Thursday, December 31, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 37

Politics of Human Nature 21: Conclusion. What can be gathered from this long series of posts on politics and human nature? Mainly, three major points: (1) Human nature is heterogeneous, that is to say, the innate propensities influencing political behavior vary from individual to individual; (2) An individual's vocation often accentuates these propensities, so that, for example, an individual with innate talents for using force will become even better at using force if he joins the military, an individual with an innate talent for manipulation will become even better at manipulation if he becomes a politician, etc. etc.; (3) These innate differences and the intensification that comes about through the division of labor in society accentuates a tendency towards faction.

Why is faction important? Because the presence of faction in political society will effectively prevent Objectivist political ideals from ever being implemented under a representative system of government. What I have sought to show in the "Politics of Human Nature" series of posts is how various psychological, vocational, and social types are biased against laissez-faire, so that they could never be counted on to support such a policy. They may be biased by reason of innate personal inclination, by reason of vocational interests and sentiments, or by reason of social interests and proclivities. This rooted bias against laissez-faire is widespread, intractable, and incurable. The overwhelming majority in both the ruling elite and the masses don't want laissez-faire—they have no use for it. Nor does there appear any convincing evidence that this can change without a prior change in human nature. Having a government that interferes in economic affairs, sometimes less so, sometimes more so, is merely part of the human condition.

Objectivism seeks to attain its political goals through persuasion. Let's see how this is likely to work in practice. In order to for Rand's political ideals to be implemented as part of public policy, it is not enough that the 50%+1 of the nation support laissez-faire. To have any chance of having "real" or "legitimate" laissez-faire, Rand's so-called "separation of the state and economics" would have to be written into the Constitution, via amendments. (Even this would not be enough, but we will ignore what else would be needed for the time being.) Now getting a Constitutional amendment passed is very difficult. It would require very large majorities--at least as high as 80%. There will be powerful, entrenched interests (i.e., all those who have a stake in the present "mixed-economy" system) that will fight any movement toward laissez-faire with every means at their considerable disposal. This being so, where are you going to get your 80%? Which psychological type, which social type, which vocational type would likely support laissez-faire in large numbers? We know which types will oppose it in large numbers: bureaucrats, intellectuals, welfare recipients, the homeless, the uncreative, the unfortunate, the poor, the incompetent, etc. This group is probably large enough by itself to prevent the political implementation of laissez-faire. But when we look at other types, at other factions in society, the prospect becomes even bleaker. Will military personnel likely support laissez-faire? Not likely. There might be a few exceptions, but these are people who get paychecks from the government and live by force. Why would Objectivism’s variant of laissez-faire, with its moralistic disapproval of the initiation of force (including the force required for the taxation necessary to support a military), ever appeal to the typical militaristic mind-set? What about religious people? Well, Rand regarded such people as enemies to her political ideals (because religion is "irrational"); even if Rand were wrong about why religion people are enemies of her political ideals (the fact that someone is irrational about religion doesn’t necessitate that they will be irrational in other spheres of life), she is probably correct about the final result—i.e., the majority of religious people will likely oppose laissez-faire. What about businessmen--entrepreneurs and capitalists? Here is one class in which Objectivists could hope to find allies. But even among businessmen, there will be significant opposition (for reasons explicated in an earlier post). In short, by the time one goes through all of society, one would be lucky to find 10% of the population amenable to persuasion on the issue of laissez-faire. The biases against it run deep, into the very core of human nature and the institutional incentives embedded in society.

Back in the early sixties, Rand wrote to a fan: "We will only have to wait decades [for Objectivism to win] " [AR Letters, 596] Those words were penned almost 50 years ago. What has happened in the interval? Has Objectivism won? Not even close. Support for laissez-faire remains a fringe phenomenon. While there are many supporters of market Capitalism, few believe in the extreme version of Capitalism preached by Rand. They recognize it as being political unfeasible, legally incoherent, and economically undesirable. To desire it and think it the "ideal" system is to lapse into utopianism.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Objectivism Vs Empirical Reality

If Objectivism is correct, shouldn't the lines on this graph go in the opposite direction?
Hat tip: Angry Bear

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Objectivism versus Western Civilization

For nearly every critic of Objectivism there is usually one or two things in Rand’s philosophy that he finds particularly objectionable. For some, it is Rand’s attack against altruism; for others it is her uncompromising defense of laissez-faire; for still others it may be Rand’s essentialism and the empirical irresponsibility that follows in its train. For my stead, what I find most objectionable is the view, held by at least one prominent Objectivist, that some ideas are not merely wrong and unsound, but, even worse, are dangerous: they represent a threat to one’s “psycho-epistemology.” Harry Binswanger expresses this position quite well in his recent post about Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market:

I advise you to stay away from [Burns' book], for the reason I gave in an earlier post: it is almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted "facts" out of your subconscious "file folders." Not only would reading it, quite unjustly, tend to diminish your admiration for Ayn Rand, you are very likely, years later, to treat as fact that which is false or arbitrary.

