Thursday, December 31, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 37

Politics of Human Nature 21: Conclusion. What can be gathered from this long series of posts on politics and human nature? Mainly, three major points: (1) Human nature is heterogeneous, that is to say, the innate propensities influencing political behavior vary from individual to individual; (2) An individual's vocation often accentuates these propensities, so that, for example, an individual with innate talents for using force will become even better at using force if he joins the military, an individual with an innate talent for manipulation will become even better at manipulation if he becomes a politician, etc. etc.; (3) These innate differences and the intensification that comes about through the division of labor in society accentuates a tendency towards faction.

Why is faction important? Because the presence of faction in political society will effectively prevent Objectivist political ideals from ever being implemented under a representative system of government. What I have sought to show in the "Politics of Human Nature" series of posts is how various psychological, vocational, and social types are biased against laissez-faire, so that they could never be counted on to support such a policy. They may be biased by reason of innate personal inclination, by reason of vocational interests and sentiments, or by reason of social interests and proclivities. This rooted bias against laissez-faire is widespread, intractable, and incurable. The overwhelming majority in both the ruling elite and the masses don't want laissez-faire—they have no use for it. Nor does there appear any convincing evidence that this can change without a prior change in human nature. Having a government that interferes in economic affairs, sometimes less so, sometimes more so, is merely part of the human condition.

Objectivism seeks to attain its political goals through persuasion. Let's see how this is likely to work in practice. In order to for Rand's political ideals to be implemented as part of public policy, it is not enough that the 50%+1 of the nation support laissez-faire. To have any chance of having "real" or "legitimate" laissez-faire, Rand's so-called "separation of the state and economics" would have to be written into the Constitution, via amendments. (Even this would not be enough, but we will ignore what else would be needed for the time being.) Now getting a Constitutional amendment passed is very difficult. It would require very large majorities--at least as high as 80%. There will be powerful, entrenched interests (i.e., all those who have a stake in the present "mixed-economy" system) that will fight any movement toward laissez-faire with every means at their considerable disposal. This being so, where are you going to get your 80%? Which psychological type, which social type, which vocational type would likely support laissez-faire in large numbers? We know which types will oppose it in large numbers: bureaucrats, intellectuals, welfare recipients, the homeless, the uncreative, the unfortunate, the poor, the incompetent, etc. This group is probably large enough by itself to prevent the political implementation of laissez-faire. But when we look at other types, at other factions in society, the prospect becomes even bleaker. Will military personnel likely support laissez-faire? Not likely. There might be a few exceptions, but these are people who get paychecks from the government and live by force. Why would Objectivism’s variant of laissez-faire, with its moralistic disapproval of the initiation of force (including the force required for the taxation necessary to support a military), ever appeal to the typical militaristic mind-set? What about religious people? Well, Rand regarded such people as enemies to her political ideals (because religion is "irrational"); even if Rand were wrong about why religion people are enemies of her political ideals (the fact that someone is irrational about religion doesn’t necessitate that they will be irrational in other spheres of life), she is probably correct about the final result—i.e., the majority of religious people will likely oppose laissez-faire. What about businessmen--entrepreneurs and capitalists? Here is one class in which Objectivists could hope to find allies. But even among businessmen, there will be significant opposition (for reasons explicated in an earlier post). In short, by the time one goes through all of society, one would be lucky to find 10% of the population amenable to persuasion on the issue of laissez-faire. The biases against it run deep, into the very core of human nature and the institutional incentives embedded in society.

Back in the early sixties, Rand wrote to a fan: "We will only have to wait decades [for Objectivism to win] " [AR Letters, 596] Those words were penned almost 50 years ago. What has happened in the interval? Has Objectivism won? Not even close. Support for laissez-faire remains a fringe phenomenon. While there are many supporters of market Capitalism, few believe in the extreme version of Capitalism preached by Rand. They recognize it as being political unfeasible, legally incoherent, and economically undesirable. To desire it and think it the "ideal" system is to lapse into utopianism.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Objectivism Vs Empirical Reality

If Objectivism is correct, shouldn't the lines on this graph go in the opposite direction?
Hat tip: Angry Bear

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Objectivism versus Western Civilization

For nearly every critic of Objectivism there is usually one or two things in Rand’s philosophy that he finds particularly objectionable. For some, it is Rand’s attack against altruism; for others it is her uncompromising defense of laissez-faire; for still others it may be Rand’s essentialism and the empirical irresponsibility that follows in its train. For my stead, what I find most objectionable is the view, held by at least one prominent Objectivist, that some ideas are not merely wrong and unsound, but, even worse, are dangerous: they represent a threat to one’s “psycho-epistemology.” Harry Binswanger expresses this position quite well in his recent post about Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market:

I advise you to stay away from [Burns' book], for the reason I gave in an earlier post: it is almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted "facts" out of your subconscious "file folders." Not only would reading it, quite unjustly, tend to diminish your admiration for Ayn Rand, you are very likely, years later, to treat as fact that which is false or arbitrary.

This view is entirely consistent with the Rand’s view of human nature as exemplified in the Objectivist “Philosophy of History.” If the view contradicts the Objectivist take on volition and rationality, well, that is a contradiction that exists in the philosophy itself. Between Rand’s extreme view of free will (human beings as self-creators) and her view of history (where most human beings are seen as pawns in a philosophical, history-determining “duel” between Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Rand) there exists in obvious tension, little appreciated by the Objectivist brethren. Human beings are seen as the mere products or manifestations of their “premises.” Objectivism tacitly assumes that human beings tend to be influenced by the premises they are exposed to. Hence Binswanger’s view that it is “almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted ‘facts’ out of your subconscious ‘file folders.’” This “almost” impossibility necessitates avoiding any works that contain “false” or “slanted” facts. In other words, the Objectivist is well advised to stay clear of works that are deemed “hostile” to Objectivism.

What evidence Binswanger and other Objectivists have for believing this extraordinary doctrine? The answer to this question is simple: Binswanger provides no evidence.
There is a very good reason for this: no such evidence exists. Human beings are not the products of their premises; nor is it, as Binswanger suggests, “almost impossible” for human beings to avoid being influenced by the premises (or “false facts”) they are exposed to. The only danger that Objectivists who read Burns’ book face is the possibility that the evidence Burns presents may change their minds. But that is something different than having one’s subconscious file folders contaminated.

There is, however, a more sinister aspect to this belief that bad premises and "false" and "slanted" facts can somehow seep into one’s subconscious when one is not looking and corrupt one’s psycho-epistemology. It serves as a convenient rationalization for avoiding any book or idea or fact that challenges one’s beliefs. Even worse, it prevents Objectivists from learning from that vast array of knowledge and wisdom stored in the works of thinkers, writers, intellectuals, scientists, philosophers whom Objectivism condemns or ignores. Since this group contains most of the major thinkers making up the literary, scientific, and philosophic canon of Western Civilization, Binswanger’s view, at least by implication, encourages his readers to shut their minds to the lion’s share of what passes for Western Culture. And indeed, we get further confirmation that this is what Binswanger has in mind when we read the various assessments that he and other Objectivists (including Rand herself) have made of important figures in Western Culture. With a few exceptions (e.g., Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, the Founding Fathers), this assessment is overwhelmingly negative. Objectivists are on record as despising Hume, Kant, Burke, Schopenhauer, J. S. Mill Tolstoy, Nietzsche, William James, Thomas Mann, Frank Knight, and Friedrich Hayek; and that list undoubtedly would be much longer if Objectivists were better read.

Now if, as Matthew Arnold once suggested, the aim of culture is “to know ourselves and the world,” then one of the necessary means of attaining that knowledge is (again to quote Arnold) “to know the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Objectivists (at least by implication) believe that knowing Rand is equivalent to knowing the best that has been thought and said. But how can they know this to be true if they have neither read nor understood the great thinkers of Western Civilization? If, following the implications embedded in Binswanger’s advice, they avoid all those thinkers who might corrupt their subconsious file folders, then they clearly are in no position to judge. They are merely taking the Objectivist view of Western Culture on faith.

No one thinker could possibly have all (or even most) of the answers. To think such a thing is to betray a naivete about the world that makes most children seem masters of sapience in comparison. Intimate familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” is therefore necessary for the development of a cultured intelligence. Anyone who therefore discourages, either explicitly or implicitly, such familiarity, is an enemy of both culture and intelligence.

