Thursday, June 18, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 15

The Objectivist cure for faction. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand equates political faction (i.e., "Lobbying") with a mixed economy:

“Lobbying” is the activity of attempting to influence legislation by privately influencing the legislators. It is the result and creation of a mixed economy—of government by pressure groups. Its methods range from mere social courtesies and cocktail-party or luncheon “friendships” to favors, threats, bribes, blackmail. [168]

Rand, however, appears go beyond merely equating a mixed economy with government by pressure groups. She seems to have believed that a mixed economy is the cause of warring pressure groups; that, in other words, there would exist no pressure groups, no political faction, no competing political interests under laissez-faire capitalism, so that the problem of faction could be cured merely (per impossible) by instituting laissez faire.

What is wrong with this point of view? The main error is one of mistaking the effect for the cause. Faction (Rand’s “government by pressure groups”) is not the inevitable byproduct of a mixed economy; rather, a “mixed economy” is the inevitable byproduct of faction. As James Madison put it: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.”

Rand’s cure for faction is no cure at all, but on the contrary, is the very cause of faction. Indeed, for Madison, there exists no cure for faction, because faction is “sown in the nature of man.” Madison therefore concludes that, since “the causes of faction cannot be removed, … relief is to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

What reasons are there to believe that Madison, rather than Rand, is right on this issue? Well, besides the testimony of history, we have the evidence of the science. As Steven Pinker explains in The Blank Slate:

Liberal and conservative political attitudes are largely, though far from completely, heritable. When identical twins who were separated at birth are tested in adulthood, their political attitudes turn out to be similar, with a correlation coefficient of .62… Liberal and conservative attitudes are heritable not, of course, because attitudes are synthesized directly from DNA but because they come naturally to people with different temperaments… But whatever its immediate source, the heritability of political attitudes can explain some of the sparks that fly when liberals and conservatives meet. When it comes to attitudes that are heritable, people react more quickly and emotionally, are less likely to change their minds, and are more attracted to like-minded people. [283]

In other words, political divisions are built-in: they part of the hardware of human nature and cannot be abolished by merely changing people's premises. There exists an ingrained psychopathology behind the phenomenon of faction that we will expore in the following "Objectivism & Politics" posts, which will cover the politics of human nature. It is on the issue of human nature that Rand’s politics goes awry. Human beings are not constituted so that they are likely to ever fully accept Rand’s political ideals. This is why her politics, in the final analysis, must be reckoned as “utopian.”

27 comments:

Jay said...

Utopian perhaps, but as utopian philosophies go, it could be much worse than this.

RandalV said...

I think you're misrepresenting Miss Rand's point here. Specifically, you are packaging lobbying and competing political interests under your term of "faction." Rand's point is not that there would exist no competing political interest under capitalism but rather that there would be no (or at least very little) lobbying. It's an important distinction, which should not be dismissed.

There are two important issues regarding lobbying and capitalism:
1. Lobbying >requires< government control; otherwise, what would be the point? In today's mixed economy, the UAW is able to throw its weight behind Obama and get rewarded with dominant directorship of GM and Chrysler. If the government had no control over the economy, what would the UAW hope to accomplish? Now, if the government were restricted to self-defense, police, and the courts; what would lobbies target? I could imagine some scenarios, but they are relatively minor compared to today and all would in some way represent a breach in capitalism.
2. Lobbying is >rewarded< under a mixed economy. In the early 90s, Microsoft was famous for not having a significant lobbying strategy. A few dozen anti-trust attacks by competitors later, and they would be crazy >not< to develop one and to pour a lot of money into lobbying. It's just self-defense at this point. Under capitalism, there's very little incentive to lobby. Again, not impossible, but you'd be better off spending your time and money elsewhere.

Now, that's different from your examples of liberal and conservative ideologies or Madison's factions. People will disagree under liberty, and that's great. Healthy argument is an important method of rationality, and it is required for the proper application of the government's properly limited powers. Is a country acting like an enemy? Does a particular law apply in a particular situation? These sorts of questions are never obvious and always require "factions" to speak their mind.

Does separating the two concepts change your opinion? I'm curious what the deeper issue is here.

Daniel Barnes said...

