Monday, October 29, 2007

Rand on Compromise

Special guest poster Neil Parille from Objectiblog takes at look at the difficulties of Rand's view of compromise:

Ayn Rand is often admired for her devotion to principles and unwillingness to compromise. In her biography of Rand, Barbara Branden tells the moving story of how Rand fought heroically to prevent changes to the script of The Fountainhead during its filming. (Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, pp. 208-209.)

Rand’s most important discussion of compromise is a brief three page essay in The Virtue of Selfishness entitled “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” She boldly proclaims that “there can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 80.) She highlights the mixed economy as an example of an unacceptable compromise on moral principles. “There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept ‘just a few controls’ is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights . . . .” (Id., pp. 79-80.)

As is often the case with Rand, she is good on principles, but weak on specifics. She gives examples of acceptable compromises (such as coming to a mutually agreed upon price with a vendor) and unacceptable compromises (attending a religious ceremony to placate one’s family). These examples make sense from the Randian perspective, but why not discuss situations that are more likely to confront the average Objectivist? For example, Rand considered taxation immoral. Yet she faithfully paid her taxes. By paying taxes one isn’t one “sanctioning” the welfare state? What about working for the government? Isn’t this a compromise on moral principles? A state employee’s income comes from money immorally seized by the government. Many Objectivist professors, including Leonard Peikoff, have taught at state run universities. Some, such as Robert Mayhew, have taught at religious schools. Voting appears problematic as well. Unless there is a consistently Objectivist candidate, isn’t it a compromise to vote? Wouldn’t the prudent course be to abstain from voting? Rand, however, voted for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. (During the 2006 elections, Leonard Peikoff went so far as to claim that anyone who refused to vote Democratic or abstained from voting “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism.”)

Throughout her life Rand had little use for economists and conservative intellectuals who were not consistent supporters of the free market economy. In her recently published question and answers, she described Milton Friedman as a “miserable eclectic.” (Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers, p. 43.) In her marginalia, she launched a nasty attack on Friedrich von Hayek calling him, among other things, a “God damn fool” and a “vicious bastard.” (Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, pp. 149 and 151.)

Interestingly, one compromising free market economist whom Rand admired was Alan Greenspan. Greenspan met Rand in 1951 and remained close friends with her until her death in 1982. He contributed three essays to her anthology Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, one supporting the gold standard and two criticizing, respectively, antitrust laws and consumer protection regulations.

In 1974, Greenspan was chosen by President Richard Nixon to head his Council of Economic Advisors. After Nixon resigned, President Ford re-nominated him. Rand attended Greenspan’s swearing-in ceremony in the White House. Greenspan states in his memoirs that by this time he had disagreed with Rand’s belief in government financing through voluntary contributions and hints that he had come to reject consistent laissez-faire policies.

Shortly before Rand’s death, Greenspan accepted an appointment by President Ronald Reagan to head the National Commission on Social Security Reform, which recommended large tax increases. The culmination of his career was his lengthy chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board. As Chairman of “the Fed,” Greenspan, in effect, repudiated his three essays in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The Fed sanctions the printing of paper money, oversees anti-trust laws with respect to bank mergers and heavily regulates consumer transactions. “Compromise,” he now says, is “the price of civilization.”

Rand, of course, had no way of knowing that her friend and disciple would become the enabler-in-chief of the mixed economy, but she could not have been unaware of his partial betrayal of Objectivist principles by 1974. Ten years earlier she had written in “The Cult of Moral Grayness” that a mixed economy is “an immoral war of pressure groups, devoid of principles . . . whose outward form is a game of compromise.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 91, emphasis is the original.)

- Neil Parille

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just know there are better criticisms of Objectivism out there than this! A quick rundown of responses:

1. You give Rand's example of an unacceptable compromise ("attending a religious ceremony to placate one’s family"). And then you ask "Why not discuss situations that are more likely to confront the average Objectivist? Yeah, her example of an unacceptable compromise is so unrealistic!

2. You say Rand considered taxation immoral, and yet imply that her "faithful" payment of taxes sanctioned the welfare state. This is ridiculous. The principle of not sanctioning evil, like all moral concepts, applies only to one's uncoerced, voluntary choices. Payment of income taxes is hardly uncoerced. Isn't that obvious?

3. Regarding working for the government, Rand wrote an entire essay addressing this and related examples, "The Question of Scholarships." If an entire field of work has been co-opted by government force, and one has no choice but to work for, say, a public school, doing so is not sanctioning evil. The principle that morality ends where a gun begins is relevant here, too.

4. The issue of working at a religious school is more nuanced. You would never find an Objectivist working at an evangelical Christian college, because these colleges are devoted to a religious mission. Other religious schools have more ambiguous ideological orientations. Catholic schools, like Mayhew's are a case in point. Anyone who's ever visited or attended a Catholic university in America knows that most are Catholic in name only, and are basically pluralistic ideological institutions which only nudge select students in favor of their religion from time to time. The question of moral sanction, like all questions, depends on facts about what you are sanctioning.

