Highly recommended work on Ayn Rand

Most scholarship on Ayn Rand has been of mediocre quality, according to Gregory Salmieri, the co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand, which is part of the series “Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.” The other co-editor of the volume is the late Allan Gotthelf, who died during it’s last preparatory stages.

The reasons for the poor scholarship are diverse. Of course Rand herself is a large element. She hardly ever participated in regular academic procedures, did not tolerate normal academic criticism on her work and strictly limited the number of people who could authoritatively ‘explain’ her Objectivist philosophy to herself and Nathaniel Branden. Before her death she appointed Leonard Peikoff as ‘literary heir’. She inspired fierce combat against the outside world among her closest followers, especially when others wrote about Rand in a way not to their liking. The result was that just a small circle of admirers wrote about her ideas, often in a non-critical way.

blog ayn rand

On the other hand, the ‘rest of the academy’ basically ignored her views, despite her continued popularity (especially in the US), her influence, particularly through her novels, and large sales, especially after the economic crisis of 2008. For sure, Objectivists remain a minority both inside and outside academia. Yet despite the strong disagreement with her ideas, it would still be normal to expect regular academic output by non-Randians on her work. Suffice it to point to the many obscure thinkers who have been elevated to the academic mainstream over the centuries. Yet Rand remains in the academic dark, the bias against her work is strong and influential. This said, there is a slight change visible. Some major presses have published books on Rand in the past years, with as prime examples the books by Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), and Anne C Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2010). And this volume is another point in case.

One of the strong points of The Blackwell Companion on Ayn Rand is that the contributions meet all regular academic standards, despite the fact that the volume originates from the Randian inner circle. It offers proper explanation and analysis of her ideas and normal engagement with outside criticism. The little direct attack on interpretations or alleged errors of others is left to the end notes, albeit sometimes extensively. Let us say, in friendly fashion, that it proves hard to get rid of old habits!

It should not detract from the extensive, detailed, clearly written and plainly good quality of the 18 chapters in this companion, divided in 8 parts, covering overall context, ethics and human nature, society, the foundations of Objectivism, philosophers and their effects, art and a coda on the hallmarks of Objectivism. The only disadvantage is the large number of references to her two main novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which makes some acquaintance with these tomes almost prerequisite for a great learning experience. Still, as a non-Randian doing work on her political ideas, I underline that this companion offers academically sound information and analysis about the full range of Rand’s ideas. So, go read it if you are interested in this fascinating thinker.

Liberty and the Novel II (Austen and After)

(Click for Part I) In Austen’s novels, we find something ‘unheroic’ in that they are concerned with the search of upper class women, bound by codes of gentility, for both a satisfying place in the world and emotional authenticity through marriage. Though there is none of the religious fervour of Pilgrim’s Progress, the message is sent that an ideal community is a small rural community guided by sincerely godly priest, concerned with the daily lives of his congregation.

There is none of the extremism of Quixote’s fantasies and adventures, but the simultaneous process of  triumph over illusion and the growth of inner authenticity, is there in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, as the characters find marriages worthy of their growing ethical capacities in self-judgement and judgement of others.

Ethical growth means confirming a place in the landowning classes and taking a decidedly ambiguous attitude to making new money in trade. Landed property and religion are the starting points of an ethically tolerable community for Austen. We can see the growth there of what we might now think of as social and political values based on self-ownership and individual responsibility though somewhat constrained by respect for earlier aristocratic expression of these values.

We can see a version of Lukács’ split between heroic progressive bourgeoise and backward looking conformist bourgeoise there. Though it is absurdly crude to take 1848 as the line of of separation between the two tendencies, it is useful to think about the distinction as it evolved over time, including the events of 1848. Over time the basic bourgeois goals of rule of law, individual rights, representative government, and free trade tend to be achieved. The word radical is used less and less for the advocate of bourgeois individualism and more and more for advocates of a socialist state.

