Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand

Jonathan Chait’s review essay taking off from two new books about Ayn Rand, one of the most interesting and influential intellectual figures of 20th century, somehow manages to take the form of an extended defense of the redistribution of income and wealth. The bizarro-Rumpelstiltskin of the welfare state, Chait could spin gold into a defense of the redistribution of income and wealth, and he probably has! The problem with his Rand essay is that he spins away with only haphazard reference to Rand’s work or thought. The root of the problem, I think, is twofold. First, Chait doesn’t much care to know about Ayn Rand’s work or thought, but wanted to pen a good Tea Party-pooping Ayn Rand slapdown anyway. Second, he lazily confuses a certain syndrome of anti-redistributive thinking common among Glenn Beck aficionados, in which some Randian themes certainly do appear, with Rand’s own thought.

The meat of Chait’s essay is devoted to beating up the false idea that levels of income and wealth roughly correspond to levels of effort, productivity, or some other exercise of virtue. This line of thinking eventually leads Chait into an examination of the overall progressivity of the American tax system. (Less progressive than you might think!) But what does this have to do with Ayn Rand?

Chait writes:

[T]he Randian inversion of the Marxist worldview … rests upon a series of propositions that can be falsified by data.

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue–thrift, hard work, and the rest–and poverty the lack thereof.

He then proceeds to beat up on some Republicans.

As Chait points out, Rand plumped for Wilkie in 1940, but she was no Republican. More to the point, Rand did not think income and wealth represents a sign of virtue — of hard work, productivity, or anything else. Being an intelligent person, she thought that who got how much of what depended on the complex interplay of culture and the structure of the political economy. She did think that those who through effort or industry improve others’ lives ought to see the value of their work acknowledged and rewarded in some form or other. But no one would infer from Rand’s novels and nonfiction that the United States looks, or in her day looked, anything like her ideal.

Rand was a radical critic of what she saw as our debased culture and “mixed economy.” In her biting words, a mixed economy is

a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls. A mixed economy is a country in the process of disintegration, a civil war of pressure-groups looting and devouring one another.

Hey! That’s us! Massive political bailouts to banks and auto manufacturers and seething political strife over the expansion of redistributive “entitlements” are precisely the kinds of things Rand had in mind.

Let’s take a moment to think of the many ways worldly success and moral merit come apart in Rand’s immensely influential fiction. In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating traces the trajectory of the sell-out. He achieves professional success through slavish conformity to banal popular taste. He is the archetype of Rand’s despised “second-hander.” Rand’s point is not that pathetic second-handers with desperate cravings for external validation do not work their way into the top income decile. Her point is that they do! But they don’t really deserve it. If there’s cosmic justice, it’s in the fact that successful second-handers are miserable because they know they don’t deserve it. Rand’s condemnation of Keating is also a not-very-subtle condemnation of popular taste, which she generally judges execrable. Whatever else it might be, The Fountainhead is a searing critique of getting ahead by giving the people what they want. From a quick read of Rand’s lesser doorstop, one might suspect that, exceptional cases aside, the distributions of both income and social esteem bear a strong relationship to skill at peddling popular bullshit.

Rand emphasizes that in a world of second-handers, a great single-minded artist might die broke and mostly forgotten. That’s the sub-plot of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead. And if not for the intervention of the surprising philosophical and oratorical talents suddenly summoned by the book’s taciturn hero at his bombing trial (one man’s terrorism is another man’s unflinching aesthetic vision!), Howard Roark would have gotten a good harsh dose of criminal justice and ended up rotting in jail, like notable theory-driven bombers Ted Kazcynski and Timothy McVeigh, instead of skating like Bill Ayers. That Roark ends up surveying the world that has become his oyster from his uncompromising skyscraper with his uncompromising gal is a triumph of hopeful narrative malfeasance over the bitter penniless ruin that is otherwise depicted as the great man’s predictable lot.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand doesn’t much conceal her disgust at James Taggart, the immensely wealthy heir to a railroad fortune who tries to consolidate the position of his inherited company through political pull. In Rand’s taxonomy of villains, he is a “looter.” Rand’s point is not that looters don’t get ahead. Her point is they do. And it works because actually productive people are either too dumb or guilty to grasp that moralizing political rhetoric is as often as not a bullshit front for corporatist political predation. From a quick read of Atlas Shrugged, one might expect that the distribution of income and social esteem in a “mixed economy” bears a strong relationship to membership in pressure groups, and the quality of their lobbyists and PR flaks.

