Friday, December 15, 2006

Digital Maoism

It was the first time that I had been utterly demolished in an intellectual argument.

Winter quarter, freshman year, I had innocently joined SLE and written my first paper on how, to (wincingly) quote myself, Paul advocates the “subordination of the individual to the larger Christian community in order to prevent sinfulness,” while Mark and John’s Jesus “preaches liberation of the individual from the repressive and unnecessary Mosaic law.” I was all proud of my argument, even if I had to shove aside a few impertinent details to make my case (“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” Matthew 5:17). Then Suzanne Greenberg, in typical Suzanne-Greenberg-style, completely obliterated me by arguing that the Biblical concept of the individual at the time was completely different from the way in which I used it.

How was I supposed to defend my thesis against that? Though by chance I had been briefly exposed to Focault-style genealogy of thought in the previous quarter (we read Discipline & Punish in my Soviet history class), I was completely at a loss for an answer.

And rightly so. Confusion about what constitutes individuals and collectives play seems to be an easy error to commit; it has crept into the essay “Digital Maoism” by Jaron Lainier, corrupting what is otherwise one of the most insightful essays of the year.

Lainier’s convincingly argued thesis is that certain institutions on the Internet, like Wikipedia and meta-sites, are designed in a way that perverts the Internet into a tool for facilitating a hive mind. “The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people,” writes Lainier. “The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.”

Lainier points out that collectives do have important functions, but that these functions should work hand-in-hand with individuals. “A marketplace can't exist only on the basis of having prices determined by competition,” he writes. “It also needs entrepreneurs to come up with the products that are competing in the first place.” But while prices are a result of everyone having input, “when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.” A turn of phrase that should warm the heart of any Rand fan.

Lainier, however, starts to get into logical hot water when he starts to, as I did, use phrases loosely. By a collective he means any body of people that come together to make a decision. But when he fails to make a decision between, for example, the market forces as collective and voting as collective, he misses an important distinction familiar to libertarians: process. If all collectives are equivalent, whence Robert’s Rules of Order? Or, how well would the market work if we all got together and voted on prices, or who gets how much of what good?

While phrased as such, these are not merely abstract questions. Lainier has some very interesting points to make about proper role of collectives: He argues that, for example, collectives function optimally when they don’t formulate their own question, when the quality of their result can easily be evaluated, and when quality-control mechanisms run by individuals are in place. “Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person,” Lainier writes. “Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse.”

But perhaps in a bow to traditional ideas about collectives, he is unable to turn a critical enough eye on them. Witness this passage:

“There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual. When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective that is reasonably free of manipulation or runaway internal resonances.”

A government bureaucrat’s actions are a stereotypical example of individual behaviour? Only in the obvious sense, in that they were committed by a moral agent. As the fact that Nixon’s price-wage-freezes were approved by Congress should indicate, government decisions are every bit as “collective” as actions of the market. Or more, considering that government consists of people choosing for other people, while the market exemplifies people choosing for themselves.

I wouldn’t complain so much, except that the above quote also made it into the New York Times Magazine, and makes Lainier look a lot dumber than he is. Ideas have consequences, and oversimplification can be dangerous. “We have to be careful here,” as one of my professors loves to say. Beware.

**The piece can be found here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html **

Monday, October 23, 2006

Rand would get a kick out of this

The president, however, also is seeking a softer campaign image in a new TV ad, appearing in a light blue shirt and saying he has one guiding principle: love. Gazing into the camera, [Hugo Chavez] says: "I've always done everything for love. ... I need your vote."

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061023/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/venezuela_chavez_s_setbacks

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"'Politically, this isn't wise,' added the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the
Traditional Values Coalition, which supports the president's call for Congress to approve tough interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects."

What part of 'traditional values' am I not understanding?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Love and war

It started when I was listening to my Barenaked Ladies CD, which I hadn't done in a while, and I heard the song "Enid." Most of it is just regular, average pop/rock stuff, but a few lines hit me:

"I can get a job I can pay the phone bills
I can cut the lawn, cut my hair, cut off my cholesterol
I can work overtime I can work in a mine
I can do it all for you,
But I don't want to."

Having known something of love myself, I was struck by this. When I was in love, I had a sense of purpose. I had a reason to do things, I had a phone conversation and ideas of the future to look forward to at the end of the day. Love triggers an intensely personal emotional bond.

The moral nature of war is the flip side of the coin. (Admittedly I have no personal experience here.) For the ordinary citizen, war triggers a singleminded devotion to a goal, the greater good as expressed in the war effort. Focus is on symbols and ideas - freedom or organization, Deutchland and lebensraum or Uncle Sam and G. I. Joe or Mother Russia. A popular war provokes, in short, an intensely impersonal emotional bond, focusing itself on an abstract unity rather than a concrete personal existence.

The popular connection is, of course, the saying "All's fair in love and war," and I hypothesize that the sentiment is a result of the fact that love and war are flip sides of a coin - that one is personal and one impersonal, but the fact that the individual loses or can lose himself in both makes all rules off.

I will close by quoting Hayek:
When there is one common all-overriding end, there is no room for any general morals or rules. To a limited extent we experience this in wartime.....where a few specific ends dominate the whole of society, it is inevitable that occasionally cruelty may become a duty, that acts which revolt all of our feeling, such as the shooting of hostages or the killing of the old and sick, should be treated as mere matters of expediency...or that suggestions like that of a "conscription of women for breeding purposes" can be seriously contemplated. There is always in the eyes of the collectivist a greater goal which these acts serve and which to him justifies them because he pursuit of the common end of society can know no limits in any rights or values of any individual. (The Road to Serfdom, p. 165)
Could not the same thing often be said, on a smaller scale, of love?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What I'm scared of

I'm going to be writing an essay on The West Wing, the imperial presidency, and the glorification of power. And it brought me to what I'm scared of. I'm not scared of Ted Stevens and his bridge to nowhere; I'm not scared of the special interests that constantly ask for privilege after privilege and make, as suggested by another member of the Daily's editorial board, the heterosexual white male the most marginalized person in society.

But I am scared of what they bring. Special interests bickered too in late Weimar Germany; it brought the businessmen and the masses to Hitler as a man that had the will to get the job done. I'm scared of a new Fuhrer, a man that can seem to personify the people. I'm scared of a union leader with a microphone chanting, "The People, United, Will Never Be Divided" (or more ominoursly, Defeated). I'm scared of a Jeb Bartlet bravely, surrounded by the Secret Service at 4am, declare to Leo after Syria shot down an air force jet, that he's not scared, that he will "blow them off the face of the earth with the force of God's own fury." I'm scared of the Facebook group Stanford Students for a Philosopher King, because they're willing to sell out the liberty of everyone in return for being ruled by someone who was smart. As if that would solve everything! And Jeb Bartlet is a philosopher king.