In literature the themes of the individual triumphing over circumstances, enduring disaster, awaking from illusions, developing individual moral strength, and finding some moment of authenticity continues. The novel keeps developing as a form, but in many people’s opinion, including my own, it reaches a peak in the early twentieth century (James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann) which it has never matched, though ambitious and admirable novels continue to be written.

The more straight forward kinds of heroism are not so prevalent as in earlier novels, but the irony and ambiguity about heroism develops what was already in the genre and intensifies individualism, even while questioning it. Some of these writers were sympathetic to socialism though born into a largely bourgeois liberal world, at least compared with developments after World War One.

Coincidentally or not, this coincides with the transitions from a limited-state individualist nineteenth century liberal politics to the welfarist-administrative state we now know and which is stronger than ever, despite all the cries of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘market fundamentalism’ that arise in reaction to any attempt to limit the statist drift.

There is a danger of rivaling Lukács’ tendency towards a moralising tendentious Marxism from a pro-liberty point of view, but I am anyway tempted to say that the reduction of the significance of the novel is a symptom of societies which aim to remove individual responsibility in the struggle with circumstances. Or I can put it in terms more amenable to those who welcome the welfarist-administrative tendency. The novel has lost some part of its significance as individualist ways of thinking are less influential in politics.

In fact I can wholly agree with this stereotypical imaginary progressive that Ayn Rand’s attempts to revive the grand individualist heroic aspects of the earlier novel are rather embarrassing. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterThe War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goatetc), who is an eloquent liberty advocate, is a far better novelist, and is as good as anyone currently active, so still not rising to the level of the Modernist greats of about one hundred years ago. Liberty advocates are also part of this cultural shift or loss, however you prefer to see it.

(crossposted at Stockerblog)

Declining to Wed Gay Couples: Right or Wrong?

News item: the Georgia governor has just vetoed a bill that would, among other things, have allowed ministers to decline to wed gay couples.

What a tangle. Let’s see if we can sort things out.

First of all, many decent people, your humble servant included, find the concept of “gay marriage” troubling. I believe any two adults (or three or more) should be free to make any contract they like regarding sharing assets, pledging fidelity, and so forth. I just wish they wouldn’t call it “marriage.” That term is taken.

Second, hate is not a crime. Some people express repugnance or hatred for homosexuality. Ayn Rand called the practice immoral, an attitude that is hard to fathom in this day and age but perhaps understandable given the tenor of her times. Some go farther and express hatred for homosexuals per se. But as long as these people refrain from initiating force or fraud, they should not be molested. Boycotts, shunning, and criticism are legitimate responses to such people, but forcible restraint is not.

Third, rights are not granted by governments. Rights derive from our basic nature as humans, as thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard have so eloquently demonstrated. Contractual “rights” should have a different name, perhaps “privileges.” These are actions that have been legitimized by a voluntary agreement. Thus for example, no one has free speech “rights” on a campus. Students may have free speech “privileges” on a campus if the owners of the campus have granted that privilege in a written or implied contract.

Fourth, freedom of association is a basic human right, and includes freedom of dissociation, whether in personal or business relations. Some years ago I posted a defense of the late Lester Maddox who famously attempted to exclude blacks from his chicken restaurant. My post generated considerable blowback, but I stand by it and note that in this day and age, anyone who tried to exclude blacks would not be elected governor of Georgia as Maddox was, but instead lose most of his customers and close his doors.

In summary, no minister needs permission from the state to deny wedding services to a gay couple. And religion has nothing to do with it. Anyone should free to decline business or personal relationships with anyone, for any reason whatever, or for no reason at all.

From the Comments: Ayn Rand on extremism

I’m glad you highlighted the Ilya Somin/Will Wilkinson debate [here – bc], but I just found the whole thing so damn confused. I’m not a libertarian (or an Objectivist) but I ended up leaning more toward Somin than toward Wilkinson. But the real problem is that the terms “moderation” and “extremism” are left undefined throughout. Extremism in the pursuit of clarity is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of muddle is no virtue.