RandalV:
>Does separating the two concepts change your opinion? I'm curious what the deeper issue is here.

Hi RandalV

I see this as a distinction without a difference. Greg's point is that human self-interest, hardwired in, inherently produces factionalism ie banding together with those of similar self-interest against those with competing self interest. This factionalism could relate to proposing this or that policy according to the "rules of the game" ie the laws administered by governments; and, even more importantly, this factionalism can work to change the rules of the game themselves (eg people may decide to move to, or away from minarchism itself). These "rules", which may be laws or constitutions for example, are of course human creations, subject to debate and revision, trial and error, and are not unchanging Platonic "floating abstractions" (to use Objectivist terminology).

As Greg says, Rand has confused cause and effect; the mixed economy is a effect of humanity's inherent factionalism - it does not cause it. Note how the extension of political franchise to women and minorities has caused to them form factions of similar self-interest, which in turn produce a mix of political and economic interventions; thus this "mix" is caused by the extension of political power to these groups (and they need not even be "lobbies", merely significant groups of black voters or women voters).
Thus the relationship is the exact reverse of what Rand claims.

Jelly said...

RandalV wrote:
"Now, if the government were restricted to self-defense, police, and the courts; what would lobbies target?"

First they would lobby for the abolishment of laws which restrict government to self-defense, police, and the courts, and after they succeeded in returning government to a mixed economy, they'd go back to lobbying for what they lobby for now. Did you think that establishing a laissez-faire capitalist system would be the end of the story, and that no political groups would ever again succeed in buying enough votes to override the laissez-faire system?

RandalV said...

Jelly: No, I didn't think that establishing laissez-faire would be the end of the story. We've had something close to laissez-faire, and little by little, people have worn it away. It would require constant vigilance to keep it.

Daniel, I don't have time to respond now but will get back to you soon.

Xtra Laj said...

Daniel,

Great response. It's really funny how Objectivists and similarly minded people forget how restrictive the constitution was in granting voting rights when it was first created.

Even if we accept the Objectivist version of those constitutional principles, it is odd that they expect voters to accept exactly the same rules in the same way today, though the constitution of voters and their interests has radically changed! Back then, slaves were allowed to count towards electoral votes, but not exercise votes. Does anyone really think that if Blacks were allowed to vote then, they would have voted for a constitution that gave them no votes? How about women?

Libertarianism has some good insights into government inefficiency, but its popular forms today are usually a childish philosophy when espoused by its adherents.

Daniel Barnes said...

Thanks Laj...;-)

Objectivists think that somehow their minarchist government is going to come about...how? Roughly, by everyone reading Atlas Shrugged, then converting to Objectivism (not looking good), then by forming a political faction strong enough to gain democratic force, then making the necessary constitutional and legislative changes. These changes will last only as long as their effects don't cause other factions to be formed that can, as Jelly says, restore a mixed economy. I don't see how RandalV's "vigilance" will have anything to do with it.

Damien said...

Greg,

Rand Certainly was a Utopian. The idea that a pure laissez-faire capitalist society is going to come into being and suddenly there will be an end to all corruption, is definitively a form wishful thinking as you would put it.

RandalV said...

Daniel: First off, I want to thank you for responding with an argument. Blogs too often turn into silly, personal flame wars.

Your argument, as I understand it, is that the distinction between lobbying and "factionalism" is irrelevant. Difference is difference, and Rand is mixing cause and effect, saying that a mixed economy created competing political unions (factionalism). You argue that human nature inherently leads to this kind of political union, and that these competing unions inherently push liberty toward a mixed economy. Please let me know if I have misunderstood, but I think I'm restating you accurately.

My argument is essentially that Greg is arguing against a straw man. Rand's quote just means something different than Greg is taking it to mean. Rand is just not talking about factionalism here. That's why you need to separate out the concepts, so you can deal with them separately.

Lobbying is actually much narrower in scope than "factionalism." If factionalism means that people form unions to fight for their interests, then lobbying speaks to a very specific method of fighting for one's interests--by manipulating the government. And actually, it's not even a perfect sub-category, as "factionalism" seems to talk specifically about unions, where lobbying could be the result of one particular individual gaming the system.