The mostly tragic world of Atlas Shrugged is one in which the truly creative and productive are rewarded with unending resentment and exploitation while politically-connected corporations pay Washington insiders to rig the mechanisms of redistributive democratic politics to reel in and lock down unearned gains. Rand thought the world we actually live in is dangerously close to the one she depicted.

Rand does not valorize the wealthy. She valorizes the uncompromising integrity of creative visionaries and the productivity of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs. But there is little to assure the reader that the virtues she extols really pay. Rand’s view of the world was actually pretty bleak, pretty Russian. Her best novel, We the Living, is best precisely because she had yet to philosophically suppress her tragic instincts. One of the least plausible and certainly the saddest aspects of Rand’s thought is what she called the “benevolent universe premise” — a kind of as-if attitudinal stance of positivity meant to ensure “the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil.” She goes on:

No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.

“One feels…” This is Rand’s leap of faith, her animal spirit, her will to believe. She needed her silly, contrived happy endings — and she thought we needed them — to maintain the will to do the right thing, to fight for justice, despite every indication that it’s a bad bet. Rand thought we need to feel that effort and virtue will be rewarded, or else we will, rationally enough, stop supplying effort and virtue. And then we’ll all be good and truly screwed. Make of this what you will, but it is very far from the vulgar Calvinism that sees a person’s level of success as an indicator of their merit.

Now, I’m more than willing to snicker right along with Chait at ridiculously puffed-up computer engineers who threaten to “Go Galt” at the first hint of an impending tax hike while blithely enjoying the wage subsidy of the United State’s super-stingy H1-B visa cap. But he’s really just careless in conflating the views of Ayn Rand’s confused fans with Ayn Rand’s own. I’m delighted there are two important new books that take Rand seriously as a woman, writer, and thinker. It’s too bad that Chait uses their publication as an occasion to once again take a brave stand for the redistributive state.

John Galt and the Billion Tweaks

My colleague Jason Kuznicki nails this:

Ayn Rand hated F. A. Hayek, but in a weird way, the Hayekian idea of the entrepreneur — a little guy who happens to stumble onto a tiny, useful bit of knowledge, and who finds himself free to employ it — is a better fit to the relatively more sophisticated view of Rand’s work, which holds that Atlas is just a metaphor, not a blueprint for world takeover. Schumpeter’s heroic entrepreneur is, I think, empirically wrong, but better suited to a literal reading ofAtlas.

Who is John Galt? An ephemeral process. And if you could follow that, well, you get the libertarian gold star for today.

I get the gold star! Saltative, game-changing, lone-genius invention does happen, but not very much. Sustained growth is driven primarily by an accumulation of tiny productivity-enhancing innovations. Part of the problem with Obama’s Ecomagination Industrial Policy is that it’s looking to finance a quantum leap. Like the dominoes-of-democracy best-case scenario for Iraq, the dreamy upside could be huge, sure. But the smart money is on lower than average returns to investment. The problem isn’t that we’re going to get some wasteful Project X instead of Galt’s motor, because all our Galts went MIA. The problem is that we’re going to get Projects A-Z, most of which will be a bust, instead of some significant number of the billions of tweaks that make innovation and growth happen. 

A couple sentences from Robin Hanson for your consideration:

Small differences in growth rates eventually overwhelm most other considerations, so the clustering and innovation externalities that create growth differences deserve far more public attention. Unfortunately most people yawn at growth theory; they prefer stories about conflict, status, moral fiber, heroes, and epic changes.

