Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ayn Rand's relevance

Ayn Rand's novels, especially her more mature works such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, have been justly famous and influential. It is difficult to read those two books and look at the world in quite the same way again.

In a recent Newsweek interview, the current head of the Ayn Rand Institute discusses the alleged failure of free markets in our current crisis.

Traditional conservatism has a mixed relationship with Rand. On the one hand, her novels cut to the heart of socialism, collectivism, and government regulation in their various forms in a way that is readable and indeed gripping. A page-turner like Atlas Shrugged probably did more than the writings of a dozen prominent economists ever could, creating a healthy suspicion of "managed" economies and helping ordinary readers to understand the inextricable connection between the loss of economic liberty and the loss of all liberties.

Think of them as being similar to the recent, grittier movie adaptations of super-hero comic books such as the (quite impressive) Christian Bale Batman movies.

On the other hand, her hostility to traditional religion and her lack of any respect for tradition in general caused most thoughtful conservative thinkers, in the end, to reject her ideas as being just as flawed and potentially dangerous as were the communist and socialist ideologies she was mercilessly flaying in her writings.

That word -- "mercy" -- is actually apt, since the absence of anything resembling mercy and compassion in Rand's writings are one of their most striking features. Whittaker Chambers was perhaps being a little unfair in the most famous line of his justly famous piece in National Review (one that marked the "official banning" of Rand and her Objectivists from polite conservatism) when he wrote: From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber — go!"

Chambers did express appropriate sympathy for many of Rand's observations and sentiments, and he quite rightly concluded his essay with a more tempered statement: "the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything."

At the root of traditional conservatism's rejection of Rand is that her books are highly ideological, and as such, are inimical to how conservatism sees the world. Ideologies believe that they have arrived both at what is wrong with the world and at exactly how to fix it. The free-market supermen of Rand's novels portray her belief in the perfectability (or perhaps more precisely, innate perfection) of certain individual men, just as the Marxist thought she detested portrays the perfectability of human society.

By contrast, our American constitutional system of government is based, fundamentally, on the conviction that man is flawed (although without any hubristic notions that the exact nature of the flaws can be defined with precision, let alone remedied,) and must be restrained when governing others, lest too much power be placed in the hands of any individual or any interest. Conservative thought in the American context is likewise suffused with these ideas, and with the conviction that man's imperfections and limitations mean that radical changes will, by definition, bring radically unintended consequences that are at least as likely to be for ill as for good.

So where does this leave Rand's thought in these days of economic crisis? The Randian interviewed in the Newsweek article demonstrates a characteristic lack of humility regarding any possible flaws that the Objectivist strain of libertarian thought might have. But he (as we should also in fairness expect) has some acute observations, perhaps best summarized in this exchange at the end:

Q: With free markets now in disrepute, what's going to happen to the popularity of Ayn Rand's most famous book, "Atlas Shrugged"?

A: I think it's going to go up dramatically. I think it already has. [People] are saying, "We're heading toward socialism, we're heading toward more regulation." "Atlas Shrugged" is coming true. How do we get out? How do we escape?

Unfortunately, there is no escape. Businessmen are panicking, and I think they should be panicking. Many of them understand that this was not a crisis of free markets. There was no free market to fail. What we have is a regulated market, and the regulated market has failed.
(Emphasis added)

This is unquestionably true. But at the same time, we have to understand that our economy has been regulated for a very long time, and there is no sense pretending that the path back to economic freedom could ever be a safe one, let alone easy.

Just as acts of regulation will have adverse unintended consequences that wise legislators will try to foresee, and then try to limit the damage, the same is true of deregulation. Deregulating a regulated sector of the economy is no less tricky than is detoxing a heroin addict, and one doesn't get the impression that our government adequately took that into consideration in some sectors of our economy. Freddie and Fannie, for example, knew they would ultimately get their next fix from the government if need be, so they didn't need to worry about taking ordinary precautions.

Which is why we should have been more cautious about getting our financial institutions addicted to taxpayer dollars and why we should be cautious about giving that first hit to the automakers. (Part of the current argument seems to run that automakers have just as much right to become addicts as bankers do -- out of a sort of twisted sense of fairness.)