Most critically, I'm afraid that the only limitation that people see this is short-term pragmatism. It wouldn't work, Mr. President. Making America a new Rome is just too costly. But wouldn't it be nice if we had the power to say "you kill an American, any American, and we come back with total disaster."*? I guess we can't do it. Oh well... Heck, I would be happy with a rule-utilitarian argument, a la Mill saying we can't curtail freedom of speech because in the long run it will stifle society. We can't create global empire because global empire is a bad thing, bad for the security, freedom, and growth of the world.

*Actual quote from Bartlet

But instead, we get wimpy pragmatist arguments. We will be viewed at home and abroad badly. One day, someone will decide that they don't care about these minor objections, and proceed full speed ahead. We've seen it already in Iraq. George Bush waged war not only against a ruthless tyrant, but stayed to oppress a people, and the best John Kerry could say about it was that our allies were pissed about it and we should have consulted them first. Not this war is wrong, bring the troops home, but let's get everyone involved, let's have a kindler, gentler empire.

But either way, it's still an empire. If these are the terms of the debate - if the answer of liberty is excluded entirely - then whoever wins, we lose our freedom. First Iraqis lose, but then we lose too. And that's what I'm afraid of.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

In which Sam attempts to be a music critic

For the last few years, I've been sort of drifting around the musical spectrum. At first I didn't like anything much, then I thought 89X (the local Detroit 'alternative' rock music station) was God. I got into a few bands along those lines, Creed among others. Then I got into progressive rock through a metal-loving friend that drove me to school junior year playing Dream Theater and Symphony X. He played Judas Priest too and other more mainstream metal too, and they were okay; he played Cradle of Filth and death metal, which was not, but I loved Dream Theater and Symphony X. I then started listening to a prog rock internet radio station, which was mostly modern stuff, and I learned about a lot of prog stuff.

Since then, I've been getting into older prog and more proggish pop, primarily Genesis, as well as more indie stuff - Garden State, Frou Frou and Imogen Heap, among others, that I got from my then-girlfriend, Amelia. Okay, that sounds weird to say. And currently, I'm looking into techno - which I need to get from my friend Jordan - and even some country, I downloaded some stuff by Eric Church. Anyway, I thought I would compile a rough list of my favorite songs, and try to analyze why I like them (please forgive any overambitious pretensiousness):

Liquid Tension Experiment - Hourglass

This is an instrumental track, soft and melodic, played by a finger-picked guitar, with occasional piano background. Each melody is soft and sliding, something definitely emphasized by the two instruments picked. Petrucci and Ruddess use just a few melodies, repeating them with great effect; occasionally, they will just as softly and calmly wander off the main themes, but then gently return to orginal melodies. The fact that it slides between finger-picked guitar and piano adds no tension, but rather just enhances the calming effect. It seems to reflect the wandering mind of a calm person in its wanderings and returnings, and in the end wanders off into a silent sleep in the same relaxing tones.

Peter Gabriel - Signal to Noise

The first song I heard by Peter Gabriel (not counting Genesis songs) was his classic "In Your Eyes" while watching Say Anything with Amelia. This much less happy song, however, makes my list of favorites because of its profundity. It is one man's struggle to understand and be understand, as he sees that "all the while the world is turning to noise." He laments:

Oh the more that it's surrounding us
The more that it destroys


and cries:

Turn up the signal...
Wipe out the noise!

The song is pervaded by background music that is, to say the least, tense. The dark, foreboding sounds are long single notes succeeding each other in a circular rhythm. They almost serve to emphasize the degree to which the situation is hopeless; when they stop, they are succeeded by a circular drum pattern that is no more hopeful. In the beginning of the song, Gabriel's voice is occasionally accompanied by a babbling sound that is somehow beautifully and for some reason reminds me of the folk sounds heard for the last couple minutes of "Aerials" by System of a Down. Representative of the noise to which Gabriel refers, the babbling adds an element of beautiful tragedy. The babbling is replaced later in the song by a high, circular melody evoking Gabriel's hopes fading away, which eventually drowns out Gabriel's repeated, resigned plea:

receive and transmit
receive and transmit
receive and transmit
you know that's it
you know that's it
receive and transmit
you know that's it
you know that's it
receive and transmit

Rush - "Limelight"

It's hard to pick one song off of Moving Pictures, their best album. Each songs contains a story or some wisdom. And Rush's music is filled with action, with guitar lines that keep the music fast and full of energy. My favorite lines are the chorus:

Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme

I like to think the last few lines are a jab at Marx - Objectivism (Ayn Rand's philosophy) is one of Rush's major influences, and thus it wouldn't be unfathomable. But even if the intention isn't there, I still read it as such: that the world is at bottom a deeply fascinating rather than inherently alienating place. And the song's existentialist themes are also insightful:

All the world's indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers
Each another's audience
Outside the gilded cage

And while this may seem somewhat depressing, Rush is able to exude exuberance and display that life can be shallow "for those who wish to seem" while at the same time showing it can also be wonderful "for those who wish to be."

Sarah McLachlan - "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy"

As Gabriel's "Signal to Noise" is the last message of a man drowned out by forces beyond his control, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" is moment of self-assertion, of a woman deciding to face up to the truth proudly:

And if I shed a tear I won't cage it
I won't fear love
And if I feel a rage I won't deny it
I won't fear love

The part that most strikes me is the quietness of the woman's determination; she seeks but "peace, on the way to peace; comfort, on the way to comfort," something which the song's tone and volume reflect. It is not a bombastic anthem of defiance, but a simple, humble self-reflection, perfectly expressed by McLachlan's voice.

Simon and Garfunkel - America

This one barely beat out "Homeward Bound" to make my list - I'm only going to have one per band. I think of Simon and Garfunkel as America's bards - as in Homer rather than Shakespeare. The story is of a man and his girlfriend, hitchhiking and catching buses around the country for no other purpose but to discover. It is a lyrical vignette, sung in deep and rich tones, that details a search - perhaps futile - for some essence of America, and the trivial details that make it worthwhile. Its romanticism and simplicity remind me of what was perhaps a better time, but certainly seems a happier view of life. For happiness is a state of mind, and even if Simon is unable to achieve it in "America," he seems to be avidly looking.

Lifehouse - Chapter One, The End Has Only Begun

It's sort of hard to prevent myself from putting Lifehouse's entire self-titled album on this list. In this song - as in most of the others on this list, come to think of it - mix their emotional drinks, combining hope with sadness. The singer, addressing a person who seems to have be a past love who he still has feelings for, sees uncertainty ("who's to say where the wind will blow" is a repeated theme) and a dark situation, yet is still able to see a bright future. Though all he sees "is struggling on the way," he is still able to conjure hope from hopelessness

What happens when all your dreams are lying on the ground
Do you pick up the pieces all around?

It reminds me to a degree of Eliot's query to a world gone mad: "Shall I at least set my lands in order?" The singer knows that his life is dark and gloomy, yet he still commits himself to try to fix it. In the end, the singer's advice to his addressee seems to summarize life: "Take your chances, turn around and go." In "The End Has Only Begun," he implies that a happy life is possible for her (So stop counting the hours/Live out in the world) yet not for him (Cause I've been chasing the answers/And they don't want to be found). And yet his drive to find these answers continues unabated; and though he'd "give anything to see the light of day" in the end of his search, he cannot find answers.