This view is entirely consistent with the Rand’s view of human nature as exemplified in the Objectivist “Philosophy of History.” If the view contradicts the Objectivist take on volition and rationality, well, that is a contradiction that exists in the philosophy itself. Between Rand’s extreme view of free will (human beings as self-creators) and her view of history (where most human beings are seen as pawns in a philosophical, history-determining “duel” between Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Rand) there exists in obvious tension, little appreciated by the Objectivist brethren. Human beings are seen as the mere products or manifestations of their “premises.” Objectivism tacitly assumes that human beings tend to be influenced by the premises they are exposed to. Hence Binswanger’s view that it is “almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted ‘facts’ out of your subconscious ‘file folders.’” This “almost” impossibility necessitates avoiding any works that contain “false” or “slanted” facts. In other words, the Objectivist is well advised to stay clear of works that are deemed “hostile” to Objectivism.

What evidence Binswanger and other Objectivists have for believing this extraordinary doctrine? The answer to this question is simple: Binswanger provides no evidence.
There is a very good reason for this: no such evidence exists. Human beings are not the products of their premises; nor is it, as Binswanger suggests, “almost impossible” for human beings to avoid being influenced by the premises (or “false facts”) they are exposed to. The only danger that Objectivists who read Burns’ book face is the possibility that the evidence Burns presents may change their minds. But that is something different than having one’s subconscious file folders contaminated.

There is, however, a more sinister aspect to this belief that bad premises and "false" and "slanted" facts can somehow seep into one’s subconscious when one is not looking and corrupt one’s psycho-epistemology. It serves as a convenient rationalization for avoiding any book or idea or fact that challenges one’s beliefs. Even worse, it prevents Objectivists from learning from that vast array of knowledge and wisdom stored in the works of thinkers, writers, intellectuals, scientists, philosophers whom Objectivism condemns or ignores. Since this group contains most of the major thinkers making up the literary, scientific, and philosophic canon of Western Civilization, Binswanger’s view, at least by implication, encourages his readers to shut their minds to the lion’s share of what passes for Western Culture. And indeed, we get further confirmation that this is what Binswanger has in mind when we read the various assessments that he and other Objectivists (including Rand herself) have made of important figures in Western Culture. With a few exceptions (e.g., Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, the Founding Fathers), this assessment is overwhelmingly negative. Objectivists are on record as despising Hume, Kant, Burke, Schopenhauer, J. S. Mill Tolstoy, Nietzsche, William James, Thomas Mann, Frank Knight, and Friedrich Hayek; and that list undoubtedly would be much longer if Objectivists were better read.

Now if, as Matthew Arnold once suggested, the aim of culture is “to know ourselves and the world,” then one of the necessary means of attaining that knowledge is (again to quote Arnold) “to know the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Objectivists (at least by implication) believe that knowing Rand is equivalent to knowing the best that has been thought and said. But how can they know this to be true if they have neither read nor understood the great thinkers of Western Civilization? If, following the implications embedded in Binswanger’s advice, they avoid all those thinkers who might corrupt their subconsious file folders, then they clearly are in no position to judge. They are merely taking the Objectivist view of Western Culture on faith.

No one thinker could possibly have all (or even most) of the answers. To think such a thing is to betray a naivete about the world that makes most children seem masters of sapience in comparison. Intimate familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” is therefore necessary for the development of a cultured intelligence. Anyone who therefore discourages, either explicitly or implicitly, such familiarity, is an enemy of both culture and intelligence.

Binswanger’s conviction that it’s “almost impossible” to keep “false” facts (and, presumably, “corrupt” premises) out of one’s subconscious is, to the extent that it is acted upon, a pernicious notion. How is one to know whether an alleged fact is “false” or a given premise is corrupt unless one has confronted, grappled with it, and tested it? “He that wrestles with us,” wrote Burke, “sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” Burke’s view is foreign to Objectivism, which believes instead that he who wrestles with us imperils our psycho-epistemology by exposing our subconscious to "false facts" and corrupt or "evil" premises!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 36

Politics of Human Nature 20: Grievance Politics. In any advanced society there will likely be a number of individuals whose political beliefs are strongly influenced by grievances, either real or imagined, against various groups or institutions. We see this on the left with identity politics and anti-capitalist hysteria and on the right among rabble-rousing conspiracy theorists and those who fear expanding government. Grievance politics is an important factor in the socio-political equation; and grievances against “capitalism,” “globalism,” “markets” serve as an important stumbling block to the political ideals of Objectivism. And even more to the point, grievances against the free market seem to be part and parcel of capitalism itself. As Schumpeter explained in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:

There are the daily troubles and expectations of trouble everyone has to struggle with in any social system — the frictions and disappointments, the greater and smaller unpleasant events that hurt, annoy, and thwart. I suppose that every one of us is more or less in the habit of attributing them wholly to that part of reality which lies without his skin, and emotional attachment to the social order — i.e., the very thing capitalism is constitutionally unable to produce — is necessary in order to overcome the hostile impulse by which we react to them.… Secular improvement that is taken for granted and coupled with individual insecurity that is acutely resented is of course the best recipe for breeding social unrest.