That is, people prefer romance. Here’s one way to understand the “going Galt” dramatics. Obama is causing a lot of Rand fans to completely flip their lids in part because Obama and his devotees are Bizarro World Randian romantics in the grip of an adolescent faith in the generative powers of the state.

On Going Galt

I can’t help but feel that threatening to withdraw from economic production, ala Atlas Shrugged‘s John Galt, is a certain kind of libertarian-conservative’s version of progressives threatening to move to Canada. For my part, I can’t imagine what would make me want to stop working, and each new president makes me want to move to Canada.

Despite my own inclinations, I’m among those who believe that labor supply is pretty sensitive to marginal tax rates, and I have no doubt that increasing the top marginal rate will make it so that some very productive people will quite rationally choose to produce less. But the effect comes from aggregating hundreds of millions of choices about the worth of an extra hour of work, not because the willing efforts of a small handful of productive geniuses are a necessary condition for ongoing economic production (and, therefore, civilization). Maybe vocally “going Galt” as a protest move is a useful way to put a dramatic face on optimal tax theory, but of course that’s not what folks who talk about it have in mind. They have morality in mind. And taxation is a moral issue, a matter of justice, and I’m glad Americans resist the idea that their government is entitlted to consume ever larger portions of their incomes. So I certainly don’t mind if a bunch of people declare they are “going Galt” if it reinforces healthy, deep-seated American norms about the injustice of excessive taxation.

But insofar as this is all about taxes on the wealthy (as the link to Malkin suggests) it’s a bit hard to see tax rates somewhat exceeding the Clinton era’s as a move over some inflection point from the tolerable to the completely outrageous. And of course none of these folks designed an engine that would have created basically free energy (and made global warming a non-issue). In the individual case, “going Galt” smacks of a kind self-aggrandizement in the same way that climate smuggery does. Because, really, your marginal contribution doesn’t matter that much.

By the way, Atlas buffs, the point of Atlas Shrugged is not that you are John Galt. The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. You’re smart, hardworking, productive, and true. But you’re no creative genius and you take innovation — John Galt — for granted. You don’t even know who he is! And this eventually leaves you weeping on abandoned train tracks. 

I think Obama’s policies will be bad for innovation, but not because higher marginal tax rates will lead our best and brightest to retire from the field of endeavor. I’m rather more worried that our best and brightest will follow the incentives and go Robert Stadler. I’m worried that our money, which might otherwise have gone to capitalize real innovation, will be confiscated in order to finance government directed “investment” instead. Our economy can readily absorb a passel of drop-out Willerses (though Eddie never quits!). It’s the misdirected capital embodied by the Stadlers and their Project Xes that really hurts.

Blame It On Ayn Rand?

In a frankly embarrassing Naomi Klein/J. Edgar Hoover-like wishful ideological free association, Brian Leiter Gerald Dworkin, a professional philosopher, suggests we pin the financial crisis on Ayn Rand because (1) Alan Greenspan used to be head of the Fed, (2) had a bit of an anti-regulatory bent relative to Alan Blinder,  and (3) was once a confederate of Ayn Rand, who was a principled advocate of laissez faire capitalism. The funny thing is, the Greenspan essay I recall reading in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal was about how we should have a gold standard! It’s like a pacifist running the DOD! (After, say, the first ten years, you might start doubting the pacifism.)

Naturally, Greenspan’s taste for devil-take-the-hindmost capitalist ideology explains why the GSEs were created by the government, given crucial regulatory advantages over more conservative traditional lenders,  more or less made the market for mortgage backed securities, etc., etc. No doubt the ghost of Ayn Rand whispering in Greenspan’s ear at night explains why in 2005 he didn’t warn that Fannie and Freddie were undercapitalized and holding too many risky mortgages. And Bill Clinton defends the repeal of Glass-Steagall to this day because, yes, he too is a died-in-the-wool Randroid.