But it's the last two lines that just kill me. After all this selfless urging on of his addressee to happiness, and description of his own unhappiness, he utters a profound piece of wisdom that is perhaps his own redemption:

These times where the world falls apart
Make us who we are...

Mae - Goodbye, Goodnight

My cat just looks at me as I sing, "We're at the beach; we're throwing sand." I like that about this song - it is eminently singable. Of course, it's far beyond me to analyze what goes into a quality like "singable," but I think it is largely because it is somewhat of an anthem. Mae's lead singer blasts his heart and lungs out at his love. He exudes determination - to live and to love, to be happy ("I'm not going to waste this time/This light that burns will keep on fading") though his love turns him away. His wistful rememberance of times past (this is where the throwing sand part is) and sorrowful thoughts of a relationship fallen through seems to echo universally. And there of course is a happy ending - she rejoins him, and they ring out with the happy folly of youth:

The waves are crashing on and on,
We're running even if we're wrong,
This force is driving me to test the speed of light
Good night....

Nightwish - Ghost Love Score

This is the song I listen to on 2:00 am on a late Palo Alto night when I feel that I still have miles to go before I sleep. It's certainly not a very good one for productivity, but it prevents me from falling asleep. Nightwish is an interesting attachment of mine. I, um, lack the frame of reference to actually believe in their lyrics, like the chorus here:

My fall will be for you
My fall will be for you
My love will be in you
If you be the one to cut me
I`ll bleed forever

But again, their songs have a very singable quality. Perhaps it is the grand, mystical quality of the lyrics. ("Into the blue memory," "A siren from the deep came to me/Sang my name my longing"). My sister says that one of her friends, who has had a lot of problems with depression, often tried to express herself by saying things like "I feel lost in a world of darkness." There's something about suffering and misery that lends itself to grand tragic expressions. Perhaps this is simply an outgrowth of our modern age, what with its tendency to romanticise that sort of stuff. But in any case, Nightwish is certainly a band for such grand bombastic tragedy, especially with an opera-trained singer as vocalist, and its energy-filled laments. It leads me to sort of ignore the content, I have other songs for that.

IQ - Harvest of Souls

The epic nature of this song goes far beyond that it runs 24 and a half minutes. Peter Nichols' deep, melodic voice ranges from the depths of self-doubt to acendant triumph to bitter recognition of reality, at times from one line to he next. It is a story rather than a vignette; a tale of one man's observation of and interaction with his society. At least, that's my interpretation, which I just fully thought a few minutes ago - and note, I've listened to this song at least ten times, which makes four hours. Did I mention that "Harvest of Souls" was rather complex?

Technically, work is a masterpiece. Okay, so I'm not even remotely qualified to pass judgment there. Oh well. Nichols' beautiful voice perfectly complements the bass and other lines, and the instrumental sections are well done and completely in the tone of the story. I'm sure it does so with some awesome and cool time signatures, but both not having the music in front of me and being musically competent, I don't know any of them. So I'll just pretend that I can say something more insightful that, "Wow, it's really harmonious and cool-sounding" on that front.

Getting back to the story, there are two main, interwoven storylines: the story of the author's life and the author's commentaries on society. The technique by which IQ does so is quite interesting. The story opens with sorrowful reflections on a better time and a past love. The speaker is full of doubt and loneliness ("Now I barely stay afloat/Balance out of order/With every sympathy worn away/Who can I return to now?"). But then, he abruptly switches to a proud, unquestioning triumph of America ("We've got right on our side, we're in pole position/So praise the Lord and raise the ammunition high") and a military march, and then just as abruptly switches back to a personal perspective.

I wondered what was up with that for a while. But then I exmained the speaker's words afterwards more carefully: he is bitterly reflecting on having swallowed lies, probably to compensate for his loneliness:

And once in a while without the will to carry on
Hours held me too long in one location
And old familiar tale, a glory to behold
A work of genius, the greatest story ever sold
As you sign on the line, as you do what you're told
All you sell is your soul

Afterwards, the speaker is much more self-reflective, and expresses his truths much more humbly. He wants to regain his old glory, to "shine," to "walk on water," to "cut through the smoke and the noise." He both fears that "we enter an age of permanent doubt," where his hopes are doomed, and constantly doubts himself, creating tensions that run through the song.

But even with all of these, I'm torn as to why I like this song so much. Sure, piecing together Nichols' eloquent testimony to insecurity and self-questioning is pretty interesting. But the little pieces, the beauty of some of the lyrics ("Why does the world continue to spin/When everything around me grinds to a halt") are really superb. And the overall sound of IQ - the guitar, bass, and drum lines, the way they perfectly complement the vocals in this song, and move from one to another smoothly and effortlessly, makes the lyrics even more powerful. Of course, I don't mind not being able to choose - it just means the song is that much more powerful. Shifting tracks somewhat, that might be because it could possess either or both of the qualities that make poetry and lyrics universally applicable: (a) some insight into common human truths, and (b) vagueness. Consider my favorite part, the ending:

And when the eyes of children
See past the ones left standing
Then the time has finally come
To understand who we are

Slowly the fires are burning
Bearing their silent witness
And the living past returns
To reap the harvest of souls

You decide which it is.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

draft of essay on Hayek

Contemporary political discourse frowns upon accusing someone of having too moderate views. Extremism, it is thought, is always wrong. This is partly true – because extremism usually means taking a wrong view to its logical conclusion, extremists are often much more horrendously awful than their more moderate counterparts. But the fundamental error of such extremists is that they are wrong, not tha they are extreme. If Frost had not chosen “the path less traveled by,” he would have made a mistake no matter how far he traveled along his incorrect path. Indeed, if one sets off on a correct track towards the truth, the moderation of stopping halfway is a drawback, not an advantage. If an author’s moderation is of this type, it becomes necessary to point out the weaknesses in their argument – not as a blind call to dogma but instead as a plea for consistency.

Such a plea becomes even more necessary when confronted with a work as ambitious as Friedrich von Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. Hayek in fact states that he “is not chiefly concerned with the problems of any particular country or of a particular moment but, at least in [the book’s] earlier parts, with principles that claim universal validity...[The book is] an attempt at restating a philosophy of men’s living together which has slowly developed through more than two thousand years.”[1] His aim is to guard a personal sphere of liberty for each individual. Under Hayek’s system, all laws must be derived from general rules, with universality the main criterion for a rule’s validity. These laws would not be enforced by administrators, but instead pu into force by judges without discretionary powers, that apply rather than make the law. This, Hayek believes, would safeguard individuals from the exercise of arbitrary power. If all rules “must apply to those who lay them down and those who apply them – to the government as well as the governed – and nobody has the power to grant exceptions,” if “even authority has no special powers except that of enforcing the law,” then “little that anyone may reasonably wish to do is likely to be prohibited.”[2] But as I explain in this essay, Hayek largely neglects the fact that while these conditions may be necessary for a system of “freedom under the law,” they are not sufficient. I shall begin by further explaining Hayek’s position.

