Friday, February 22, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality Part 2: Social and Political Philosophy

Neil Parille follows up on his previous post concerning Ayn Rand’s view of human nature by looking at parallels with other social and political thinkers

Laissez-Faire Capitalism
Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism. She was not, of course, the first. Like Rand, previous thinkers supported freedom of contract, private property, private roads, the gold standard and opposed censorship, the draft, and anti-trust laws as incompatible with a free society.

The Non-Initiation of Force Principle
A central tenant of Objectivist politics is the non-initiation of force principle. She accused libertarians of “plagiarizing” her on this. However, classical liberal thinkers including Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) taught similar versions of this principle.

Voluntary Taxation
Rand opposed taxation and believed that, ideally, government should be financed by voluntary contributions. Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) was a well-known advocate of voluntary taxation who, like Rand, was not an anarchist.

Government Coercion Generates Conflict in Society
Rand argued that excessive government was a central source of friction in society. She was not alone in this. As Auberon Herbert’s said, “So long as force is paramount, so long must men stand in hate and fear of each other . . . the old saying, homo homini lupus, remain true.” (Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, p. 176.)

Society of Contract
A staple of libertarian and classical liberal thought is that a free society is one of contract, replacing the previous societies of class and status. Isabel Paterson (1881-1961) writes: “In a Society of Contract, man is born free, and comes into his inheritance with maturity. By this concept all rights belong to the individual. Society consists of individuals in voluntary association. The rights of any person are limited only by the equal rights of another person.” (Paterson, The God of the Machine, p. 42.) Compare this to Rand: “In a free society, the ‘rights’ of any group are derived from the rights of its members through their voluntary, individual choice and contractual agreement, and are merely the application of these individual rights to a specific undertaking.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 102.)

Methodological Individualism
Rand stated “there is no such entity as ‘society’, since society is only a number of individual men. . . . “ (Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 320.) This is, in essence, the theory of methodological individualism, which had been developed in greater detail by Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and other thinkers in the Austrian tradition.

Pyramid of Ability Principle
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand advances what Objectivists call the “pyramid of ability principle,” namely that those less capable benefit when the more capable are allowed to advance to the limit of their abilities. (Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 185-86.) This concept is not unique to Rand, being found in numerous classical liberal and conservative works. For example, in 1894 book Labour and the Popular Welfare, W. H. Mallock writes: “Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. . . . For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit.”

As an aside, George Reisman in his treatise Capitalism claims that Rand “first indentified” the pyramid of ability principle. (Reisman, Capitalism, p. 357.) It is rather surprising that someone could be so uninformed about the general tradition in which he writes.

Capitalism Is Based on Reason and Self-Interest
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Rand’s defense of capitalism is her claim that it is the political system consistent with reason and self-interest. Even here, it appears that Rand had predecessors. Jeff Walker points to books from the 1920s such as Charles Fay’s Politics in Business and Garet Garret’s novel The Driver which anticipated Rand’s portrayal of the businessman as the rational, selfish hero. (Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult, pp. 288-89, 305-07.)

- Neil Parille

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

You have a strange concept of originality. You seem to think that to be original, a thinker must create new ideas ex nihilo, rather than assembling them from generally observable facts and well-established conclusions of others.

Now as it happens, another very unoriginal idea that AR agreed with many other philosophers about was that there is no such thing as creation ex nihilo. Nothing comes from nothing. Creativity consists of assembling preexisting material in new and original ways.

Of course it's possible to take many of Ayn Rand's positions on particular questions, and find someone else who held it in some form or other. You can do this with *lots* of original thinkers. I challenge you to name an original thinker for whom this could not be done.

How about Kant? Well we could say he was totally unoriginal because he "merely" synthesized certain doctrines from empiricists and from rationalists. Never mind that his particular synthesis was completely novel. If he didn't create those elements ex nihilo, he wasn't completely original! Yet that doesn't stop most philosophers from thinking that Kant was one of history's great philosophical geniuses.

Of course, even while there are elements of AR's philosophy which were held by others, I challenge you to find others who combined them in her particular way. And I challenge you to find others who did it so in accordance with a central focus on the epistemology of concepts.

For it is AR's view of concepts that is the most distinct and most original of her views. Her entire system is informed an understanding that intrinsicism vs. subjectivism is a false dichotomy, and this is understood at the deepest level through her unprecedented theory of concepts.
The idea that concepts are neither mirrors of intrinsic essences, nor subjective and arbitrary creations, is (almost) completely unprecedented.