Binswanger’s conviction that it’s “almost impossible” to keep “false” facts (and, presumably, “corrupt” premises) out of one’s subconscious is, to the extent that it is acted upon, a pernicious notion. How is one to know whether an alleged fact is “false” or a given premise is corrupt unless one has confronted, grappled with it, and tested it? “He that wrestles with us,” wrote Burke, “sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” Burke’s view is foreign to Objectivism, which believes instead that he who wrestles with us imperils our psycho-epistemology by exposing our subconscious to "false facts" and corrupt or "evil" premises!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 36

Politics of Human Nature 20: Grievance Politics. In any advanced society there will likely be a number of individuals whose political beliefs are strongly influenced by grievances, either real or imagined, against various groups or institutions. We see this on the left with identity politics and anti-capitalist hysteria and on the right among rabble-rousing conspiracy theorists and those who fear expanding government. Grievance politics is an important factor in the socio-political equation; and grievances against “capitalism,” “globalism,” “markets” serve as an important stumbling block to the political ideals of Objectivism. And even more to the point, grievances against the free market seem to be part and parcel of capitalism itself. As Schumpeter explained in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:

There are the daily troubles and expectations of trouble everyone has to struggle with in any social system — the frictions and disappointments, the greater and smaller unpleasant events that hurt, annoy, and thwart. I suppose that every one of us is more or less in the habit of attributing them wholly to that part of reality which lies without his skin, and emotional attachment to the social order — i.e., the very thing capitalism is constitutionally unable to produce — is necessary in order to overcome the hostile impulse by which we react to them.… Secular improvement that is taken for granted and coupled with individual insecurity that is acutely resented is of course the best recipe for breeding social unrest.

We see these grievances in full regalia in the recent global-warming orgies at Copenhagen Summit. Although ostensibly held to save the world from imminent environmental catastrophe, the most prominent and real motive of the global-warming hysteria is hatred and grievance against capitalism. We saw that quite clearly during an anti-capitalist tirade by the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. When Chavez said there was a “silent and terrible ghost in the room” and that ghost was called capitalism, the applause was deafening. When he concluded by saying “socialism, the other ghost that is probably wandering around this room, that’s the way to save the planet, capitalism is the road to hell….let’s fight against capitalism and make it obey us,” he received a standing ovation. Many global warming advocates are merely disappointed socialists nursing grievances against capitalism and making use of environmentalism as a pretext for sabotaging the free market. With the recent exposure of emails from leading climate “scientists” at East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, the fraudulent nature of the Global Warming movement is beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet the exposure of the fraud has exercised no effect on the vast majority of global warming hysterics—which proves the power of their real motivations, which stem, at least in part, from grievances against capitalism and the West.

So we have this powerful force fueled by grievances against capitalism. What about grievances operating in the opposite direction? Could they be used by Objectivists and other advocates of “laissez-faire” to counter-balance the grievances on the other side?

While such “pro-market” (actually anti-government) grievances obviously exist, whether they can be used to cancel out the anti-capitalist grievances is unlikely. There are two forces that operate against them. First, it should be noted that if these grievances actually managed to move the country away from big government and toward freer markets, this very effect would tend to undermine itself over time. As grievances against big government push society closer to the ideal of laissez-faire, this very movement toward freer markets and less government will at the same time lessen the grievance level against government interference in markets; for as the role of government is lessened in people’s life, government will become less of a target for grievances, since people tend to focus their grievances against those institutions that most directly affect their lives. As the government’s role shrinks in people's lives, the role of other institutions, such as corporations and unions, will increase, thus making them a riper target for grievance. So built into the institutional structure of society is a kind of mechanism which serves as a brake of any movement toward laissez-faire. As a country moves toward socialism, grievances against government increase until the movement is reversed. But the same thing happens as the market gains in strength.

In addition to this, there’s another type of grievance that has to be taken into account: the grievance that arises when a government service is abolished. Since Obama’s election and the dominance of the left-wing of the Democratic Party in Congress, there has been growing resentment against the expansion of government in America. This, in combination with the government's gross fiscal irresponsibility, could lead to a reduction in government when changes in the political climate work their way through the political system. Yet if any government services end up being curtailed, this itself would be a potential cause of widespread grievances. The American public may not like taxes or big government, but they are rather fond of government services like social security and medicare. Here, then, is another source of grievance which would act as a brake toward the Objectivist political ideals.

Socialistic and capitalistic movements in society tend to be cyclical, as the trend toward either tendency fuels opposition. Before Objectivism could achieve its social and political goals, it would have to attain ideological supremacy. But all the empirical evidence at our disposal strongly suggests that this would be impossible. Many human beings nurse grievances against dominant institutions. That is just the in the nature of things: nothing to be done for it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Convenient Untruth

Jennifer Burns’ taut, perfectly judged new Rand bio is good news for American intellectual history and bad news for the cult wing of Objectivism.

In June, 1968, as the seismic shocks from Ayn Rand’s break with Nathaniel Branden ripped apart the world he’d lived in since adolescence, Leonard Peikoff made his choice the only way he knew how: he wondered, incredulously, how anyone “could possibly believe the author of Atlas Shrugged had done anything fundamentally wrong.” More than 40 years later, this almost touching belief in his mentor as some kind of infallible guide to ultimate truth, with a work of fiction the only evidence he ever needed, is finally being confronted by reality.

Jennifer Burns’ new biography, Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market is a genuine event: the first independent, scholarly biography of one of the 20th century’s most widely read novelists and thinkers, arriving right in the middle of her biggest revival in decades. Goddess has been acclaimed from the mainstream of Time magazine to the margins of, and been plugged from the left of The Daily Show to the right of the Economist. But there’s one place where it literally doesn’t seem to exist: over at the organization Leonard Peikoff founded in 1985, three years after Rand’s death, the Ayn Rand Institute. Searching their website turns up only some fine-print references to it in relation to the Ayn Rand Archives; officially the ARI has not even mentioned it, let alone promoted it.

A Convenient Untruth

The reason for this is simple. The Ayn Rand Institute’s mission is not to further intellectual enquiry but instead to perpetuate the jejune cult of personality that surrounded the writer, and that Rand herself endorsed from its earliest beginnings. The Rand personality cult portrays her as the greatest human being who has ever lived, her novel Atlas Shrugged as the greatest human achievement in history, and the adoption of her philosophical system, Objectivism, as essential for mankind’s continued survival on earth. This cult of personality was in part driven by the charisma of Rand and her lover Nathaniel Branden, but also was a logical consequence of her philosophical system which made philosophy the master discipline controlling all intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and even sexual life. With philosophy as the ultimate discipline, and Objectivism as the ultimate philosophy, its inventor could only be, therefore, the ultimate philosopher – and with all the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and even sexual qualities that that entails (Not for nothing did Joey Rothbard crack that one of Rand’s main philosophical tenets is that “she is the most sexually desirable person in the world”). While this personality cult had plenty of upside in terms of money, media coverage, and influence – at least for a while - the long term downside is that Rand, as the centre of the edifice*, must be flawless in order for it to hold. Thus a convenient untruth was required: a stylized, fantasized, even flat-out idolatrous version of Rand that not only her followers, but Rand herself believed in and encouraged. It is this convenient untruth which sustains the official Objectivist movement today.

Burns’ terrific, toughminded new book, whilst broadly sympathetic to Rand, nonetheless paints an often unflattering picture of the novelist-philosopher, summarizing her life as “a tragedy of sorts.” Faced with the inconvenient facts, delivered by an independent historian with no pre-existing agenda and whose evenhandedness is evident on every page, the Ayn Rand Institute and their fellow travelling True Believers' response has been to simply pretend it doesn’t exist: a state of denial Rand called a “blank out.”

Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market is not the large-scale biography that Anne Heller’s new Ayn Rand and the World She Made (which I haven’t read yet) apparently aims at. However due to Burns’ masterful control and economical, highly readable style both Rand and the times she lived through leap from the page: Burns’ reach easily outstrips the book’s stated scope.

