Friday, November 10, 2006

Is Objectivism Dangerous?

It would be a mistake to assume that merely because Objectivism is misguided or wrong, it is therefore dangerous. The assumption that a wrong philosophy must ipso facto be a dangerous one is naive. It fails to take account of (1) to what extent conduct is or is not affected by philosophical beliefs, and (2) what sort of people are likely to embrace a given set of philosophical ideas.

Although Objectivist ideas are intensely moralistic and political, they tend to discourage political involvement. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, Objectivist political principles are impractical and unrealistic. The phrase "laissez-faire," so important to the Rand's political philosophy, is a slogan rather than a coherent policy of political economy. All political action is conducted in the context of intense ideological, personal, and economic rivalries. It is grossly implausible to assume either that one interest or ideology can "impose" laissez-faire on all the others, or that all interests, all ideologies (or even a majority of ideologies and interests) would ever agree to adopt laissez-faire economic policies. And even if (per impossible) laissez-faire could be established, whether by force or consensus, it is not clear that an advanced industrial economy with sophisticated asset markets can be maintained by a strict hands-off approach. Markets require a sophisticated framework of law defining property, contracts, and credit. The notion that any governing body could just declare a "separation" between the state and economy and then proceed to sit back and do nothing cannot be taken seriously. Only a rationalist with no first hand experience with law and economic policy could ever believe that.

People who favor impractical political principles tend to get pushed to the margins in democratic politics. But when they are also unwilling to compromise, this further pushes them out of the mainstream. Representational government is essentially government through compromise. The political mechanism of democratic elections is a kind of game that is played to see which political factions get the lion's share of political power. Coalitions are required to win elections and to pass legislation, and compromise is necessary to form coalitions. Those who refuse to compromise for moral reasons (i.e., because compromise is "evil," as Rand would put it) condemn themselves to having no say in legislative decisions.

Rand appears to have intuitively sensed that she could not change anything through political means. Her experiences campaigning for Wendel Wilkie in 1940 presidential election turned her against political activism. Refusing to play a game in which she could never have her own way, she instead began arguing that metaphysics and epistemology are "fundamental," that is, prior and determinative of ethics and politics, so that if you want to change a society's politics, you must first change their metaphysics and epistemology. Hence, the Randian doctrine that real political change can only be brought about by solving the problem of universals.

Now let us consider for a moment the sort of people who would be attracted to a philosophy that contends that political goals can achieved without ever engaging in political action. Will it attract people eager to engage in politics, people who have a talent for political action, people full of energy and vigor and charisma who are willing to get hands dirty and fight for a place at the political table? No, an anti-political philosophy like Objectivism will turn off such people. This will leave only the dispirited, the lackluster, the armchair intellectuals—those who, in brief, lack energy and initiative and would rather talk about politics than do anything about it. In other words, it leaves just the sort of people we find running the Ayn Rand Institute.

So is Objectivism dangerous? Not in a political sense. Politically, Objectivism is largely impotent and hence does not pose a serious threat or danger to the community. Objectivists may say things that sound dangerous or scary, but without any political power, such verbal histrionics are no more efficacious than the idiotic howlings of a pack of demented, toothless curs.

15 comments:

Mike Huben said...

"Hence, the Randian doctrine that real political change can only be brought about by solving the problem of universals."

Which of course is contradicted by real-world experience including the events which have lead to modern democracies.

Anonymous said...

My own conviction is that Objectivism is prevented from being dangerous only by virtue of its powerlessness. Should Objectivists ever obtain the power to decide my destiny then I fully expect my remaining lifespan to be cut short by some kind of 'waste of space' legislation - being too ill to work is going to be a risky thing to be.

Incidentally I can get no clear idea of how an Objectivist society would be organised, and what would prevent it from becoming a bloody free-for-all.

Jay said...

Gee, I guess in your scholarly exploration of Objectivist writings, you missed the parts about putting force under the control of objective laws, and the high importance of safeguarding rights.

Anonymous said...

And my rights as a disabled non-Objectivist will be what, precisely?

Jay said...

The same as any able non-Objectivist. Where in Objectivist literature does it ever say that only Objectivists or only able people have rights?

Anonymous said...

What I'm really trying to say here is that I can't see an Objectivist society expending any - or at any rate enough - effort to keep me alive.

I might, however, be wrong about that as I still don't have any clear idea how this society is going to be organised. Who's going to make the laws and who will enforce them? Will collectivist organisations - like, for example, trade unions - be allowed? Who will fund free public services? Will there be any free public services?

Jonathan said...

"What I'm really trying to say here is that I can't see an Objectivist society expending any - or at any rate enough - effort to keep me alive."

The Objectivist answer is that those who want to help you would be free to do so with their own time and money.

