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.