Monday, May 24, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 52

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 6. Rand, in her essay '“Conservatism: an Obituary” attacks what she calls the “argument from depravity.” Part of her attack involves a curious distortion of the so-called conservative argument, where she draws out a presumed implication of the argument which no conservative would ever endorse. “Please grasp fully the implications of this argument,” abjures Rand: “since men are depraved, they are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state.

Now no conservative has ever said anything of the kind, and it is hard to imagine that any ever would. Nor does the conservative argument imply such a thing. There is a conservative (and classical liberal) argument that goes something as follows: that whatever annoyances or defects that can sometimes be associated with representative institutions and a government by checks and balances, these annoyances are a small price to pay for the dangers associated with dictatorship and tyranny. Conservatives accept Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. From this tenuous strand, Rand attempts to weave her claim that conservatives believe, or at least imply, that people are not good enough for dictatorship.

If conservatism really implied such an absurdity, you would expect more critics of conservatism to have made the charge. But Rand is the only one to have ever made it. She backs it with no quotes from any conservative and, as far as I know, never made the charge again, nor did she ever make it a venue where she could have been challenged by an articulate conservative.

What makes Rand’s distortion particularly appalling is that for years she was involved conservative movement, talking with and exchanging correspondence with conservative intellectuals such as Isabel Patterson, Channing Pollock, and Ruth Alexander. She was in a position to know better. Hence, it is difficult not to suspect an element of dishonesty, or at least evasion, in Rand’s accusations. If Rand had been passionately committed to honesty and fair practice, she would not have distorted the conservative argument as egregiously as she did here. This is yet another example of Rand making a great deal of virtuous noise about not engaging in behavior X, and yet wallowing in behavior X all the same. Despite all her histrionic denuciations of dishonesty and evasion, here we find her evading and spewing mendacity with the best of them.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Now no conservative has ever said anything of the kind, and it is hard to imagine that any ever would. Nor does the conservative argument imply such a thing."

I agree with you there, but when did that ever stop Rand or her followers? I have my own discussions with them an as socialist believe me they get what we believe in just as wrong. When I ask them to point where we have said that, they could not show that but instead of an sign they understood this I got the astonishing answer where they just ignored what I said and stated "Ayn Rand decsribes socialism as..." I guess it's the same with conservatism, libertarians etc. Does not matter what you actually believe in. What ever Ayn Rand describes it as it must be that.

Steve Johnston

DocBadwrench said...

I've been reading you faithfully for the past six months, now. It's an interesting exercise in revisiting an embarrassing affectation buried in my past.

Recently, I've been reacquainting myself with all the ways we trick ourselves.

Now, when I look at her I see so many basic flaws in reasoning. This post's example include mainly the excluded middle and straw men. Like, armies of those guys.

Thanks again.

Abolaji said...

I've been reading you faithfully for the past six months, now. It's an interesting exercise in revisiting an embarrassing affectation buried in my past.

Doc,

I share your embarrassment in an interesting way. As someone whose political worldview shifted from Democrat to Libertarian (with an Objectivist slant) to Evolutionary Conservative, I've learned how complicated many of the issues that Objectivism trivializes into all-or-nothing thinking are.

The reasons why we believe something to be true are always interesting. But I've come to conclude that they are rarely ever truly rational. Some of us are just more conscious of the limitations of our reasoning than others are.

Laj

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Doc Badwrench

Nicely said. I think it's a great opportunity to also take a moment to appreciate all the work Greg has put into this blog over the past few years - this topic alone is up to Part 52, sub-chapter 6! All of it has been lucidly, comprehensively, and compellingly argued, and has grown to become a truly formidable counter to the vast, blithering palaver that is online Objectivism. I'm constantly impressed. While business and family interests have limited my own time writing for this blog in the past 18 months, Greg has more than compensated for this. So well done that man - I'm always looking forward to your next post.

Neil Parille said...

Greg,

If I get the chance I'll skim The God of the Machine and see if Paterson says anything on the subject.

I think it was Bob Hessen who said that Rand was the "Evil Knevil of jumping to conclusions."

I imagine that conservatives would argue that if men were perfect there wouldn't be a need for a government. I wonder if theologians have described the pre-Fall state as one without government.

If one wants to jump to conclusions, since Objectivists think moral perfection is possible it should be they who don't have a problem with a dicatatorship, so long at the perfect Objectivists are running it.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

"Objectivists think moral perfection is possible it should be they who don't have a problem with a dicatatorship, so long at the perfect Objectivists are running it."

That is exactly what they do think, or at least over at the ARI watch they do.
Objectivism will be a republic without democracy. Their words not mine. After all why would they need the vote under objectivism?

Steven Johnston

Abolaji said...

Greg has more than compensated for this. So well done that man - I'm always looking forward to your next post.

Yes, kudos to Greg and also of course, kudos to you too, Dan. I remember those SOLO days when you came up with this idea (and I immediately went to grad school and lost touch with all this stuff). It's been a pleasure reviewing the archives and gaining lots of insights into human nature. Almost makes me proud of Objectivism as a gateway drug as long as you can be rehabilitated ;).