We see these grievances in full regalia in the recent global-warming orgies at Copenhagen Summit. Although ostensibly held to save the world from imminent environmental catastrophe, the most prominent and real motive of the global-warming hysteria is hatred and grievance against capitalism. We saw that quite clearly during an anti-capitalist tirade by the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. When Chavez said there was a “silent and terrible ghost in the room” and that ghost was called capitalism, the applause was deafening. When he concluded by saying “socialism, the other ghost that is probably wandering around this room, that’s the way to save the planet, capitalism is the road to hell….let’s fight against capitalism and make it obey us,” he received a standing ovation. Many global warming advocates are merely disappointed socialists nursing grievances against capitalism and making use of environmentalism as a pretext for sabotaging the free market. With the recent exposure of emails from leading climate “scientists” at East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, the fraudulent nature of the Global Warming movement is beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet the exposure of the fraud has exercised no effect on the vast majority of global warming hysterics—which proves the power of their real motivations, which stem, at least in part, from grievances against capitalism and the West.

So we have this powerful force fueled by grievances against capitalism. What about grievances operating in the opposite direction? Could they be used by Objectivists and other advocates of “laissez-faire” to counter-balance the grievances on the other side?

While such “pro-market” (actually anti-government) grievances obviously exist, whether they can be used to cancel out the anti-capitalist grievances is unlikely. There are two forces that operate against them. First, it should be noted that if these grievances actually managed to move the country away from big government and toward freer markets, this very effect would tend to undermine itself over time. As grievances against big government push society closer to the ideal of laissez-faire, this very movement toward freer markets and less government will at the same time lessen the grievance level against government interference in markets; for as the role of government is lessened in people’s life, government will become less of a target for grievances, since people tend to focus their grievances against those institutions that most directly affect their lives. As the government’s role shrinks in people's lives, the role of other institutions, such as corporations and unions, will increase, thus making them a riper target for grievance. So built into the institutional structure of society is a kind of mechanism which serves as a brake of any movement toward laissez-faire. As a country moves toward socialism, grievances against government increase until the movement is reversed. But the same thing happens as the market gains in strength.

In addition to this, there’s another type of grievance that has to be taken into account: the grievance that arises when a government service is abolished. Since Obama’s election and the dominance of the left-wing of the Democratic Party in Congress, there has been growing resentment against the expansion of government in America. This, in combination with the government's gross fiscal irresponsibility, could lead to a reduction in government when changes in the political climate work their way through the political system. Yet if any government services end up being curtailed, this itself would be a potential cause of widespread grievances. The American public may not like taxes or big government, but they are rather fond of government services like social security and medicare. Here, then, is another source of grievance which would act as a brake toward the Objectivist political ideals.

Socialistic and capitalistic movements in society tend to be cyclical, as the trend toward either tendency fuels opposition. Before Objectivism could achieve its social and political goals, it would have to attain ideological supremacy. But all the empirical evidence at our disposal strongly suggests that this would be impossible. Many human beings nurse grievances against dominant institutions. That is just the in the nature of things: nothing to be done for it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Convenient Untruth

Jennifer Burns’ taut, perfectly judged new Rand bio is good news for American intellectual history and bad news for the cult wing of Objectivism.

In June, 1968, as the seismic shocks from Ayn Rand’s break with Nathaniel Branden ripped apart the world he’d lived in since adolescence, Leonard Peikoff made his choice the only way he knew how: he wondered, incredulously, how anyone “could possibly believe the author of Atlas Shrugged had done anything fundamentally wrong.” More than 40 years later, this almost touching belief in his mentor as some kind of infallible guide to ultimate truth, with a work of fiction the only evidence he ever needed, is finally being confronted by reality.

Jennifer Burns’ new biography, Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market is a genuine event: the first independent, scholarly biography of one of the 20th century’s most widely read novelists and thinkers, arriving right in the middle of her biggest revival in decades. Goddess has been acclaimed from the mainstream of Time magazine to the margins of, and been plugged from the left of The Daily Show to the right of the Economist. But there’s one place where it literally doesn’t seem to exist: over at the organization Leonard Peikoff founded in 1985, three years after Rand’s death, the Ayn Rand Institute. Searching their website turns up only some fine-print references to it in relation to the Ayn Rand Archives; officially the ARI has not even mentioned it, let alone promoted it.

A Convenient Untruth

The reason for this is simple. The Ayn Rand Institute’s mission is not to further intellectual enquiry but instead to perpetuate the jejune cult of personality that surrounded the writer, and that Rand herself endorsed from its earliest beginnings. The Rand personality cult portrays her as the greatest human being who has ever lived, her novel Atlas Shrugged as the greatest human achievement in history, and the adoption of her philosophical system, Objectivism, as essential for mankind’s continued survival on earth. This cult of personality was in part driven by the charisma of Rand and her lover Nathaniel Branden, but also was a logical consequence of her philosophical system which made philosophy the master discipline controlling all intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and even sexual life. With philosophy as the ultimate discipline, and Objectivism as the ultimate philosophy, its inventor could only be, therefore, the ultimate philosopher – and with all the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and even sexual qualities that that entails (Not for nothing did Joey Rothbard crack that one of Rand’s main philosophical tenets is that “she is the most sexually desirable person in the world”). While this personality cult had plenty of upside in terms of money, media coverage, and influence – at least for a while - the long term downside is that Rand, as the centre of the edifice*, must be flawless in order for it to hold. Thus a convenient untruth was required: a stylized, fantasized, even flat-out idolatrous version of Rand that not only her followers, but Rand herself believed in and encouraged. It is this convenient untruth which sustains the official Objectivist movement today.

