Tuesday 16 August 2011

Wobbly on Facts in Washington - Walter Olsen of the Cato Institute

In what appears to be a written-to-order Washington Examiner opinion piece, Walter Olson "A Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute" has written on the recent court ruling on the ACCG Baltimore Illegal Coin Import Stunt. The Cato Institute website announces itself to be: a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues. You get the picture what kind of "opinion" to expect here. That is the Cato Institute (1000 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20001-5403) just seven blocks away from Peter Tompa's office.

Well, this Cato Institute's not really all that much on the ball, since Mr Olson starts off by saying that Peru is "going to sue" Yale for the material it got back from them last year and a lot of other tub-thumping nonsense:
Much of this new body of law rests on the dubious premise that cultural artifacts of great antiquity, even those that have been in the hands of Western museums or collectors for hundreds of years, should by right be subject to the dictates of whichever national government or sovereign entity happens to lay claim to the territory where the objects were originally crafted.
It would be interesting to hear the writer give some actual examples of these "new laws" which act retrospectively beyond the 1970 UNESCO Convention. I bet he can't. But here he is (deliberately - because a senior fellow cannot be accused of not knowing what he's talking about) confusing repatriation issues of pre-1970 material with the restitution of freshly stolen artefacts. the obfuscation goes on:
Is some sort of property right at issue? Well, one might conceivably argue that certain artifacts, such as funerary urns and temple friezes, must by their nature be regarded as stolen property since at some point they must have been looted from sites originally contemplated as permanent [...] But coins are just the opposite: They were meant to circulate, and, if of good value, they might soon be found in intended and legitimate use far from their country of origin.
This basically is a development of one of the stupidest of the coiney arguments. First of all no coin minted in the ancient world was struck with the intention that they would go to America. Secondly not ALL ancient coins were struck with the intention they would circulate OR travel very far from the mint. Some issues of Celtic coins from the UK (so keenly used as an example by ACCG's John Hooker for example) are examples of precisely the opposite. It is their distribution which is used by numismo-archaeologists to plot the political boundaries in Late Pre-Roman Iron Age Britain (Mr Hooker can give Mr Olsen a reading list as long as his arm on that one I am sure, if the Cato Institute wished to do some 'non-partisan' research before venturing its opinion on such matters a second time). Thirdly vintage Pontiacs were made with the intention that they'd move about, but stealing one looking unloved on a bleak parking downtown parking lot really cannot be justified in that way any more that trashing a site to get some coins out to be sold in the US by Mr Olsen's coin dealing pals. The Cato Institute's Mr Olsen seems wholly unaware what the conservation issue is, and muddles his mind and those of his readers with some spurious "jealous sovereigns" argument:
modern antiquities law falls over itself to cater to the wishes of the jealous sovereign, at a cost to both fairness and the interests of conservation. Why?
Why conserve anything is that what is being asked by Mr Olsen? Is he questioning why we conserve the historical record? Are these the results of the deliberations of the scholars and analysts of the Cato Institute which conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues? (except cultural heritage policy is not listed as one of their research areas). Is the Cato Institute for selling off the national collections and dismantling historic buildings for the architectural elements that can be salvaged from them in the name of "individual liberties"? I really do not understand that question. Assuming it was posed by somebody who understood what he was saying.

If the Cato Institute is about "individual liberties" and "fairness", to what extent do they see as of any importance the liberties of the citizens of the countries whose archaeological record - and so historical heritage - is being trashed to support the illegal antiquities trade? In what way are the source countries being treated with any "fairness" here? Why does the Cato Institute fellow apparently favour the illegal trade of such items over the legal trade in such items, in what way does the Cato Institute's senior fellow see a illegal trade which tramples on the liberties of others as supporting "peace", another of the Institute's stated goals? What hypocritical and ill-informed nonsense.

Vignette: In this case, "Cato, thou reasonest falsely"

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