Those of a progressive bent might seem to believe that the answer is just to call addiction normal, and make no attempt at withdrawal -- indeed that such "normality" should be expanded. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and the Republican Congress during their brief time in power couldn't decide whether to be Mr. Hyde the pusher or Dr. Jekyll the healer -- and all too often they were a hideous chimera combining the two.

Republican failures at the federal level have led to a situation where for the foreseeable future, we will have a government controlled by those who have no such confusion or internal conflict. As such, one fears that our economy will be made of industries and individuals who will resemble crack-house inhabitants scrapping over who gets the next fix while the dealers, lordlike, survey their realm, such as it is.

The duty of a rational human being in such a situation is, as much as is possible within the constraints of economic survival, to find little ways to "just say no."

7 comments:

Michael M said...

"That word -- "mercy" -- is actually apt, since the absence of anything resembling mercy and compassion in Rand's writings are one of their most striking features."

On the contrary, there is more than ample evidence that Rand exhibited mercy and compassion for all victims of statism, both the liberal and conservative kind.
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"At the root of traditional conservatism's rejection of Rand is that her books are highly ideological, and as such, are inimical to how conservatism sees the world."

"ideological" :a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

"philosophical" : of or relating to the study of the fundamental nature of existence, knowledge, ethics, politics, and esthetics.

The difference is that, unlike conservatism, Rand's ideological positions stand on the solid ground of demonstrable philosophical axioms and concepts.
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"The free-market supermen of Rand's novels portray her belief in the perfectability (or perhaps more precisely, innate perfection) "

Or perhaps not, since that is a false assumption (or concoction) you wish were true because it would help you degrade Objectivism. Unfortunately for you, the ethical mandate of Rand's ethics on which her radical capitalism rests is based on the fact that human beings can know reality as it really is, and b) that knowing it is an act of choice, and c) that a corollary of choice (volition) is fallibility. Therefore, since no man is an innately perfect superman, a major prerequisite to the pursuit of a perfectible life is intellectual and physical autonomy - to be able to think and act contrary to the fallible wishes of all other non-supermen.

Since the only enemy of autonomy is physical force, her politics can be defined with a single principle that can be stated in one short sentence:

No person may initiate physical force to gain, withhold, or destroy any value created by or acquired in a voluntary exchange by another person.

Any conservative who fails in his efforts to avoid awareness of this principle and/or evade its implications yet still wants to oppose it faces a dilemma. One can only oppose it by advocating the initiation of force against one's fellow human beings to gain something from them.
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"By contrast, our American constitutional system of government is based, fundamentally, on the conviction that man is flawed (although without any hubristic notions that the exact nature of the flaws can be defined with precision, let alone remedied,)"

As, per the previous, does Rand's. Sadly she gets little assistance in defending capitalism from your crowd, because the conservative lack of hubris re their political ideas prevents them also from standing tall in an unflinching defense of liberty and free markets.
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"So where does this leave Rand's thought in these days of economic crisis? The Randian interviewed in the Newsweek article demonstrates a characteristic lack of humility regarding any possible flaws that the Objectivist strain of libertarian thought might have."

See. There is the conservative belittling the Objectivist for having the hubris to profess absolute certainty that capitalism and free markets are in accordance with the fundamental nature of man. Conservatives on the other hand must couch their politics in humility, because without a consistent and demonstrable philosophy to base it on, they are hopelessly insecure regarding its validity. When Bill O'Reilly castigated the cast of TheView for their socialist bias, Barbara Walters asked, "What about the graduated income tax? You support that don't you?" He promptly coughed up the appropriate conservative position, if not in the most appropriate form: "Well, a little socialism is necessary!"
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"Freddie and Fannie, for example, knew they would ultimately get their next fix from the government if need be, so they didn't need to worry about taking ordinary precautions."

