Monday, June 21, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 55

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 9. In the essay “Conservatism: an Obituary,” Rand’s main complaint against conservatism centers, not on what conservatives believe, but on the arguments that conservatives put forth to defend those beliefs. In other words, Rand acknowledges that conservatives favor capitalism and freedom. Their error, in her mind, is that they defend these ideals with bad arguments, that is to say, arguments lacking the “correct” philosophical premises. However, the capitalism and freedom that conservatives favor are not identical to what Rand herself favors; and it is important to grasp what the differences are. Many conservatives fail to understand these differences; and (I suspect) Objectivists are incapable of understanding them.

Objectivists frame the difference between themselves and conservatives in terms of basic premises. Since Rand believed human character stems from ideas, ideas become paramount. Conservatives take an entirely different approach. They tend to discount alleged differences in basic premises and instead focus on the practical consequences of a specific ideology. It is facts, not opinions, results, not premises, that are of most importance to the conservative. Conservatives favor a type of freedom, a form of capitalism that works in the real world, not merely one that works according to the speculative “logic” of this or that intellectual.





In Rand, we find a type of individualism, a type of freedom, that is at odds with basic facts about the human condition. Rand posits as a moral ideal defining the relations between individuals her “Trader Principle,” which contends that “The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships.” [“The Objectivist Ethics,” emphasis added]

The notion that trade can define most human relationships rests on the tacit assumption that the individual is a kind atomistic unit without any bonds or ties to the community at large which will profoundly influence his behavior. This view simply doesn’t accord with the facts of human experience. As economist Frank Knight pointed out:


...the freest individual, the unencumbered male in the prime of life, is in no real sense an ultimate unit or social datum. He is in large measure a product of the economic system, which is a fundamental part of the cultural environment that has formed his desires and needs, given him whatever marketable productive capacities he has, and which largely controls his opportunities. Social organization through free contract implies that the contracting units know what they want and are guided by their desires, that is, that they are “perfectly rational,” which would be equivalent to saying that they are accurate mechanisms of desire-satisfaction. In fact, human activity is largely impulsive, a relatively unthinking and undetermined response to stimulus and suggestion. Moreover, there is truth in the allegation that unregulated competition places a premium on deceit and corruption. [Ethics of Competition, 41-42]


Knight’s view is amplified by philosopher Richard Weaver, where the distinction between “anarchistic” individualism and “social bond” individualism is elucidated. Consider Weaver’s description of these two types of individualism:

...if we are interested in rescuing individualism in this age of conformity and actual regimentation, it is the [social bond] kind which we must seek to cultivate. Social bond individualism is civil and viable and constructive except in very abnormal situations. Anarchic individualism is revolutionary and subversive from the very start; it shows a complete despite for all that civilization or the social order has painfully created, and this out of self-righteousness or egocentric attachment to an idea…. It is charged with a lofty disdain for the human condition, not the understanding of charity. It is not Christian to accept such a view; or, if that is too narrow, it is not politically wise; or if that is too narrow, it is just not possible. Such a view ends in the extremism of nihilism. The other more tolerant and circumspect kind of individualism has enjoyed two thousand years of compatibility with institutions in the Western world and is our best hope for preserving human personality in a civil society. [The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 102-103]



Now the “anarchistic individualism” analyzed by Weaver describes, in many respects, the sort of individualism we find championed in Objectivism. In Rand and many of her disciples we find a lofty disdain for the human condition and an egocentric attachment to an idea. But does the Randian form of individualism end in the extremism of nihilism, as Weaver suggests? There is every reason to believe it would, if it ever could become universal. Objectivists benefit from the social bonds in the society around them, many of which they regard as irrational (such as the bonds defined by common law, family “duty,” social “obligations,” etc.). But if (per impossible) Objectivism became dominant in a society, many of those bonds would be dissolved. The result would be a social order in which most people (including, perhaps, many Objectivists) would not wish to live. It would be a society dominated by intellectual bullies who would use their aggressiveness and their ability to rationalize their (unconscious and unacknowledged) need for respect and status to manipulate and stomp over their weaker brethren.

Even on small scale and within the broad context of a “normal” society, Objectivism hardly inspires hope that it can solve the many problems that arise when human beings attempt to live among each other within a social order. Objectivism attempts to solve these problems by denying that they are essential and ineradicable features of the human condition. But such denials only make these problems worse. We see this all too clearly when we turn our attention to Objectivist communities that have arisen among followers of Rand's creed.

Even under the best of circumstances, when relations between human beings are governed by the wisest precepts and customs, it is difficult for individuals to handle the inevitable disagreements and conflicts that arise between them. Within the social world of Objectivism, the belief that the “rational interests of men do not clash” renders it nearly impossible for Objectivsts to settle differences amicably. Instead, sharp differences always lead to ostracization. This is how Rand’s various disputes with her disciples inevitably concluded; and it is how such disputes end among her orthodox followers.