What Hayek is mostly concerned about is establishing the rule of law, where “men are ruled by laws and not by men.” Hayek’s conception of society is that of a self-generating order, and the function of the rule of law, as he sees it, is “not to set up a particular order but merely to create conditions under which an orderly arrangement can establish and renew itself.”[3] He spends the middle third of his book elaborating on the effects of such a policy, its status as an ideal governing legislation, and what sort of a government is best suited to uphold it. According to Hayek, “protection against unpredictable interference...is the essential condition of individual freedom, and to secure it is the main function of law.”[4] He then explains how, to serve this end, British and American thinkers developed concepts like judicial review, separation of powers, and constitutionalism that limited administrative discretion and promoted equality under the law.

Perhaps his most enlightening discussion, however, is of the turn-of-the-20th-century attacks on these principles upholding a rule of law. Hayek explains how many socialists were unhappy with the largely laissez-faire policies resulting from equality under the law, and argued that “government should enforce not merely ‘formal’ but ‘distributive’ or ‘social’ justice.”[5] They were helped in their quest by the legal positivists, who sought to reshape the legal code according to their philosophy that “law by definition consists exclusively of deliberate commands of a human will.”[6] Logically then, law should be explicitly molded to enhance powers of administrative discretion, instead of blindly following the will of past generations masked under outdated conceptions like ‘the rule of law’. Hayek argues that this new philosophy stood in stark contrast to natural-law-based theories, which

agree that all positive law derives its validity from some rules that have not been made by men but which can be ‘found’....Whether they seek the answer in divine inspiration or in the inherent powers of human reason or in non-rational principles that govern the working of he human intellect, whether they conceive of the natural law as immutable or as variable, they all seek to answer a question which positivism does not recognize.[7]

Having laid out the battleground, Hayek places his flag firmly on the side of natural law. Then, he says that he has “so far deliberately avoided discussing our problems with reference to this conception:, because the numerous schools which go under this name hold really different theories and an attempt to sort them out would require a separate book.[8]” He then refers the reader to d’Entreves’ Natural Law and more or less leaves it at that. But in doing so, he ignores that,while supporting some sort of natural law may be necessary for the preservation of liberty, it is not sufficient.

This insufficient distinction primarily manifests itself when Hayek points out the crucial distinction between natural law-based legal philosophies and legal positivism.[9] He fails to note that many, perhaps most, believers in natural law are not primarily concerned with liberty and a personal sphere, as he is. Though it is impossible for liberty to be consistently advocated by someone who believes that “a wrong of the State must under all circumstances be a contradiction in terms,”[10] this does not automatically vindicate those who believe in justice distinct from State decrees. Many groups have concepts of justice that do not serve Hayek’s goal of protecting the individual’s personal sphere. And worse, some such concepts are compatible with the system of rules that Hayek advocates. Were groups advocating such concepts to gain power, Hayek’s system, his means to achieve liberty, would contrary to purpose further tyranny.

Let us take a concrete example. Consider universally-enforced prohibitions of consensual actvities, like drug laws or religiously-inspired laws against things like homosexuality and premarital sex. Hayek acknowledges, immediately after saying that universally applicable rules are a chief safeguard of liberty, that “it is possible that a fanatical religious group will impose on the rest restrictions which its members will be pleased to observe but which will be obstacles for others in the pursuit of important aims.”[11] But he discounts this possibility, saying that “most restrictions on what we regard as private affairs....as in the case of prohibition, were practicable only because only because the government reserved the right to grant exceptions.” [12] Now, I’m not a scholar of the Prohibition era, but something here doesn’t strike me as right. Universal enforcement of massively broad and restrictive laws like Prohibition may well be impractical. But this is not in and of itself an argument against Prohibition, any more than the impracticality of universally enforcing murder laws when the Mafia controls the police is in and of itself an argument against murder laws. If a specific law is not universally enforceable, there are two ways to alter the status quo in order to enhance equality under the law. The first is to abolish the law. The second is to add enough policing power to make the law enforceable. Hayek’s problem is hthat when the first avenue is preferable, as in the case of Prohibition, his philosophy of “universal rules applicable to all” is neutral between the two options. Equality under the law may mean either equality in slavery or equality in freedom. Hayek’s rules are equally tolerant of each possibility; nor could he consistently set forth any criterion like ‘universal rules must be non-coercive,’ since he is willing to use coercive measures like taxation.[13]

To reiterate, the danger is that a group which believes in some form of natural rights – a group that is in favor of equality under the law – will enforce equality in slavery through laws like Prohibition.[14] And it is hard for Hayek to argue against such laws when, while generally discussing governmental threats of coercion, he says that

provided that I know beforehand that if I place myself in a particular position, I shall be coerced and provided I can avoid putting myself in such a position, I need never be coerced. At least insofar as the rules providing for coercion are not aimed at me personally but are so framed as to apply equally to all people in similar circumstances, they are no different from any of the natural obstacles that affect my plans. In that they tell me what will happen if I do this or that, the laws of the state have the same significance to me as the laws of nature.[15]

In other words, according to Hayek being sent to jail for consuming a large amount of alcohol is practically the same as getting a hangover as the result of doing so. He is conflating State actions with natural laws conditional only on the former’s universality, a gigantic loophole enabling highly antilibertarian groups to operate as Trojan horses inside a Hayekian framework. For example, if the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who believe that alcohol is a tool of the devil and should be prohibited, systematize their persecution of consumers of alcohol, they would satisfy Hayek’s universality requirement. Hayek, in showing the fundamental opposition between natural law and legal positivism, between universally applicable laws and discretionary administrative power, omits to mention that many of those who may be on his side during these battles are still no friends of liberty.

This problem, seen in Hayek’s discussion of the abstract principles governing law, pervade as well his treatment of particular examples of law. His discussion of the Constitution concludes only with the statement it has helped to “establish that the legislature is bound by general rules; that it must deal with particular problems in such a manner that the underlying principle can also be applied in other cases.” Hayek adds that this state of affairs is one in which “it becomes impossible for government to undertake certain tasks,” making it “not compatible with every kind of economic order.”[16] Perhaps it is pertinent to ask: what certain tasks? Which kinds of economic order? The reader may be supposed to infer that Hayek means systems that promote coercion; he certainly never specifies. As in his position on natural rights, he is here attempting to set forth a principle that separates philosophies that promote liberty from those that stifle it, but refuses to draw the distinguishing lines sharply enough. Earlier in the book, Hayek admitted that liberty “is an ideal that will not be preserved unless it is itself accepted as an overriding principle governing all legislation.”[17] But he almost entirely glides over the Ninth Amendment, and misses an excellent opportunity to do so.