Burns’ terrific, toughminded new book, whilst broadly sympathetic to Rand, nonetheless paints an often unflattering picture of the novelist-philosopher, summarizing her life as “a tragedy of sorts.” Faced with the inconvenient facts, delivered by an independent historian with no pre-existing agenda and whose evenhandedness is evident on every page, the Ayn Rand Institute and their fellow travelling True Believers' response has been to simply pretend it doesn’t exist: a state of denial Rand called a “blank out.”

Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market is not the large-scale biography that Anne Heller’s new Ayn Rand and the World She Made (which I haven’t read yet) apparently aims at. However due to Burns’ masterful control and economical, highly readable style both Rand and the times she lived through leap from the page: Burns’ reach easily outstrips the book’s stated scope.

A Tragedy of Sorts

Goddess of the Market is gripping from the git-go, dropping the reader straight into the drama of post-Revolution Russia, with Red Guard soldiers pounding on the door to seize the Rosenbaum’s chemist shop as the young Alisa (Rand’s real name) watches, outraged. Burns whirls us from this formative misery of early Soviet Russia to the seedy glamour of early Hollywood in a handful of pages, and by the beginning of the second chapter Rand is already in her mid-30s and about to write “The Fountainhead”. Yet the story somehow doesn’t feel rushed, and telling historical and psychological moments are present and correct. From there, Burns deftly exposes the political, intellectual, and personal sinews that held the American laissez-faire movement of the first half of the 20th century together. This is really The Education of Ayn Rand; where the oddball immigrant, simmering with equal parts talent, ambition, and resentment, absorbs the basic political program she was to later do so much to promote. Much of it was a revival of the ideas that had dominated the late 19th century – such as Herbert Spencer - by a cast of equally misfit personalities such as Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, with Paterson in particular becoming an important mentor, tutor, and friend to Rand.

So far, Rand’s story seems full of promise – The Fountainhead is a surprise hit, and Ayn and her husband Frank O’Connor are suddenly wealthy and bona-fide celebrities. Yet as Goddess moves on the writing of Atlas Shrugged, and the formation of the Objectivist movement, we see Rand’s latent tendency to hubris come to full flood. She becomes surrounded by young, uncritical groupies, and drifts away from the more pragmatic political and social currents of the preceding years into what was to become her own peculiar brand of American Idolatry. Nemesis in various shades is just upriver. In a fashion entirely typical of such cults, Rand, as the leader, and an ambitious young groupie, the 25-years-younger Nathaniel Branden, enter into a concubine arrangement, with scheduled weekly sexual appointments. As both were already married, they insisted that both her husband Frank and his wife Barbara accede to this “rational” arrangement whilst also keep it secret from the rest of the movement. (Frank, handsome yet bland, already seemed to fulfill a concubine role to the domineering Rand. Burns poignantly records that at one point Rand makes him wear bells on his shoes around the house so she would know his whereabouts). Inevitably this conveniently untruthful relationship ends in tears when more than a decade later and at the height of their fame Branden confesses to the by-then 63 year old Rand that he’s taken up with a luscious young cookie named Patrecia. Rand, in a fit of woman-scorned fury, then dynamites their relationship and their whole, multi-million dollar EST-like Objectivism franchise with it.

From there, Goddess describes the light going out, spark by irreplaceable spark. The movement dwindles. Rand becomes frail and isolated, able to work only sporadically. Frank, who unsurprisingly seems to have been drinking heavily for many years, falls into dementia. And Leonard Peikoff, long considered the runt of the New Intellectual litter, becomes Rand’s “intellectual heir” through unquestioning loyalty and obedience rather than any distinctive philosophical contribution.

Burns spends little time on analyzing Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism itself, although it is clear she has an excellent grasp of the main points. This in itself is quite an achievement, for beneath a superficially clear prose style in fact Rand was a confused and contradictory thinker, who had a garbled misunderstanding of the important philosophical problems she claimed to have solved and depended on her own obscure, pseudo-intellectual jargon – not to mention her sheer chutzpah - to conceal her lack of comprehension from both her followers and herself. (In a deadly accurate bon mot, David Ramsay Steele described Objectivist doctrine as little more than “bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics”). Happily, Burns also provides firm support for some of the main contentions of this blog’s eponymous book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature; for example, that Objectivism was driven by Rand’s idealised romantic feelings of “man worship”, and that Rand’s absurdly rationalistic tabula rasa view of the human mind really does deny the existence of natural talents. She also clearly understands the unpleasant implications of Randian doctrines such as “social metaphysics” and the incitements to cultism her philosophy contains:

"The presence of Rand, a charismatic personality, was enough to tip Objectivism into quasi-religious territory, but Objectivism was also easy to abuse because of its very totalizing structure. There were elements deep within the philosophy that encouraged its dogmatic and coercive tendencies." [Goddess, Chapter 8, pg 237.]