To put this in the starkest contrast I can, imagine a state of anarchy. "Factionalism" would happen (as individuals would need to band together to survive). "Lobbying" is a concept that no longer applies. There's no government, hence there is no government to manipulate.

The specific practice of lobbying is necessarily and by definition an effect of government involvement in the economy. That's really all she's saying there, and I'm not sure what the disagreement would be with that.

Now, what Greg is interested in seems to be what >causes< a mixed economy and what kind of government is possible in the face of what he sees as inherent conflicts of interest. Again, these are just not even topics that Rand addresses here. I can respond with what she says about the topic and about competing political interests in general, but I should stop to see if that clarifies anything.

Leaving aside the question of whether you agree with me; do you see, at very least, why >I< see this as a distinction with a difference?

Xtra Laj said...

RandaIV,

You wrote:

"The specific practice of lobbying is necessarily and by definition an effect of government involvement in the economy. That's really all she's saying there, and I'm not sure what the disagreement would be with that."

One disagreement is that if people band together to support their own interests, or even an individual would like to promote his interests at the expense of others for personal gain, why would these individuals or people not interfere (or at least try to) with the economy in *any* political system? Why is this just a problem with a mixed government?

One of the motives of human beings grounded in empirical evidence is that of status seeking. We try to display superior status over others in a variety of ways - by showing our greater wealth, intellect etc. Now this is one empirical problem with Rand's claim that there are no conflicts of interests between "rational" men: at least some men, including many of the most capable men, will not mind having superior status even if they are not objectively the most qualified people for a job (and they may be very qualified, not just the best). For example, in corporate America, you see 3 CEO candidates doing great jobs, but even if one is the best candidate, the other two will not just give up and let him get the position without a fight. Now, someone who is empirically oriented towards human beings might have considered such an objection, but Rand never seriously considered it.

If Greg is arguing against a straw man, it is because he is trying to give a doctrine which does not accord with the evidence that experience has accumulated on human nature as best an interpretation as he can based on that evidence. In fact, I don't think he is arguing with a straw man - I think that Rand too often tried to justify a particular conclusion in favor of limited government based on her view of human nature, and rarely tried to understand human beings for what they were as opposed to how she thought they should be.

RandalV said...

Daniel: I was thinking here of the Wendell Phillips quote that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." If we ever did get to a predominantly capitalist society, then I'm certain that there would be reactionary movements in favor of restoring statism. What of it? You argue for freedom, point out where their ideas are destructive, and try to convince the electorate. That's the political process.

Is the "utopian" argument saying that Objectivist ideals (reason, productivity, values, freedom) are nice ideas but that they are not possible (or at least highly unstable) in reality? Or to put it another way, is this argument really about the relationship between ideas and reality?

gregnyquist said...

RandalV: "Rand is just not talking about factionalism here."

She's not? I've re-read the quote and that seems to me precisely what she's talking about, even though she doesn't use the term "faction." She first defines lobbying as trying to influence legislation. Then she says its a creation of a mixed economy, which she equates with "government by pressure groups." Now "pressure groups" is merely Rand's word for faction. Pressure groups are, for all intents and purposes, factions!

Now I'll admit that Rand's formulation is somewhat vague and confusing. She equates faction with the mixed economy and doesn't make clear which comes first. But if you judge by her implied conclusion (i.e., that lobbying for government favors would disappear under laissez-faire), then you must assume the interpretation I have given her argument (i.e., that a mixed economy is the cause of faction). If that is merely a "straw" argument, as Randal claims, then all this means is that Rand has no argument at all for her position, which can now be dismissed as a mere gratuitous assertion.

Objectivists complain a great deal about misrepresentation, but the real problem is in the philosophy itself: too many positions are based on incoherent arguments that play on sentiments rather on a discriminating intelligence. In preparation for this post, I read several articles by Objectivists on this issue, and all of them imply the argument I attribute to them (i.e., faction is caused by mixed economy) without explicitly saying so. Any broad position that one takes in politics or philosophy is going to be based a whole host of presuppositions; and part of criticism is pointing those presuppositions out. If you say that there will be no lobbying under laissez-faire, that presupposes that there will be no faction under laissez-faire, because lobbying is merely an outgrowth of faction—the means by which faction attains its ends. But you cannot pressuppose there will be no faction under laissez-faire without further presupposing that faction is caused or "brought about" or "made possible" by a mixed economy.

gregnyquist said...