In a book of legal history Hayek could have been excused for this. After all, the Ninth Amendment is known as the “Forgotten Amendment” for a reason. But doing so in a book entitled The Constitution of Liberty is rather curious. Certainly, an amendment which declares that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” could be powerful in forcing government to respect the private sphere of the individual. Hayek notes that its decline was a result to a large degree with the rise of concepts of popular sovereignty, and vaguely laments its passing for that reason.[18] But he seems to shy away from explicitly endorsing the libertarian proviso of the Ninth Amendment in favor of a blandly vague advocacy of ‘general rules.’

The watered-down nature of Hayek’s message is perhaps most evident when he resorts to an odd argumentative tactic. At one point, he admits that his system is still conducive to highly unlibertarian policies. But he does not argue that his system is, even in light of its drawbacks, the best way to defend liberty and the greater good; instead, he advances the rather obvious proposition that it protects freedom better than collectivist systems:

If a period of military service is a foreseeable part of my career, then I can follow a general plan of my own making and am as independent as men have learned to be in society. Though compulsory military service, while it lasts, undoubtedly involves severe coercion, and though a lifelong military conscript could not said ever to be free, a predictably limited period of military service certainly restricts the possibility of shaping one’s own life less than would, for instance, a constant threat of arrested resorted to by an arbitrary power to ensure what it regards as good behavior.[19]

Hayek is of course correct that predictable coercive power is more conducive to personal planning than arbitrary power. But he gives short shrift to the larger point that universal military service is still highly antilibertarian, quickly proceeding to why it is not as bad as a possible collectivist arrangement. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of his system, and suggests that Hayek is trying to avoid admitting the degree to which his system can foster tyranny. Given that the draft is indeed a grave violation of liberty, one would have expected at least a discussion of why his system is still a good way to defend liberty – perhaps such problems are endemic under any government. Instead, Hayek says nothing.

Furthermore, this excessive justification leads Hayek to a recurrent theme: insufficiently questioning the necessity of governmental activity permitted under his system. For example, he says that the “most disturbing” form of governmental coercion are programs like mandatory jury duty that are “neither avoidable nor predictable.” Hayek thinks harms from this coercion can be minimized: if “the decision as to who must serve is made to rest on processes like the drawing of lots” then “these unpredictable acts of coercion affect out lives as do other ‘acts of God,’ but do not subject us to the arbitrary will of another person.” But he still holds that “such coercion is necessary even in a free society.”[20] Now, I don’t know whether, if mandatory jury duty was abolished, other institutions would evolve to serve its role. Maybe some will. Maybe not. But certainly, he could have spent at least a sentence or two explaining his position. As Hayek accepts the necessity of mandatory jury duty, he accepts universal military service without asking if such an arrangement is either necessary or inevitable.

These unquestioning concessions may be of minor import alone, but as I have tried to show, they are representative of Hayek’s larger tendencies to underestimate the amount of coercion that would still be legitimate under his system, and to not consider the viability of alternative systems to protect liberty. Much of this stems from lack of clarification: Hayek spends most of his time arguing that government governed by general rules is better than unlimited government, but neglects to elaborate on what the ideal general rules are. He emphasizes the importance of natural law without ever saying what theories of natural law protect liberty the most. But for what purpose? Perhaps he does not want to alienate possible supporters; maybe he is so caught up in the importance of general principles that he neglects the content of those principles. There could be some other reason entirely. But the end result of this lack of specificity is that Hayek almost entirely ignores problems like rule by religious fanatics, drug wars and Prohibition. He fails to see that by focusing almost exclusively on the perils of the state having arbitrary power, he neglects the dangers that result from any power the state holds. If extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, than surely unambiguity isn’t too much to ask.


[1] p. 4-7

[2] p. 155

[3] p. 161

[4] p. 161.

[5] p. 234-5

[6] p. 237

[7] p. 237

[8] p. 236

[9] Daniel B. Klein theorized that this lack of clarification is deliberate: “Drenched in sunlight, Hayek would have been dismissed and ignored. To speculate, we might imagine that Hayek’s meta-conscious faced a trade-off between obscurantism and obscurity.” “Mere Libertarianism: Blending Hayek and Rothbard,” Reason Papers

[10] From leading legal positivist Hans Kelsen, quoted by Hayek on p. 494, n. 15.

[11] p. 155

[12] p. 155. Hayek also seems to be downplaying something that he noted in The Road to Serfdom, namely that “The chance of imposing a totalitarian regime on a whole people depends on the leader’s first collecting round him a group which is prepared voluntarily to submit to that totalitarian discipline which they are to impose by force on the rest,” (emphasis mine), p. 151. While, as he noted, the Rule of Law and a lack of administrative discretion is incompatible with totalitarianism, the fact that adherents to totalitarian movements accepted their discipline and then imposed it on everyone else surely bodes ill for the prospects that the same cannot happen with other groups.

[13] Hayek defines coercion as “such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another.”

[14] Religious groups are the most likely candidates here, considering they often see their version of divine laws as universally applicable and stemming from some aspect of man’s nature as created by God. But it is quite possible that such a group will only be vaguely religiously-inspired, as in the case of drug laws.

[15] p. 142.

[16] p. 192

[17] p. 68

[18] The resurrection of the Ninth Amendment was effected to some extent in 1965, five years after the publishing of The Constitution of Liberty, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Grisworld v. Connecticut. Unfortunately, while the decision cited the Founders' belief idea that “there are additional fundamental rights, protected from governmental infringement, which exist alongside those fundamental rights specifically mentioned in the first eight constitutional amendments,” as Justice Goldberg put it in his concurring opinion, Goldberg also wrote that he could find only three previous Supreme Court decisions that referred to the Ninth Amendment. (http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case&court=us&vol=381&invol=479)

[19] p. 143. In fairness to Hayek, we must remember this was written in 1960, before Vietnam.

[20] p. 143

Third draft of essay on Rand

On Rand

Ayn Rand is perhaps the most controversial figure attached to the libertarian movement. To see why, notice my phrase, “attached.” She decried libertarians for supposedly stealing and warping her ideas, excommunicated several dissenters from her circle for no apparent reason, and then wondered why they didn’t like her.[i] While this may seem like a mere ad hominem attack, Rand’s these personal eccentricities point to a flaw in her often insightful system of thought: the propensity to idealize the power of reason without realizing its limits. While she explicitly set forth a philosophy of liberty, her fatal flaw was to underestimate the power of error, that one must constantly battle it to find truth. Her resulting overconfidence led her to create an atmosphere stifling debate, which in turn led to a key philosophical error. This was overromanticising the concept of the dollar while forgetting alternative voluntary relations. In taking this step, and building an entire philosophical system on it, Rand overreached and undermined her entire framework of thought.

Rand’s key attitude – containing both her insight and her error – is perhaps best captured in a statement by Francisco d’Anconia in Atlas Shrugged:

When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips and guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other—and your time is running out.[ii]

Others, perhaps, have had similar ideas. Herbert Spencer, F. A. Hayek, and Franz Oppenheimer all have outlined the fundamental difference on a macro level between commercial/industrial and military civilizations. But none have put it so bluntly and showed its relevance to everyday life. If you fail to organize society on the basis of voluntary transactions – the dollar – you will be forced to organize it by naked, brute force. You can trade with your fellows or you can compel them to your will. There is no intellectually consistent middle ground; as Rand put it, you can negotiate over the price of apples and oranges – but to compromise your own values is moral suicide.