In that respect, at least, I think Ayn Rand’s analysis of “extremism” makes more sense than anything that either Somin or Wilkinson are saying. As she puts it, “‘extremism’ is a term which, standing by itself, has no meaning. The concept of ‘extreme’ denotes a relation, a measurement, a degree….It is obvious that the first question one has to ask, before using that term, is: a degree–of what?…Measurements, as such, have no value-significance–and acquire it only from the nature of that which is being measured” (Rand, Capitalism, pp. 196-97). The nature of what’s being measured is the one thing that neither Somin nor Wilkinson discuss (though Somin certainly comes closer). Which is why the debate they’ve having is relatively pointless.

Wilkinson treats his youthful encounter with Ayn Rand as nothing more than that. If he took a closer look at what she said, I think he’d find that there’s more there than he remembers.

That’s from the infamous Dr Khawaja, who does his blogging at the always excellent Policy of Truth group blog. You can find a link to Rand’s Capitalism here. I think Dr Khawaja is wrong to suggest that this debate is relatively pointless, though, at least to libertarians who care about electoral politics. I do agree with him that Wilkinson should revisit his familiarity with Rand’s work, though.

So you think war can be eliminated?

You might be one of those libertarians, or you belong to some other creed, who think war can be eliminated. For example through international trade, the better use of our ratio, or more influence for regular people on foreign policy decisions. In my own work I have tried to make clear all of these claims are false, and many related ones as well. This is all in the writings of Hume, Smith, Hayek or Rand. The base line is that in human nature reason cannot overcome the emotions, at least, not with all people, at all times. This means that conflict is one of the perpetual characteristics of human action, both in domestic and international settings.

In the unlikely case you do not want to take my word for it, read this book. Coker is a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specializing in the study of war. In this short but powerful book, he clearly sets out the different reasons why war will not be eliminated, providing evolutionary, cultural, technological, geopolitical and a number of other reasons. Buy it, and your world view and view of human nature will be even more aligned to the great classical liberals.

http://www.amazon.com/Can-War-Eliminated-Christopher-Coker/dp/0745679234/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424447372&sr=8-1&keywords=can+war+be+eliminated

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged: Part 4 – Governor’s Ball

Pages 48 – 53

Chapter Summary – A group of industrialists sit around a shadowy table plotting the downfall of our favorite rugged individualist.

[Part 3]

I love how cliché this chapter is. Four figures sitting around a table, their faces shrouded in darkness as they scheme over the fate of the world, the sycophant politician sniveling his consent to their plans. This is one of those times where I am not quite sure if the fiction created the trope or the fiction is following the trope but it is okay either way, it is delightful to read.

We have at our table:

James Taggert: Who is far less whiny when not in the presence of his sister.

Orren Boyle: Our socialist-industrialist representative in the story.

Wesley Mouch: Our aforementioned politician, in the pay of Hank Rearden but in the pocket of Orren Boyle.

And finally –

Paul Larkin: The man at Rearden’s dinner party last chapter.

Essentially they spend the chapter plotting against Hank Rearden and promoting a philosophy of non-competition among businesses. From a historical standpoint this is essentially what happened with Hoover and the industrialists leading up to the great depression. A series of price and wage controls were set up that distorted normal market activity leading to the boom-and-bust cycle as described by Ludwig von Mises. As a side-note it is an interesting historical misconception that Hoover “did nothing” during the great depression. Hoover was arguably the most meddling president up to that point in regards to the economy except perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, but total economic warfare is hard to beat.

But to get back on track here, for what it lacks in literary creativity this chapter makes up for with pure economic and political insight that is delightful to read. The most illuminating part is a speech, or perhaps rant, by Orren Boyle that goes as follows, some of Taggert’s responses are edited out for brevity:

“Listen Jim…” He began heavily.

“Jim, you will agree, I’m sure, that there’s nothing more destructive than a monopoly.”

“Yes.” Said Taggart, “on the one hand. On the other, theres the blight of unbridled competition.”

“That’s true. That’s very true. The proper course is always, in my opinion, in the middle. So it is, I think, the duty of society to snip the extremes, now isn’t it.”

“Yes,” said Taggart, “it isn’t fair.”