These “totalizing” and “absolutising” elements are of course not unique to Objectivism; we find them to some degree in most belief systems. But in Objectivism they are writ particularly large, with both bizarre and genuinely tragic personal consequences.

Rand Via Kafka

There's no doubt Rand's life and times are one hell of a story, and its truthful telling is of major importance to American intellectual history. But of course the truth is anathema to the cult-wing of Objectivism. Following Rand as in all things, Peikoff’s official Objectivism has dutifully continued her practice of falsifying of her personal history to erase her influences and present herself as a millennial, sui generis genius. For example, Goddess gives us good cause to believe that Rand’s emphasis on the paramount importance reason is due to Isabel Paterson’s teachings, whereas Rand would have us believe the fundamentals of her philosophy were formed when she was two and a half years old. Burns’ research has also revealed a burgeoning scandal at the Ayn Rand Archives, where swathes of Rand’s unpublished writing and speeches have been stealthily rewritten to banish all uncertainties and contradictory thoughts, and keep the convenient untruth of Rand's immaculate conceptions alive.

Already the difference between the reaction of the wider literary and intellectual world and Objecti-World is telling. Where Burns’ book has been widely anticipated and gathered enthusiastic reviews, within Objecti-World (and particularly among the orthodox) the reaction has been muted at best. Not a whisper of the book’s existence can officially be heard from the Ayn Rand Institute, despite it being the first independent biography of their heroine. ARI true-believer Ari Armstrong, seemingly holding Goddess with tongs, got only as far as reviewing the introduction of Goddess before crossing himself with a few catechistic criticisms and averting his eyes. Blogger Diana Hsieh, caught between her loyalty to Official Objectivism and her academic credibility simply republished Armstrong’s review and disingenuously fluttered about ever finding time to fit Goddess into her busy reading schedule. Best of all, the Ayn Rand Institute’s Ed Cline, a T-1000 version Randroid, declared that he was in “total agreement” with Armstrong’s negative remarks, despite the slight problem that he had not even read the introduction that Armstrong had not made it past. Intellectual standards at the ARI clearly owe as much to Franz Kafka as Ayn Rand.

Indeed True Believer Objectivist writing has an institutionalized, Kafkaesque quality to it, particularly in response to non-Objectivist criticism. The template is worth examining. First, they begin with the pro forma objection that the critic is "biased" against Rand, and “doesn’t understand Objectivism”, despite the fact that it is far from clear who, if anyone, actually does understand Rand’s rambling and ramshackle construction. (For example, Leonard Peikoff himself once announced that any Objectivist who votes Republican “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism”, instantly wrong-footing a legion of followers who’d spent years loyally forking out for ARI conferences and 26-hour tape lectures and the like only to find out they were not really part of the cognoscenti after all).

Second, True Believer Objectivists invoke what I’ve dubbed the Objectivist Double Standard. This means that when Rand makes a wild, evidence-free claim or uses the most malicious, unsympathetic interpretation possible of another thinker’s work - where she had even bothered to acquaint herself with it - this is ok because with her millennial genius she is in fact grasping the “essentials” of her opponents’ arguments. On the other hand, anyone who criticizes Rand must have read everything she ever wrote or said about anything, and allow her any concession and sympathetic interpretation demanded, no matter how obscure or unlikely.

The final True Believer tactic is to simply limn the piece in question for various Thought Crimes such as “determinism”, “pragmatism” or “subjectivism” - terms so conveniently vague that it’s possible to convict just about anyone. For example, The Objective Standard’s Robert Mayhew and Shaving Leviathan’s Jeff Perren lead the New Intellectual pack by at least making it all the way to the end of Goddess before issuing their ritual denunciations. Just how trivial Mayhew and Perren must get in order disparage Burns says it all. Mayhew rails against Goddess’ entirely ordinary suggestion that Rand’s background or the people she met influenced her intellectual development, claiming this means Burns is supposedly a "determinist". Meanwhile Perren's review consists of flailing efforts to reveal Burns' subjectivist and pragmatist "tinges." In a closely fought match, the prize for pompous inanity goes to Perren, who informs us that “people, not philosophies, have tendencies”, regardless of the fact that dogs tend to chase thrown sticks, Harley Davidsons tend to leak oil, and that Objectivist essays tend to contain amusingly pseudo–intellectual pronouncements designed to imply the author’s superiority with quite the reverse effect. Watching Mayhew and Perren trying to fisk Burns is like watching two ducks trying to nibble someone to death.