It's so unprecedented that there's a strange phenomenon observed among those who try to analyze her theory of concepts. Half of them will say, well, she's obviously an intrinsicist. The others will say she's obviously a subjectivist. Both of them will pride themselves in having pointed out how unoriginal she is. Odd that the other camp thinks it's obvious that she's the opposite. And of course the root of the conflict is that both are wrong, and neither realizes how original her view is.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon
>You seem to think that to be original, a thinker must create new ideas ex nihilo, rather than assembling them from generally observable facts and well-established conclusions of others.

Hi Anon

You perhaps should read the intro to the prior piece where Neil takes as his start point the Peikovian claim that Rand “discovered true ideas on a virtually unprecedented scale.” Neil is simply putting aside such obvious hype and trying to add up just how many of these original "discoveries" there actually were. How many are you counting so far?

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>It's so unprecedented that there's a strange phenomenon observed among those who try to analyze her theory of concepts. Half of them will say, well, she's obviously an intrinsicist. The others will say she's obviously a subjectivist.

Hi again Anon

"Unprecedented" is one way of putting it. However, there is a simple alternative explanation for this surrounding confusion, which is that Rand's conceptual theory itself is deeply confused. This confusion is superficially masked by Objectivism's customised jargon, but once analysed it becomes obvious that much of this jargon is merely oxymoronic, like "contextual absolute." That's the way she covers the basic self-contradictions of her epistemology: through word-play. Thus the traditional problems are still there underneath, hence the confusion.

Incidentally, I don't think this was a deliberate act of dishonesty on her part; I think she fooled herself as much as anyone else. She was an extremely unselfcritical thinker, and encouraged others to be likewise of her. But it's rather obvious once you see thru it.

Meg's Marginalia said...

yes, self awareness was definitely not Rand's strong point

Jay said...

Dan or Greg, I have a post idea for you guys on a rainy day.

My best friend wrote a blog post once called "A Path to Happiness." One of the 3 stepping stones on that path was having a purpose, which was inspired by Rand. I was wondering if you cared to dissect this view and offer what you think is wrong or misguided about it.

---

“Having a purpose in your life is of paramount importance to happy, productive living. A purpose may be defined as the utilization of one’s productive capacity, or striving to achieve goals through enjoyed, productive work. In other words, one needs an ever-advancing career in a field of choice that he derives pleasure from being in. Working at McDonalds for 40 years can never be defined as a purpose because it is a stagnant, frozen mold of a job that allows for no thinking, innovating or usage of one’s productive capacity. A career as a software engineer striving and working diligently to move up the corporate ladder to higher, more challenging (and thus more fulfilling) positions is a purpose. A purpose is a dream that one reaches for, a goal they hope to accomplish day to day in order to feel fulfilled and worthwhile. Without a purpose in life, one can be best described as a caged animal in the middle of a vast jungle, never moving forward, often times moving backwards, while others pass him by and leave him there in his small confined environment. This is not how man is meant to live, however I am ever-amazed at the vast majority of people in this world who lack an over-all purpose, a dream or a goal, who wake up for no reason and go to sleep having accomplished nothing. As the great philosopher Ayn Rand stated "The most depraved creature on earth is a man without purpose."

The reason I chose to place this above the other two pillars is because this one is of the utmost importance, and less it, one can never hope to experience the others for all they can be with it.”

Wells said...

Jay,

I don't see anything I disagree with. Real purposes come from within though, but I think your friend already knows that.

Ayn Rand's spell checker failed her, I'm sure 'deprived' would have been a better word.
I'm nit-picking though. That's probably the very Platonic form of nit-picking.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Jay

I think we all agree that having a purpose in life is a good thing. And here at the ARCHNblog we've never said that Rand isn't useful as a source of personal inspiration. In fact she's pretty good at that kind of writing (I've often called her work a hybrid of the popular American genres of potboiler novel and inspirational self-help literature).

The difficulty with Objectivism is when you try to move from the general sense of inspiration into the specific doctrines, where you find, as Gertrude Stein once said, there is no 'there' there. Further, the 90lb-weakling nature of her actual arguments(as opposed to her inspirational style) have been steroided up with high dosages of those perennially dangerous compounds egoism and absolutism. The result is the sort of 'Roid Rage we often see surrounding the philosophy - Randroid Rage. That you have to watch out for.