Within the tacit social rules that govern behavior among Objectivists, there exists no sensible or wise method through which to resolve disputes. The Objectivist ideal of solving conflicts impartially via reason is simply not workable, because disputes inevitably involve clashing sentiments and desires, neither of which are amenable to “reason.” Moreover, precisely because Objectivists tend to regard all disputes as arising out of contradictory fundamental premises, personal disputes are framed as philosophical disputes involving metaphysical, epistemological, and moral arcana. Once a personal dispute has been translated and rationalized into philosophical abstractions, there is no way it can be solved for the simple reason that the abstractions conceal the real causes of the dispute. Hence, the Peikoff-Kelley split is explained by on one side as a dispute over fact and value, and by the other as a perversion of objective moral judgment. But the real reasons are probably far more complex and far more personal than anyone would be comfortable admitting.

The dangers arising from Rand’s atomistic form individualism go well beyond the unsavory conflicts and schisms that have arisen among Objectivist luminaries. In the case of Ellen Plasil, we have a chilling example of what happens in a community where the social bonds have been weakened and perverted. Plasil was an Objectivist who was sexually manipulated and abused by her “Objectivist” therapist, Lonnie Leonard. When she exposed Leonard as a fraud, the community of Objectivists either ignored her or treated her as the culprit. No one in the Objectivist community other than boyfriend stood by her. Fortunately for Plasil, the Objectivist community is only a small sliver of society: there was a larger non-Objectivist community that she could appeal to for justice and support. But where would she have turned in a society dominated by Objectivists, where Objectivists ran the courts and administered justice? Ponder that question and you will understand why most people do not want an Objectivist society and are in fact repelled by it.

Most individuals do not want to be placed in a position where they might find themselves without any social support at all. Nor do they want to find themselves at the mercy of hordes of self-absorbed atomistic individualists who rationalize all their desires and are incapable of empathizing with others. But this is precisely what tends to happen wherever atomistic individualism prevails and the social bonds are weakened. Strong familial and community bonds fostered by Weaver’s social bond individualism provide a support system which enable individuals to seek redress against the Lonnie Leonard’s of the world. The law itself is a creature of this support system and would not exist without it. But when individuals become exclusively preoccupied with their “self-interest,” the practical results of this kind of self-absorption tend to result in the type of individual who can’t be bothered with maintaining the social bonds that strengthen justice and provide the glue that holds society together. So Ellen Plasil is left to fend for herself. Indeed, in such a society, everyone would be on their own and those who could not fend for themselves would be regarded with contempt, as Plasil is among Objectivists to this day. Who would want to live in such a world? Other than individuals like Lonnie Leonard, hardly anyone. It is not a world fit for normal human beings. As the best conservative opinion has long maintained, no social system can work which is exclusively based on voluntary interaction (i.e., the “trader principle”) guided solely by short-run utilitarian ends (i.e., “rational self-interest”). Yet this is where atomistic individualism leads in practice.

18 comments:

DocBadwrench said...

I've immediately become fascinated by the idea of some of these weird-utopia-communities. Got a reference for that? Might be for some fascinating reading.

Watching the right's-occasional prostrations of Ayn Rand, it's weird to realize how anti-conservative she truly was. And how hippie it is in a certain light.

"Tear everything down, man, and build a commune. We'll all barter."

My brain just switched off, there...sorry. Great piece. You've got me morbidly fascinated with each post. I dare not watch, but cannot look away, and all that.

Michael Prescott said...

"I've immediately become fascinated by the idea of some of these weird-utopia-communities."

Here's an especially weird one:

http://cpedia.com/search?q=New+Utopia

Michael Prescott said...

Here's their official "government" website, with a greeting from Prince Lazarus himself:

http://www.new-utopia.com/

Anonymous said...

"It is not a world fit for normal human beings. As the best conservative opinion has long maintained, no social system can work which is exclusively based on voluntary interaction (i.e., the “trader principle”) guided solely by short-run utilitarian ends (i.e., “rational self-interest”). Yet this is where atomistic individualism leads in practice."

But what is the objectivist game plan here? Are they trying to change or mold men and women so that they can create this world? Or do they seek to create this world which will then, say in generations to come, make this world work?

When ever I ask them what they are doing I get the jokey "Come back in 150 years" and the world will be "objectivist". They base this timeline on the fact that Kant philosophy has so corrupted the Earth, erm...200 years later?

