum in Linz, or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering." Near the end of the war, the Nazis also adopted a standing "Nero Decree, which orders the destruction of all German possessions if Hitler dies or Germany falls...."

I do not see how there could be any question of the appropriateness of Allied forces (already seeking to stop Germany and the other Axis powers) also seeking to save and recover all those artworks if possible and feasible within the Allies' overall military objectives in the ongoing war. The Wikipedia excerpt above mentions the argument that was made to the American President: "victory will have little meaning if the artistic treasures of Western civilization are lost in the fighting." (One may object: "Little meaning"? What about freedom? Isn't that far more than "little meaning"? Still, great works of art are important treasures, too, especially the heritage of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, in times of peace and prosperity.)

The question identifies one essential philosophical principle applicable in this context (emphasized clause):

While there is no doubt that restoring the stolen works of art to the owners or their heirs is a legitimate government function, should artworks be accorded a stronger government response than the restoration of any other plundered property?

Defense of property certainly needs to consider the relative value and replaceability of the property to be defended, but great works of art are of enormous value and are irreplaceable if lost or destroyed. Defense of property also needs to be kept in perspective in relation to the military urgency to defeat the invading armies, but the Wikipedia article explains that the "Monuments Men" unit was never a very large operation within the total Allied wartime effort (although the movie may perhaps have implied otherwise).

Again, the first philosophical principle applicable in this context is that the defense of property is a proper function of the government of a free society. Another important principle is that the propriety of defending foreign nations and their property does not automatically imply that a free society's government ought to intervene in foreign countries that come under attack from other countries. Whether or not a free society's government ought to intervene depends on the nature of the victim country and its relation to the free society that is in a position to intervene. It depends on the national self-interest of the potential defender society. Both of these principles are succinctly expressed and explained by Ayn Rand in her article, "Collectivized Rights," published in VOS. The key excerpts can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "National Rights." Refer also to the Lexicon topic of "Foreign Policy" and the list of cross-references at the end of that topic.

Was it in the national self-interest of the U.S. to rally to the aid of allies like Great Britain and France in World War II? This question pertains to applying broad philosophical principles to specific concretes. It involves an additional cognitive effort to identify the facts of the situation, the essential elements of the context, and then relate that factual knowledge to the broad principles. Under the circumstances that existed at the time, U.S. involvement in World War II very probably was vital to prevent the fall of all of Europe to the Axis powers, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the U.S. involvement couldn't have been handled better if the U.S. had been a fully free society with a properly limited government.

For starters, such military aid from the U.S. should not have relied on the military draft. In a CUI article, excerpted under the Lexicon topic of "Draft," Ayn Rand wrote:

Of all the statist violations of individual rights in a mixed economy, the military draft is the worst. It is an abrogation of rights. It negates man's fundamental right -- the right to life -- and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man's life belongs to the state....

That same excerpt goes on to discuss how a volunteer army would function and would fulfill a free society's need for self-defense, which could include defense of the society's vital interests in relation to its allies and trading partners. The excerpt points out that "a volunteer army is one of the best protectors of peace, not only against foreign aggression, but also against any warlike ideologies or projects on the part of a country's own government."

Others who are more intimately familiar with the historical details of World War II can probably comment further on how well or poorly the U.S. involvement was handled and in what specific ways. Such an evaluation would need to consider the aftermath of the war as well as the conduct of the war itself. It must also be remembered that the Philosophy of Objectivism did not exist in comprehensively developed form until Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957.

The question also mentions the difficulty of determining who the rightful owner of stolen property is in some cases. There is yet another principle offered by Objectivism for such cases: the principle that the government serves as temporary custodian of ownerless resources. Ayn Rand develops this principle in her article, "The Property Status of Airwaves," in CUI Chap. 10. Eventually, if a prior owner (or his heirs) or a new original owner of recovered property cannot be established any other way, such property could be sold to the highest bidder in a public auction. (There would need to be a rationally defined policy to govern the disposition of the proceeds from the auction. The proceeds could be held in trust for a period of time in case any confirmed prior owners eventually come forward. Otherwise, the proceeds probably would be absorbed into the governmental treasury to help cover the cost of running the government. Normally wars leave societies poorer, not richer, even the victors, and a quest for material gain through war would never be viewed as a proper or practical objective by a free society of rational producers and traders.)

answered Mar 09 at 00:03

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Mar 05 at 17:16

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Last updated: Mar 09 at 00:03