Monday, July 05, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 57

Ayn Rand contra Libertarianism 2. In my last post I summed up Rand’s allegations against Libertarianism as follows:

Libertarians are bad and evil because:

  1. Libertarians are a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people.”
  2. Libertarians are “plagiarists” who stole Rand’s ideas without giving credit.
  3. Libertarians are anarchists.
  4. Libertarians are anti-intellectual collectivists, worse than Marxists.
  5. Libertarians are hippies and scum and intellectual cranks.
  6. Libertarians are worse than the New Left, because they want to combine anarchism with capitalism.
  7. Libertarians are led by men of various persuasions, including “religious conservatives and anarchists.”
  8. Libertarianism is based, in part, on “borrowed ideas.”
  9. Libertarians denounce Rand when it fits their purpose.
  10. Libertarians would like to have an amoral politics.
  11. Libertarianism is a cheap attempt at publicity.

I examined the first five in the previous post; now let’s tackle the final six.

6. Libertarians are worse than the New Left, because they want to combine anarchism with capitalism. As with many of her allegations against Libertarianism, this one is guilty of painting a brush a mile wide. Yes, some Libertarians want to combine libertarianism with anarchism, but not all do.

Does wishing to combine capitalism with anarchism make Libertarians worse than the New Left? Why? Because, according to Rand, it is better to be consistent in a bad cause than inconsistent in a good one. This has it's basis in one of Rand's oddest prejudices—namely, that human beings are the mere pawns of the logical deductions of their most basic premises. Why this is so, Rand never explained. It is a tacit assumption, rarely recognized, let alone questioned.

To impotent ideologues whose ideas are incapable of finding realization in the world of fact, there exists no empirical consequences to serve as a check to their wildest, fact impoverished speculations. Without empirical checks, one's practical sense of things gradually dissolves away. The imagination, guided by wishful thinking, becomes king.

To practical individuals rooted in the world of fact, what is important is the empirical fruits or consequences of a specific ideology. The fact that one ideology is more consistent with its so-called "basic" premises is of little importance. What is important is the actual consequences, as read from the book of fact, of the ideology in question. On this standard, Libertarianism can hardly be considered as "worse than the New Left," even from an Objectivist viewpoint. The bad effects of Libertarianism are limited by the very fact that, beyond providing rationalizations for free trade and deregulation, the effects of Libertarianism have been negligible. The New Left, on the other hand, has been enormously influential in schools, universities, city and state government, and, since President Obama's election, in Federal government. Policies influenced by New Left ideals have led to a serious demoralization of American society that grossly outweighs whatever mischief has resulted from the Libertarian rationalizations put forth on behalf of free trade and deregulation. So the notion that Libertarians are "worse" than the New Left is not terribly plausible from the empirical point of view.

7. Libertarians are led by men of various persuasions, including “religious conservatives and anarchists.” This is a strange and even troubling allegation for Rand to make, particularly in light of all the virtuous noise she makes on behalf of individualism. Rand is upset that Libertarians (who, after all, are individualists of one stripe or another), are not, as she apparently wants them to be, merely a horde of indistinguishable ideologues, alike in all "essential" respects. There exists a central paradox at the core of Objectivism. On the one hand, Objectivism is supposed to be a philosophy of extreme, uncompromising individualism; yet on the other, it preaches an equally extreme, uncompromising form of “rational” morality, which demands a moral uniformity far more rigid and exacting than found in the worst sort of secular or theocratic totalitarian states. Even worse, Rand extended her totalitarian “rationality” to the psychological and aesthetic spheres. According to the example set by Rand, Objectivists not only had to accept all the same moral injunctions, but they also had to experience the same emotional and aesthetic reactions. And all this was done under the pretense of individualism and excused because it was voluntary!

Would Rand really have felt better about Libertarianism if it were made up of men of a single persuasion? Hardly likely. She was merely searching for any pretext at all that she could give herself for hating Libertarianism, and this was merely one that she ran across. Yet it does reveal something about her psychology that she would object to an ideological movement being made up of individuals of “various persuasions.”