“Most of us don’t own iron mines: How can we compete with a man who’s got a corner on God’s natural resources? Is it any wonder that he can always deliver steel, while we have to struggle and wait and lose our customers and go out of business? Is it in the public interest to let one man destroy an entire industry?”

“No,” said Taggart, “it isn’t.”

“It seems to me that the national policy ought to be aimed at the objective of giving everybody a chance at his fair share of iron ore, with a view towards the preservation of the industry as a whole. Don’t you think so?”

“I think so.”

This exchange is a fantastic summary of the process involved when the government gives special privileges to favored industries under the guise of regulation. Essentially Rearden is out-competing his fellow steel producers and since they cannot compete under market conditions they intend to compete politically by ham-stringing his business through the legal process.

This process has happened time and time again throughout history and the ironic part is that these actions have almost universally been heralded as “anti-business” when in fact it is the businesses itself that propose this regulation. The first anti-monopoly laws in America were lobbied for by the competitors of the successful oil, rail, and steel businesses which resulted in the *rise* in prices of those goods. It seemed the “natural” monopolies were pro-consumer while the regulation was pro-business.

There are also historical comparisons to be made to the great depression. The whole concept of “protecting an industry” at the expense of a single, productive, individual was the cornerstone of “Hoover-nomics” especially in the farm industry. The industrial revolution brought about a massive increase in farming productivity which naturally led to a decline in prices and a surplus of labor in that industry that came to a head during the “dirty thirties”.

The natural course of the market would be for inefficient firms in that industry to liquidate; with the entrepreneurs and workforce moving to other industries. This would cause a short period of transitional unemployment as workers moved into similar or growing industries while the more efficient firms and prospective entrepreneurs would buy the liquidated capital goods of the inefficient businesses at a discount.

Consumer goods prices would fall to equilibrium where only firms able to produce goods below that price would be able to maintain production. This would have the net effect of expanding the labor pool and be a net gain for society as new areas of production would be made available by the increases in productivity. Instead, Hoover organized industrial cartels that maintained price and wage controls over the entire economy propping up inefficient businesses that continued to waste and malinvest resources resulting in what we know today as the great depression.

To summarize, this chapter is a fantastic must read five page tour de force of economic insight.

Next chapter: More Dagny, more snark, and more family drama.

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Hit The Switch

50th Anniversary Edition pages- 33-48

[Part 2]

Chapter Summary: We meet our industrialist protagonist, he makes some metal, is weirdly sentimental, and doesn’t understand basic human interaction.

This chapter is very important for a number of reasons. Several (presumably) important characters are introduced, the MacGuffin is introduced, and several elements of Rand’s writing style and her personality are revealed. Because of this final revelation I, for the first time, am going to start one of these reviews off with the negative.

Ayn Rand’s descriptions of characters and those characters’ reactions to others in the story are both highly questionable. The protagonists, so far, all have crippling social issues that are not only glossed over but indeed are celebrated; while the antagonists are universally whiny, sycophantic, card-carrying bad guys who talk with each other like Bond villains; but more about them in the next chapter.

Let me provide some examples of our pseudo-autistic heroes from previous chapters.

Eddie:

“But he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how

people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren’t.”

While I can relate to his feeling, I think it is imperative that libertarians understand completely why people want to do the things we consider “wrong” and to do that we need to have a solid foundation of what is right or wrong. The latter belief is why I hold so strongly to natural-rights libertarianism rather than any subjective based ethical system such as rule-utilitarianism.

Once we have a strong ethical foundation to build our beliefs on we begin to understand why most people operate outside those beliefs in practice despite the fact that most people would agree to them in theory. How many people would openly advocate violence against person or property when stated in such clear terms? Very few would, which is why society functions. It is only when we hide violence in plain sight through the control of language and education that most people begin to agree with their necessity. Extortion becomes taxation. Kidnapping becomes imprisonment. Murder becomes war and fraud becomes inflation.

Dagny:

“[b]ecause she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible”

“She had always avoided personal reactions, but she was forced to break her rule when she saw the expression on Taggart’s face.”