A Tragedy of Sorts

Goddess of the Market is gripping from the git-go, dropping the reader straight into the drama of post-Revolution Russia, with Red Guard soldiers pounding on the door to seize the Rosenbaum’s chemist shop as the young Alisa (Rand’s real name) watches, outraged. Burns whirls us from this formative misery of early Soviet Russia to the seedy glamour of early Hollywood in a handful of pages, and by the beginning of the second chapter Rand is already in her mid-30s and about to write “The Fountainhead”. Yet the story somehow doesn’t feel rushed, and telling historical and psychological moments are present and correct. From there, Burns deftly exposes the political, intellectual, and personal sinews that held the American laissez-faire movement of the first half of the 20th century together. This is really The Education of Ayn Rand; where the oddball immigrant, simmering with equal parts talent, ambition, and resentment, absorbs the basic political program she was to later do so much to promote. Much of it was a revival of the ideas that had dominated the late 19th century – such as Herbert Spencer - by a cast of equally misfit personalities such as Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, with Paterson in particular becoming an important mentor, tutor, and friend to Rand.

So far, Rand’s story seems full of promise – The Fountainhead is a surprise hit, and Ayn and her husband Frank O’Connor are suddenly wealthy and bona-fide celebrities. Yet as Goddess moves on the writing of Atlas Shrugged, and the formation of the Objectivist movement, we see Rand’s latent tendency to hubris come to full flood. She becomes surrounded by young, uncritical groupies, and drifts away from the more pragmatic political and social currents of the preceding years into what was to become her own peculiar brand of American Idolatry. Nemesis in various shades is just upriver. In a fashion entirely typical of such cults, Rand, as the leader, and an ambitious young groupie, the 25-years-younger Nathaniel Branden, enter into a concubine arrangement, with scheduled weekly sexual appointments. As both were already married, they insisted that both her husband Frank and his wife Barbara accede to this “rational” arrangement whilst also keep it secret from the rest of the movement. (Frank, handsome yet bland, already seemed to fulfill a concubine role to the domineering Rand. Burns poignantly records that at one point Rand makes him wear bells on his shoes around the house so she would know his whereabouts). Inevitably this conveniently untruthful relationship ends in tears when more than a decade later and at the height of their fame Branden confesses to the by-then 63 year old Rand that he’s taken up with a luscious young cookie named Patrecia. Rand, in a fit of woman-scorned fury, then dynamites their relationship and their whole, multi-million dollar EST-like Objectivism franchise with it.

From there, Goddess describes the light going out, spark by irreplaceable spark. The movement dwindles. Rand becomes frail and isolated, able to work only sporadically. Frank, who unsurprisingly seems to have been drinking heavily for many years, falls into dementia. And Leonard Peikoff, long considered the runt of the New Intellectual litter, becomes Rand’s “intellectual heir” through unquestioning loyalty and obedience rather than any distinctive philosophical contribution.

Burns spends little time on analyzing Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism itself, although it is clear she has an excellent grasp of the main points. This in itself is quite an achievement, for beneath a superficially clear prose style in fact Rand was a confused and contradictory thinker, who had a garbled misunderstanding of the important philosophical problems she claimed to have solved and depended on her own obscure, pseudo-intellectual jargon – not to mention her sheer chutzpah - to conceal her lack of comprehension from both her followers and herself. (In a deadly accurate bon mot, David Ramsay Steele described Objectivist doctrine as little more than “bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics”). Happily, Burns also provides firm support for some of the main contentions of this blog’s eponymous book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature; for example, that Objectivism was driven by Rand’s idealised romantic feelings of “man worship”, and that Rand’s absurdly rationalistic tabula rasa view of the human mind really does deny the existence of natural talents. She also clearly understands the unpleasant implications of Randian doctrines such as “social metaphysics” and the incitements to cultism her philosophy contains:

"The presence of Rand, a charismatic personality, was enough to tip Objectivism into quasi-religious territory, but Objectivism was also easy to abuse because of its very totalizing structure. There were elements deep within the philosophy that encouraged its dogmatic and coercive tendencies." [Goddess, Chapter 8, pg 237.]

These “totalizing” and “absolutising” elements are of course not unique to Objectivism; we find them to some degree in most belief systems. But in Objectivism they are writ particularly large, with both bizarre and genuinely tragic personal consequences.

Rand Via Kafka

There's no doubt Rand's life and times are one hell of a story, and its truthful telling is of major importance to American intellectual history. But of course the truth is anathema to the cult-wing of Objectivism. Following Rand as in all things, Peikoff’s official Objectivism has dutifully continued her practice of falsifying of her personal history to erase her influences and present herself as a millennial, sui generis genius. For example, Goddess gives us good cause to believe that Rand’s emphasis on the paramount importance reason is due to Isabel Paterson’s teachings, whereas Rand would have us believe the fundamentals of her philosophy were formed when she was two and a half years old. Burns’ research has also revealed a burgeoning scandal at the Ayn Rand Archives, where swathes of Rand’s unpublished writing and speeches have been stealthily rewritten to banish all uncertainties and contradictory thoughts, and keep the convenient untruth of Rand's immaculate conceptions alive.

Already the difference between the reaction of the wider literary and intellectual world and Objecti-World is telling. Where Burns’ book has been widely anticipated and gathered enthusiastic reviews, within Objecti-World (and particularly among the orthodox) the reaction has been muted at best. Not a whisper of the book’s existence can officially be heard from the Ayn Rand Institute, despite it being the first independent biography of their heroine. ARI true-believer Ari Armstrong, seemingly holding Goddess with tongs, got only as far as reviewing the introduction of Goddess before crossing himself with a few catechistic criticisms and averting his eyes. Blogger Diana Hsieh, caught between her loyalty to Official Objectivism and her academic credibility simply republished Armstrong’s review and disingenuously fluttered about ever finding time to fit Goddess into her busy reading schedule. Best of all, the Ayn Rand Institute’s Ed Cline, a T-1000 version Randroid, declared that he was in “total agreement” with Armstrong’s negative remarks, despite the slight problem that he had not even read the introduction that Armstrong had not made it past. Intellectual standards at the ARI clearly owe as much to Franz Kafka as Ayn Rand.

Indeed True Believer Objectivist writing has an institutionalized, Kafkaesque quality to it, particularly in response to non-Objectivist criticism. The template is worth examining. First, they begin with the pro forma objection that the critic is "biased" against Rand, and “doesn’t understand Objectivism”, despite the fact that it is far from clear who, if anyone, actually does understand Rand’s rambling and ramshackle construction. (For example, Leonard Peikoff himself once announced that any Objectivist who votes Republican “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism”, instantly wrong-footing a legion of followers who’d spent years loyally forking out for ARI conferences and 26-hour tape lectures and the like only to find out they were not really part of the cognoscenti after all).

Second, True Believer Objectivists invoke what I’ve dubbed the Objectivist Double Standard. This means that when Rand makes a wild, evidence-free claim or uses the most malicious, unsympathetic interpretation possible of another thinker’s work - where she had even bothered to acquaint herself with it - this is ok because with her millennial genius she is in fact grasping the “essentials” of her opponents’ arguments. On the other hand, anyone who criticizes Rand must have read everything she ever wrote or said about anything, and allow her any concession and sympathetic interpretation demanded, no matter how obscure or unlikely.

The final True Believer tactic is to simply limn the piece in question for various Thought Crimes such as “determinism”, “pragmatism” or “subjectivism” - terms so conveniently vague that it’s possible to convict just about anyone. For example, The Objective Standard’s Robert Mayhew and Shaving Leviathan’s Jeff Perren lead the New Intellectual pack by at least making it all the way to the end of Goddess before issuing their ritual denunciations. Just how trivial Mayhew and Perren must get in order disparage Burns says it all. Mayhew rails against Goddess’ entirely ordinary suggestion that Rand’s background or the people she met influenced her intellectual development, claiming this means Burns is supposedly a "determinist". Meanwhile Perren's review consists of flailing efforts to reveal Burns' subjectivist and pragmatist "tinges." In a closely fought match, the prize for pompous inanity goes to Perren, who informs us that “people, not philosophies, have tendencies”, regardless of the fact that dogs tend to chase thrown sticks, Harley Davidsons tend to leak oil, and that Objectivist essays tend to contain amusingly pseudo–intellectual pronouncements designed to imply the author’s superiority with quite the reverse effect. Watching Mayhew and Perren trying to fisk Burns is like watching two ducks trying to nibble someone to death.

Largely trivial as it is, Perren’s critique is unintentionally instructive in that it gives voice to the underlying sentiments of those who prefer their Convenient Untruth about Rand to the real story as it emerges, warts and all. Most telling is Perren’s wistful suggestion that the basic problem with Burns’ book is that it is “not…the biography Rand fans could wish for” - as if a Rand biography should be like a Star Trek movie, written primarily to please ageing fanboys. Such is his longing for a fans-only biography, he even takes a passage from Burns’ book and rewrites it as “someone more inclined to admire Rand might…” It’s a genuinely pathetic sight.

