Thursday, June 10, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 54

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 8. I detailed in my last post the differences between Objectivism and the Tragic Vision of non-ideological conservatism. I now examine the extent to which Rand’s philosophy accords with Sowell’s “unconstrained” vision, which Steven Pinker renamed the Utopian Vision:

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should now allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why’?; I dream things that never were and ask why not?’” The quotation is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert Kennedy, but it was originally penned by Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, “There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough”)….

In the Utopian vision, human nature changes with social circumstances, so traditional institutions have no inherent value. That was then, this is now. Traditions are the dead hand of the past, the attempt to rule from the grave. They must be stated explicitly so their rationale can be scrutinized and their moral status evaluated. And by that test, many traditions fail….

Radical political reform … will be more or less appealing depending on one’s confidence in human intelligence and wisdom. In the Utopian Vision, solutions to social problems are readily available…. If we already know the solutions, all we have to do is choose to implement them, and that requires only sincerety and dedication. By the same logic, anyone opposing solutions must be motivated by blindness, dishonesty, and callousness. [The Blank Slate, 289-292]



While at first glance Rand may not be exactly a perfect fit for the Utopian Vision, she does have several points in common. Indeed, we could argue that she represents a unique position within the Utopian Vision fold. Whereas most Utopians tend to be collectivist in orientation, Rand swings to the other extreme, adopting an atomistic form of individualism. Another important difference is that Rand explicitly rejects the social determinism of the Utopian Left. Yet these two divergences on Rand’s part, instead of pushing her closer to the Tragic Vision, merely lead her to refashion the Utopian Vision to suit her own personal tastes. Instead of human nature changing with social circumstances, for Rand, human nature (i.e. the psychological attributes widespread and distinctive within the human species) changes via the philosophical premises that dominate society. Human beings may have free will, but, according to Rand, most people fail to make use of it. Because they don’t sufficiently focus their minds, they end up letting themselves become pawns of the dominant intellectual trends of their age. If a man refuses to think for himself, he becomes a dupe of those who do. And since the premises that are most critical in developing the character and beliefs of the individuals who make up society must ultimately have been developed by some philosopher, philosophy becomes the prime determinant of character and society. Hence, Rand shares with Utopians on the Left the belief that there exist few if any biological constraints to the development and even the direction of psychology. She simply differs with the Left on how means by which an individual’s psychology is determined.

Rand also shares the Utopian’s derision of any tradition or customary usage that can’t provide an explict rationale. Consider Rand’s take on Common Law. "Common law is good in the way witchdoctors were once good,” she once insisted: “some of their discoveries were a primitive form of medicine, and to that extent achieved something. But once a science of medicine is established, you don't return to witchdoctors. Similarly, common law established--by tradition or inertia-- some proper principles (and some dreadful ones). But once a civilization grasps the concept of law, and particularly of a constitution, common law becomes unnecessary and should not be regarded as law. In a free society, anyone can have customs; but that's not law." [Ayn Rand Answers, italics added]

Compare that to Hayek’s view of common law, as elucidated by Peter J. Boettke:

[Hayek’s] political and legal theory emphasized that the rule of law was the necessary foundation for peaceful co- existence. He contrasted the tradition of the common law with that of statute law, i.e., legislative decrees. He showed how the common law emerges, case by case, as judges apply to particular cases general rules which are themselves products of cultural evolution. Thus, he explained that embedded within the common law is knowledge gained through a long history of trial and error. This insight led Hayek to the conclusion that law, like the market, is a “spontaneous” order—the result of human action, but not of human design.


Rand’s rationalism blinds her to the wisdom and experience embedded in common law, while at the same time making her over-estimate the degree to which “reason” can figure out the complexities involved in developing the laws necessary to maintain and free and prosperous social order.

Adherents of the Utopian Vision tend to regard their those who don’t share their vision as guilty of stupidity or dishonesty. We find a correlate of this view in the Objectivist view that everyone who disagrees with them is either guilty of an “error of knowledge” or “evasion.” In practice, Objectivist tend to believe that most people who differ with them are guilty of evasion and hence are worthy of moral condemnation. Although a reasonable person might have doubts at to whether a given individual is guilty of an error of knowledge or an evasion (after all, no individual can get inside another person's head), Objectivists seem to believe that they have special powers in this arena, and don't shrink from drawing conclusions about the inner psychology even of people they hardly know. As Peikoff explained:

[Errors of knowledge] are not nearly so common as some people wish to think, especially in the field of philosophy. In our century, there have been countless mass movements dedicated to inherently dishonest ideas — e.g., Nazism, Communism, non-objective art, non-Aristotelian logic, egalitarianism, nihilism, the pragmatist cult of compromise, the Shirley MacLaine types, who “channel” with ghosts and recount their previous lives; etc. In all such cases, the ideas are not merely false; in one form or another, they represent an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values).… The originators, leaders and intellectual spokesmen of all such movements are necessarily evaders on a major scale; they are not merely mistaken, but are crusading irrationalists [and therefore are evil]. [“Fact and Value”]

So, in conclusion, although Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism do not perfectly accord with the sort of Utopian Vision advocated by the political Left, the similarities are more striking and important than the differences. Rand accepts the view, common to utopian leftists, that human character is malleable and perfectible; she demands a rationale for everything in law and morality, even when this is either impractical or inappropriate; and she (and her orthodox followers) tends to demonize her opponents as evil. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Objectivism, in at least some respects, dangerously veers toward the Utopian Vision.

4 comments:

DocBadwrench said...

I've always considered Rand to be a utopian. That's pretty much what Galt's Gulch was, right? :)

Xtra Laj said...

While at first glance Rand may not be exactly a perfect fit for the Utopian Vision, she does have several points in common. Indeed, we could argue that she represents a unique position within the Utopian Vision fold.

If my memory serves me right, Sowell considered her and Marx to be hybrids of both visions. Can't remember the other details though if any.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "If my memory serves me right, Sowell considered her and Marx to be hybrids of both visions."

I seem to remember somewhat different--to wit, that Sowell claimed not to be able to determine where Rand would fit in his categorization. However, the only citation of Rand I could find in Conflict says nothing about where she fits.

However, you could make a case for Rand as being a hybrid in the same sense of Marx. Rand believed that in the past, human beings were limited by their lack of sufficient premises: they were unable, for instance, to solve the problems of universal, and therefore at the mercy of those who challenged the efficacy of reason. But now that Rand has "solved" the problem of universals, human beings are no longer limited, provided they simply choose reason.

Michael Prescott said...

OT: The Atlas Shrugged movie is underway. With a five week schedule, a $5 million budget, and a cast of onetime TV actors, it sounds more like a low-end cable project than a Major Motion Picture.

Variety gives you the details here:

http://tinyurl.com/2g5yqlt

I have to assume this is just a ploy to retain the option, which apparently was set to expire on Saturday if cameras didn't roll.