The other funny thing is that Leiter Dworkin thinks it’s clever to quotes Keynes here:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

That this is true is, of course, the fantasy of academic scribblers. Sadly, Keynes, of all defunct economists, never saw this fantasy come true, and the actually-existing consensus view of the role of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury in managing the economy from Washington has nothing at all to do with Keynes, and nothing at all to do with what has recently transpired in the financial markets. Surely the problem is that we didn’t Keynes it up enough! But Ayn Rand… Now there’s the intellectual force behind the status quo structure of American monetary and regulatory policy!

In times like these the hackery abounds.

[Added: See correction post above.]

On Positive Freedom: Is Society Metaphysical or Man Made?

One of the best discussions I know of on the difference between positive and negative conceptions of freedom is David Kelley’s in A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State. This was the final word for me on positive and negative freedom for some time. Looking again at Kelley’s argument, I find I am not as convinced as I once was.

Let’s look at a few passages:

Freedom always involves the capacity to choose among a range of alternative actions. In that sense, freedom is a positive concept. But it is also a negative concept: the freedom to choose existss as long as no one interferes with the choice coercively, using force to prevent the person from selecting one of the alternatives. … A diner at Joe’s Cafe has a more limited menu to choose from than does a diner at the Four Seasons, but both people are equally free to choose among the entrees available. The fact that Joe’s does not serve oysters on the half shell is not an issue of freedom.

OK. The question that arises for me, then, is why is the guy at Joe’s instead of the Four Seasons? If he (let’s call him Frank) just likes Joe’s, cool. But if it’s because he cannot afford the Four Seasons, or a place with an equivalently broad and high-quality menu, then the question is, Why not? The answer to that question is important. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Frank, and every other person at his approximate level on the economic ladder, would have the means to choose from bigger menus if only his society’s rate of economic growth had been just fractionally greater each year for the past two decades. Relative to faster growth, slower growth takes things off the menu. But is this an issue of freedom from coercion? Maybe, maybe not.

Suppose that people in Frank’s society just like relaxing more than working, and so aren’t extremely productive, leading to unimpressive rates of growth. Now, Frank is a highly motivated, hard-working, and would like to order off a Four Seasons menu, but simply can’t because his entire society is too poor. The point of this is to emphasize the interdependence of opportunities. Things can be off your menu, not because you’re lazy, or being coerced, but because of the (non-coercive) patterns in which other people are coordinating their behavior.

This brings us to Kelley’s next paragraph:

To be sure, there is not always a hard and fast distinction between the number of alternatives one has and the degree of one’s freedom to choose among them. Theoretically, any obstacle, restraint, or limitation may be looked at in either of two ways: we may view it (1) as something that eliminates one or more alternatives a person would otherwise have available or (2) something that prevents the person from choosing one or more alternatives. The difference lies in whether we consider the limitation as affecting the range of alternatives he has or the process of choosing among them. Advocates of positive freedom have exploited this fact, insisting that lack of a certain opportunity because of poverty, illness, or disability deprives a person of the freedom to choose that opportunity. Conversely, we could in principle view overt coercion, physical force, or violence, not as something that prevents a person from choosing an alternative but as something that removes alternatives he would otherwise have.

OK! Then Frank’s case is confusing, right? It looks like a case of (1). He doesn’t already have the menu, so his inability to choose from it is a moot question—not an issue of freedom. But suppose we get the exact same result—a low rate of growth—not from the indolence of the population, but from a few bad government policies that, say, restrict international trade. It turns out that Frank trades only with locals, so the trade restrictions don’t coercively prevent him from trading with anyone he wants to. But by coercively limiting others’ trade opportunities, others have less means, and thus less with which to buy Frank’s services, which ends up badly limiting his trade opportunities. And that’s why he doesn’t already have the menu he’d like. Still a case of (1)?

Here’s how Kelley asks us to tell the difference:

There are real differences between (1) and (2). One difference is whether the obstacle or limitation is imposed by reality or by other people. When some fact of reality affects the range of alternatives we face, it is wishful thinking to regard it as an obstacle to what we would otherwise be free to do. Facts are facts. The world operates a certain way, according to causal laws, and the constraints imposed by nature are the foundation for human choice, not a barrier to it.