But then again, there's always the possibility that those who would voluntarily seek to construct a home for you might make the mistake of hiring an architect who would secretly make a deal with a Roark-like Objectivist architect who would covertly design the project and then destroy it for aesthetic reasons, even though he didn't have a contract with the actual property owners stipulating that the project must be built as he designed it. Then you'd be out on the street in subzero weather. But surely you'd be willing to pay such a price for Objectivist artistic integrity! Whatever illness or disability you have is not the normal state of man, so you should be proud to freeze to death on a sidewalk in the name of a fully able person's heroic artistic vision! Anything less would be irrational.

J

Jay said...

Jonathan,

Your comment is a great example of how fatalistic some people are. How many people do you know who have no friends, no relatives, no benevolent co-workers, and would just "freeze to death on a sidewalk" without public services? Few people have it so bad that their sole recourse is to sleep outside. This is such an overblown and overused objection to limited government.

As far as the disabled go, I think they would actually fare better in a free society. Without the FDA and its obnoxious delays and hoops, without the crushing taxes, without ridiculous religiously-motivated laws against stem cell, we would probably cure a great deal of the things that make the disabled disabled.

Daniel Barnes said...

Rand's ethics are far from coherent, and she makes contradictory statements on this point. However the thrust seems to be that if you are seriously ill and unable to help yourself, and no-one wants to help you voluntarily for whatever reason, you're screwed. Further, if no-one can be bothered helping you, this is not considered morally reprehensible on their part. Presumably your "rational" response should be to calmly accept your imminent doom as cosmic justice in action.

Jonathan said...

Jay wrote,
"This is such an overblown and overused objection to limited government."

I'm not objecting to limited government, but to typical Objectivist attitudes which are driven by superficial aesthetic concerns. If I'm not mistaken, even Rand herself once commented on the idea of protecting "normal" children from having to associate with disabled kids or adults. Avoiding shocking their heroic senses of life was apparently more important than their learning to treat human beings as human beings. Keep those monstrous retards and cripples locked away so as not to disturb the delicate sensibilities of those who will one day grow up to be giants who might heroically treat public housing projects as their personal playgrounds. I think that is indeed the type of world that Objectivism's proudest defenders would advocate -- a world where the suffering of the less fortunate is increased due to purely aesthetic reasons.

J

Jay said...

Rand's ethics said that suffering should not the focus, motive, or goal of human action. It shouldn't be glorified. It shouldn't be what we plan a society around. Now, I haven't heard Rand advocate separating "normal" kids from disabled ones, but if she did, then I join you in condemning that.

However I know no Objectivist who wants to increase anyone's suffering for "purely aesthetic" or any other reasons. Even if you disagree with Roark, you are being dishonest if you say he dynamited Cortland to "increase suffering." As someone who more or less lives by Objectivist ethics I can say, I have no desire to increase anyone's suffering.

Anonymous said...

"Daniel Barnes said...

Rand's ethics are far from coherent, and she makes contradictory statements on this point. However the thrust seems to be that if you are seriously ill and unable to help yourself, and no-one wants to help you voluntarily for whatever reason, you're screwed. Further, if no-one can be bothered helping you, this is not considered morally reprehensible on their part. Presumably your "rational" response should be to calmly accept your imminent doom as cosmic justice in action."

It might not be rational but my response would likely be to try to take as many of the bastards with me as possible!

Seriously, I can't see a society constructed on these principles having much cohesion and, as a consequence, much longevity.

And I STILL can't get any clear idea of how it will all be regulated.

Jay said...

And I STILL can't get any clear idea of how it will all be regulated.

By a police force, a court system, and a military: the agencies you need to uphold rights which don't put obligations on other people.

Anonymous said...

"By a police force, a court system, and a military: the agencies you need to uphold rights which don't put obligations on other people."

How are you going to pay the military and the police, and why should anyone undertake such dangerous and poorly-paid work in the first place? Altruism?

Jonathan said...

Jay wrote,
"Rand's ethics said that suffering should not the focus, motive, or goal of human action. It shouldn't be glorified. It shouldn't be what we plan a society around."

I think that her view was closer to being that suffering should not be discussed. To merely recognize its significance in the lives of some people and to contemplate it seriously was to "glorify" it.

"Even if you disagree with Roark, you are being dishonest if you say he dynamited Cortland to 'increase suffering.'"

I didn't say that Roark dynamited the project "to increase suffering," I said that he destroyed it for aesthetic reasons. He didn't seek to cause hardships, he simply didn't care if hardships were the obvious consequence of his destruction of others' property. He placed his own aesthetic fulfillment over the rights of the property owners and over the welfare of those who would inhabit the project. It doesn't matter that playing with their lives was not his purpose, just as it wouldn't matter if he walked into a charity kitchen and dumped all of the soup on the floor because he didn't like the taste of it -- people would go hungry even though making them go hungry was not his motivation but just the obvious consequence of his actions.