8. Libertarianism is based, in part, on “borrowed ideas.” What movement isn’t based “in part,” on “borrowed ideas”? Even more troubling here, however, is the whole notion of “borrowed ideas”—as if ideas are like private property and can only be “loaned out” to those who don’t “own” the ideas. There are a very few narrowly technical or aesthetic “ideas” that may be patented or copyrighted—e.g., a poem, a software program, an industrial formula. Beyond that, no ideas can be owned or copyrighted. Philosophical and political ideas are not “owned” by their originators (and if they were, they would long ago have fallen out of copyright, since most of our philosophical and political notions were originated long ago). Once a philosopher releases an idea to the world, others may take it up and use it as they see fit. There is no question of borrowing or stealing or plagiarism or any of that kind of nonsense.

9. Libertarians denounce Rand when it fits their purpose. And why shouldn’t they denounce Rand? After all, who start the denunciations, Rand or the Libertarians? Rand despised the Libertarians right from the beginning, so there’s no point at being indignant because some libertarians despised her back. It’s little more than reciprocity.

Even more troubling is Rand's narcissistic assumption under which it is entirely appropriate for her to denounce anyone she likes yet not appropriate for anyone to denounce her in return. Rand allows herself to ignore various rules of fair play and decency, while expecting everyone to abide by these rules in their conduct toward her. Heads Rand wins, tails everyone else loses. Anyone have a problem with this? Or is this what it means to follow one's “rational” self-interest?

10. Libertarians would like to have an amoral politics. This is a rather confusing allegation. What Rand is really saying is: Libertarians do not base their political convictions, or argue on behalf of those convictions, on the basis of my morality. Rand had convinced herself that capitalism, freedom, and individualism could only be nurtured and defended on the basis of a moral system. Yet Rand’s own belief on this issue is based merely on her own say-so. Nearly everything we know from history, sociology, experimental psychology, and cognitive science testifies against it. A moral base, in practical terms, is merely those rationalizations that people put forth to spread a veneer of logic over whatever political ideology suits their economic interests and their sentimental proclivities. Since just about any rationalization will do, the specific rationalization is of little moment. Whether one defends a specific political idea on the basis of “natural” law, “right reason,” “A is A,” “divine” right,” or the thunderbolts of Zeus, it is all the same and hence makes hardly one jot of difference. To charge Libertarians with wanting an “amoral politics” is merely another way of saying Libertarians don’t care which rationalizations you put forth to defend the specific political order that Libertarians fancy. Why should a group bicker or divide over obscure doctrinal matters, when all their members ultimately want the same thing?

11. Libertarianism is a cheap attempt at publicity. And why is this a bad thing? Libertarians wish to spread ideas about liberty. How are they to do so without publicity? Or is the crux of Rand’s complaint that the publicity is “cheap”? But isn’t it rather snobbish to make such a complaint? After all, Libertarians are a mere fringe political faction, without much access to the corporate cash of the two big players in the political scene, the Republicans and the Democrats? So why shouldn’t they try get their publicity as inexpensively as possible?

As can easily be appreciated from the last two posts, Rand’s criticism of Libertarianism is grossly unfair, illogical, unmeasured and confused—mere ranting and raving with hardly a scintilla of dispassionate rational analysis over the whole course of it. How could someone as intelligent as Rand—someone, moreover, who prided herself on “reason” and not allowing one's emotions to infect one's cognition—sink so low? I shall address this question in my next post.


Rey said...

So, if the libertarians plagiarized Rand's ideas, that must mean Hume's estate got a nickle every time she used the phrase "is-ought" and that the Nietzsche and Stirner estates got paid for each reference to egoism, 'cause there's no way a perfectly integrated personality like Rand could be so nakedly stupid or blindly hypocritical.

Daniel Barnes said...

Not to mention that those huge royalties that Atlas Shrugged owes to King Cadmus' estate for formalising the alphabet!

Michael Prescott said...