I now find this remarkably unhelpful. Are other people’s preferences and patterns of behavior, which create huge limitations on the alternatives open to me, “imposed by reality” or “by other people”?

Here’s an illustrative example Kelly offers:

If I cannot run a five-minute mile, my incapacity does not abridge my freedom to do so; it is simply a fact about my nature. But if I can run that fast, and somebody forces me to wear lead weights as a handicap, he is restricting my freedom.

Now, imagine the following possibilities:

(a) a network of completely voluntary choices leads to air pollution as a side-effect; I could have run a five-minute mile had the air been cleaner.

(b) the anti-technology norms of my society, transmitted through education and social opproprium (no coercion!), have ensured that new physical performance technologies that, but for those norms, would have been invented, and would have made me able to run a five minute mile.

(c) bad government policy that does not directly prevent me from doing anything at any particular time, decreases the rate of growth, decreasing the amount of capital available for R&D, ensuring that new physical performance technologies that would have been invented aren’t.

(d) If super-steroids were available, I could run a two minute mile, but the price is that I would die a week later, so the government bans them. It happens that nobody would have taken them, even if they weren’t banned.

We could go on. The point is, many incapacities are contingent, and are very, very often a side-effect, intended or unintended, of human action. I understand why having weights forcibly attached to one’s body is an especially vivid, salient, and emotionally compelling violation of freedom. But I can’t see a principled reason why the very concept of freedom should apply only to coercive interference with the excercise of present capacities when present capacities are so dependent on contingent patterns of human interaction. I simply cannot see the special normative salience of coercion as a method for trimming the feasible set. I can definitely see why robust restrictions on the exercise of coercion are completely necessary for achieving the range and kinds of opportunities that allow us to create, develop, and fully excercise our capacities. But then that’s why we should care about limiting coercion.

Kelley builds his argument on the Objectivist distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made, but it is hard to know what to make of the distinction once one makes note of the interedpendence of our capacities and opportunities. Are emergent social patterns—the consequences of human action but not human design—metaphysical or man-made? I think a little bit country and a little bit rock n roll.

The reason we fight so hard over the basic structure of our formal institutions and over the basic structure of our informal institutions (i.e., over our culture) is that those structures create patterns of behavior we as individuals have no choice but to engage in their actually existing form as if they were metaphysical, as if they were constraints of nature. We can’t rewrite the laws of nature, but we can be less bound by nature by bending the laws to our will. This is how reason, science, and the institutions of market production liberate. We can TRY to rewrite the local laws of social coordination, and this may change the overall pattern of behavior, but the pattern won’t be the one we were aiming at. Other people, other factions, are always also trying to rewrite the formal and informal laws, and the equilibrium that emerges (or doesn’t) from the clash of ideas is nobody’s idea. There is a sense in which science and technology make nature more tractable than people. Or perhaps it is better to see people as fully part of nature, and to see certain formal institutions and cultures—-like a system of strong individual rights and the beliefs and norms that back them—-as just other technologies of liberation from recalcitrant nature.

Should Objectivists Become Mormons?

I’ve made this point a number of times, but apparently I’m not tired of making it, because I’m about to make it again. One of the tenets of Objectivism is that adherence to the principles of Objectivism is a necessary condition for true happiness and maximum longevity. I am completely confident that this is false. So I am also willing to bet that Mormons, for example, are on average both happier (measured according to any standard method) and longer lived than Objectivists.

Any takers? How much you wanna bet?