However, I should not dilute the main point. A hearty thank you to both you and Greg for this blog and may you both continue to have two heads where I have one ;).

Laj

Anonymous said...

I love visiting the SOLO website from time to time. The fun never ends there, it is the gift that keeps on giving. Theey just love each other! the objectivists that is, there are a few trolls there to. But, no matter how ludicrous the posts they all congratulate each other on thier brilliance.

Steve

Anonymous said...

"As someone whose political worldview shifted from Democrat to Libertarian (with an Objectivist slant) to Evolutionary Conservative..."

To some this maybe forward progress but to me this is just walking in circles.

Steven Johnston

Michael Prescott said...

"To some this maybe forward progress but to me this is just walking in circles."

Sounds like progress to me. I went from being a quasi-socialist to an Objectivist to a fairly mainstream conservative. The latter move was largely thanks to Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions," which made me realize I held the "constrained view" of the human nature.

I vividly remember reading Sowell and realizing that I did not, in fact, believe that man is perfectible. My growing discomfort with Objectivism instantly became clear to me.

Rand, with her black-and-white mindset, would say that if man is not perfectible then he is inherently depraved. But this is a false dichotomy. I certainly don't see myself or my acquaintances as perfect, but I don't see us as depraved, either. I just see us as human.

And boy, would Ayn have despised me for that last remark!

Abolaji said...

I vividly remember reading Sowell and realizing that I did not, in fact, believe that man is perfectible. My growing discomfort with Objectivism instantly became clear to me.

Mike (I hope you don't dislike being called that - if you do, let me know),

Thanks for the kind words. My conversion came through The Blank Slate, but it was also in part because I was never comfortable with how Objectivism caricatured determinism. A variety of things contributed -as someone who struggled with both chess and internet addiction, or wondered why people couldn't be made smarter simply by education, something just didn't add up. I've always been fascinated by psychology, partly as my thinking about chess and strategy became more complicated.

Pinker also references some of Sowell's work on visions, and I also realized that I believed in both the imperfectibility of man and the study of human choice in a deterministic fashion. Even if both don't require a physicalist determinism (I would suggest they require a degree of determinism about some beliefs), Objectivism doesn't even intelligently delve into these issues.

Abolaji said...

To some this maybe forward progress but to me this is just walking in circles.

An Objectivist would also see this as you do, Steve. Food for thought.

I've always wanted to write a new "Mind and Society" with a completely realistic approach to the limitations and effects of ideology. Having seen first hand how Objectivism can transform personal relationships and how people can believe very strongly in beliefs with varying degrees of empirical evidence, I think that an honest appraisal of the limits of rationality would lead us to the conclusion that the majority of our beliefs are non-rational.

I don't think I have the erudition for the project though. But I might just deceive myself that I do and take it on anyway.

gregnyquist said...

Neil,

Paterson, in God and the Machine, endorses what she calls the "Christian doctrine," which she describes as the view that "men are neither wholly 'noble' nor incorrigibly bad" --- nearly the exact view of Madison, Burke, and many other conservatives (whether inspired or rationalized by religious sources or not). It's difficult to believe that Paterson had not discussed this view with Rand; in fact, we know that they had from their letters, because Paterson in a letter chided Rand precisely for confusing original sin with depravity. "You ought to get your creeds straight," she scolded Rand.

Xtra Laj said...

Ayn Rand in the media again:

http://www.thenation.com/article/garbage-and-gravitas?page=full

Anonymous said...

"An Objectivist would also see this as you do, Steve. Food for thought."

Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

Anonymous said...

It's a good article in the Nation, yet it has not brought them out of the woodwork like the New Criterion article.

Steve

Xtra Laj said...

"An Objectivist would also see this as you do, Steve. Food for thought."

Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.


Not quite. Could you provide your best explanation for why you think I am "walking around in circles"? You might find that you would probably be unable to explain why I believe in what I believe in terms that I would agree with.

gregnyquist said...

"I think it's a great opportunity to also take a moment to appreciate all the work Greg has put into this blog over the past few years"

Thanks Dan for the kind remarks. But it's only fair to note that this site would not exist were it not for Dan's vision and initiative. Nor would the site have achieved any level of success without contributions from our unfailingly intelligent and insightful commentators such as Laj, Michael, Neil, and Steve.

Dragonfly said...

Hey, what about my 166 brilliant contributions to this blog...!

Daniel Barnes said...

Dragonfly, you're a great asset too. One of my favourite people on the interwebs in fact.

Someone always gets left out...;-)

Xtra Laj said...

Someone always gets left out...;-)

Yeah. I miss Red Grant and Cavewight already.

And of course, Herb and Hardesty ;)

Xtra Laj said...

Dan, Greg,

Here is Charles Murray's review of the new Rand books.

http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1708/article_detail.asp

Xtra Laj said...

Trying again in case of a truncated link.

http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1708/article_detail.asp

Damien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damien said...

Greg,

Another thing that one could bring up about this, is that if conservatives really think that dictatorship was better, but that people were too depraved to live under one, why is conservatism so appealing to so many Americans? Also, even one only supports a free market because they believe that nothing else would work, doesn't mean that they think that a dictatorship would be better, if only if it could be made to work.