Largely trivial as it is, Perren’s critique is unintentionally instructive in that it gives voice to the underlying sentiments of those who prefer their Convenient Untruth about Rand to the real story as it emerges, warts and all. Most telling is Perren’s wistful suggestion that the basic problem with Burns’ book is that it is “not…the biography Rand fans could wish for” - as if a Rand biography should be like a Star Trek movie, written primarily to please ageing fanboys. Such is his longing for a fans-only biography, he even takes a passage from Burns’ book and rewrites it as “someone more inclined to admire Rand might…” It’s a genuinely pathetic sight.

Blank Out

And that is pretty much the response to a major event like Goddess from the outlying satellites of True Believerdom. From the central darkness of Planet Peikoff itself, only a few, faint, on-the-fritz radio signals have been detected. The first is from Harry Binswanger who has issued his remote-controlled repudiation of Burns from the hermetic safety of his loyalty-oath-requiring e-list but which is now available to the collectivist anti-mind of the general public via samizdat here. The second is from Peikoff himself in a brief comment (transcribed here) on one of his weekly podcasts. I reproduce it in full below:
Q: Do you plan to read either of the new Ayn Rand biographies?
Peikoff:NO! I won’t read any of them, EVER!
Q: Do you have any advice in this regard for others?
Peikoff: Yes, do the same. I have had enough experience in my years of what these people write, uh, I’ve authorized one, um, biography, and its in the works and some day hopefully, uh, will be done, but my experience has been SO HORRENDOUS, with so many people interested in doing a biography that I just stay away from it entirely. Uh, the dishonesty of the people, you know they start with an interview and in the old days I interviewed then I quickly stopped. But now, this is the kind of thing I get, um, somebody wrote with one of these biographies, and we wrote back a form letter saying, hiss hiss, the Estate of Ayn Rand has no, uh you know what, dealings, er, or correspondence with any biographer. That’s it, a form letter, better worded than that. And the book came out, in the acknowledgements, thanked the Estate of Ayn Rand for its correspondence. So, ha ha. Here’s another one, the archives of the institute, I think this is one of the current ones, have, are, are open to anybody in the universe. They’re not restricted to Objectivists, eh, so anybody can get in. So somebody apparently, one of these biographers has in her blog, either thank you or I don’t know, Dr. Peikoff has approved my access to the archives. So, the whole thing is too disgusting to be imagined. That’s my view. This is not even to say, oh I’ll take it back, I don’t even want to start with it.

Such is life on the planet Ayn Rand made. For the rest of us living here on earth, Burns's book is a blessing as until now anyone who’s wanted to know more about Rand's life has had to rely on mostly pap. It’s been either Facets of Ayn Rand, by pliant drones Charles and Mary Sures - a book with all the literary qualities of an infomercial - or The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics by bug-eyed laughingstock James Valliant, which is to a serious intellectual history roughly what Plan 9 From Outer Space is to astrophysics. Even Barbara Branden’s bestselling memoir The Passion of Ayn Rand which was at least prepared to break the silence around the Rand-Branden affair, was too marbled by personal tensions to be fully credible. And of course, despite the fact this was published 20 years ago, Leonard Peikoff still claims to never have read it.

The simultaneous publication of both Burns's and Heller's books is also a sign that Rand is finally entering the serious intellectual mainstream and breaking out of her own peculiar mix of populism and cultism. This is to be celebrated, because it's only by close examination and searching criticism that the long term value of her work will be able to be assessed. The fact that, to date, the energies of her faithful have been entirely devoted to keeping the Convenient Untruth alive rather than undertaking such a critical examination does not bode well.

*In strict Objectivist terms, Ayn Rand is and can be the only true Objectivist, and everyone else is merely a student of Objectivism.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Cline versus Heller

Back in October Stephen Cox reviewed Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Shortly thereafter, Edward Cline reviewed Cox's review in a blog post entitled "The Oblique Smearing of Ayn Rand." Cline's review is interesting more for what it says (or, rather, reveals) about Cline himself than what it says, or fails to say, about Cox's review. Indeed, if there is any smearning going on, it is on the part of Cline himself. "[Cox's] review, 'Ayn’s World,' can be taken as the apotheosis of all libertarian reviews," insists Cline, "because it is long, commits the same offenses, and is as thorough a job of 'debunking' Rand short of a Whittaker Chambers/William F. Buckley Jr. effort."

To any normal person who has read both Chamber's review of Atlas Shrugged and Cox's review Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Cline's comparison is absurd. Unlike Chamber's, Cox is clearly an admirer of Rand's ideas. He's effusive in his praise: Atlas Shrugged, Cox avers, "projected a nation, an America, in which the government intervenes in the economy and, yes, wrecks it, in ways more picturesque than any economist could possibly have imagined." Rand created "an intense and serious world, a world full of ideas and characters and exciting action." "There can be no question about the fact that Rand remains America’s ... most influential novelist of ideas." "Heller pronounces Rand 'prophetic' and 'revolutionary,' as indeed she was." "The Rand who emerges from Heller’s pages was a brilliant thinker and writer who exercised remarkable power over the world of her texts and the world of her life." "Rand had enormous personal and literary courage." "If anyone ever deserved to succeed, it was Ayn Rand, who was thinking seriously, all the time, both about ideas and about the literary forms in which they ought to be embodied, and who risked her all to write what she thought was good to write." "One of the many unacknowledged facts about Rand is that she was one of American literature’s greatest satirists."