What Rand understood is that no principle of personal altruism can serve to organize modern society at large. Imagine, as Leonard Reed made us do in “I, Pencil” the massive organization necessary for producing that number 2 that lays beside you on your desk. If we wish to preserve such a society, it is essential that we deal with those we do not know whatsoever, nor care about. Short of a complete revolution in human nature, it would be impossible for abstract, Doctors-without-Borders altruism to organize society at large. And even then, money would still be a superior means of society, since it solves the “knowledge problem,” allowing the distillation of thousands of personal considerations and value judgments that determine an object’s “worth” into a single number. Without a medium of exchange, the question of comprehending preferences becomes insoluble.

But Rand, in trying built a consistent ethical system through addressing broader society, ignored that there are fundamentally two realms in which we peaceably deal with one another. There is the market, the vast interpersonal matrix of values and trades. But there is also the personal realm, usually based on some measure of altruism for the ones we know and love. As Hayek put it:

[In] the extended order, old instinctual responses like solidarity and altruism continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. If we were to apply the unmodified rules of the microcosm (say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our sentimental often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were to always to apply the rules of the extended order to our most intimate groupings, we would crush them.[iii]

Altruism, as Hayek notes, works only in small groups: but for small groups like the family, often only altruism can work. This is due to psychological as well as evolutionary factors. Often, we feel the need for flexible personal relationships, something which is rather incompatible with monetary valuations. And humans often find meaning out of decidedly non-monetary concerns, in friendship, caring, and love. But the factors enabling us to form bonds, likely “developed” due to how they enhancing survival, only work with people we trust and know personally. It is rare to act as if one values an abstract humanity – both since it is hard to love abstracts like humanity when its individual members often behave stupidly, and because such valuations are not very conducive to survival. Yet it is not necessary to reference the exceptional abstract variety of altruism to show the pitfalls of Rand’s philosophical position opposing altruism.

In Rand’s ideal society, there is no role for altruism. To her, all moral voluntary actions are selfish, and consequently usually expressed in monetary or other transactions. Instead of the idea of the dollar being foremost, the idea of voluntary action organizing society and giving us the freedom to trade and give, Rand emphasizes the physical dollar and only the trading marketplace. And specifically, in regards to trading, she focuses in on the act of production, with all her protagonists in Atlas Shrugged large industrialists, great composers, and others of similar stature. In The Rise And Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Brecht’s caricature of capitalism was further distorted by the fact that he only depicted consumption. Rand in her protagonists conversely focuses almost entirely on production, but the one-sidedness of her attention is similarly distorting. The main characters show their virtue by dedicating themselves entirely to their jobs and entirely shunning personal concerns.[iv] She is triumphing production largely for production’s sake, rather than for the enhanced choice it gives us.

I call attention to this principle of Rand’s because I think it is a philosophical hanger-on, unjustified by reality. First of all, production has no purpose, except to serve consumption. But Rand forgets this, and makes her characters blindly devoted to their jobs, never consuming leisure time, but instead constantly producing. Of course, what we would call workaholism is completely fine for some people. But it is certainly not suited for all.[v] Indeed, unless Rand can show that we should all love our jobs no matter what they are, she seems to be ignoring that many people do not. Similarly, she ignores the fact that people like and enjoy gifts and other forms of altruism. Does altruism produce perverse consequences sometimes? Yes. Is it always evil? No – or, at least, if Rand has proof that it always produces perverse consequences, she never states it.[vi] However, as we shall see later, Rand’s view of altruism is based on her contradictory definitions of it.

To reiterate, Rand fails to grasp the essential concept that money is only a means and not an end. She champions production because as a virtue for its own sake. And she deplores altruism because she thinks it is a vice. In Galt’s Gulch, the paradise world of the protagonist, there are “no laws, no rules, no formal organization of any kinds. But we have certain customs, which we all observe....There is one thing in the valley that is forbidden: the word ‘give.[vii] Both of these errors undermine her understanding of voluntarism, because they lead to misinterpretations of the motivations and results of certain types of action. As such, she loses credibility as a promoter of freedom. This is not to say that moral judgments are incompatible with the love of liberty – a statement like “People should be free to do what they want – but it would be better for them not to do such-and-such” is not self-contradictory – but Rand’s particular moral judgments are wrong.

Rand begins her critique of altruism with by blasting the concept of “mindless self-sacrifice” – an expectation of unthinking subordination to the group. In The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she shows what happens when such a view is taken to its logical conclusion. If sacrifice demonstrates selflessness, the more one sacrifices, the more clear is one’s devotion to others. If the individual is unimportant, then sacrifice of one’s most precious possession to one’s worst enemy is preferable to sacrificing it to an unknown person, which is better than refusing to sacrifice at all. This expectation of value-inconsistent sacrifice is absurd; the triumph of the idea of doing something merely because you dislike it is, as Rand points out, ridiculous. One should not be told that helping one’s enemies is somehow better than helping one’s friends. Here, Rand champions value-consistency, in order to help individuals achieve their own ends.

Rand’s philosophical problem comes when she tries to derive her condemnation of altruism from her condemnation of value-inconsistent self-sacrifice. Her definition of self-sacrifice is phrased using scenarios where self-interest is obvious:

If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor's child and let your own die, it is.[viii]

The first two situations here clearly demonstrate value-inconsistent behavior. And the third situation as Rand presents it does so as well. But what happens when we try to generalize the latter to answer the question of when should one give a bottle of milk – or anything else – to one’s neighbor’s child, or any other person whom one cares about? Moreover – and this is the central question – can one legitimately value others’ happiness for its own sake, and be happy merely because they are, or should one value others’ happiness only insofar as the cause of their happiness is the cause of one’s own?

There are two main reasons why Rand would seem to offer the latter response. First, consider the scene in Atlas Shrugged when Hank is giving Dagny jewelry:

“Do you think that a man should give jewelry to his mistress for any purpose but his own pleasure?” he asked. “This is the way I want you to wear it. Only for me. I like to look at it. It’s beautiful.”

...

“Do you understand it’s for nothing but vicious self-indulgence on my part? I’m

not doing it for your pleasure, but for mine.”

“Hank!” The cry was involuntary, but it held amusement, despair, indignation, and pity. “If you’d given me those things just for my pleasure, and not yours, I would have thrown them in your face.” [ix]

Hank, by giving the jewelry to Dagny because he likes to look at it, makes Dagny’s happiness in having the jewelry only relevant in whether she accepts his gift. He never says anything along the lines of “I’m glad you like it.” And Dagny’s response, by drawing a false dichotomy between one’s own happiness and others’ happiness, does not take into account the possibility that one could derives pleasure directly from others’ happiness. Furthermore, in The Fountainhead, Rand fervently condemns the second-hander, a “dependent person who does not survive by means of [his] own mind or effort, but rather survives second-hand by leeching off of others.”[x] The idea of deriving pleasure directly from others’ pleasure seems perilously close to Rand’s idea of second-handedness for her to embrace it.