However, so long as used properly as a general, vague source of inspiration - for example, inspiring someone from a repressive religious background to escape it - a little Objectivism can be a good thing.

Jay said...

Daniel,

Have you allowed for the possibility that some people simply misapply Rand's advice? I'm guessing that you think egoism and absolutism are dangerous because people apply them mindlessly and without careful scrutiny.

However, this is the opposite of what Rand wrote. Now, you will probably retort that Rand herself was not always a shining example of this, and you may be right. But that does not invalidate what she wrote. One can apply her ethical theories without really giving a damn whether she was consistent or not.

Just my 02 cents.

Daniel Barnes said...

In that case there's such a lot of misapplication that you gotta figure the label instructions have to carry the blame...;-)

Meg's Marginalia said...

Yes, and Islam is a religion of peace, Christianity is a religion of love, forgiveness and acceptance, and Communism is about standing up for the common man and his needs.

A philosophy or religion cannot only be judged by its exoteric doctrines, but the actions of its adherents.

Meg's Marginalia said...

ooh, sorry about the triple post,

Here's a real excerpt from the book It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand

"Ayn Rand had something to offer on the issue of pollution...On Sunday afternoon in May 1971, she appeared before a nation-wide television audience and denounced the ecology movement for being anti-life, anti-man and anti-mind. Among other things she said it was a last ditch effort to destroy what remained of the capitalist system...

Her position on the technology issue went something like this:

All of you out there beyond the age of 29 should get down on your knees everytime you see a smokestack. It is the symbol of human achievement, without technology and pollution we would all still be living in the stone age. We are locked in a life and death struggle between nature and technology, between rocks and trees and the boundless genius of the human mind."

That ought to do it

Moony said...

"Ayn Rand had something to offer on the issue of pollution...On Sunday afternoon in May 1971, she appeared before a nation-wide television audience and denounced the ecology movement for being anti-life, anti-man and anti-mind. Among other things she said it was a last ditch effort to destroy what remained of the capitalist system...

Her position on the technology issue went something like this:

All of you out there beyond the age of 29 should get down on your knees everytime you see a smokestack. It is the symbol of human achievement, without technology and pollution we would all still be living in the stone age. We are locked in a life and death struggle between nature and technology, between rocks and trees and the boundless genius of the human mind."

That ought to do it


So that's where the visceral, knee-jerk - dare I say bonkers? - anti-environmentalism of Objectivists comes from!

Thanks, Meg!

gregnyquist said...

Quote by Jay: Having a purpose in your life is of paramount importance to happy, productive living. A purpose may be defined as the utilization of one’s productive capacity, or striving to achieve goals through enjoyed, productive work.

I will ignore the stress on productiveness, since I will tackle that aspect of Rand's ethics as I begin my examination of the Randian virtues. The rest of the statement strikes me as deeply problematic. It dodges what I would think is the main issue: which is, the actual purpose one should be striving for. In other words, what kind of purpose should an individual have? Everything, it would seem to me, would depend on the answer of that question.

There is a great danger here of equating having a purpose with having a purpose of which we approve. Hence we find the writer declaring: "I am ever-amazed at the vast majority of people in this world who lack an over-all purpose, a dream or a goal, who wake up for no reason and go to sleep having accomplished nothing." But is this really a fair estimate. I doubt that these people are without purpose. Their purpose may be uninspiring or mundane or idiotic, but it still may be a purpose for all that. Jay's friend seems to assume, a priori as it were, that having a purpose means having "career" goals, as if the great purpose of existence is to do well in business and make a lot of money. If that's what he truly wants, bully for him. But it's not necessarily what everybody else truly wants. Nor are such individuals lacking in purpose merely because they're not interested in climbing the corporate ladder or wallowing in economic success.

Also, keep in mind that not everybody can be an entrepreneur or a corporate manager, with all focus on economic productivity and the like. We need waiters, busboys, hamburger flippers, garbage collectors, etc. etc. And there are people out there—quite a few of them—who are not qualified for anything much more than that. Are such people suffering from lack of purpose? I don't think so. It would be cruel to encourage them to have goals that they could never achieve. We have in our society ever so many college graduates serving tables and the like. How does this happen? From lack of purpose? Or from the sobering fact that not everybody can in fact achieve their goals and that, consequently, there is no guarantee that ambitious, purposeful, goal-setting will in fact lead to happiness. It may lead to failure and misery instead.