Saturday, March 21, 2020

Objectivism and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and the response from government presents various challenges to the political ideology of Objectivism, since it presents a crisis that can't be solved merely by letting it alone. In a podcast entitled "Thinking Philosophically About the Pandemic," Onkar Ghate and Gregory Salmieri valiantly attempt to navigate between the dire necessities involved in defending three-hundred and thirty million people from a potentially deadly virus and the imperatives of the "laissez-faire" ideology.

Gordon Burkowski has written a short review of this podcast in the comment section of the previous post that's worth quoting:

I listened to this discussion — all 90 minutes of it.... The good news, I suppose, is that there were no wild-eyed conspiracy theories being floated; and the description of the problem everyone is facing was actually reasonably accurate. “Thinking philosophically” turned out to mean: listen to experts; compare opinions; don’t be swayed by hysteria. All unexceptionable but hardly surprising. They sort of got behind self-isolation in some cases – and as a voluntary choice. And Ghate was very much aware that the medical system might face collapse if there’s a catastrophic spike in the number of cases. 
All quite reasonable — mainly because they steered away from questions that are tough or ought to be tough for an advocate of laissez-faire. They didn’t say how a purely capitalist society would handle a crisis like this — on the grounds that we have to deal with the situation we have and not with the purely capitalist society where everything would work out so much better. All very eschatological. They oddly resemble someone saying: “This won’t happen after Jesus comes. But he ain’t here yet.”... 
Both Ghate and Salmieri are more worried about the threat to individual liberties than about covid-19: they are quite explicit about that. But I didn’t hear anything that would give any meaningful help to decision makers — in business, in government, in the medical profession — about the choices they’ll have to make in the next year.

I've listened to roughly half the podcast, and Gordon's analysis is pretty much spot-on. I would only add that I'm seeing something in Ghate and Salmieri that I've mentioned before, and that is a tendency, noticeable with this newer generation of orthodox Objectivists, to try to smooth over the rough spots in Objectivism — to give Objectivism at least the aura or appearance of reasonableness, if not the reality. The trouble with this approach, of course, is that it doesn't really address the underlying issues in Objectivism, such as the lack realism about human nature and the human condition, nor does it necessarily make Objectivism more appealing to it's most passionate admirers, who in many cases are drawn to Rand's philosophy precisely for the parts of it that strike normal people and excessive and unreasonable. Rand's penchant for taking controversial stands on all kinds of issues is part of what makes her a figure to be revered among the Objectivist faithful. You defang that controversial stuff, smooth it over to make the whole enterprise more palatable to normies, you haven't really make Objectivism any better as a guide to public policy, but you have made it less appealing to those looking for something outside the mainstream. And that really is what Objectivism is when it comes to it: an ideology outside the mainstream of acceptable opinion. There's no fixing that. The vast majority of people don't want laissez-faire, nor is it a politically viable position in any case. When you get right down to it, "laissez-faire" is an ideological slogan, not a coherent policy position likely to appeal either to a ruling elite or a democratic consensus. If your ideology is outside of the mainstream, you might as well make it as controversial and "extreme" as you please, because that's what those disenchanted with the mainstream are probably looking for, and it's from such people that you are going to find an audience of willing converts.


Anonymous said...

Woo-hooh, Ayn Rand Contra isn't dead.

Here is the latest

Now that ARCHN is back, I'll listen to the videos and comments.


gregnyquist said...

To get some sense of the short-comings, despite all the aura of reasonableness, of the Ghate/Salmieri podcast, examine the following article, which argues from a position not so very different (i.e., we are over-reacting to pandemic and not fighting the virus rationally and in the process we are giving up freedom to state power). Note that it is very data driven article, rather than focused on largely on making vague philosophical points and rather amorphous assertions:

Eric said...

I really dont see anything in Objectivism that could right this disease. If anything, their slavish devotion to open trade/travel would just make the pandemic worse.

Anonymous said...


There's an essay I want to send you. I've switched computers since we last corresponded. Could you send me an email at neil dot Parille theatthing

Anonymous said...

now isn't that interesting about that.
404 I know: 410 is a shotgun shell.

kindness of (motivated) strangers:

gregnyquist said...

If you go to the zerohedge link give above ( Carl T. Bergstrom, through a series of tweets, has provided a rather cursory refutation of Aaron Ginn's now removed essay. With Bergstrom we're confronted with dilemma of expertise. On the one hand, Ginn is not an expert and his rather breezy way of discussing issues may be as atrocious as Bergstrom insists. But on the other, Bergstrom is hardly a model of humility; he seems angry that anyone should dare question the authority of "science" and the self-appointed experts of "science"; he opts to go after the weakest points, rather than potential stronger points, of Ginn's article (which hardly serves to inspire confidence); and he sedulously ignores any of the data or sources Ginn refers to which, at least potentially, may come from other experts who may not entirely agree with Bergstrom. Now I realize it's hazardous business when non-experts quote experts against other experts. But if this is done misleadingly, I would still like a coherent explanation of what is wrong with it. For example, Bergstrom contemptuously dismisses Ginn's claims about the COVID-19 burning off in the summer, citing his own experts, but Ginn has cited experts of his own, and provided a fairly convinced statistical graph. So whose experts are "right," and why is Ginn's graph misleading? I'd like an explanation of this, and am rather disappointed with Bergstrom for not providing one, but instead retreating into the unstated (but implied) injunction: "I'm an authority—all you non-experts need to believe me." Anyone who's been misdiagnosed by a doctor or ripped off by an auto mechanic knows that doesn't always work.

Anonymous said...

on Carl Bergstrom, then: perhaps his dudgeon was aroused by Ginn's presumption because he has cultivated a reputation as an aficionado of BS detection?

& as to motivation, well, there's the prospect of book sales...