The same conclusion is reached when we read carefully into Rand’s definition of altruism:

Altruism is the idea that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.[xi]

In using black and white words: “no right,” “only justification,” “highest moral duty.,” she paints an extreme representation of altruism that I think few that would celebrate. But since Rand’s moral philosophy opposes compromise – she writes that “in any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win,” – if this extreme form of altruism is evil, any watered down form must also be evil.[xii] Consider then this statement:

For man to exist for his own sake alone is a solitary, undesirable, and valueless existence; service to others helps to enrich his life.

Because of its partial acceptance of altruism (service to others is a legitimate value) Randians must too condemn this concept as evil. But if service to others is not a legitimate value, then one cannot legitimately derive happiness from others’ happiness. In other words, Rand’s extreme definition of altruism helps to mask that, to be consistent, she must be against all forms of emphathetic pleasure – a hidden but necessary step whose justification she never defends explicitly.

By making altruism into an all-or-nothing moral issue, Rand is falsely drawn to the extreme of condemning all altruism. She accepts that the invisible hand, driven by rational self-interest, is the basic mechanism by which the broader society is improved. But while the value-sacrifice Rand rightly condemns runs directly counter to rational self-interest, the antithesis of altruism is not self-interest but selfishness. And the two are not alike: while following one’s self-interest encompasses one’s cares about others, selfishness means that one should care only about oneself. Rand’s attempt to paint the two concepts at synonymous essentially requires rejecting empathy. The resulting condemnation reflects this error: by rejecting an emotion that has authentic, positive results, she is forced to reject a philosophy – altruism – that when properly understood and applied can have immensely beneficial results. Of course, things like charity that are motivated by altruism could undermine the invisible hand by fostering dependency. But if one truly understands the invisible hand, one can understand that charity that smothers independence is not really charity at all. And when charity is supported by free rather than coerced contributions, people will be more likely to support those forms of charity that work.[xiii] The problem is not altruism, but coercive altruism in the welfare state. Rand neglected Hayek’s point that the operations of the invisible hand does not invalidate the need for altruism. Indeed, it magnifies the effects of the latter.

Rand’s bizarre conclusions are the logical result of both promoting value-consistent behavior and trying to slip in the mistaken proposition that her system of values is the only one that conforms to human nature. But the reason her erroneous philosophy works in her novels is largely due to the fact that the backdrop setting of Rand’s idealized world does not conform to real-life conditions. Specifically, Rand’s heroes are all strong young-ish adults, from early twenties to late thirties.[xiv] They are never seen caring for a child or helping out an old parent, because they have no children and their parents disappear, die, or are portrayed as a parasites.[xv] Except for Hank’s mistaken acceptance of the “looter’s theory of sex,” the only weakness any of the protagonists ever show is overambition. Even the children Dagny and Francisco act like mini-adults, seeming to have Agatha Trunchbull syndrome.[xvi] While Rand admits that her characters were not supposed to be realistic, and though this certainly helped her make her points, it also creates at times an illusory world where things present in reality like old age, youth, weakness, dullness, and general human fallibility by and large vanish. [xvii]

Though Rand’s novels largely dodge the question of potential problems of selfishness, we can still see some explicit negative consequences. One result of the idealization of “the virtue of selfishness” is that individuals unable to live up to Rand’s strict standards are often isolated. Consider Galt’s Gulch, the place where the book’s protagonists to in refuge from the outside world. Nathaniel Branden paraphrased Rand as saying that

Galt's Gulch is a place where the Prime Movers of society are invited to, when they go on strike. It is not a place where any moral man or woman would be invited to merely because of being "a good person." In that sense, it is an elite society — "the aristocracy of superior ability." Therefore, do not view it as a literal prototype of an ideal society in the real world; it is not meant to be that.[xviii]

Yet what is left then for the Eddie Willers of the world, men who, as Francisco d’Anconia put it to Hank Rearden, “could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity”?[xix] Eddie, Dagny’s childhood best friend and right-hand man at Taggart Transcontinental, is simply abandoned in the desert. There is no serious attempt mentioned of saving him at the end of the book, when the characters are escaping, or of offering him any choice of escaping beforehand. The only refuge from collectivism in Rand’s world is an intellectual aristocracy. And even if Eddie’s exclusion is not because he lacks membership in this elite, the only other possibility is that he is not deemed moral enough, being too emotionally tied to the railroad he spent his whole life managing.[xx] Rand’s strict enforcement of morality, even when no rights-violating behaviour is involved is, to say the least, rather harsh. She is dictating behavior, and seems to suggest that those too tied to ideals deemed to be non-rational should be pushed aside until they come to the truth.[xxi]

Though Rand’s initial position promoting value-consistent behavior and blasting altruism (as defined by Rand) seem plausible, when examined in conjunction with the rest of her philosophy they lead to a value system that is untenable and arguably incompatible with human nature. Her philosophy of individualism, too wrapped up in auxiliary concepts like egoism and too little involved with individualism itself, distorts the true meaning of individualism.[xxii]

Postscript

I have summarized the errors that I believe lie in Rand’s moral philosophy.[xxiii] Of course, these errors in and of themselves are relatively harmless. Rand’s view of absolute egoism as central to the concept of the individual does not undermine her support of the individual nearly as much as modern liberals’ view that big government is necessary to protect him or her. Because Rand called for minimal government, errors in her moral philosophy will be relatively harmless to society at large because the political measures she calls for reduce government power rather than use it to impose her set of morals. Errors in moral philosophy will primarily manifest themselves in the personal realm, in the lives of those connected with Objectivism. Admittedly, this may be highly anecdotal evidence.

This view is true insofar as long as Rand stayed to a philosophy of individualism in her politics. Unfortunately, this was not always true, especially when it came to national defense. Rand’s idealization of America as a beacon of liberty was such that, ignoring that statism is not a purely foreign concept, she made remarks such as that she would support 80% taxes, if it was “needed” for defense. But such off-the wall remarks, while bizarre and undermining of liberty, are not that prominent in Rand herself. But after her death, her followers combined with this holism Rand’s trumpeting of egoism, it was a dangerous mix. A vast overestimation of the threats of altruism led them to ignore the threats of thinking collectively. Objectivist organs today denounce plans to reduce civilian casualties of warfare, if such policies could possibly risk American soldiers’ lives – because such plans are supposedly “altruistic.”[xxiv] Dude! Any individualist perspective must recognize that even if war is justifiable, civilian casualties are wrong. We have no right to kill innocents; even if it is necessary, we should try as much as possible to reduce such tragic deaths. This is something modern-day Objectivism seems not to recognize. It is caught up in denouncing altruism to the point where it is willing to sanction killing innocents – because trying to prevent such deaths would be altruistic.

