Friday, October 31, 2008

Because believers (in anything) need to deal honestly. with the best arguments their critics muster...

... which is one thing that neither Progressives, nor Liberals, nor Conservatives seem to do ...

I wanted to note this extremely good critique of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and especially what might by known as the John Galt gambit, published by Lee at A Secondhand Conjecture. If you've never read Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is the man who convinces literally all the talented, unappreciated people to cease carrying the ungrateful proles on their backs, to retire from society and let it collapse around the ears of the non-productive. On some Randite Libertarian blogs the idea of a John Galt strategy over the next four years is--not surprisingly--starting to appear.

Here's a substantial excerpt from Lee's piece [I've placed some of my favorite insights in bold]:

Synova wrote a little post that gets halfway to where I would come down on this perennial parlor game of the John Galt general strike. Sy recognized that to be successful, such a revolt would realistically be a miserable experience for a society, resulting in bloodshed and economic ruin. But she does not depart from Rand in assuming that the eventual outcome would be desirable. I’d advise the ancient wisdom that if the means are clearly evil in a political project, one should become immediately skeptical of the alleged justice of the ends.

We should also be skeptical of the social assumption for Galt, that there is a definable and rigid division among men into a minority of Platonic creative guardians, and an empowered majority of proletarian oppressors and their craven political servants — and that these factions could have accurate self-recognition of their social roles. I would contend that anyone who thinks of the majority of the people as disposable abstracted parasites, under a constitutional order that explicitly derives its governing powers from the majority consent of the governed, is never selling you anything that’s going to arrive in a happy place.

Additionally, as with all radical revolutionary doctrines requiring mass mobilization, the necessity of placing the attainment of utopia in the distant future, or behind a historical barrier of war or great sacrifice, is an organizing principle in itself. As Eric Hoffer warned in his defense of the idea of the present, if you have to get to the future to find out if an ideology is just and correct, it isn’t. Not that this is an inconvenience to the revolutionary, as there’s always a need for someone to run the next war or 5 year plan when it turns out everything has gotten much worse thanks to his determined efforts.

Because of that intrinsic conceit, Rand’s ideology is arguably one of the most dangerous to have materialized on our shores. Like her literary style, it has an essentially hierachialist Russian character that cloaks itself seductively in the cultural language of liberal America. Many libertarians have been wise to regard her visions and schemes such as Galt, as somehow at odds with their ideals, even if they’re often unsure how.

For libertarians, the Randian revolt ought to be uncomfortable, because it is honest. It directly confronts the great and omnipresent danger at the heart of libertarianism: The discord of the libertarian individualist with popular democracy (as an exercise, try replacing the word “collectivism” with “democracy” in objectivist literature and you may experience an epiphany). Objectivism thrives in this conflict and worse, offers a solution to resolve the internal moral contest: mobilize, revolt, destroy the present to save the future.

That’s because what one sees over and over again in libertarian literature is the frustration at the tendency of voting majorities to support social programs which redistribute wealth from rich to poor. The libertarian vexation is not unfounded, as this reality does indeed have a corrosive effect on economic growth and can slowly imperil human liberty by course. Since libertarians are materialists and understand that all political freedoms are material freedoms (of what use is freedom of speech, if you cannot own a printing press?), this quickly becomes a moral crisis. There’s thus always a temptation, exploited by the objectivist, to conclude that there’s a way to prevent this from happening through counter-democratic means. The temptation is fundamentally the conclusion that the democratic enterprise is irretrievably and inevitably a moral compromise.


This is pretty deep stuff, and if any tried-and-true Objectivist reads this post--either here or over at Lee's place--I'm sure there will be both howls of anger and sneers of disdain.

But what emerged for me on reading this, in one of those indirect epiphanies that you get from time to time, inspired by reading or seeing something for reasons you can't quite grasp, is this distinction in my Libertarianism:

I am not a Libertarian who happens to live in America, and who pursues the utopian objective of reforming all society into Libertarian Land.

I am an American citizen who believes strongly in the expressed goals and promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution [while fully realizing that those documents are sometimes contradictory], and who believes that the most effective and most just strategy for achieving those goals is achieved via a Libertarian approach.

I pursue the goals of non-aggression and freedom, of limited government and personal responsibility, not just because I believe they are more ethical, but because I believe they work.