So, because of their wishy-washy position on free-market capitalism, conservatism is as guilty as any for enabling and supporting the existence of Fannie and Freddie, like the formerly Objectivist leaning but now wholly conservative Mr. Greenspan.
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The confidence of Objectivists in the philosophy's future progress is due to their recognition of the efficacy of Rand's ideas and the fact that they are now out there and that ideas to the contrary were either dead and buried last century, or are simply absent. There are a dozen Google alerts of blogs about Rand every day. Like this one, the negative ones are chock full of characterizations of Rand, her ideas, her philosophy, and her admirers. But there are never any ideas to back them up and show that those characterizations really apply. They are just cheap shots fired from the cannons of self-nurtured ignorance. One trip through Atlas Shrugged, and they are certain they fully grasp every principle implied in it. Talk about hubris!

The war against tyranny can only be won on the battlefield of philosophy. Objectivism began that battle in 1960 with a half dozen people in an apartment in New York. Today there are chairs in major universities for its study and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights just opened its doors in Washington D.C.

So, when the progressives ignited Greenspan and catapulted him over the wall at the Objectivists, Yaron Brook ("the Randian interviewed in the Newsweek article") and his army threw him back with all guns ablazing. As much as we would like to have the assistance of the conservatives, you are simply out of intellectual ammunition, and apparently, per your blog, hiding in Montana, whimpering about how cautious we have to be and how long it will take.

Conservatism can only thrive in the absence of viable alternatives. Don't underestimate the speed with which successive new generations can abandon asserted but unsupported beliefs no matter how well and how long they were conserved when a viable, well grounded alternative exists.

Montana Headlines said...

Thanks for the comments. As I stated in the post, I enjoyed Rand's major novels, and one can never look at the world in quite the same way again after reading them. One doesn't have to subscribe to "Objectivism" in all of its fullness to appreciate the contribution that those novels have made.

You state: The confidence of Objectivists in the philosophy's future progress is due to their recognition of the efficacy of Rand's ideas and the fact that they are now out there and that ideas to the contrary were either dead and buried last century, or are simply absent.

It is pretty bold to say that Rand's ideas have "efficacy" when they haven't been tried. They may be grounded in some sort of consistent philosophical system -- which isn't quite the same thing as proving that they work.

Fortunately for you, ideologies can never be proven wrong, since they never really get a trial exactly as the theory dictates. We have lots of Marxists who claim that Marx's ideas weren't proven to be wrong or dangerous in the 20th century, since "real Marxism" never really had a chance to work.

That's the trouble with ideological systems of any kind -- the messiness of real life, real people, real history, and real everything... well, they get in the way.

Good luck in the ideological wars, and thanks for dropping by.

Michael M said...

On my way out, this hit me in the back of the head,

"It is pretty bold to say that Rand's ideas have "efficacy" when they haven't been tried. They may be grounded in some sort of consistent philosophical system -- which isn't quite the same thing as proving that they work."

This you address to one who has practiced those ideas successfully for over 40 years; and I am but one of a multitude. Presumptuous as that is, however, it is not the most fundamental error in the statement.

The phrase "what works" is the Achilles heel of pragmatism, because there is no standard by which one can measure it. The phrase means nothing more than "it makes the immediate problem go away." What about the long run? That pragmatism cannot answer, and if you wait for the test results to tell you that, it will be way to late to matter.

That is the function of ethics - to define "the long run" and establish a viable standard. If the standard Objectivism has defined - the long-range best interests of your life - is valid, then any politics consistent with it works ipso facto. If the principle I named is consistent with the ethical standard, then the specific politics of laissez-faire capitalism works ipso facto. If that politics is consistent with that ethics, then you may not use the fact that a democratic majority agrees with you to justify taking stuff from one person and giving to another or others. Period!

You do not need a country to validate that, you just need reason and logic. Whatever failures a country might have in the process of becoming or being capitalist are mistakes or errors in judgment, not errors in principle. You cannot find errors in principle by "trying" them. You can only find them with reason and logic.

What reason and logic does tell us, is that per the those ethical and political principles, all other opposing political schemes, including those of Libertarians and Conservates, do not work, because their justifications of using force for the redistribution of values is immoral.

Consequently, you cannot dent the Objectivist politics with mere pragmatism. You have to first invalidate the ethics and demonstrate the validity of your alternative. Then, and only then, may you say that radical capitalism will not work, whether or not it has been tried.

Montana Headlines said...

My, my -- a bit touchy, are we? It is somewhat rude to say that my comment "hit you in the back of the head on your way out."