The next, and deeper question is: from whence did all of these mistaken ideas, of egoism and intellectual aristocracy, spring? I believe that there is an underlying reason for these wrong ideas; they sprang largely from Rand’s overconfidence in the ability of aprioristic reason to create a philosophy of life, disregarding the possibility of error. At times, she seems to acknowledge the possibility of error; in “This is John Galt Speaking” she writes:

Accept that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible – than an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. (p. 969)

At first glance, this seems to be an acknowledgement of this very possibility of error, and thus protection against it. But Galt follows this sensible prescription with a command to “discard that unlimited license to evil which consists of claiming that man is imperfect” and “accept the fact that in the realm of morality nothing less than perfection will do. Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of virtue.”[xxv] To Rand, a man must think all the time to be perfect; and only perfection is good enough. But since for Rand, consistent thinking leads to Objectivism, one must not be truly thinking if one is not an Objectivist. In “To Whom It May Concern,” a six-page letter by Rand explaining her break with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, she writes that

Objectivism does not permit any variant of the mind-body dichotomy, any split between theory and practice, between one's convictions and one's actions....I hereby withdraw my endorsement of them and of their future works and activities. I repudiate both of them, totally and permanently, as spokesman for or of Objectivism. [xxvi] [emphasis mine]

Rand’s demand for utter and complete consistency and appointment of herself as the sole judge of the matter leads inexorably to this schism. Her understandable anger at Branden having been involved in an affair with another woman for some years (he had simultaneously been carrying on one with Rand) led her to completely repudiate him as an Objectivist philosopher. This odd reaction is illuminated by a similar occurance twenty-one years later. Rand’s intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff, attacking rival Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, said that “Kelley states that Ayn Rand's philosophy, though magnificent, ‘is not a closed system.’ Yes, it is.”[xxvii] The mindset shared by Rand and Peikoff is that dissent from Objectivism automatically precludes one from taking part in reasoned dialogue. And in such an environment, it is inevitable that, for fear of repercussions, disagreement will rarely take the form of open dissent that encourages discussion. When a paradigm such as Objectivism squelches the ability to agree to disagree, its constructive truth-seeking process is much impeded as it lacking the benefits of open discussion.[xxviii] And the inevitable result is error.





[i] Examples of those excommunicated are Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, and Murray Rothbard. Understandably, sources are rather conflicted on these and especially other excommunicatees, with each side telling vastly different stories. In reference to who she saw as Rothbard’s supporters, Rand wrote: “so-called libertarians are my avowed enemies, yet I've heard many reports on their attempts to cash in on my name and mislead readers into the exact opposite of my views.” Source: http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/bio/biofaq.html.

[ii] p. 385

[iii] F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, p. 18

[iv] Francisco d’Anconia and Ken Danagger each started work at 12, Hank Rearden at 14 in an iron mine. Danagger is described as having no personal friends. Dagny Taggart often sleeps in her office and in numerous occasions remarks to her brother Jim that she cares about nothing but work. The list of examples could go on.

[v] Anyone in doubt of this should examine Japanese culture. Also, see here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karoshi)

[vi] Furthermore, if the welfare state was abolished, voluntary forms of charity would be quite effective at helping the poor. See Murray Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p. 175-209, and also Jacob G. Hornberger, “The Separation of Charity and State” at http://www.lewrockwell.com/hornberger/hornberger82.html and Thomas Woods, “Who Invented Charity?” at http://www.lewrockwell.com/woods/woods41.html

[vii] p. 655

[viii] Spoken by John Galt, p. 941,

[ix] p. 344

[x] From the Ayn Rand Institute. http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_contests_edu_tftheme&printer_friendly=1

[xi] Quoted in a Playboy interview in 1964, online here: http://ellensplace.net/ar_pboy.html

[xii] The full quote is: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if, only, by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win,” p. 965

[xiii] Nonprofits that work to promote freedom, for example. To give a more general example, programs that give scholarships to inner-city students so they can go to better schools often still have the parents pay more than half of the tuition, so students retain a sense that the education is valuable and not just an entitlement. For more see Murray Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p. 175-209.

[xiv] I have my doubts as to whether Rand’s version of selfishness would be preferable even for a society composed entirely of rational doubts, and whether it would make people in this world happy. But as I am far from qualified to discuss inborn human psychology, I shall refrain from doing so.

[xv] Though the role of families in Ayn Rand’s fiction could make an interesting topic, I will here only note how small the familial role is. At best, families teach the value of individualism, as in the Taggart and especially D’Anconia family. The Taggart parents in Atlas Shrugged are viewed as somewhat supportive, but they play no role in Dagny’s development – if it can be described as such. But the Rearden family, including Hank’s wife Lilian, are shown at length as complete parasites. Ragnar’s father disowns him for following what he sees as the only moral course, that of piracy. And to reiterate, none of Rand’s protagonists in her two magnum opus works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have children.

[xvi] After the schoolmaster in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who declares that she never went through the infant and childhood stages and was born as an adult.

[xvii] For Rand’s perspective on realism, see her Romantic Manifesto.

[xviii] http://www.nathanielbranden.com/catalog/pdf/QA-98june7.pdf

[xix] p. 419

[xx] Rand sees this as a moral failing; it is why Dagny cannot stay in the valley the first time.

[xxi]This point is furthered by the many splits and excommunications in Objectivist circles.

[xxii] By way of comparison, there are many who call themselves individualists yet call for bigger government without recognizing the contradiction. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek noted that “liberal socialists” like Bertrand Russell often argued for centralization of economic power in the hands of the government without realizing the contradiction. Today, modern liberals uphold the power of government – especially the federal government – and a “living Constitution.” Then, they are surprised when the liberal Supreme Court justices all support decisions like Raich and Kelo, overturning state laws permitting medical marijuana for the chronic-disease-ridden, and redefining “public use” in the Fifth Amendment to justify seizing old people’s houses and giving the land to someone who can generate more tax revenue. Such results are repugnant to modern liberals – yet the inevitable result of their support for increased government to help the individual is that we get increased government and it tramples the individual.

[xxiii] By ‘moral philosophy’ I refer to personal ethics rather than larger political concepts like ‘the role of government.’

[xxiv]See Justin Raimondo: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig5/raimondo1.html

[xxv] p. 969

[xxvi] Ayn Rand, “To Whom It May Concern,” in The Objectivist, May 1968.
[xxvii] Leonard Peikoff, “Fact and Value”, reprinted at http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_fv

[xxviii] This is a benefit downplayed by Objectivism. Murray Rothbard highlighted the “Randian belief that every individual is armed with the means of spinning out all truths a priori from his own head.” Because of this, “there is felt to be no need to learn the concrete facts about the real world, either about contemporary history or the laws of the social sciences. Armed with axiomatic first principles, many ex-Randians see no need of learning very much else.” This is vital; in constructing an intricate philosophical system it is imperative that one takes into account the possibility that one might be wrong. It is after all almost inevitable to overlook a couple of points here and there, and without the benefit both of inside discussion and reference to history one’s reality-checks are severely impeded.