Cline does not deny that Cox praises Rand, he merely explains the praise away: it's "praise so qualified that it ceases to be praise at all," he tells us. In other words, you're not allowed to admire Rand the thinker while deploring some aspects of Rand as a human being. It's as if Cline is suggesting that if you truly admire Rand's ideas, you would have unqualified, unconditional admiration for Rand's character as well.

Perhaps more disturbing is Cline's intellectual dishonesty and lack of fair play. He is ever so sensitive to criticism of Rand, but shows not the least sensitivity, or even justice, when dishing out criticism to Cox. Cline accuses Cox "of using Heller’s biography as a vehicle to not-so-subtly slander Rand." That's a pretty serious charge. Cline is basically accusing Cox of lying about Rand in order to disparage or denigrate the author of Atlas Shrugged. You would think Cline would be eager to back his accussation up with hard facts. But hard facts are precisely what are missing in his review. What we get are a series of assertions and distortions and malicious misinterpretations of Cox's text. For example, at one point, he claims that Cox "wished" Rand "had taken Albert Jay Nock, that wistful, ineffectual individualist of the 1930’s, more seriously." This, however, is a complete distortion of what Cox did in fact say:

I would like to believe, as Heller does, that Rand was inspired by Nock’s essay “Isaiah’s Job.” There, Nock pictures literary prophets ministering to the needs of a “remnant” of right-thinking people who may at some time have the opportunity to rebuild their civilization. As Heller says, it sounds like the situation in “Atlas Shrugged,” and I want to agree with her, because “Isaiah’s Job” is one of the finest essays ever written by an American. I like to picture Rand reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t think she needed Nock for the storyline of “Atlas.” Anyone who devotes her life to conveying unpopular ideas is apt to feel as Nock and Rand did — alone and without influence except on a few currently anonymous other people, a small “remnant” of civilization. That doesn’t mean that Nock influenced Rand. I acknowledge that Rand uses the word “remnant” in John Galt’s big speech in “Atlas Shrugged,” so Heller may be correct — though considering the unfavorable things Rand said about Nock’s failure to help her get the individualist movement off the ground, I can’t see her intending to write an homage to him in “Atlas.”

How Cline reads into this passage "Cox wishes Rand had taken Nock more seriously," I have no idea. Nock use to complain of people who were literate but who didn't know how to read. One wonders if Cline wouldn't, in some degree, fit Nock's description.

Besides several paragraphs in which he bitterly complains about Cox labelling Rand as a libertarian and another paragraph griping about Cox's "cheap shots" at Rand (along with an extremely trivial example of a "cheap shot" from Cox's review), Cline announces "I shall skip over other remarks Cox makes about Rand, as they are of the same insouciant tone." Well, that's convenient. But in doing so, he ignores the most damaging part of Cox's review, where Cox discusses Rand's "striking lack of empathy."

“Empathy” is a word that’s hard to define, but most people know what it means. Rand didn’t. She had little spontaneous insight into the beings who surrounded her. To get a fix on them, she needed to view them from an ideological or theoretical remove, as if she were an astronomer and they were distant planets.

Naturally, this problem showed itself most clearly in her relations with the people closest to her. Her letters to Paterson indicate that she hadn’t a clue about the reasoning by which her friend reached different conclusions from her own. No matter how lucidly Paterson explained her thinking, Rand’s way of understanding it was to label it irrational; then it could be dismissed. When her relationship with Nathaniel Branden went on the rocks, she constructed analyses worthy of Sir Isaac Newton to explicate actions and emotions that anyone with empathy would have comprehended in a flash. This, to her, seemed rational, but it was really a fundamental failure of empathy.

Heller’s best example of Rand’s lack of empathy is her conception of Frank O’Connor. Frank was a handsome, lovable, nonintellectual person whom Rand systematically confused with the heroic geniuses of her novels. To say that her expectations of Frank were damaging to him, and to their relationship, is putting it very mildly. Her expectations of other people — people she liked, people she trusted, people she eventually shed — were almost as damaging.

It can hardly be an accident that Cline chooses to ignore Cox's most serious charge. Far better to simply call it "slander" or "a cheap shot" or "offensive." After all, if Cline had actually tried to address the issues Cox raises honestly, in the spirit of fairplay and empirical responsibility, what could he have said? Nothing to the purpose. The issues Cox raised in his review are based on the research in Heller's book, which demonstrates, to any disinterested intelligence, that Rand was sadly lacking in the capacity to empathize with others. It is a defect which many of Rand's orthodox followers appear to share.