I anticipate that some will object that happiness measurement techniques are unreliable. Fair enough! But I worry some Objectivists will insist on defining happiness a bit circularly. Rand said happiness is “the successful state of life… that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” I like it. Elsewhere we get “noncontradictory joy,” by which she means guilt-free joy. Anyway, how can we tell we’re there? By noticing that we’re in that joyfully guilt-free state of consciouness. It seems like if you were in it, you’d know it. That sure sounds to me like something strong enough to show up on surveys or experience sampling diaries. Still, I think Mormons will report feeling better. The trick is that happiness, by definition, comes from achieving one’s (objective) values, and objective values are the necessary conditions for life (“man qua man”). Reason, the capacity of non-contradictory identification, is our primary instrument of survival and happiness, and faith is the abdication of reason. Mormons believe, well, lots of weird things, by faith, totally at odds with reality. So whatever state of consciousness Mormons are achieving, it can’t really be happiness, now can it, since it violates allegedly practically mandatory values. 

But you’d think the “philosophy for living on Earth” would buy you some extra longevity, so it’s hard to see how you would explain away Mormon dominance in life-span, if such a thing were shown to be true. (And I’ll bet you it is!) Since one man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, we might infer from the fact that adherence to some belief system leads to the longest, happiest lives, together with the premise that reason is our capacity of non-contradictory identification  aimed at survival and flourishing, to the conclusion that the most life-promoting belief system must be endorsed by reason. So if Mormons really are happier and longer-lived, should Objectivists become Mormons? Or should they rather acknowledge that reason isn’t necessarily for survival and happiness, but worth caring about all the same, and believing in Kolob or whatever isn’t worth it, even it would make you happier and add a couple years. 

Sandefur on the Third Letter

Tim Sandefur writes:

Wilkinson’s argument seems to be that when Rand says that a morality of reason is necessary for man’s survival, that isn’t true, because you can see all around you that there are many people who live and who are not rational. Isn’t this rather like saying that alcoholism isn’t really bad because there are lots of alcoholics who aren’t dead—and even ones who accomplish big things?

No. Here’s the proper parallel. Someone tells you that any alcohol AT ALL imperil your life and happiness. Then you discover that that the happiest, longest-lived people you know regularly drink alcohol. So then you know that the claim about the dangers of alcohol just aren’t true. Rand’s claims about reason are like that. She claims that any bit of irrationality imperils life and happiness. But then you lift your weary eyes from the pages, stick your head out the window, and observe happy, successful people whose commitment to reason is notably partial.

And this:

A bureaucrat at HUD might be a happy person because he is a basically rational person who engages in the behaviors that Objectivism considers virtues—even though his life may include contradictions, and his happiness may be mixed.

This is a move that really bugs me. Start with your theory about the necessary conditions of life and happiness. Observe that someone lives and is not unhappy. Conclude that they must implement elements of your theory. No. No. No. This is backwards rationalism. Do this instead: Observe people who live and are happy. Draw generalizations about them. I think the correct answer, based on a good inductive approach, is something like: yes, a well-developed capacity for “common sense” or “folk rationality” is a necessary condition for life and happiness. But this is not incompatible with all sorts of astonishing forms of irrationality. Many of these forms of irrationality have no apparent effect on life and happiness, and other forms appear to have some positive effect. Of course, there are many forms of irrationality that are truly destructive, and I think we can all agree that these are to be avoided.

I’m reminded of the utilitarian’s favorite dodge. Offer an intuitive moral counter-example, such as “utilitarianism demands cutting up healthy people and distributing their organs to sick people,” or “utilitarianism demands televised to-the-death gladiatorial combat, since so many people really enjoy watching people kill each other,” and the utilitarian will offer an elaborate story about how utilitarianism, properly and subtly understood, actually forbids these things. But there is a point where this becomes ridiculously ad hoc, and it becomes obvious that an honest utilitarian is either going to have to bite some bullets (e.g., “We really should be carving healthy people up!”), reject the notion that intutions about cases like these have any authority and offer a different (non-question begging) standard for evaluating the adequacy of moral theories, or admit that the counterexamples are decisive.

If I keep showing you happy, deeply religious ninety year olds who devoted their lives to altruistic service and the mastery of astrology, and you keep telling me that they must embody Objectivist virtues of rationality because, after all, they’ve never once stepped in front of a car and have a solid record of not doing things that would make them miserable, then I am not going to be impressed.