Randal: "The specific practice of lobbying is necessarily and by definition an effect of government involvement in the economy."

It's only "necessarily and by definition" if you insist on defining it that way. But then you are guilty of assuming the very point at issue. If we think in terms of reality, rather than in terms of arbitary definitions, we see that lobbying can take place regardless of whether the government intervenes or not. Nor does lobbying even have to involve, by "necessity," government intervention. One can lobby the government to leave one alone. Lobbying, as Rand herself defines it, is merely an attempt to influence legislation by influencing legislators. Lobbying is thought to be protected by the U.S. Constitution (by the right to petition in the First Amendment). One can lobby for any cause, whether in the direction of a mixed economy or away from it. There is no reason to believe that under laissez-faire lobbying would stop, unless one believes there would no longer exist people eager to use the law to plunder other people, and legislators eager to comply. Indeed, it is these two groups that would conspire to prevent laissez-faire from ever being implemented in the first place. There are just too many people who have vested interest against laissez-faire, from the senior citizen receiving social security and medicare to all those people with families who desire, for reasons of naked self-interest, a government funded safety net.

RandalV said...

Greg,

I think the quote is more precise and explicit than you are giving her credit for. Among other things, she is explicitly talking about pressure groups and lobbying as effect not cause. By your own admission, you are arguing against implications.

For the sake of getting to the actual point of the matter, why don't we bring this down to reality? What is an example of what lobbying would look like under laissez-faire? Are you citing any historical examples in your thinking, or is your argument more of an implication of your views of human nature?

By the way, this is not personal. I actually quite enjoy your photographs.

Thanks,
Randal

Xtra Laj said...

RandalV,

I'm fairly sure you would be of great help to Greg if to help him out with your last question, you pointed out a government in any era of human history that you considered laissez faire. It is way to easy to imagine what might or what might not exist under imaginary systems. It is much harder to do so when we hew closer to real systems.

Daniel Barnes said...

RandalV:
> For the sake of getting to the actual point of the matter, why don't we bring this down to reality? What is an example of what lobbying would look like under laissez-faire?

Hi RandalV

As there are no actually-existing examples of laissez-faire, I do not see how this would bring the discussion "down to reality." In fact it moves it in the opposite direction.

>Is the "utopian" argument saying that Objectivist ideals (reason, productivity, values, freedom) are nice ideas but that they are not possible (or at least highly unstable) in reality? Or to put it another way, is this argument really about the relationship between ideas and reality?

No, it's about the relationship of Objectivist ideas to reality.

gregnyquist said...

Randall: "By the way, this is not personal."

I absolutely agree. We appreciate criticism here at ARCHNBlog. My only complaint (and this doesn't apply to you, Randall) is those critics

"I actually quite enjoy your photographs."

I appreciate that.

"What is an example of what lobbying would look like under laissez-faire? Are you citing any historical examples in your thinking, or is your argument more of an implication of your views of human nature?"

Obviously, there are no historical examples of pure laissez-faire, so I can site any. My argument, therefore, stems more from "human nature," as you suggest—or I might say, to be a little more accurate, from the human condition, because it's not just human nature: it's from the nature of intervention itself, particularly the nature of legal spoilation, which I wrote about in the previous politics post. I think it's naive to assume that, under a laissez-faire system (assuming, per impossible, such a system existed), no one in society would ever try to influence the legislature to gain advantage. Even under laissez-faire, the government would have to buy services from private enterprises. Weapons would have to be built and maintained, armies furnished, courthouses built and maintained, etc. etc. Businesses would lobby to get those services, just as they do now. And they would also make subtle use of favors to get an advantage on their competitors and circumvent anti-bribery laws. More importantly, there is every reason to believe that many of these lobbyists would constantly be pushing the envelope on the whole laissez-faire thing, to break it down and increase the scope of government (and therefore the scope for legal plunder). To see this work in action, just examine U.S. history. The federal government was fairly close to the laissez-faire standard in its early decades, notwithstanding Hamilton's bank. But that didn't stop people from trying to ask favors of it, sometimes even addressing letters to the President or knocking at the door of the White House. That's just part of the human condition, and if one wishes to be realistic, one has to admit its existence.