Blank Out

And that is pretty much the response to a major event like Goddess from the outlying satellites of True Believerdom. From the central darkness of Planet Peikoff itself, only a few, faint, on-the-fritz radio signals have been detected. The first is from Harry Binswanger who has issued his remote-controlled repudiation of Burns from the hermetic safety of his loyalty-oath-requiring e-list but which is now available to the collectivist anti-mind of the general public via samizdat here. The second is from Peikoff himself in a brief comment (transcribed here) on one of his weekly podcasts. I reproduce it in full below:
Q: Do you plan to read either of the new Ayn Rand biographies?
Peikoff:NO! I won’t read any of them, EVER!
Q: Do you have any advice in this regard for others?
Peikoff: Yes, do the same. I have had enough experience in my years of what these people write, uh, I’ve authorized one, um, biography, and its in the works and some day hopefully, uh, will be done, but my experience has been SO HORRENDOUS, with so many people interested in doing a biography that I just stay away from it entirely. Uh, the dishonesty of the people, you know they start with an interview and in the old days I interviewed then I quickly stopped. But now, this is the kind of thing I get, um, somebody wrote with one of these biographies, and we wrote back a form letter saying, hiss hiss, the Estate of Ayn Rand has no, uh you know what, dealings, er, or correspondence with any biographer. That’s it, a form letter, better worded than that. And the book came out, in the acknowledgements, thanked the Estate of Ayn Rand for its correspondence. So, ha ha. Here’s another one, the archives of the institute, I think this is one of the current ones, have, are, are open to anybody in the universe. They’re not restricted to Objectivists, eh, so anybody can get in. So somebody apparently, one of these biographers has in her blog, either thank you or I don’t know, Dr. Peikoff has approved my access to the archives. So, the whole thing is too disgusting to be imagined. That’s my view. This is not even to say, oh I’ll take it back, I don’t even want to start with it.

Such is life on the planet Ayn Rand made. For the rest of us living here on earth, Burns's book is a blessing as until now anyone who’s wanted to know more about Rand's life has had to rely on mostly pap. It’s been either Facets of Ayn Rand, by pliant drones Charles and Mary Sures - a book with all the literary qualities of an infomercial - or The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics by bug-eyed laughingstock James Valliant, which is to a serious intellectual history roughly what Plan 9 From Outer Space is to astrophysics. Even Barbara Branden’s bestselling memoir The Passion of Ayn Rand which was at least prepared to break the silence around the Rand-Branden affair, was too marbled by personal tensions to be fully credible. And of course, despite the fact this was published 20 years ago, Leonard Peikoff still claims to never have read it.

The simultaneous publication of both Burns's and Heller's books is also a sign that Rand is finally entering the serious intellectual mainstream and breaking out of her own peculiar mix of populism and cultism. This is to be celebrated, because it's only by close examination and searching criticism that the long term value of her work will be able to be assessed. The fact that, to date, the energies of her faithful have been entirely devoted to keeping the Convenient Untruth alive rather than undertaking such a critical examination does not bode well.

*In strict Objectivist terms, Ayn Rand is and can be the only true Objectivist, and everyone else is merely a student of Objectivism.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Cline versus Heller

Back in October Stephen Cox reviewed Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Shortly thereafter, Edward Cline reviewed Cox's review in a blog post entitled "The Oblique Smearing of Ayn Rand." Cline's review is interesting more for what it says (or, rather, reveals) about Cline himself than what it says, or fails to say, about Cox's review. Indeed, if there is any smearning going on, it is on the part of Cline himself. "[Cox's] review, 'Ayn’s World,' can be taken as the apotheosis of all libertarian reviews," insists Cline, "because it is long, commits the same offenses, and is as thorough a job of 'debunking' Rand short of a Whittaker Chambers/William F. Buckley Jr. effort."

To any normal person who has read both Chamber's review of Atlas Shrugged and Cox's review Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Cline's comparison is absurd. Unlike Chamber's, Cox is clearly an admirer of Rand's ideas. He's effusive in his praise: Atlas Shrugged, Cox avers, "projected a nation, an America, in which the government intervenes in the economy and, yes, wrecks it, in ways more picturesque than any economist could possibly have imagined." Rand created "an intense and serious world, a world full of ideas and characters and exciting action." "There can be no question about the fact that Rand remains America’s ... most influential novelist of ideas." "Heller pronounces Rand 'prophetic' and 'revolutionary,' as indeed she was." "The Rand who emerges from Heller’s pages was a brilliant thinker and writer who exercised remarkable power over the world of her texts and the world of her life." "Rand had enormous personal and literary courage." "If anyone ever deserved to succeed, it was Ayn Rand, who was thinking seriously, all the time, both about ideas and about the literary forms in which they ought to be embodied, and who risked her all to write what she thought was good to write." "One of the many unacknowledged facts about Rand is that she was one of American literature’s greatest satirists."

Cline does not deny that Cox praises Rand, he merely explains the praise away: it's "praise so qualified that it ceases to be praise at all," he tells us. In other words, you're not allowed to admire Rand the thinker while deploring some aspects of Rand as a human being. It's as if Cline is suggesting that if you truly admire Rand's ideas, you would have unqualified, unconditional admiration for Rand's character as well.

Perhaps more disturbing is Cline's intellectual dishonesty and lack of fair play. He is ever so sensitive to criticism of Rand, but shows not the least sensitivity, or even justice, when dishing out criticism to Cox. Cline accuses Cox "of using Heller’s biography as a vehicle to not-so-subtly slander Rand." That's a pretty serious charge. Cline is basically accusing Cox of lying about Rand in order to disparage or denigrate the author of Atlas Shrugged. You would think Cline would be eager to back his accussation up with hard facts. But hard facts are precisely what are missing in his review. What we get are a series of assertions and distortions and malicious misinterpretations of Cox's text. For example, at one point, he claims that Cox "wished" Rand "had taken Albert Jay Nock, that wistful, ineffectual individualist of the 1930’s, more seriously." This, however, is a complete distortion of what Cox did in fact say:

I would like to believe, as Heller does, that Rand was inspired by Nock’s essay “Isaiah’s Job.” There, Nock pictures literary prophets ministering to the needs of a “remnant” of right-thinking people who may at some time have the opportunity to rebuild their civilization. As Heller says, it sounds like the situation in “Atlas Shrugged,” and I want to agree with her, because “Isaiah’s Job” is one of the finest essays ever written by an American. I like to picture Rand reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t think she needed Nock for the storyline of “Atlas.” Anyone who devotes her life to conveying unpopular ideas is apt to feel as Nock and Rand did — alone and without influence except on a few currently anonymous other people, a small “remnant” of civilization. That doesn’t mean that Nock influenced Rand. I acknowledge that Rand uses the word “remnant” in John Galt’s big speech in “Atlas Shrugged,” so Heller may be correct — though considering the unfavorable things Rand said about Nock’s failure to help her get the individualist movement off the ground, I can’t see her intending to write an homage to him in “Atlas.”

How Cline reads into this passage "Cox wishes Rand had taken Nock more seriously," I have no idea. Nock use to complain of people who were literate but who didn't know how to read. One wonders if Cline wouldn't, in some degree, fit Nock's description.

Besides several paragraphs in which he bitterly complains about Cox labelling Rand as a libertarian and another paragraph griping about Cox's "cheap shots" at Rand (along with an extremely trivial example of a "cheap shot" from Cox's review), Cline announces "I shall skip over other remarks Cox makes about Rand, as they are of the same insouciant tone." Well, that's convenient. But in doing so, he ignores the most damaging part of Cox's review, where Cox discusses Rand's "striking lack of empathy."

“Empathy” is a word that’s hard to define, but most people know what it means. Rand didn’t. She had little spontaneous insight into the beings who surrounded her. To get a fix on them, she needed to view them from an ideological or theoretical remove, as if she were an astronomer and they were distant planets.

Naturally, this problem showed itself most clearly in her relations with the people closest to her. Her letters to Paterson indicate that she hadn’t a clue about the reasoning by which her friend reached different conclusions from her own. No matter how lucidly Paterson explained her thinking, Rand’s way of understanding it was to label it irrational; then it could be dismissed. When her relationship with Nathaniel Branden went on the rocks, she constructed analyses worthy of Sir Isaac Newton to explicate actions and emotions that anyone with empathy would have comprehended in a flash. This, to her, seemed rational, but it was really a fundamental failure of empathy.

