Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 38

Natural disasters and state assistance. Does the government have a role in helping people whose homes have been destroyed or severly damaged in a natural disaster? I was reminded of this issue by a 6.5 earthquake that hit this last weekend just twenty miles from where I live, knocking over bookshelves and CD racks. As natural disasters go, this one was very minor—hardly even worth troubling about. But it could easily have been much worse. Forty miles to the south three massive plates come together, creating tensions that could spill over into moster quakes. Twenty years ago the area generated a 7.0 quake; yet it is fully capable of generating quakes comparable to the Anchorage and Indian Ocean quakes.

The destructive capacity of nature is immense. Whether it's earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, these events can devestate entire communities. Yet oddly, Rand and her disciples have very little to say about these "Black Swan" events (to borrow Nassim Taleb's terminology). One could imagine Rand criticizing the mere mention of them as evincing a "malevolent" sense of life. After all, they don't happen all that often: so why dwell on them?


Although they are not an everyday occurence (at least in any given locality), nonetheless they do happen; and most people have a fairly strong conviction that the government has a role in assisting the victims of catastrophic natural disasters. Claiming the state has no role is a hard sell. Why should the state do nothing? It is precisely in a catastrophic disaster that collective action governed by strong leadership becomes advantageous. To oppose such action appears to be mere obstinacy, with neither wisdom nor good sense in support of it.

It is here that Rand's principle-centric approach gets her into trouble. Principles, for Rand, are invioble "absolutes." Only an individual suffering from an "anti-conceptual mentality" would approve of violating a principle. Yet this view of things presupposes an orderly, linear, "logical" universe; it assumes that the non-linear, the disorderly, the non-logical either doesn't exist or is "non-essential." Such assumptions, however, go against facts that confront us in everyday life and in history. As Nassim Taleb reminds us, "the world is more nonlinear than we think, [or] than scientists [and Rand] would like to think.... Linear relationships are truly the exception; we only focus on them in classrooms and textbooks because they are easier to understand." Principles that work fine under ordinary circumstances often break down under exceptional circumstances. Hence wisdom counsels flexibility. When confronted by a rare, extremely impactful event, the individual may need to improvise. Obstinacy on behalf of one's principles, far from being a mark of intelligence and "rationality," merely demonstrates an inability to adapt to new circumstances.

5 comments:

Abolaji said...

How well did Nassim Taleb do in the financial markets again with his "Black Swan" philosophy of investing?

I'm sure the book did much, much better.

Francois said...

The question to ask is: if I have to pay ( as a citizen paying tax ) for the impact on people for such a disaster, why would I stop there ?

Why not pay for a lone burned house ( of someone without any insurance ? ).

«Claiming the state has no role is a hard sell. Why should the state do nothing? It is precisely in a catastrophic disaster that collective action governed by strong leadership becomes advantageous.»
Why should the state do something ?
Why do collective action has to be initiated and lead by gouvernement ? Many organism fill that hole in country where gouvernement don't.

And I'm not shure that Rand would have opposed that initial emergency action be paid by gouvernement ( such as army deployed )

That linear/non-linear cut looks to me like a subjective one...
While saying that in the face of a so called «non-linear» event, individual has to improvise you are using this argumentation as a call for gouvernement action...

«When confronted by a rare, extremely impactful event, the individual may need to improvise. Obstinacy on behalf of one's principles, far from being a mark of intelligence and "rationality," merely demonstrates an inability to adapt to new circumstances.»
That would be true only if we assume that the event «crash» the principle...

Daniel Barnes said...

As usual, Rand writes herself a get-out-of-jail free clause to her supposedly inviolable principles. That is, emergencies are somehow "metaphysically" exceptional, so Objectivist principles no longer apply. It's literally "anything goes". So there's no reason why you couldn't have any kind of government intervention during an emergency.

"The Ethics of Emergencies" as an essay actually encapsulates in a nutshell a great deal of what's wrong with Rand in general - the inane psychologising, the double-talk, the nullifying clauses, the bamboozlepalooza arguments, and best of all, a rare clearcut statement that allows us to draw some obvious conclusions about her ethical recommendations.

I started a line-by-line analysis of this essay a while back, I've been meaning to get back to it.

gregnyquist said...

Francois: "Why should the state do something [in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster]?"

Because that's what the over-whelming majority of people want. Doesn't that count for anything? Individuals who have lost their homes in a natural disaster prefer not to be entirely dependent on private charity, which cannot always be counted upon.

"The question to ask is: if I have to pay ( as a citizen paying tax ) for the impact on people for such a disaster, why would I stop there ?"

So we let people starve and go homeless because we are afraid they are going to extend the principle beyond natural disasters? The problem is: they already have extended the principle. You're not going to get them to stop extending it by persuading them to inflexible follow your principle of "laissez-faire," because hardly anyone thinks that principle makes sense in every circumstance. The argument is never a simple black-and-white issue between total government interference on one side and laissez-faire on the other. It's about figuring out when a government role is necessary and when it isn't.

"Why not pay for a lone burned house ( of someone without any insurance?"

Because fire damage can be rationally insured by the market, since the risks involved are calculable. Natural disasters are often incalcuable and cannot be rationally insured: when the market tries to rationalize them, it either over prices them or under prices them. If it over prices them, most people can't afford the insurance; if it under-prices them, it won't be able to meet it's obligations once a disaster strikes.

Neil Parille said...

I recall that the ARI said something snide about the US military helping people during The Tsunami, which they backtracked on.

It doesn't look they have commented on Haiti.

-Neil Parille