Thursday, August 23, 2007

Leftist Currents in Rand's Politics

Rand's leftward views on human nature and historical change have already been discussed. What of her leftward views of politics and economics? Reflexively, most would deny any such leftward drift in Rand on these issues. However, in some important respects, such a drift can be espied.

Leftist views on politics, economics, and justice generally tend to be collectivist, socialistic, and utopian. Rand obviously detested collectivism and socialism, so she is not leftist in that sense. But she does share with the Left the sort of abstruse utopianism that is prominent among the radical left. This is the kind of utopianism in which one finds the projection of a vaguely conceived abstract ideal society, with all or most of the troublesome, salient details conveniently ignored on various pretexts. Rand's laissez-faire capitalism is a purely mythical, utopian system. It never has, nor ever will, exist. Only those who have no understanding of how things happen in the real world could ever believe in such a phantom.

Rand's political, economic, and legal illusions derive mainly from rationalistic prejudice that all problems can be solved through "reason." This is a conviction which the Old Left held at least since the French Revolution but which the New Left has since abandoned. In the Randian form, it assumes: (1) That all (or at least most) social, political, economic and legal issues can be solved exclusively by "reason"; and (2) That all (or most) human beings are potentially rationally, and would be rational if you could only make them understand that it is in their interest to be so.

Neither of these assumptions accords with the facts. The reality of the social order is so complicated that no individual mind, regardless of how rational, could ever reason about it with sufficient accuracy to frame all the laws and make all the judicial decisions necessary to maintain a flourishing free market economy. Capitalism cannot exist without the requisite institutional and cultural foundations, most of which require decades—nay, centuries—of trial and error social evolution to develop. The legal institutions that define the uses and limits of private property, for instance, could not possibly be the product of abstract philosophy, guided by reason! Issues of private property are far too complex, being, as they are, wrapped up in the competing interests of various factions and classes. Lawyers played a far more prominent role in the development of free market capitalism than did any philosopher guided by "reason"!

Nor are—to cover Rand's second error—men rational in the Randian sense of the word. Rand's whole concept of "reason" is entirely mythical. The faculty Rand describes does not exist! Rand conceives of reason as entirely devoid of both emotion and motivation. Hence her contention that emotions are the mere product of thinking, and potentially can be "programmed" by reason, leading to a complete integration of thought and feeling, where reason and emotion (and, I presume, sentiments and desires) all run on the same track, in perfect harmony. "Emotions are not tools of cognition," Rand further insists, implying that cognition not only can, but ought to be free of emotion. Cognitive science, however, has refuted this cartesian model of thinking, which posits reason as a form of thinking devoid of emotion. Without the appropriate emotional cues, efficacious thinking (i.e., reality-based thinking) is impossible. Consider the strange phenomenon of the idiot savant, who, though capable of tremendous feats of pure mental gymnastics and superhuman calculation, has no judgment about actual facts because the requisite emotional cues are missing.

Armed with her false assumptions, Rand winds up making utterly preposterous assertions about society, such her as contention that "once a civilization grasps the concept of law ... common law becomes unnecessary and should not be regarded as law [because "reason" provides a better guide than established usage]" or her equally absurd contention that having respect for tradition "means that we must accept the values other men chosen, merely because other men have chosen them." It is clear that Rand's mistaken notion of human reason blinded her to the value of tradition. Respect for tradition is based, not on any kind of irrational esteem for one's ancestors, but on (in Hayek's words) "the insight that the result of the experimentation of many generations may embody more experience than any one man possesses."

1 comment:

Neil Parille said...

Another issue is Rand's contempt for state's rights. The idea that local government acts as a check on power hungry centralists is foreign to Rand. If Rand's view of human nature is correct, we apparently have nothing to fear from disolving all local government and handing power to a 100% Objectivist government in Washington.