Heller’s best example of Rand’s lack of empathy is her conception of Frank O’Connor. Frank was a handsome, lovable, nonintellectual person whom Rand systematically confused with the heroic geniuses of her novels. To say that her expectations of Frank were damaging to him, and to their relationship, is putting it very mildly. Her expectations of other people — people she liked, people she trusted, people she eventually shed — were almost as damaging.

It can hardly be an accident that Cline chooses to ignore Cox's most serious charge. Far better to simply call it "slander" or "a cheap shot" or "offensive." After all, if Cline had actually tried to address the issues Cox raises honestly, in the spirit of fairplay and empirical responsibility, what could he have said? Nothing to the purpose. The issues Cox raised in his review are based on the research in Heller's book, which demonstrates, to any disinterested intelligence, that Rand was sadly lacking in the capacity to empathize with others. It is a defect which many of Rand's orthodox followers appear to share.

For many orthodox Objectivists, however, it goes beyond a mere lack of empathy: it could more properly be described as a kind of self-absorption that robs the Randian true believer of the most basic common decency in his relations with non-Objectivists. Hyper-sensitive to even the mildest criticism (even to the point of going out of one's way to find reasons to be offended, even when none exist), the orthodox Objectivist is often reckless in his denunciations of others and irresponsible in his desperate urge to find pretexts for denouncing other people (even those who, like libertarians, believe very similar things and are on the same page, politically). It's proof of the basic irrationality at the core of Objectivist orthodoxy. Objectivists claim they wish to change the world through persuasion; but their self-absorption, their lack of empathy, their inability to show even the most common decency towards those with whom they disagree—all this constitutes a very serious public relations problem which a more empathatic and rational individual would recognize at once and endeavor to correct. If you are trying to convince others that selfishness is a virtue, you don't do yourself any favors by behaving with this degree of malevolence and narcissism.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 35

Politics of Human Nature 19: Businessmen and the state. In the last post, I examined how economic interests can bias even businessmen against laissez-faire. In this post, I will examine another side of this issue illustrated by Rand’s tendency to rigidly divide businessmen into two classes: (1) competent businessmen who, like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, make “their fortunes by their own personal ability”; and (2) incompetent businessmen who need government help to compete with their betters. Rand’s conviction appears to be that “It is only with the help of government regulations that a man of less ability can destroy his better competition"—and he is the only type of man who runs to government for economic help.

Is that really true? No, not at all. There is a third class of businessmen: (3) competent businessmen who use government as a source of additional capital. This class includes even those businessmen Rand singles out for praise for making their fortunes by their own personal ability, James Jerome Hill, Commodore Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. Yet each of these men either took government funds or lobbied for funds or supported measures which involved transfers of money to the business class. Early in his career Hill took advantage of several government land grants. For instance, he attempted to reacquire a grant forfeited by a railroad company he had taken over. This grant had already been settled by farmers who, alarmed at the prospect of eviction, appealed to Congress. The dispute was resolved by merely giving Hill valuable timber lands in Montana and Idaho.

Vanderbilt's dealings with government were very complex. Local government in New York City was extraordinarily corrupt, and so bribery was a necessary part of doing business in that city—so in one sense you could argue that Vanderbilt had no choice but to engage in bribery. Yet it would be a mistake to argue, as Rand did, that Vanderbilt engaged in political chicanery merely for defensive reasons, to protect his legitimate interests. Vanderbilt, for instance, persuaded the city to pay him $4,000,000 to replace a dangerous section of his railroad with a tunnel. There are, in addition to this, many other government financed favors done for Vanderbilt of a more ambiguous nature, such as building streets that benefited Vanderbilt’s business interests.

Andrew Carnegie admitted "the single most important event" in prompting him to enter the steel business was the $28-per-ton tariff on imported steel, passed by Congress in 1870. J.P. Morgan, for his stead, rejected the notion of a pure free market, believing it would lead to “ruinous competition.” Morgan began his career selling faulty rifles to the army; and while his subsequent dealings with the government seem to have at least honored the letter of the law, it would be naive to conclude he achieved a Roark-like level of integrity in his affairs with the state.

Rand’s belief that only men of less ability go to the government for economic help is not supported by the facts. Regardless of their ability, entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to get their hands on capital. Their function is to “lead” the means of production into new channels—hardly a trivial task. Economic development did not arise due to capital accumulation or to increases in the quantity of labor. As Schumpeter explained more than a century ago: “The slow and continuous increase in time of the national supply of productive means and of savings is obviously an important factor in explaining the course of economic history through the centuries, but it is completely overshadowed by the fact that development consists primarily in employing existing resources in a different way, in doing new things with them, irrespective of whether those resources increase or not.” [Theory of Economic Development, 68]

So it’s not necessarily how an entrepreneur gets ahold of the necessary resources: it’s what he does with it once he gets control of it that counts. If he makes good decisions with his capital, it will create new products, new jobs, increase productivity, and lead to what is broadly described as economic “development.” In this, we see both the splendor and moral ambiguity at the heart of capitalism. An entrepreneur, a capitalist, a businessmen can enrich himself and help raise society’s general standard of living by resorting to methods that are not entirely honorable. As a zealous advocate of “capitalism,” Rand could not admit the seamier sides of free enterprise. To admit such a thing would hurt the cause. Moreover, Rand tended to resent the very notion of ambiguity, particularly of the moral variety. So she created her rigid division between the heroic entrepreneurs who never soiled themselves with the spoils of the state and the Wesley Mouches who required the state to keep their businesses from going under.

The willingness of even competent entrepreneurs to use the state as a means of raising capital and fending off "ruinous competition" adds yet another obstacle to finding support for laissez-faire. If Rand's vision of Capitalism were correct, we would expect to find the most zealous advocates of laissez-faire among prosperous businessmen. Is that what we find in reality? Not exactly. While most businessmen advocate free enterprise, the majority of them don't exactly embrace the "laissez-faire" version of free enterprise propagandized by Rand and her disciples. Nor should this be in the least surprising: for it is not always clear that laissez-faire is in the interest of the business class. The state is too rich a source of business and capital to be shunned altogether by the intrepid entrepreneur.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 34

Politics of Human Nature 18: Economic interests and “rationality.” The current economic debacle has once and for all refuted the belief in the rational actor model, otherwise known as Homo economicus, and for that at least we can be thankful. That everyone pursues economic interests, and some pursue them to the exclusion of other interests and passions, is well testified by basic facts observed by all; and that some people pursue these economic interests with a modicum of “rationality” and good sense, is also eminently plausible; but the idea that many people either do or can pursue economic interests with the sort of full fledged rationality imagined by economists and preached by Rand and her disciples is no longer tenable. It is only due to the optimist view of human nature, propagated by reality-evading sentimentalists, that this rational actor theory was ever allowed to elude the scorn it deserved. All the best authorities on human nature have stood against it, from Machiavelli to the Founding Fathers; from Pareto to Steven Pinker.

The view of man as a nonrational animal is hardly the invention of Freud or Pareto. It was well known, for example, well before these alleged pioneers of the non-rational, that wishful thinking, rather than reason, plays an enormous part in human affairs, and that man, far from being a “rational animal,” could more accurately be described as “a nonrational rationalizer.” “The passions always seek to justify themselves and persuade us insensibly that we have reason for following them,” wrote Malebranche. “When one loves, hates, fears, desires, one has an imperative wish to have a reason for loving, hating, fearing, desiring … and by the force of one’s wish for it, one imagines that one has found it,” wrote Jean La Placette. Pascal wrote: “I think, not that a thing offends us for the reason which we find afterwards, but that we find the reasons because the thing offends us.” And John Adams wrote: “There is nothing in the science of human nature more curious, or that deserves a critical attention from every man so much, as the principle which moral writers have distinguished by the name of self-deceit.”

What was widely believed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been confirmed by scientific research in recent decades. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains:

Whether by choosing information or informants, our ability to cook the facts that we encounter helps us establish views that are both positive and credible…. When Democrats and Republicans see the same presidential debate on television, both sets of viewers claim that the facts clearly show that their candidate was the winner. When pro-Israeli and pro-Arab viewers see identical samples of Middle East coverage, both proponents claim that the facts clearly show that the press was biased against their side….