This also means that, despite the frustrating regularity of American national elections descending to the level of who can promise more bread and circuses to the voters, I am committed to democracy, committed to this constitutional republic.

And I see my fellow citizens who don't agree with me as people to be convinced in the long run and positively engaged until then, not as opponents to be forced or coerced, even indirectly.

10 comments:

john said...

"...both howls of anger and sneers of disdain."

No, just howls of laughter at yet another ignorant, fallacious piece of garbage. No sneer; it is not worth it.

Since the author of the current blog offers little new in insults, (really poor effort I must say; come up with some new smear labels why don't you) I'll just go over to the primary fool's blog and do some laughing over there.

1) On your title, assuming it intends to subsume Objectivists under "believers", please indicate what it is that Objectivists believe in by faith. You can't do it, so you implication is hogwash.

2) "...the idea of a John Galt strategy over the next four years is--not surprisingly--starting to appear." What you are seeing is us watching a massive acceleration of collectivist control over the economy while blaming the exact opposite of what caused it (capitalism) combined with the imminent election of a Marxist whose posse is already in control of Congress. Many Objectivists are simply saying 'okay, what possible reason would productive people have for living in such a society. Many are talking about legally "Shrugging in place." No Objectivists seriously consider Atlas Shrugged a blueprint for action. Neither did Rand. It's a parable: does that help?

The bottom part of your post was pretty simple, but how does it relate to Objectivism? You did not make an argument at the end.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

Delaware Watch said...

Good post, Steve. A real intellectual treat.

I've always detected the elitist strain in Randianism and even saw it in my friend, the late Prof. George Walsh. I also sensed the gnashing of teeth that Randians had about democratic rule.

As to your own confession of belief in the Constitution, etc., and your belief that Libertarianism best enacts it--I can only say that your belief assumes that the meaning of these documents were substantially understood univocally. I can't tell if for you the understanders (if you'll forgive the awkward term) were the framers. For me their understanding is nearly irrelevant because what gave these documents binding power was the agreement of the ratifiers whose understanding is mostly unknown and often discrepant. So I can't tell if Libertarianism best expresses the meaning of these documents or if my fave social democracy does. I think the question is largely irrelevant, however, because time move on, needs change and meanings shift.

To me the value of these documents is that they permit readings that can adapt to the shifts and changes and admit the possibility of amendment but not too easily (a good safeguard).

Michael M said...

"I pursue the goals of non-aggression and freedom, of limited government and personal responsibility, not just because I believe they are more ethical, but because I believe they work."

Ah yes, the Libertarian Credo, ever ignorant of the fact that the word "work" in this context is inexorably subservient to the word "ethical."

That which is not first ethical can never work, because it is - you guessed it - unethical!

Bowly said...

I also sensed the gnashing of teeth that Randians had about democratic rule.

I'm not a card-carrying Randian, but I'm certainly more of an extreme libertarian than Steve is, so I'll try to address this.

(Note: I'm going to use the term "libertarian" in the following statement; it does not mean all libertarians, only a certain segment. I'm doing that for editorial simplicity.)

There is nothing moral about democracy. It is a neutral concept, akin to "education" (you can, for example, teach someone that racism is good or that racism is bad). The morality or lack thereof comes in the application. Think about some undeniably immoral things that democracy has led to: slavery, Jim Crow laws. Now many libertarians believe that more actions than those are immoral, including the "social democracy" that you claim to prefer. Voting to rob someone is unacceptable to those kinds of libertarians. Libertarians do not believe that rights should be put to a vote. Yet things like private property rights and gay rights are put to a vote all the time.

As far as the cited post goes:

Sy recognized that to be successful, such a revolt would realistically be a miserable experience for a society, resulting in bloodshed and economic ruin. But she does not depart from Rand in assuming that the eventual outcome would be desirable. I’d advise the ancient wisdom that if the means are clearly evil in a political project, one should become immediately skeptical of the alleged justice of the ends.

By that measure, the U.S. Civil War was "evil". 3/4 of a million people died to free the slaves. The end was justified, but the means involved drafting and killing people who would have otherwise lived.

The "John Galt" scenario is similar. People should accept their suffering, because if they withdrew from society, it would cause suffering to others?