They may hate the conservatives but the objectivists I've come across are even poorer than me! Which in the UK means they are recepients of welfare, shurely shome mistake? Apparently not, you can still be an objectivist and get back what you paid into the state and some such drivel about you don't stop a juggernaut by laying down in front of it. But do you stop the welfare juggernaut by jumping on it?

As for the ideal objectivist man, well as I said before they are financially worse off than me! But the UK organisation boasts a dentist in it's ranks. The UKOA is certainly poorer than the SPGB and when you ask them what they have achieved, as individuals they merely respond that they are 'natures aristocrats', perhaps when AS is your favourite book you are asbolved from trying?

Steven Johnston
UK

Daniel Barnes said...

Steven:
>But what is the objectivist game plan here? Are they trying to change or mold men and women so that they can create this world?

Yes. This is what the "cultural change" project amounts to - to make mankind fit to accept Ayn Rand's philosophy.

Fortunately their world-domination plan seems to be based largely upon the well-known Underpants Gnomes strategy:
Phase 1: "Atlas Shrugged"
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Objectivist Utopia!

Xtra Laj said...

The claim that there are no conflicts of interests between rational men is one of the purest examples of the Objectivism's refusal to accept the trade-offs and complexities that abound in the real world, not the one that Objectivists imagine.

I was debating an Objectivist recently (I know, it's tough being related to them) about whether it is right for government to override the ability of employers to provide contracts to employees who are willing to work under unsafe conditions.

It started with an argument that apartheid was supported by communists because they wanted to keep Blacks unemployed, while capitalists wanted to hire blacks for lower wages (obviously this sounded like human nature apart from the labels, but let's put the labels aside because any government action might be communism to an Objectivist). My point was that human nature is at the center of these things and the labels often don't tell you as much as understanding the interests of the individuals involved and the capitalists could have wanted the cheaper labor because they could also treat Blacks in a worse manner.


He seemed to think that the only *right* view was that the government should not interfere with the ability of employers and employees to interact *freely*, whatever that meant.

I tried to point out that most current law on labor contracts, FDA etc. for the most part is designed to handle problems with fairness when information and/or leverage is asymmetric and that in most situations when something resembling symmetry exists, buyer beware is the usual warning. I also tried to point out that imposing costs on employers to meet safety standards might be necessary to motivate employers to take actions that they would not take otherwise, because the numbers may work out to make the employer less willing to improve safety standards (if employees are considered easily replaceable, for example). A law can force the employers to improve standards in a way that might be difficult for unions etc. to do. There are lots of real world examples of this, and the standard libertarian/Objectivist response is that innovation often takes place without such force. What I don't understand is why Objectivists think that innovation is only right if it takes place in the absence of such force and why they cannot see that sometimes such force can be expedient.

Which brings me back to the main point - the fundamentalist dismissal of complexity by refusing to even grapple with it!

DocBadwrench said...

Lots of good thoughts all around.

Daniel, that three-phase summary is priceless.

The lack of any ability to compromise is certainly one of Objectivism's core weaknesses.

It dawns on me that I sort of take for granted that a political system has to include mechanisms for resolving conflict.

How on earth was I (sort of) Objectivist-y, regarding my political system as childish, but believing that you could actually have a system that disregarded those concerns.

It's one thing not to have thought things through, but quite another to have and then wave it off and say something like "nah! we just all need to think alike..."

Brilliant.

gregnyquist said...

"But what is the objectivist game plan here? Are they trying to change or mold men and women so that they can create this world?"

Obviously, neither Rand nor her orthodox followers ever spent much time thinking this thing through. Groups with millennial hopes rarely do. They tend to focus most of their energy criticizing and expressing impassioned contempt for the existing order.

As far as can be made out from the implications in her writings, Rand seems to have believed that, if human beings were exposed to the right premises, the rest would follow almost automatically. Of course, she would always insist that there was nothing "inevitable" about any of this because people had "free will." In any case, there are obvious tensions between the deterministic implications in Rand's theory of history and her radical view of free will. But narcissistic ideologues are not very good at noticing the contradictions in their own thought.

Back in the 80s, Peikoff believed that all Objectivism needed to triumph was a few courses at the Ivy League schools. Once the undergraduates at Harvard and Yale had the opportunity to be exposed to Objectivism, Rand's ideas would inevitably become the dominant philosophy in America. Hearing Peikoff make that preposterous contention is what first made me realize how detached from reality Objectivism actually is. Any philosophy that makes so much virtuous noise about reason, rationality, and reality and yet believes in something so removed from reality as the Objectivist theory of history can't be taken seriously as a rational system of thought.

Anonymous said...

"Back in the 80s, Peikoff believed that all Objectivism needed to triumph was a few courses at the Ivy League schools. Once the undergraduates at Harvard and Yale had the opportunity to be exposed to Objectivism, Rand's ideas would inevitably become the dominant philosophy in America."