One thing I meant to take up in the letter, but which I think I will take up in a separate letter, is Rand’s “survival barometer” view of happiness, which I think is quite implausible.

Last, Tim says “Parisitism as a personal psychology, is stable only as socialism . . .” No. A system in which everyone is parasitic is unstable, surely. But my point is that parasitism doesn’t require an especially parasitic psychology, and parasistism works pretty well as long as the host organism is exceedingly robust. Ever met a happy special-interest lobbyist truly proud of their latest success at rent-extraction? I have. Parasites don’t need to have a parasitic mentality. I’ve met any number of professional rent-seekers who see their work as necessary and noble, and who gain the usual psychic rewards from a job well done. These are people who, in fact, contribute next to nothing to the wealth of society, and are in fact part of a system of parasitism and predation. But they don’t see it that way. The system is too robust to suffer too much from institutionalized parasitism. Society continues to get wealthier. There is no serious social instability, or threat of downward spiral. (And so things are not, as Tim says, like the jumper who says “so far so good” halfway down.)These people are as insulated from the objective systemic effects of their work as much as any other more objectively productive member of society. And psychological well-being depends more on the way you conceive of what you’re doing than on the real worth of what you’re doing. Since you’re so insulated from the effects of the real results, which are muted and diffuse, there is little reason to suspect that your actions have a negative effect.

There is simply no non-table pounding reason to suspect that someone’s happiness is compromised simply in virtue of being objectively unproductive and subsisting off of the spoils of political predation. This can, in fact, be a quite nice kind of life and that is part of the political problem.

Third Letter to a Young Objectivist: Ethics

[For an explanation of this series, go here.]

Dear Young Will,

I’m sorry; it’s been a while. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve been busy and happy. I hope you’ve been the same.

So, where were we? Oh, last time, I wrote to you about Objectivism’s inadequate conception of human sociality. This lack points to the general inadequacy of the Objectivist ethics.

Before I get going here, let me remind you that I don’t pretend to be offering you drop-dead arguments. I am simply letting you know how things look from here, on the other side of a decade’s education, formal and informal. I know you’re a tenacious debater, and I certainly encourage you to bare your teeth and dig in. It feels good. I know. I know. But follow me a little way, and try to see what I’m trying to show, if you have the patience. Anyway, no need to implore you. I know you’re intellectually curious. I know you’re listening, even when you’re pouncing — that it only sinks in, really, when you tumble off target and wonder why.

It’s easy to see why Ayn Rand’s ethics is attractive . . .
Continue reading “Third Letter to a Young Objectivist: Ethics”

New Letter on the Way

I’ve begun my third letter to a young Objectivist. This one is about the Objectivist Ethics. It has, however, taken me longer than the hour or so I just gave myself, so stay tuned.

Second Letter to a Young Objectivist: Human Sociality

Objectivism advertises itself as a “philosophy for living on earth.” Objectivism rejects the theory/practice dichotomy and holds that a true philosophy, that is, Objectivism, is a necessary instrument to a successful, happy life. The clear implication is that a consistent, integrated practitioner of Objectivism ought to be more successful and happy than people who do not espouse and practice Objectivism. However, one need only leave the house to see thousands of happy, well-adjusted people who know nothing of Objectivism, and one need only attend an Objectivist conference to observe a depressingly high ratio of the awkward, alienated and unhappy to the well-adjusted and happy. The fact that most successful, happy people are not Objectivists, and in fact espouse philosophical opinions opposed to Objectivism, ought to give Objectivists pause. But it doesn’t. Why not?

monksmall.JPGBecause Objectivism rejects the theory/practice dichotomy, it makes a falsifiable empirical prediction. Depending on the correct interpretation of the Objectivist standard of value, Objectivism predicts that Objectivists should either live longer or have happier (more successfully flourishing) lives than non-Objectivists. But there is no reason that I know of to believe that Objectivists live longer than average well-educated, middle class and wealthy white people (Objectivists are almost all middle class and wealthy whites). And, based on my own experience, Objectivists are not happier or in better psychological health than other people. Indeed, none of the happiest, most flourishing people in my experience are Objectivists, and I’ve met a lot of Objectivists.