When facts challenge our favored conclusion, we scrutinize them more carefully and subject them to more rigorous analysis…. Volunteers in one study were asked to evaluate the intelligence of another person, and they required considerable evidence before they were willing to conclude that the person was truly smart. But interestingly, they required more evidence when the person was an unbearable pain in the ass than when the person was funny, kind, and friendly.” [Stumbling on Happiness, 185-186]

So it’s well established that human being’s are prone to rationalizing. There is plenty of evidence for it in everyday life and, if that doesn't suffice, we find even more evidence in countless psychological experiments. Rand herself would not deny the pervasiveness of rationalizing. She would only insist it is not an innate tendency in human nature. Yet given the ubiquity of rationalizing throughout human history, Rand’s view is grossly implausible. She cannot, after all, blame Kant for all this rationalizing, for it existed long before the sage of K√∂nigsberg began spinning his pedantic webs.

Now when we combine this insight with the issue of economic interests, we have another potential source of opposition to laissez-faire. Nor is it opposition merely from the usual suspects, such as civil servants, welfare recipients, and socialists. No, the opposition comes from the very class that one might think would be most prone to supporting laissez-faire: the business class.

There’s a long tradition of businesses receiving financial assistance from state and local governments in America. In 2006 the federal government spent $92 billion in direct and indirect subsidies to businesses and private- sector corporations. With the corporate bailouts of 2008 and 2009, this number obviously rises dramatically. Tariffs are another source of economic assistance to business; and while these tariffs have been relatively light in recent decades (despite recent tariffs on steel and tire imports), historically, they have been quite high in the United States, and even constituted a secondary cause of the Civil War. Nor should we forget altogether the efforts made by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to encourage reckless speculation during the last two decades and exasperate market failures brought on by portfolio theory, over-securitization, and wildcat leveraging.

Now of course we all know that Objectivists oppose all these pro-business interventions as contrary to laissez-faire. “None of this will be a problem under laissez-faire, because it wouldn’t be allowed,” they would be eager to tell us. The problem is, first you have to reach laissez-faire, and how will this be possible when many businessmen are against it on account of economic interests?

If it is argued that these businessmen can be educated, by or through “reason,” to understand that corporate welfare and other government sponsered favors are not in their “real” or “true” economic interest, then I would simply point back to what I presented earlier in this post: human beings are rationalizers and self-deceivers. Whatever irrationality there may be in accepting government assistance, it’s easy to rationalize it away, particularly for those benefiting from it. Rand tried to argue that “rationality” (i.e., agreement with Objectivism) was necessary to life, as if to suggest that anyone who is not rational will simply die. But for better or worse, corporate subsidies in America have not killed anyone who has benefited from them. Nor have they destroyed the economy. At worse, they have made the economy somewhat less efficient and somewhat less prosperous; at best, they may have had a slight beneficial effect. The tariffs in the nineteenth century transferred wealth from farmers, who probably would have spent most of it, to industrialists, who invested most of their protectionist-derived loot in the development of the economy.

The general logic of so-called “corporate welfare” works like this: such transfers of wealth provide large benefits to a small number of people, causing a slight loss to everyone else. To try to convince the few who benefit from these transfers that it is “irrational” and contrary to their “enlightened” self-interest to enrich oneself (or one’s business operations) in this manner is, for all intents and purposes, futile. On the one hand, the benefits of the corporate welfare are obvious, tangible, and immediate; whereas its potential long-range costs are abstract, uncertain, and theoretical. As the old cliche has it, A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. When placed against the power of rationalization, the Objectivist arguments against corporate subsidies and for laissez-faire will likely have no effect. And indeed, that is precisely what we find in the real world. How many businesses (or people in general) turn down subsidies, grants, privileges from the government? Very few. And on those rare instances when government money is rejected, it is usually because of some proviso in the handout that greatly reduces its attractiveness (as when corporations turned down bailout money because they didn’t want the government cutting their salaries).

Thanks to the power of rationalization, even an Objectivist can convince himself that his theoretical commitment to laissez-faire should not be allowed to get in the way of a chance to stick his snout deep into the public trough and begin chomping away. John Allison, the chairman and CEO of BB&T, the largest bank in West Virginia, rationalized the $3 billion he accepted in federal rescue money as follows. "While we feel these proposals are slightly negative for healthy banks like BB&T,” he said shortly before accepting the loot, “we are evaluating the extent to which we will participate. Frankly, it is difficult not to participate when your competitors are benefiting from the program. Consistent with our values and philosophy, we will make the decision that is in the best long-term interest of our shareholders and clients."

If even Objectivists accept corporate welfare and rationalize about it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

National Review's Most Recent Take on Rand

Peter Wehner over at has written a brief blog post explaining why Rand's philosophy is not compatible with conservatism. Wehner's post is, to tell the truth, not that good—more rhetorical than substantive. He contrasts Objectivism with "social" conservatism, emphazing Rand's apparent indifference to "family values," her lack of "transcendence," and her "incongruity of tone." While Wehner is well within his rights to emphasize the differences between Rand and conservatism, he makes a poor case for his position, as he fails to the point out the most important convergences between the two conflicting visions of the human condition. The most important differences between Objectivism and conservatism involve contrasting views of human nature and cognition.

Conflicting visions of human nature constitute the most important difference between conservatism and Objectivism. It is odd that Wehner never even mentions this issue. As I have pointed out numerous times on this blog, Rand held that there are no innate tendencies of character, that man is a "being of self-made soul," and a man's character is simply the manifestation of his premises, particularly his philosophical premises. For centuries the conservative view was embalmed in the myths and exaggerations of traditional religion; but today it receives its best expression from science. As David Brooks put it:

Over the past 30 years or so [the] belief in natural goodness [of man] has been discarded. It began to lose favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up. But the big blow came at the hands of science.

From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest. Humanity did not come before status contests. Status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations. People in hunter-gatherer societies were deadly warriors, not sexually liberated pacifists. As Steven Pinker has put it, Hobbes was more right than Rousseau.

Moreover, human beings are not as pliable as the social engineers [or Ayn Rand] imagined. Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups.

This darker if more realistic view of human nature has led to a rediscovery of different moral codes and different political assumptions. Most people today share what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision, what Pinker calls the Tragic Vision and what E. O. Wilson calls Existential Conservatism. This is based on the idea that there is a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.

The other important area of convergence involves cognition, or how human beings acquire knowledge. Conservatives distrust any conclusions based on broad, extremely abstract, "metaphysical" principles. Social and political reality is too complex to be adequately conveyed by these abstract principles. To achieve wisdom about politics, society, and the human condition requires the development of a very wide and deep experiential database. In other words, there's no substitute for experience: a statesman who has spent 40 years in government will likely evince far better judgment about politics than an intellectual who gets his knowledge from newspapers and polemical works or a philosopher like Rand who tries to deduce political knowledge from the ethical and metaphysical principles of a philosophy. From the conservative point of view, Objectivism is a species of uncritical rationalism: for its proponents are too often guilty of trying to determine matters of fact by means of logical, moral or rhetorical constructions; and no complex fact is likely to be discovered by such exercises in verbalism.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 33

Politics of Human Nature 17: Vanity and “social metaphysics.” Closely related to the obsession with preeminence and status is vanity. The pervasiveness of this emotion in human nature was satirized to good effect in a bit of amusing doggerel by an unnamed poet as follows:

I am hungry for praise:
I would to God it were not so—
That I must live through all my days
Yearning for what I’ll never know.
I even hope that when I’m dead
The worms won’t find me wholly vicious,
But as they masticate my head
Will smack their lips and cry “delicious!”

The view that vanity is a dominant motive in human nature was fairly common among writers and poets in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pascal is representative in this respect:

Vanity is so anchored in man’s heart that a soldier, a camp-follower, a cook, a porter, boast and wish to have admirers; and the philosophers wish the same; and those who write against the desire for glory, glory in having written well; and those who read it, desire to have glory for having read it; and I who write this have perhaps the same desire; and also those who will read what I write.

