Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Confronting Ayn Rand, Mother of Modern Conservatism

Ayn Rand has been in the news a lot lately.  Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan named her as the person who most influence his political thinking and his decision to go into politics.  (He later recanted when he learned that she was an atheist.)

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born American novelist and philosopher. She is widely known for her best-selling novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She was an uncompromising advocate of rational individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, and vociferously opposed socialism, altruism, and other contemporary philosophical trends. She is generally either hated or loved. Her objectivist philosophy had a strong influence on the evolution of the Libertarian political philosophy movement (though she rejected the title).  The influence of her philosophy and literature is everywhere evident today in modern conservative thinking and in some schools of thought in the field of economics. 

Below I have selected ten Ayn Rand quotations  to which I have initiated my response.  The hope is that readers will take these  exchanges as starting points on which to expand and offer further comment.  (Please refer to the quotation number if you respond in reference to a particular exchange.)  Much of our political dialogue today is at a stalemate because we are not getting at the underlying philosophies that inform our positions.  This is an attempt to do just that.


1. A government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  Spoken like a true Russian of her time.  Of course, here in America, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Governments are instituted to protect our rights, not to usurp them.

I’m not sure what Rand meant by “legally disarmed” victims here, but American’s are the most legally ARMED people on the planet.  Ceding to popular government a “legal monopoly” on the use of force is more critical then ever here.  Government without authority to use force in keeping the peace subjects its citizens to the whims of anyone holding a bigger gun.  Witness the chaos in failed states like Somalia where brutish thugs take what ever they want by force.  

Somalia is a microcosm of how the world once worked. It wasn’t until the Roman Empire that a citizen (of Rome, at least) could cross political boundaries without fear of being harmed.  A system of laws to delineate and protect our individual rights means nothing if laws cannot be enforced.  What we need to fear is the corruption of governments by elite and powerful elements of society.  Once the levers of power fall into the hands of  powerful minority interests the social contract is broken and the rights and liberties of individual are at risk. When government no longer drives its power from the consent of the majority it can legitimately be replaced, preferably by elections and a peaceful transfer of power.

2. Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be waiting for us in our graves – or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  This quote is so context sensitive and cannot be correctly interpreted here.  Is she echoing Ben Franklin who said, “Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”? Or is she suggesting that everyone should always take what they can get?  The former is a virtue, the latter a vice, specifically known as “greed”.  This quote seems to reflect Ayn Rand’s recurring theme regarding her belief that there are societal benefits when everyone freely pursues their own self-interest.

3. Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  Civilization is the process of setting man free from men?  All evidence points to the opposite conclusion.  Civilization is the process of building ever greater interdependency.  The shear complexity of modern society depends on an unprecedented level of interdependency today.  The mechanic depends on the machinist of his tools, the machinist on the foundry, the foundry on the miner, the minor on the farmer and the farmer on the mechanic to keep his tractor running.  All depend on advanced communication systems, well regulated systems of commerce, laws and law enforcement, complex management  and well developed infrastructure.  And if an argument can be made for privacy at all it is that we have less now than ever.  Every sale is recorded, every email is captured, every call may be monitored, every step we take can be tracked.  We are in view of surveillance cameras many times a day.  Private companies know where we shop, what we buy, what shows we watch, what music we listen to and just about every other personal detail of our lives.     

4. Do not ever say that the desire to “do good” by force is a good motive. Neither power-lust nor stupidity are good motives.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  The context here is also important.  In some circumstances this sentiment may fully apply, but not in others.  For example, when a police officer forcefully apprehends your assailant, the officers desire to do good for you and society is without question by anyone but possibly the assailant.  Who would disagree that the use of force to end abuse, injustice or to bring about peace is without a good motive?  Force is a tool and all tools can be used for good or evil.    

5. From the smallest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from one attribute of man – the function of his reasoning mind.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  Human reason is among the most highly regarded and poorly understood trait of our species.  It is correctly recognized as a distinguishing feature without which we would all still live in trees and communicate in grunts.  At the same time its prominence in directing our daily behavior is vastly overstated.  Volumes have been written on the subject of reason and human intelligence, much more than can be treated here.  I would recommend to interested readers a book I found very helpful entitled “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins which proposes a theory of intelligence that helps to demystifies the function of our cerebral cortex and put it in proper perspective.