Did you expect not to get a response to your magisterial essay, or did you just not care to listen to one? Because those are the only reasons you would be heading out the door so soon right after dropping a tome on my lap.

You were the one who said that Rand's ideas have "efficacy" -- which to most people means that they have been shown to work, i.e. function in the real world, generally with better results than the alternatives.

Now, if Objectivism is like a religion, where one can practice and believe Objectivism privately, without needing to have a government entity go along with it, then I stand corrected. Usually, the results of applying political and economic philosophies are thought to be evaluated by having them put into practice on a somewhat broader scale than one's personal life.

As best I can gather from your response, Rand's ideas "work" in the sense that Objectivist ideas are the only ones that don't violate Objectivist principles. Which is pretty much what I said in the part you quoted -- it is in internally consistent theoretical system. And one would generally expect Objectivist ideas not to violate Objectivist principles, wouldn't one? So why should we be surprised?

But let's agree to disagree on whether one must be an Objectivist to be politically moral. Besides, if you have the philosophy that is going to rule the world because of the absence of any alternatives that can stand up to it, shouldn't you be a little more magnanimous, and, well, nicer to us little people?

Michael M said...

"My, my -- a bit touchy, are we? It is somewhat rude to say that my comment 'hit you in the back of the head on your way out.'"

Me touchy? When someone closes their first reply to a comment on their blog with "Good luck in the ideological wars, and thanks for dropping by", it's the bloggers version of "I gave at the office, so please go away and leave me alone." The words that singed your sensibilities merely meant "OK, OK, I'll leave; but not without correcting that slippery error re the "practicality" of Objectivism."

Now, I can see there is more to that misunderstanding.

"Now, if Objectivism is like a religion, where one can practice and believe Objectivism privately, without needing to have a government entity go along with it, then I stand corrected."

And so you stand.

Objectivism is not a religion, it is a philosophy. Religions were and are primitive kinds of philosophies in that they too seek to define the universe and conclude from the definitions what sort of actions are appropriate to the life of a human being. But the difference is that religions are inherently mystical in that they consist of asserted beliefs that require no substantiation beyond a declaration of faith in their truth.

Nor do they even require internal consistency. Consequently, any validity they have in respect to the nature of external existence is random and coincidental.

They are nonetheless similar at least in the fact that both prescribe a way of life that can be practiced in all situations regardless of what kind of politics is operative. You err seriously if you think of Objectivism as primarily a political and economic theory. In Rand's words:

"I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows." ("Introducing Objectivism" The Objectivist Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 8 August, 1962 p. 35.)

Objectivism is a comprehensive system of ideas that defines the nature of existence, our nature and purpose, and our means of fulfilling that purpose. It is "objective" in its recognition of an external reality that is independent from the control of our minds and its recognition that our capacity of reason is our only means to deal with that existence to the benefit of our lives. So, this is also not true:

"As best I can gather from your response, Rand's ideas "work" in the sense that Objectivist ideas are the only ones that don't violate Objectivist principles."

No. They work because they are not in contradiction with our nature and the nature of that external, objective existence. If you think that Rand or I have our facts and conclusions about the nature of the universe wrong, then you will have to show how your accusations actually apply. It is not sufficient to just tsk, tsk, with hurt feelings. Ultmately, facts cannot be insults; and indignation is not a rebuttal.

Montana Headlines said...

I see that you care very deeply about Objectivism and that it means a lot to you. There are points where I agree with you, and many more where I don't, but somehow I don't imagine that more discussion would get us much further.

You have certainly illustrated for me what others had told me but that I hadn't observed for myself -- that Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were great fun to read, but that Objectivism lends itself to contentious and tedious philosophical arguments. Great if it works for you -- but not my cup of tea.

Granted, that is an assessment coming from someone who is an adherent of a primitive philosophy which has only a random and coincidental correlation to external reality -- so consider the source.

Again, good luck in the ideological wars. You can have the last word.

Ed Kemmick said...

Why should "Michael" get the last word? Besides, I don't think "Michael" is a person at all. Judging from his comments, "he" is merely a brain, floating in some serene and sustaining liquid, attached by wires to a computer keyboard. He seems to be perfectly happy in his perfect world, so why should we begrudge him his perfection?