While Rand did not address vanity per se, her disciple Nathaniel Branden formulated a concept that dealt with one of the manifestations of vanity, “social metaphysics.” Rand describes social metaphysics as follows:

A social metaphysician is one who regards the consciousness of other men as superior to his own and to the facts of reality. It is to a social metaphysician that the moral appraisal of himself by others is a primary concern which supersedes truth, facts, reason, logic. The disapproval of others is so shatteringly terrifying to him that nothing can withstand its impact within his consciousness; thus he would deny the evidence of his own eyes and invalidate his own consciousness for the sake of any stray charlatan's moral sanction. It is only a social metaphysician who could conceive of such absurdity as hoping to win an intellectual argument by hinting: "But people won't like you!"

Now while some people may be overly concerned with the opinion of others, it is not clear that this concern involves regarding “the consciousness of other men as superior … to the facts of reality.” That is a caricature. Many human beings wish to be admired by others. This may cause them, for example, to try to say things they don’t really believe or pretend to admire things they don’t like. It may even cause them to defer to another persons judgment on particular issues, like Objectivists frequently defer to Rand’s or Peikoff’s judgment. But this merely means the individual trusts another person’s judgment more than his own—a view not at all inconsistent with being an Objectivist, as the facts attest. To describe this trust as invalidating one’s own consciousness or denying the evidence of one’s own eyes is clearly to engage in gross hyperbole.

Yet the exaggerations in the doctrine are not what’s most critical for the current discussion. Even more important is the implication that “social metaphysics”—and indeed any of the manifestations of vanity—are merely the consequences some stray premise that has been integrated in the individual’s subconscious. There is nothing innate about it. The fact that vanity has been a preponderant motive throughout human history is a sheer coincidence. Why so many human beings throughout the ages have held this premise is not explained but is evaded. Apparently, Rand wished to believed that things could be different, that social metaphysics, vanity, the desire for status—that all these troublesome emotions could be abolished; that human beings did not have to be dominated by them. The desire to be rid of these emotions is understandable, particularly for a philosopher advocating laissez-faire capitalism: because these emotions serve as an important obstacle to the implementation of that system.

John Adams, the most psychologically astute of the Founding Fathers, described vanity (which he called the “passion for distinction”) as “the great leading passion of the soul”:

This propensity, in all its branches, is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life; and … the history of mankind is little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects… The desire of esteem is as real a want of nature as hunger; and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as gout and stone. It sooner and oftener produces despair and detestation of existence… Every personal quality, every blessing of fortune, is cherished in proportion to its capacity of gratifying this universal affection for the esteem, the sympathy, the admiration and congratulations of the public. [Life and Works of John Adams, 232ff]

Now it is often argued by advocates of laissez-faire that one of the chief merits of that system is that it is not a zero-sum game. Peter can get rich without harming Paul. In Objectivism, this characteristic of laissez-faire is exemplified in Rand’s contention that “there are no conflicts of interests between rational men.” But if Pascal, Adams, and most other observers of human nature through history are right about the psychological importance and predominance of vanity, then the obvious retort to Rand’s contention is that most men simply are not rational in the sense meant by Rand. Conflicts of interest between men are ingrained in the very nature of things, because men compete for esteem, status, approbation, fame, etc, and this competition will inevitably breed conflict between various human beings.

Furthermore, these conflicts, as well as the emotions that inspire them, will continue to predispose individuals against laissez-faire. Every form of society tends to favor some abilities at the expense of others. A capitalist society favors those well-endowed with commercial virtues; a military society favors those well-endowed with martial virtues; a monarchal society favors those well-endowed with the gifts of the courtier. Even if it is true, as is not implausible, that individuals short in commercial virtues and the talents necessary to thrive under free market competition will nevertheless be better off, in terms of economic well-being, under a free market system, it doesn’t follow that they can be persuaded to favor that system. For at the end of the day, many individuals will prefer distinction to wealth, and will hence prefer the system in which they expect to gain the most distinction. As Steven Pinker notes, “ People go hungry, risk their lives, and exhaust their wealth in pursuit of bits of ribbon and metal [i.e., for vanity].” Despite attempts to denigrate and caricature these emotions as “social metaphysics,” they nevertheless exist and cannot be changed or eliminated merely by refuting Kant and Plato and preaching Rand.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Complement of Atlas Shrugged

Over at Shtetl-Optimised, Scott Aaronson hits on a key problem with critically approaching Rand's meisterwerk - and indeed, Rand's philosophy as a whole:
" does one review a book that seeks, among other things, to define the standards by which all books should be reviewed?"
His solution is to examine what isn't in Atlas Shrugged - what he calls the novel's complement- and identifies ten striking omissions that throw the novel's failings into sharp relief. While some of the points have been made before, others are box-fresh. It's an outstanding post.

The cultic side of Objectivism has been blamed on individual personalities such as Rand and her young lover/protege Nathaniel Branden. But its persistence beyond these two is, I think, primarily due to the marking-your-own-homework hermeticism that Aaronson nails in the sentence above. This hermeticism is sustained by Objectivism's largely-overlooked reliance on its own language (Rand is widely yet mistakenly credited with writing "clearly and precisely") and its almost-entirely-overlooked reliance on its own version of logic (the actual workings of which we await to be revealed). Thus much of Objectivism - perhaps even most of it - is devoted to blunting the tools by which it might be described and critically evaluated.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Real Ayn Rand

Over at Inc. magazine Rand biographer Anne Heller gives a striking interview. Like Jennifer Burns, she has quite a positive overall view of Rand and her achievements. However, she pulls no punches in describing the real person, as opposed to the absurdly propagandised outpourings of Objectivism's apparatchiks. For example:

"[Rand] had a habit of exaggerating her own suffering, and she often forgot to credit those whose ideas she borrowed and who helped her in more material ways. She humiliated her husband. She could be narcissistic, shrill, demanding, untidy, even unclean, and her use of amphetamines exacerbated her angry outbursts, unkempt periods, and paranoia."

Heller even ventures some controversial speculations that definitely run contrary to the Official Hagiographic Narrative:

"In my view, Rand engineered the Brandens' disastrous marriage so that she could safely take Nathaniel, then 24, as her lover."

I'm looking forward to reading Heller's book.

Objectivism & Politics, Part 32

Politics of Human Nature 16: Struggle for preeminence. Social darwinists use to argue that within society there existed a brutal “struggle for existence” in which stronger types “eliminate” weaker types. Although we now know this theory to be erroneous, at one time it seemed plausible; and the reason it did so is because there really does exist a kind of struggle or competition in society. This struggle, however, is not a struggle of life and death; it is, rather, a struggle for preeminence. As the Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca put it:

If we consider … the inner ferment that goes on with the body of every society, we see at once that the struggle for preeminence is far more conspicuous there than the struggle for existence. Competition between individuals of every social unit is focused upon higher position, wealth, authority, control of the means and instruments that enable a person to direct many human activities, many human wills, as he sees fit. The losers, who are of course the majority in that sort of struggle, are not devoured, destroyed or even kept from reproducing their kind, as is basically characteristic of the struggle for life. They merely enjoy fewer material satisfactions and, especially, less freedom and independence. [The Ruling Class, 30]

The tendency in Objectivism is to ascribe the struggle for preeminence as a mere manifestation of “power lust,” which is itself “only a corollary or aspect of dependence.”

Basically, the power-luster holds the premise that men live either by ruling or by being ruled. The dictator is just as dependent, just as unsure, as his followers; he merely chooses a variant—and, in fact, a lower—mode of expressing it. When you find a great many power-lusters in a nation, the explanation is still the psychology of dependence, and the philosophy that gives rise to it. [Leonard Peikoff, “Philosophy and Psychology in History”]

In other words, the struggle for preeminence, which has characterized every society known to history, is brought about by a “psychology of dependence” and “the philosophy that gives rise to it,” particularly the premises “that men live either by ruling or being ruled.” Here we have the typical strategy deployed by orthodox Objectivists whenever they find themselves confronted by an unpleasant fact: they seek to evade the fact by making it appear weak and pathetic. It may be comforting to think of Hitler and Stalin and Mao as suffering from a “psychology of dependence”; but it is not clear that such “dependence,” whether “psychological” or not, accounts for what is objectionable in these mass murderers. Nearly all human beings depend on other human beings to some extent. The businessman depends on his customers; the stay-at-home wife on her husband; children depend on their parents, etc. etc. A ruler depends on his sources of power: his army, his police, his supporters among the elite; but why this dependence constitutes a “psychology of dependence” is not explained and seems to be a product of wishful thinking. It’s a rationalization aimed at making evil appear less threatening, and therefore easier to accept and live with. It ignores the real issue, however: the fact, for example, that the worst “power lusters,” the most dangerous men who struggle for preeminence, are those who use terror to achieve their dominance. It also, and even more critically, ignores the pervasiveness of this struggle through history: the fact that it involves not merely blood soaked dictators, but even ordinary folks, who, although they don’t necessarily lust for political power, nonetheless experience an obsession with status that leads to irrational outcomes and threatens the achievement of Rand’s laissez-faire. Consider Steven Pinker’s summary of the work done by economist Robert Frank on this issue:

Frank has appealed to the evolutionary psychology of status to point out … shortcomings of the rational-actor theory and, by extension, laissez-faire economics. Rational actors should eschew not only forced retirement savings but other policies that ostensibly protect them, such as mandatory health benefits, workplace safety regulations, unemployment insurance, and union dues. All of these cost money that would otherwise go into their paychecks, and workers could decide for themselves whether to take a pay cut to work for a company with the most paternalistic policies or go for the biggest salary and take higher risks on the job….

