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 Königsberg 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?