The Objectivist can respond to this in number of ways. Here are two. First, she can say that few self-professed Objectivists (or “students of Objectivism”) have properly integrated the philosophy. But if this is the case, one wonders why a philosophy that is so hard for actual people to successfully implement is especially good for “living on earth.” Second, the Objectivist can say that insofar as non-Objectivists are doing well in life, they must be acting, perhaps unwittingly, on premises that are consistent with Objectivism. This is arbitrary and ad hoc. There is a great deal of evidence that many successful, happy, long-lived people in fact act according to premises Objectivism rules false and therefore impractical. If your mystical, other-focused, self-sacrificing grandmother dies happy at 95 years old, what are we to think of Objectivism’s empirical conjecture?

group_hug2small.JPGThis brings me to my main thrust of today’s letter. Objectivism has risibly inadequate picture of human nature. It is therefore unable to provide truly useful practical guidance for non-fictional human beings. Objectivism’s most serious problem in this regard is in seriously addressing the essentially social nature of human beings and accounting for the values and virtues of human sociality. A good text in anthropology, social psychology, or evolutionary psychology can be read as an extended argument for the inadequacy of Objectivism as a practical philosophy for actual human beings.

This objection goes very deep. But some of the problems are right there on the surface. If Objectivism is a practical philosophy for real Earthlings, then what is the Objectivist theory of the family? What is the Objectivist theory of the value of childrearing? This is no small lack for a purportedly practical philosophy. Almost every human being for the entirety of history has lived and raised children in extended family groups. As a good first approximation, that just is human life. And Objectivism has nothing to say about it.

hugsmall.JPGAt a deeper level, Rand’s failure to understand and integrate the evidence of biology and anthropology into her picture of human nature leads to a distorted picture of our psychological constitution. Take family and children. Our very existence depends on built-in psychological dispositions to create and raise children. It’s a bizarre over-intellectualized distortion of our nature to understand the human desire for sex and physical intimacy as reflecting personal philosophical premises. Furthermore, the evidence is that human beings are naturally coalitional (tribal, if you will), obsessed (like all primates) with status and dominance, and that huge portions of the mind are devoted to the problem of navigating the social world. Furthermore, we have deep needs for casual physical and emotional intimacy. We need to feel welcome and included in groups. We need to feel liked. Social disapproval makes us very sad and often angry.

But Objectivism has very little to say about these facets of our social nature, other than to provide over-intellectualized rationalist just-so stories about the implicitly philosophical dimensions of phenomena that are in fact largely non-cognitively emotional and biochemical. (The relation of trust and cooperation to oxytocin levels, for example, does not appear to be an especially intellectual or philosophical matter.) There is useful insight in the Objectivist critique of “second handers” and “social metaphysics,” but this insight is mostly useless absent a better understanding and accommodation of the natural human tendencies that lead so many of us to fall into these traps.

If there is one thing that made it so that I could no longer take Objectivism very seriously, it is the failure of Objectivism to come even close to doing justice to the social nature of human beings. For a philosophy devoted to reason, there is a marked tendency to simply dismiss empirical evidence about human nature that is inconsistent with Ayn Rand’s idiosyncratic vision. Now, I think it’s perfectly natural and predictable that coalition human beings will be subject to confirmation bias and will tend to discount argument and evidence that threatens their intellectual and emotional commitments. It’s just what people do. But one can’t help but enjoy the irony in the Objectivist’s case.

Thankfully, there is in fact some slack between theory and practice. People can often get along fine with false beliefs (and can arguably get along better, depending on the belief.) And Objectivists, being humans, know more about living decent lives among other humans than Objectivism allows. So I don’t worry too much about my Objectivist friends. That said, a philosophy for living on Earth really ought to be able to do a better job of helping us think about what we ought to do given what we really are.

[I’ll have more to say about the Objectivist view of human nature on my next letter on the Objectivist ethics.]