Suffice it to say that most of the work our rational brain performs involves predicting our behaviors and the sensory outcome that should result from them, and not in directing our behavior.  Our rational brain only brings to our highly focused attention behaviors or sensory activity when something unexpected or unfamiliar is occurring.  The bulk of “rational” activity happens along a continuum of consciousness.  Our cortex monitors everything and settles most conflicting impulses and motivations arising from other parts of our brain unconsciously.  We seldom construct a complete rationale for behavior until after it occurs, such as when someone says, “why did you do that?”  In retrospect we can usually piece together the motivations, impulses, historical precedents and habits that lead us to a particular course of action, but not always.  Sometimes the best we can do is a lot of guesswork when trying to explain ourselves. That which we recognize as conscious reasoning and decision making is relatively rare cause of action considering the full repertoire or our daily behavior.  That said, it is the cumulative impact of this rare type of thinking that incrementally constructs our civilization and culture.

So while religious abstractions and skyscrapers are all evidence of a reasoning mind, I wouldn’t agree that the smallest necessities provide much evidence of reasoning.  There is another Rand quote regarding reasoning with which I do tend to agree:  “Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone.”

6. Government “help” to business is just as disastrous as government persecution… the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  In Rand’s view, the outcome of any attempt by government to assist business or influence commercial markets have the same dismal impact as would any malicious government interference.  This philosophy is at the heart of both modern conservatives and  “fresh water” economists thinking.  In this view  markets are organic entities endowed with immutable laws of nature.  The collective actions of many individual freely pursuing their own self-interests allows natural markets to operate properly. When large numbers of individuals are free to pursue their own self-interest, the collective results of the crowd always produce the best, most efficient outcomes. Markets that are free to operate are believed to be self-regulating, self-correcting and naturally in balance.  What ever the distribution of wealth and resources that results from free markets is considered  fair and just by some nature law. Any other views of distributive justice, or any attempt to alter the natural outcomes of a free market are considered corrupting influences.

So, if you subscribe to the view that humanities wisest actions can always be found in the behavior of crowds in which each individual is free to pursue his own self-interest, than Rand’s philosophy and modern conservative views of free markets might seem true.  But if you see evidence, as do I,  that the wisdom of crowds is not infallible, that crowd behavior is subject to both random fluctuations and “herding” influences, then this philosophy rests on shaky ground.  If you believe that the behavior of humans in every environment is always consistent with our nature then why should markets be a special exception? In every other social institution or endeavor involving large numbers of people mutually accepted rules must be established and enforced in order to maintain orderly functioning.  And why must we accept the distributive outcome of “natural” markets as the most fair and just?  We regularly reject natural outcomes almost every where else in favor of ones that advance the greatest good. 

All reference here so far is to the business owners side of a business transaction.  No explicit mention is given to the consumer side of business transactions.  What of consumer rights and protections from errant, immoral or unfair business practices? 

Under the Rand inspired philosophy, in a “perfect” market (to the extent this can be achieved without pesky government interference) consumers will have perfect choices to enter into only  mutually beneficial transactions.  It is “market forces” that create healthy consumer choices. Should transactions with an inferior companies or crafty business owner take place, the crowd of consumers will eventually stop using those businesses.  Over time these companies or owner will loose market share and profits and eventually will have to either improve or go out of business.  This winnowing of inferior or unsavory businesses from the field is how healthy markets supposedly polices itself.  Of course bringing justice to individual consumers who are cheated, duped or ripped off is not addressed because doing so would be to introduce government interference into the business process.  Introducing consumer protections on one side of the equation would be viewed as  government persecution of businesses on the other.  Under the Rand inspired philosophy, individual rights on the consumer side of a business transaction has a collective remedy in the market place but not an individual remedy for the consumer.  The concept of mutually beneficial transactions also takes no account of the distorting influence of extreme necessity.  For example, a mutually beneficial transaction between a pharmaceutical manufacturer and a poor African farmer can easily cost the latter to go hungry and destitute in a single sale to save his child’s life.  Calling this a mutually beneficial transaction is simply heartless.

