Sunday, July 09, 2006

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.



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