I bet you can't find that claim on the ARI website.

To paraphrase the Doors, the collectivists/Kantains/welfare-statists et all have still got the "guns and the numbers".

Just proves the old adage that it's such a shame that the people who know how to run governments are either cutting hair, driving taxis or objectivists.

Steven Johnston
UK

Anonymous said...

"Yes. This is what the "cultural change" project amounts to - to make mankind fit to accept Ayn Rand's philosophy."

Well, one does not wish to be cruel, but whatever they are doing it does not seem to be working, at least in the UK. As the objectivists we have over here really are a mediocre lot. Nothing wrong with mediocrity but when it tries to pass itself off as greatness that truely is a sin.

Sadly for those of us in the UK even the BNP seem more on the ball than that lot.

Steven Johnston
UK

Anonymous said...

Sorry, could not resist another bite at this one.

I did ask them in the UK what they were doing and the answer was, strap your corsets on, "we are finding the brightest teenagers in our communites and giving them copies of AS to read" You couldn't make it up!

Steven Johnston
UK

Daniel Barnes said...

Steven:
> "we are finding the brightest teenagers in our communites and giving them copies of AS to read" You couldn't make it up!

I repeat:
Phase 1: "Atlas Shrugged"
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Objectivist Utopia!

Anonymous said...

Phase 2: Going Galt?

As I asked the head of the UKOA if he was going to go Galt, half in jest and he told me in all seriousness that he was. What did that mean? He was stepping down as the head of the UKOA. This the organisation which claims to be affiliated to the ARI and yet cannot afford a £50 mailshot to it's members every month.

I've given up debating with them as there answers are always the same; cut and paste responses from the VOS.

Steven Johnston
UK.

Anonymous said...

Erm...there is not phase 2 is there? I know that, you know that but do they know that?

- apologies to Telly Savalas.

Steven Johnston
UK

Treeluv Burdpu said...

I don't mean to break up your feeding frenzy, but I thought you might need some fresh food.

It is interresting that you all point out how poorly objectivism is doing in schools but fail to notice it's effects on the streets.

While governments the world over are running around aimlessly trying multi-knee-jerk, money-throwing solutions to the economic crisis a single voice is rising in opposition.

While governments stimulate by printing money and then having a spending party to get people to "think" we are wealthy and keep doing that economy stuff so we can pay taxes, a small but persistent voice (starting mostly on this new internet, the wild wild www) is telling us that our values are derived from reality, not just consensus, that individuals decide what to devote their lives to (not government home-buying plans) and that our senses are valid, and our minds are free.

It is interresting to see how much resistence to change there is when you start hacking at beliefs near the trunk of the belief tree, no matter how invalid those beliefs are. How is that for human nature.

gregnyquist said...

Treeluv: "While governments the world over are running around aimlessly trying multi-knee-jerk, money-throwing solutions to the economic crisis a single voice is rising in opposition."

A single voice? Hardly. There are many voices, and very few of them are of the pure Objectivist variety. Indeed, the irony is that Rand herself probably would not have been too thrilled with the conservatives and tea party people who talk about "going Galt": none of these people are Objectivists! Many of them believe in God or are libertarians!

"...a small but persistent voice ... is telling us that our values are derived from reality, not just consensus, that individuals decide what to devote their lives to and that our senses are valid, and our minds are free."

This implies that only Rand believes these things, that outside of Objectivism, everyone believes that values are derived from consensus, that individuals don't or shouldn't decide for themselves, that senses are invalid and that minds are not free. The fact is, very few people believe that values are determined by consensus, and no conservatives that I know of hold such a belief; both conservatives and libertarians believe that people should decide for themselves; and, beyond a few eccentric professors, everyone tends to place a high level of trust in the senses. Even more to the point, these things were believed by most people in America long before Rand arrived on the scene.

Anonymous said...

"It is interresting that you all point out how poorly objectivism is doing in schools but fail to notice it's effects on the streets."

BS of the highest order. You don't believe me? Well for a start every year is Rand's year(!), yet when you ask 'em what this renaissance amounts to answer comes back there none.
If it is having an effect then how many objectivsts are there in the World now, as oppossed to June 2009? When you ask objectivists for something concrete as that the answer never comes.

As for the current crises well I doubt there are many governments that would consider a return to the 'Gold standard'

Anonymous said...

"Even more to the point, these things were believed by most people in America long before Rand arrived on the scene."

Glad you said that Greg, this truely is one of the most annoying features of objectivism the idea that she showed/discovered/gave these beliefs to the World! Arghhhhhh it's enough to make your gums bleed with apoplexy.

Steven Johnston
UK