For many orthodox Objectivists, however, it goes beyond a mere lack of empathy: it could more properly be described as a kind of self-absorption that robs the Randian true believer of the most basic common decency in his relations with non-Objectivists. Hyper-sensitive to even the mildest criticism (even to the point of going out of one's way to find reasons to be offended, even when none exist), the orthodox Objectivist is often reckless in his denunciations of others and irresponsible in his desperate urge to find pretexts for denouncing other people (even those who, like libertarians, believe very similar things and are on the same page, politically). It's proof of the basic irrationality at the core of Objectivist orthodoxy. Objectivists claim they wish to change the world through persuasion; but their self-absorption, their lack of empathy, their inability to show even the most common decency towards those with whom they disagree—all this constitutes a very serious public relations problem which a more empathatic and rational individual would recognize at once and endeavor to correct. If you are trying to convince others that selfishness is a virtue, you don't do yourself any favors by behaving with this degree of malevolence and narcissism.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 35

Politics of Human Nature 19: Businessmen and the state. In the last post, I examined how economic interests can bias even businessmen against laissez-faire. In this post, I will examine another side of this issue illustrated by Rand’s tendency to rigidly divide businessmen into two classes: (1) competent businessmen who, like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, make “their fortunes by their own personal ability”; and (2) incompetent businessmen who need government help to compete with their betters. Rand’s conviction appears to be that “It is only with the help of government regulations that a man of less ability can destroy his better competition"—and he is the only type of man who runs to government for economic help.

Is that really true? No, not at all. There is a third class of businessmen: (3) competent businessmen who use government as a source of additional capital. This class includes even those businessmen Rand singles out for praise for making their fortunes by their own personal ability, James Jerome Hill, Commodore Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. Yet each of these men either took government funds or lobbied for funds or supported measures which involved transfers of money to the business class. Early in his career Hill took advantage of several government land grants. For instance, he attempted to reacquire a grant forfeited by a railroad company he had taken over. This grant had already been settled by farmers who, alarmed at the prospect of eviction, appealed to Congress. The dispute was resolved by merely giving Hill valuable timber lands in Montana and Idaho.

Vanderbilt's dealings with government were very complex. Local government in New York City was extraordinarily corrupt, and so bribery was a necessary part of doing business in that city—so in one sense you could argue that Vanderbilt had no choice but to engage in bribery. Yet it would be a mistake to argue, as Rand did, that Vanderbilt engaged in political chicanery merely for defensive reasons, to protect his legitimate interests. Vanderbilt, for instance, persuaded the city to pay him $4,000,000 to replace a dangerous section of his railroad with a tunnel. There are, in addition to this, many other government financed favors done for Vanderbilt of a more ambiguous nature, such as building streets that benefited Vanderbilt’s business interests.

Andrew Carnegie admitted "the single most important event" in prompting him to enter the steel business was the $28-per-ton tariff on imported steel, passed by Congress in 1870. J.P. Morgan, for his stead, rejected the notion of a pure free market, believing it would lead to “ruinous competition.” Morgan began his career selling faulty rifles to the army; and while his subsequent dealings with the government seem to have at least honored the letter of the law, it would be naive to conclude he achieved a Roark-like level of integrity in his affairs with the state.

Rand’s belief that only men of less ability go to the government for economic help is not supported by the facts. Regardless of their ability, entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to get their hands on capital. Their function is to “lead” the means of production into new channels—hardly a trivial task. Economic development did not arise due to capital accumulation or to increases in the quantity of labor. As Schumpeter explained more than a century ago: “The slow and continuous increase in time of the national supply of productive means and of savings is obviously an important factor in explaining the course of economic history through the centuries, but it is completely overshadowed by the fact that development consists primarily in employing existing resources in a different way, in doing new things with them, irrespective of whether those resources increase or not.” [Theory of Economic Development, 68]

So it’s not necessarily how an entrepreneur gets ahold of the necessary resources: it’s what he does with it once he gets control of it that counts. If he makes good decisions with his capital, it will create new products, new jobs, increase productivity, and lead to what is broadly described as economic “development.” In this, we see both the splendor and moral ambiguity at the heart of capitalism. An entrepreneur, a capitalist, a businessmen can enrich himself and help raise society’s general standard of living by resorting to methods that are not entirely honorable. As a zealous advocate of “capitalism,” Rand could not admit the seamier sides of free enterprise. To admit such a thing would hurt the cause. Moreover, Rand tended to resent the very notion of ambiguity, particularly of the moral variety. So she created her rigid division between the heroic entrepreneurs who never soiled themselves with the spoils of the state and the Wesley Mouches who required the state to keep their businesses from going under.

The willingness of even competent entrepreneurs to use the state as a means of raising capital and fending off "ruinous competition" adds yet another obstacle to finding support for laissez-faire. If Rand's vision of Capitalism were correct, we would expect to find the most zealous advocates of laissez-faire among prosperous businessmen. Is that what we find in reality? Not exactly. While most businessmen advocate free enterprise, the majority of them don't exactly embrace the "laissez-faire" version of free enterprise propagandized by Rand and her disciples. Nor should this be in the least surprising: for it is not always clear that laissez-faire is in the interest of the business class. The state is too rich a source of business and capital to be shunned altogether by the intrepid entrepreneur.