5. The question of voting for non-Objectivists is also silly, and is one that is also covered by Rand's essay "How to Select a Political Candidate." One can pick a candidate because they are likely to advance concrete proposals that one supports, regardless of other ideological commitments that do not affect their concrete political proposals. But the issue more relevant to the question of sanction is that one of the candidates is going to win, whether you like it or not. It is not your choice to bring these candidates into existence, and voting for them is only an act of self-defense, a selection a lesser evil to defend against a greater. Once again, where there is no real choice, there is no moral sanction.

6. Regarding Greenspan, you say "she could not have been unaware of his partial betrayal of Objectivist principles by 1974." What betrayal? Was merely taking the economic advisor job such a betrayal? That's the only thing she knew about. You mention that Greenspand says that by this time, he disagreed with Rand about voluntary government financing. But you don't give any evidence that a) she knew about this belief of his, and b) why this would be so fundamental as to warrant a "betrayal of Objectivist principles" (I doubt that it would be). And let's not forget that while Rand didn't know about Greenspan's subsequent ascension to the Fed, other Objectivists certainly did, and have gradually come to repudiate Greenspan as his betrayal of Objectivism has become more pronounced.

Neil Parille said...

Anonymous,

The point of my post was to show how Rand's position on compromise is hard to square with some of those things (government employment and the like) that Objectivists engage in.

To take one of your points, you say that government has so co-opted certain areas that working for the government might be acceptable. In fact there are plenty of private schools in the country, including large universities. Are you saying that it is OK for an Objectivist to teach at a government university if he is able to find work at a private, secular one?

Incidentally, in her essay on scholarships, Rand says that one should not take a job that "nobody should be doing." There should not be a paid position of a government advisor to the economy. She also says that one shouldn't take a job which involves "propogating ideas he regards as false or evil." Are we to believe that in his tenure as Ford's advisor, he never publicly advocated an idea he didn't believe in? When he was working for Ford and wearing the "WIN" (whip inflation now) buttons, why wasn't he instead advocating a return to the gold standard as the cure for inflation like he did just a few years before? He headed Reagan's Social Security commission before Rand's death, which -- I hasten to remind you -- did not recommend the abolition of Social Security. Milton Friedman didn't support Social Security, but nonetheless was called a "miserable eclectic" by Rand.

Finally, why isn't advocating taxation a betrayal of Objectivism? Rand said one could not support just a "few controls" on the economy without betraying the free enterprise system. Taxation is obviously a much worse than that since it provides the foundation for the welfare state.

Anonymous said...

"The point of my post was to show how Rand's position on compromise is hard to square with some of those things (government employment and the like) that Objectivists engage in."

Well, sure. There are plenty of "Objectivists" out there who contradict Objectivism all the time. There are plenty of Christians who contradict Christianity. So what? People have free will, and don't always have integrity.

Yeah, if Greenspan advocated something bad, that would be bad. So what? Prove that AR knew about it. There's no disputing he did this in later days.

AR didn't advocate taxation. She advocated paying taxes, i.e., following the rule of law. There's quite a difference. Besides which, it's illegal to advocate breaking the law. So there's the issue of force again.

Neil Parille said...

Anon,

I just *know* there are better criticisms of criticisms of Objectivism than this! In fact you make my point that Rand's jeremaids against compromise were more rehetorical than real.

Basically, Rand's argument comes down to the claim that you can be "philosophically" in favor of laissez-faire, but nontheless engage in pragmatism. Isn't this another version of the dread "mind/body dichotomy"? It is also hard to square with Rand's claim that "in any compromise between good and evil, only evil wins." Apparently raising taxes on product x by 5% is ok if you advocate cutting taxes on y by 6%. With "uncompromising individualists" like that, who needs collectivists?

It's interesting, however, that ARI Objectivists often argue that if people in, say, Iran were truly innocent they would rise up against their government. But if Objectivists aren't even going to give up their government jobs, isn't it a bit unreasonable to expect opressed people to rise up and get thrown into jail?

Jay said...

It's interesting, however, that ARI Objectivists often argue that if people in, say, Iran were truly innocent they would rise up against their government. But if Objectivists aren't even going to give up their government jobs, isn't it a bit unreasonable to expect opressed people to rise up and get thrown into jail?

Y'know, that's a damn good point.

Although I do think having all your basic human rights taken away warrants a little more risk-taking than protesting taxes.

Neil, are you yourself an Objectivist? Your website seems pretty devoted to AR's ideas but you criticize a lot of them, so I'm not really sure where you stand.

Neil Parille said...

Jay,

I considered myself something of an Objectivist in my younger days. Since then I have moved away from Rand's theories, but still have an interest in them. As you can see from this blog, people both for and against Rand tend to discuss "big picture" ideas, and that's refreshing.

Jay said...

Agreed.

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