Another clear lack of empathy in regards to dissimilar belief systems as well as some more personal social awkwardness. I wish I knew why Dagny “avoided personal reactions”. Did Rand think that emotion was a weakness? I cannot wait to spend more time with Dagny because she seems like such an unnecessary enigma.

And finally we have our new character, Hank Rearden whose complete lack of empathy boggles my mind. Hank begins the chapter at his foundry as the first batch of Rearden metal is poured. He waxes sentimentally over his past, especially his status as a self-made man; however the real story begins to be told when he leaves his work and returns to his home where his family is having a dinner party; or rather, the end of a dinner party. This scene provides us with two important sets of information.

First, Rearden’s family resents him for his aloofness and his lack of understanding of their problems and second he resent his family for not empathizing with him.

Let’s start with the relationship with his brother.

Phillip Rearden is a man who “had not been able to decide on any specific ambition.” A fact that Hank is generally disgusted by, he believes that “[T]here was something wrong…with a man who did not seek gainful employment.” When we meet Phillip he is a representative of a charitable foundation called “The Friends of Global Progress”. This organization is in dire need of ten-thousand dollars in its quest for “free lectures on psychology, folk music, and co-operative farming”.

Phillip is distraught that he cannot convince enough people to donate to the cause and Hank, in an attempt to improve his brother’s morale, simply donates the needed sum of ten-thousand dollars. Hank is then surprised when Phillip rebuffs his generosity. Hank misses the entire point though; Phillip isn’t upset that that he doesn’t have the money. Phillip is upset that more people don’t believe in his cause, something libertarians should have some measure of empathy for. We have to ignore the fact that Rand chose a completely ridiculous organization for Phillip, the scope of that organization is irrelevant. It is the relationship between the brothers that is vital.

Hank’s reaction, on the other hand, is far more vitriolic. He resents the fact that Phillip is acting selflessly to the point of wanting to hit him. “He wanted to slap Phillip’s face. But an almost unendurable contempt made him close his eyes instead.” Who seems more reasonable in this situation? Our “hero” or the villain?

Here is where Rand either rejects or misunderstands praxeological reasoning. Phillip, though acting selflessly, is also acting selfishly. Mises said that every action is taken in order to remove a “certain uneasiness”; this uneasiness is what drives human action. Even the most selfless act is done for the benefit of the person acting. How often has someone who risks their life for another uttered the phrase “I just couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t done such-and-such.” It all comes down to a question of subjective valuations. No two people’s values are identical and there is no way to compare or rate those values against one another. Despite Hank’s objection that he “would not impose his standards on Phillip…” that is exactly what he does at every turn.

Next we have Hank’s wife Lillian. Our first reference to Lillian is as follows:

“He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife. As he touched it he realized suddenly that he had thought of an abstraction called ‘his wife’ – not of the woman to whom he was married.”

I think it is very telling that the first we hear of Hank’s wife he isn’t even considering her as a person, barely even as an object. “An abstraction” that throughout the rest of the chapter is the only one who even remotely stands up for Hank, even though she seems to do it only out of duty and not love. Another case where I can relate more to the character portrayed as the villain than the hero.

Lillian ends the chapter by holding up the aforementioned bracelet Hank had given her and calls it “the chain he uses to hold us all in bondage.” This rings true on several levels. Hank supports his family out of duty to them and then gets upset when they cannot stand on their own. Hank is proud of having earned everything he has on his own but then doesn’t expect the same from his family. He wants them to support him in his endeavors but only pays lip service to theirs. They pursue senseless causes but he supports them financially at every turn.

At this point in the story Hank is a contradiction. He is attempting to live in two worlds and because of that is failing at both. His family is biting at his heels and he cannot see the political danger right in front of him which will be revealed in the next chapter.

P.S. I forgot about his mother. She is essentially a high-class snob. I don’t really have any sort of insight on her other than she is insufferable.

 

P.P.S.  I have been scarce as of late due to a recent promotion and an increased workload as well as a series of outrageous summer adventures.  Thanks to Brandon for not kicking me out yet.