The rub, Frank points out, is that people are endowed with a craving for status. Their first impulse is to spend money in ways that put themselves ahead of the Joneses (houses, cars, clothing, prestigious educations), rather than in ways that only they know about (health care, job safety, retirement savings). Unfortunately, status is a zero-sum game, so when everyone has more money to spend on cars and houses, the houses and cars get bigger but people are no happier than they were before. [Blank Slate, 303]

The inborn craving for status doesn’t merely cause people to behave irrationally in the economic realm, it makes them ripe targets for the politics of envy. In an earlier post, I have discussed Rand’s take on egalitarian envy: she saw envy as a manifestation of nihilism arising out of the influence of Immanual Kant. But a far more plausible explanation for this envy is the craving for status, which inspires various individuals to act against their economic self-interest in order to inflict an injury on those who have attained a higher position in the social scale than themselves. Since this obsession with status is at least partially influenced by innate factors, it cannot be cured or gotten rid of through refuting the premises through which this obsession is expressed. People don’t crave status because they have accepted this or that premise; rather, the craving predisposes these individuals to accept premises which encourage hostility toward free market outcomes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 31

Politics of Human Nature 15: Sociology of the Intellectual. In the essay “For the New Intellectual,” we find Rand insisting that “the need for intellectual leadership was never as great as now.” Where is this “intellectual” leadership to come from? Rand imagines a “New Intellectual” who “will be the man who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect.” The “New Intellectual,” Rand promises, will end “the rule of Attila and the Witch Doctor.” How will intellectuals do this? According to Rand, they have to do a number of things, such as: (1) Adopt a philosophy of “reason”; (2) reunite and become a champion of businessmen; (3) understand the nature and the function of the free market; (4) discover the theory and the actual history of capitalism; (5) prove and accept two principles: a.”that emotions are not tools of cognition”; and b. “that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.” [FNI, 59-64]

Now anyone who understands human motivation will recognize immediately that Rand’s views about the power of intellectuals are little more than wishful thinking. For the purposes of this post, however, I’m not interested in analyzing that side of Rand’s view. I would prefer, instead, to focus on Rand’s assumption that any significant number of intellectuals can be expected to do the things Rand wants them to do. Those of us who understand the “sociology of the intellectual,” as Joseph Schumpeter described it, regard intellectuals as one of the very last groups in society which we would wish to trust our fortunes to. "Beware intellectuals," warned historian Paul Johnson in his incendiary expos√©, Intellectuals (Harper Perennial, 1990). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice."

Let us now examine the “sociology of the intellectual,” as limned by Joseph Schumpeter:

Intellectuals are in fact people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs. This touch in general accounts for another—the absence of first-hand knowledge of them which only actual experience can give. The critical attitude, arising no less from the intellectual’s situation as an onlooker—in most cases also as an outsider—than from the fact that his main chance of asserting himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value, should add a third touch.

Note particularly Schumpeter’s remark about “absence of direct responsibility.” When discussing intellectuals, this is critical in several senses. As I have stated in previous posts (for example, here), there are some domains of knowledge that can only be mastered by intensive experience. Intellectuals often have little, if any, appreciation for this fact. They often think they can attain mastery in a subject merely through reading or rationalistic speculation (i.e., “reason”), when, as a matter of fact, nothing less than experience will do. And since most intellectuals lack the requisite experience, they are not in a position, nor are they in the least qualified, to judge on matters relating to politics, social policy, and economics.

But there is another potentially serious problem: what happens when society produces too many intellectuals? What happens to all the intellectuals who cannot earn a living through their intellectual skills? As Schumpeter explains:

The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work. His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching; and both cases will, absolutely and relatively, occur more frequently as ever larger numbers are drafted into higher education and as the required amount of teaching increase irrespective of how many teachers and scholars nature chooses to turn out. The results of neglecting this and acting on the theory that schools, colleges, and universities are just a matter of money, are too obvious to insist upon….

All those who are unemployable or unsatisfactorily employed or unemployable drift into the vocations in which standards are least definite or in which aptitudes and acquirements of a different order count. They swell the host of intellectuals in the strict sense of the term whose numbers hence increase disproportionately. They enter it in a thoroughly discontented frame of mind. Discontent breeds resentment. And it often rationalizes itself into social criticism which as we have seen before is in any case the intellectual spectator’s typical attitude toward men, classes, and institutions… Well, here we have numbers; a well-defined group situation of proletarian hue; and a group interest shaping a group attitude that will much more realistically account for hostility to the capitalist order than could the theory—itself a rationalization in the psychological sense—according to which the intellectual’s righteous indignation about the wrongs of capitalism simply represents the logical inference from outrageous facts and which is no better than the theory of lovers that their feelings represent nothing but the logical inference from the virtues of the beloved. [Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 147-153]

There are other considerations that also have to be broached. If you examine the works of intellectuals through history, the results are not always terribly edifying. Indeed, the more an individual devotes himself exclusively to an intellectual life, the greater the chances that he will champion ideas based on irresponsible speculation and wishful thinking. Plato, one of the earliest men to devote himself almost exclusively to intellectual pursuits, is typical in this respect. We also see something along these lines in the Pythagorean cult, in the mania for abstruse theology among the Christians, in the pre-Kantian rationalist philosophers (particularly Leibniz and Wolff), in the idealist and Hegelian philosophers, and in the deconstructionists. Whole forests have been destroyed to promulgate views contrary to good sense and the facts of life.

Rand wished to place the lion’s share of the blame for all this rationalistic wishful thinking on Plato and Kant. Yet even if it were true that Plato and Kant are the primary culprits, we would still have to ask ourselves why so many intellectuals are attracted to rationalistic, wishful thinking. Could it be that the very type of individual most attracted to an intellectual life is, generally speaking, also the type of individual most alienated towards reality? Or could it be that the intellectual life tends to attract weak people, who look at a life of irresponsible speculation as a convenient escape from the rigors of a more active existence? Realism about the world requires strength; yet strength cannot be acquired merely by thinking. Strength is not, as the logic of Objectivism implies, a product of an individual’s premise. Changing a person’s premises will not transform the coward into a hero. The life of the mind may prove a poor and shoddy breeding ground for developing strong individuals. Perhaps only the exceptional individual can develop both strength and intellect, so that the number of strong, reality-orientated intellectuals will be too small to count in any significant way. If so, then Rand’s hopes for a new intellectual appear doomed from the start. The intellectual, by his lack of experience and practical responsibilty, by his unemployability and rationalized resentment, and by his tendency toward weakness and wishful thinking, will tend, by the very nature of his vocation, to entertain an intractable bias against capitalism; and no amount of arguments or premises can alter this fact.

"Howard Roark in New Delhi"

Jennifer Burns writes for Foreign Policy about the surprising popularity of Rand's "The Fountainhead." Rand's popularity in India has been visible for a while - check out the Google search figures - and it's understandable why. One of the positive uses of Rand is that she's useful to people who are looking for a way out of an oppressive religion. Anecdotally, I've noticed a lot of people on Objectivist fora are ex-Christian fundys or similar, and who for whom Rand is a liberating force. This is a good thing, obviously, though it sometimes also has the effect of jumping out of the frying pan into a frying pan that's on "simmer"... Anyway, enjoy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jennifer Burns on Jon Stewart

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Following up on Greg's review of "Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market" below, here's Burns interviewed by Jon Stewart. My review is in the pipeline, but in short this book surely deserves the major play it's getting.