Delaware Watch said...

"There is nothing moral about democracy. It is a neutral concept, akin to "education"

Fascinating.

I suppose, then, that it is irrelevant to argue that one of the huge problems w/ totalitarianism is that it is undemocratic and that to do so, in any case, is not to make an ethical argument about a right to democratic rule or, better, the kind of government people desertve. That ethical contrast is rendered moot because democracy isn't nirvanic; it produces anti-gay legislation, etc., even though democracy has mechanisms to correct its own excesses...unlike totalitariansim. Democracy is imperfect, therefore holding it in contempt is perfectly justifiable and none of that is snobbish. You illustrate my point.

Michael M said...

Democracy is no more than a method of choosing. More important to politics than the method is the standard by which the choices are made. In politics, the protection of liberty for all is the only valid (ethical) standard. Conversely, the enabling of coercion for gain is always an invalid standard. Thus the non-coercive act of choosing a President is a valid application of democracy, while enabling a tax democratically is an act of tyranny.

And yes, it is irrelevant to argue "that one of the huge problems w/ totalitarianism is that it is undemocratic" -- until after you have already concluded that it is invalid because it embraces coercion for gain (instead of just for defense). In every political question, there is only one fundamental alternative: freedom or force. The democracy issue is the red herring with which those addicted to their pet benefits gained at the point of the government's gun distract the unsuspecting.

Steve Newton said...

In every political question, there is only one fundamental alternative: freedom or force.

This statement alone encapsulates the two main reasons that I could never be an Objectivist:

1) The failure of imagination to see that twofold, self-defined dichotomies ("there is only freedom or force") are a dangerous oversimplification of the world.

2) And the hubris to believe--as religious zealots and political extremists have believed since time immemorial--that only they possess the legitimate definitions for all terms, which relieves them of any possibility of having to worry about the consequences if they are wrong.

tom said...

"I can't tell if for you the understanders (if you'll forgive the awkward term) were the framers. For me their understanding is nearly irrelevant because what gave these documents binding power was the agreement of the ratifiers whose understanding is mostly unknown and often discrepant."

That is complete and utter nonsense.

Anyone who cares to take the time (and I realize this means virtually nobody) can find out in great detail what both the framers and the members of the State Conventions on ratification were thinking because they recorded it. At any decent library you can find the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, and the ratification debates of the States; as well as the propaganda war that we now refer to as the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers; and the collected writings of many of the members, some of which include letters and diary entries referring to the Constitution.

"I think the question is largely irrelevant, however, because time move on, needs change and meanings shift.

To me the value of these documents is that they permit readings that can adapt to the shifts and changes and admit the possibility of amendment but not too easily (a good safeguard)."


This is even worse--if you can "read" the Constitution or other documents to mean something different every time your needs change, there is no point in having one, and certainly no need to amend it, because that renders it meaningless.

Michael M said...

"1) The failure of imagination to see that twofold, self-defined dichotomies ("there is only freedom or force") are a dangerous oversimplification of the world."

You have characterized it as such, but failed to show that it actually applies.

"2) And the hubris to believe--as religious zealots and political extremists have believed ..."

And here you have failed to acknowledge any distinction between the certainty that is the product of reason and the certainty that is the product of faith.

The comment is a dishonest attempt to intimidate the reader into accepting on your assertion without any evidence that the simple declaration of a definition or proposition constitutes ipso facto a claim to infallibility. What is it that made you prefer this cheap shot over merely providing us with the political alternative that is more fundamental?

Steve Newton said...

And here you have failed to acknowledge any distinction between the certainty that is the product of reason and the certainty that is the product of faith.

Neither reason nor faith, in the absence of observation, evidence, and the testing of hypotheses produce necessarily reliable results.

You were the one, sir, who reduced all propositions to force or freedom. The rebuttal to such an absurd reductionist philosophy that admits of no gradations is not one I feel it necessary to spend time developing.

I leave you to the sterile world of Objectivist righteousness; the real one is a bit messier.

But if you want a useful koan, consider this: the John Galt strategy remains a farfetched fantasy because not all people of talent and worth, or even a sufficient number of them to "stop the world" could be found to agree with your rigid, reductionist distortion of Libertarianism, which should tell you something--except that it won't.