Michael Prescott said...

I suspect there is a deeper reason for Rand's view that a pure laissez-faire society would have no pressure groups. As she saw it, laissez-faire could come about only as a consequence of the widespread adoption of "reason" (i.e., Objectivism). And in her view, there are no conflicts of interest among rational persons. Therefore, in a "fully rational" society there would be no conflicts of interest and thus no need for any pressure groups, or even the possibility that any would arise. Everyone would be rational enough to know that lobbying for special favors is ultimately counterproductive.

If this sounds naive ... well, it is. But I think it's consistent with her outlook on human nature.

Damien said...

Michael Prescott,

I agree with you, her thinking was incredibly naive on the matter.

Cavewight said...

Michael said...
Everyone would be rational enough to know that lobbying for special favors is ultimately counterproductive.

No, Rand is saying that if the government of a capitalist free-market economy is limited to the libertarian minarchist ideal of police/courts/armed forces, then no lobbying is possible at all.

The police - to defend a citizen's rights.
The courts - to settle disputes among free citizens.
The armed forces - to defend the nation against outside invaders.

Who are they going to lobby in that kind of political structure?

Daniel Barnes said...

Ah, yes, the old "no conflict between rational men" thing. I always found that amusing, particularly considering the unending feuding and personal breaks that went on both within Rand's own life, and that Objectivism remains rife with today. Here's how it plays out: when there is conflict it must be because someone is not being rational. And according to my introspections, it's you that's irrational, not me...;-)

Damien said...

Cavewight

You wrote,
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Michael said...
Everyone would be rational enough to know that lobbying for special favors is ultimately counterproductive.

No, Rand is saying that if the government of a capitalist free-market economy is limited to the libertarian minarchist ideal of police/courts/armed forces, then no lobbying is possible at all.

The police - to defend a citizen's rights.
The courts - to settle disputes among free citizens.
The armed forces - to defend the nation against outside invaders.

Who are they going to lobby in that kind of political structure?
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

What, no legislature and no executive branch? Than who is supposed to pass the laws for the courts and the police to enforce?

Also, how would they get the money to fund the police, the courts and the military? If that's all the government would consist of, where would they get the money to do their job? You have to pay judges, policemen and soldiers, and they have to pay people to build court houses, police stations and military bases, as well as make the equipment they need.

Cavewight said...

Daniel said...
Ah, yes, the old "no conflict between rational men" thing.

There would be conflicts (that's what the courts are for), just no conflicts of interests.

Cavewight said...

Michael said...
What, no legislature and no executive branch? Than who is supposed to pass the laws for the courts and the police to enforce?

Also, how would they get the money to fund the police, the courts and the military? If that's all the government would consist of, where would they get the money to do their job?


I don't want to be forced into the position of defending Rand, I'm just trying to pass along the facts of her philosophy as I have learned them.

The question of funding such a government was brought up decades ago. Rand suggested a national lottery. There is also voluntary taxation. She also stated somewhere that the issue of taxation is the last thing on her political agenda.

I don't see where her political ideal eliminates the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. But their respective powers would be severely limited by the Constitution. At the end of A/S Judge Narragansat is seen busily re-writing the Constitution while Rearden and Dagny are joking about how she will try to take the shirt off his back with the rates she will charge him.

Damien said...

Cavewight,

That "What, no legislature and no executive branch?" were my remarks, not Micheal's.

Cavewight said...

This "said..." thing is beginning to get in the way.

jon said...

"What is an example of what lobbying would look like under laissez-faire?"

(English is not my language)

I read about a judge from the US wich (after beeing influenced/payed off by "lobby" groups, call it corruption if you like, as this absolutely was) gave extremely strict (compared to what they actually did) punishment to juveniles and sending them to private prisons for strict imprisonment and/or prison labour. This had two reasons, firstly the subsidies the jail got from the federal state, and secondly the free labour the prison enjoyed. Could this example work as a (not the subsidies of course) possible lobby/corruption case in a laissez-faire regime?