7. It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  This sentiment speaks to a principle that underlies much of modern conservative thinking and the Chicago inspired schools of economics.  It goes beyond belief that greed is good and everyone should always pursue his or her own interests.  It asserts that self-sacrifice is bad and those who ask you to sacrifice are seeking your domination. It is a rejection of what President Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature”. 

It fact, the ability to self-sacrifice is a rare and remarkable trait in nature. Most creatures are incapable it.  Recent scientific evidence points to the fact that our ability to self-sacrifice is a recent genetic adaptation.  In his book, “Before The Dawn”, Nicholas Wade points to a time around 50,000 years ago when our species almost went extinct on the African continent.  He argues that what saved a tiny group of human survivors was a small genetic change that allowed these individuals to self-sacrifice.  This new ability help was passed on to all of us today and the ability not only saved us from extinction long ago, but may well be at the root of our spectacular success as a species.  Much has been written on this topic in recent years.  Popular literature includes “The Genial Gene” by Joan Roughgarden, “The Moral Animal” by Robert Right and “Primates and Philosophers” by Franz de Waal.  All of these reflect a growing body of evidence that far from Rand’s contention that sacrifice is bad, self-sacrifice is critical genetic trait that from which we collectively benefit as a species.  In this emerging view, it is those who seek personal advantage over the collective good that jeopardize everyone.  

8. Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  I couldn’t agree more.  I would just extend those rights to a consumers rights to redress bad faith business transactions.  I would also add that corporations are NOT people.  Corporations are government created organizational entities and, like every other type of organization, corporations are not individuals. They do not have human rights.

9. Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth, the man who would make his fortune no matter where he started.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  I don’t believe Ayn Rand is limiting her meaning here to suggest that the only men fit to handle inherited money are those who have the skills and good fortune to accumulate money on their own. I believe she is really addressing the transfer of enormous power that comes with inheriting enormous wealth.  She is saying that the people who know how to accumulate and handle power are the only people who should be entrusted with great wealth and power. With princely wealth comes princely power.  This fact is lost on most of us when we think about inheritance, but it isn’t lost on our wealthy elite who lead the campaign to eliminate the “death tax.” If I came into an inheritance of $10 million I could invest wisely and live well for the rest of my life, but the influence of  my wealth on national or world events would be insignificant. On the other hand, if I inherited $10 billion, I could move markets and buy or sell whole countries. 

The right to inherit our family’s wealth seems quite natural to most of us, yet we all reject the notion that social or political power should be transferred  to our progeny as a birthright.  We rejected royalty at our nations founding, but we never really escaped from royalty.  We simply called it by different names.  At the turn of the 20th century we called our royal families “capitalists”.  Today we call them our wealthy elite or the 0.01%.  How ever they those with extreme wealthy, the inheritance of wealth in the extreme is the right of succession to power.  It is anti-democratic. And as income inequality increases in a democracy, the threat to democracy grows.  Rand seems to be saying that only those capable of independently acquiring great wealth are capable of wielding great power.  I reject this assertion because it is undemocratic and destructive to self-governance.

10. There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:  According to Rand, there are only ever two sides to any given issue, and compromise is always the most evil outcome.  Sticking to your principles, even if you are dead wrong, is a far more righteous choice that seeking a third way. By this standard the passionate adherence to a belief or principle is more noble than practical solutions even if these solutions work. 

In the first place, seeing every issue as having only two sides is more of a clinical disability than an tenable intellectual position.  That said, this position is internally inconsistent with “free market” economic thinking where crowd behavior generally tends towards the mean. I believe most historical examples of compromise would show that compromise tends to create better solutions than those proposed by the polar extremes.  Passionately held beliefs are by definition self-limiting and highly narrow.  The process of compromise forces parties to take a broader, more detailed view of a problem.  During this process an improved understanding of the problem develops and better, more practical solutions follow.  To globally call the outcome of any compromise evil (a moral judgment) is rather bizarre.   

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