Rand had a long history of rationalizing her likes, dislikes, fears, and hopes. One of my favorite examples was her claim that she would not fly on planes because she distrusted the "psycho-epistemology of modern pilots." Even in my Objectivist days I knew this was a threadbare rationalization of a phobia about flying. And yet some Objectivists gave Rand the benefit of the doubt even on this, insisting that her remarkable powers of perception allowed her to discern psycho-epistemological issues that would be hidden from the rest of us.

Neil Parille said...

For the most part I think Rand just didn't like competition. And at some point she started believing she had nothing in common with anyone because she developed her ideas on her own.

The thing about the libertarian movement being made up of people having various foundations for their beliefs is odd. You could say that about any movement. Why didn't Rand abstain from voting?


Daniel Barnes said...

@Mike re:"psycho-epistemology of modern pilots."

Crikey, I've never heard that one before!

Xtra Laj said...


You're going to have to substantiate the claim about the psycho-epistemology of modern pilots. It's such good ammunition that I fear that you must have mixed up something somewhere (and we have to be fair to Rand before using such ridiculously good ammunition).


Michael Prescott said...

Here's a reference to the quote with a page cited in Barbara Branden's book. I don't have BB's book handy, but I do seem to recall reading it there.

"Though one can’t fault her, Ayn Rand was fifty-eight years old before stepping aboard an airplane for fear of giving up control over her own destiny to the pilots and mechanics she claimed possessed a faulty 'modern psycho-epistemology'" (Branden, “The Passion Of Ayn Rand, 318).

Dragonfly said...

Of course I remember that passage. Here it is:

"To accept the degree, Ayn took her first airplane flight. She had always refused to fly, insisting that she did not trust "the modern psycho-epistomology [the method of mental functioning] of the mechanics and pilots."

Xtra Laj said...

I guess the typical Objectivist response to reading such is that Barbara Branden wrote it. After reading that kind of thing, it's amazing that anyone would take such rationalizations seriously. What is truly tragic is that people actually do.

Anonymous said...

"Though one can’t fault her..."

The usual sycophantic drivel that comes before an anecdote about AR from one of her supporters. What is amusing that what comes after it usually shows why you could.

I have read BB's book and whilst it a flat bore the passage when she finds out the NB has been cheating on her is worth the price of the book alone.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Though I wonder what both Objectivists and Libertarians would make of the latest on the climate change email scandal!
As they did make a lot of capital out of the scientists lying or exaggerating about man's role in global warning. Now it turns out the scientists didn't do either.

Perhaps Objectivists and Libertarians think that the report is a cover up or a whitewash? Either way I'm sure they will refuse to believe the report that clears the researchers of exaggerating the effects of global warming

Steven Johnston

Michael Prescott said...

"Perhaps Objectivists and Libertarians think that the report is a cover up or a whitewash?"

I'm not an Objectivist or a Libertarian, but I think the report is a whitewash. It's obvious that the scientists fudged inconvenient data to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. It's not so much the email messages themselves as the attached data files that tell the story.

"Though one can't fault her ..."

Those words weren't written by BB. They are part of the online critique of Rand that used a few words of the BB quote. Dragonfly reproduced the quote in full.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "After reading that kind of thing, it's amazing that anyone would take such rationalizations seriously. What is truly tragic is that people actually do."

Yes, in a sense it is amazing and tragic, yet in another, it's merely "human, all-too human," as Fritz Nietzsche sardonically lamented. Most human beings are incurably optimistic: they have to be to persevere. Hope is an ever flowing fountain that bursts forth in all kinds of fantastic myths which people use to decorate their perceptions of the world. To protect their chosen myths, any kind of rationalization will do, even the most absurd and feeble—such is the will to believe. For some people, believing that Ayn Rand was this great world-historical figure whose ideas will help them become "men of self-made souls" provides consolation for the frustrations, sorrows and limitations of everyday existence. The myth, however, depends on the assumption that Rand herself was a person of "self-made" soul. So nothing that clashes with this assumption can ever be accepted. This is how a book as silly and meretricious and Valliants' Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics can gain credence among otherwise intelligent people.