The Mystics of Magic and the Mystics of Science

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In John Galt’s climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes two foes of capitalism, the “mystics of the spirit” (or, as Rand also put it, “witch doctors”), who promote religion, and the “mystics of muscle” or “Attilas,” that is, especially, the communists, who are atheists and promote Marxist materialism as the antidote for religion. What gets lost in a lot of libertarian theory is the fact that, to take Rand’s idea and expand on it, people who believe in rationality, science, and technology are not necessarily friends of liberty. Indeed, precisely the opposite is often true. Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Two types of mystics do exist — whom I prefer to call the mystics of magic and the mystics of science. The latter are my main subjects here.

I am an atheist. Not only do I not believe in God, but I am also of the rather abnormal (but increasingly popular) sentiment that the proposition “I know that God does not exist” can be rationally justified, i.e., atheism is knowledge and not mere belief. However, many of the people who share my view go in the opposite direction and elevate science into a new religion. Here I refer not to the cult of Scientology but to the scientific atheism of, for example, famous philosophy professor Daniel Dennett.

Let me offer two examples.

First, in a Facebook group that discusses philosophy I recently saw someone say something like this: “bitterness and sweetness do not exist, what exists is atoms and void, and sweetness is an illusion.” This assertion was provided as a scientific approach to philosophy, but it manifests a desire to transform science into a new religion, a mysticism of science. Such a religion would depict the world you and I perceive as an illusion. Instead of saying that access to the hidden truth of reality is revealed by God and the Bible, the mystics of science say that revelation comes from reading science textbooks and scientific journals and knowing the results of experiments and research studies.

Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Mystics of science love to talk about how neurobiology has figured out all the ways that the human brain is flawed and perceives illusions. Yet, as I explain in my book The Apple of Knowledge, the truly scientific attitude is that the sweetness of an apple does exist objectively in reality, in that the apple’s sweetness, and the apple itself, which physically exists in objective reality, are one and the same thing. The apple’s sweetness is what that collection of atoms tastes like when it acts as a whole upon the tongue’s taste buds. In other words, qualia exist, but they are not subjective; instead the experience of something that physically exists is identical with that thing in itself, because the brain’s means of perception do not alter or create the objects that are perceived. (This is the tip of iceberg, and I needed 400 pages in my book to explain what I mean; the theory is fully developed there.)

The mystics of science would reply that I am ignorant of the fact that taste comes from smell and not from taste buds, so the taste in the mouth must be an illusion. To this I reply that these hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality. I say that we can know what an apple tastes like by eating it; the idea that we cannot know, that sweetness is an illusion — this is sheer mysticism. In my opinion, these mystics of science are far worse than the mystics of magic, because at least the religious mystics are open and honest in their commitments.

Second, Daniel Dennett, a popular advocate of the movement called “New Atheism,” has expressed a position that I call “biological relativism.” This, basically, is the idea that reality looks the way it does because the human body and human sensory organs evolved in such a way that we humans experience this world of our experience. He has actually said that apples look red because the human brain evolved to sort edible objects by color, so that redness comes not from the apple but from the evolution of the human digestive system as expressed in the human brain’s hunger regions. This means, ultimately, that the sky is blue because blueberries are blue. (See Dennett, Consciousness Explained [1992].) If that is true, then the world we experience is entirely relative to perception, is completely subjective, and is a creation of the human brain. This, to me, means that access to objective existence is impossible, since we could never get outside our brains to see reality as it exists objectively.

The only thing about Dennett’s idea that is scientific is the allusion to evolution and the brain. In every other respect it is mysticism, because it denies the possibility that human beings have direct access to objective reality by means of perceiving the external world. Taking my cue from Rand, I dispute any position which defends that idea, considering it not only false but unscientific. The experience of an apple’s redness and the physical reality of the apple are identical, not such that the apple itself is subjective, but such that the experienced apple is objective. Redness exists in physical objects and is not a subjective creation of the eyes, despite all objections from the mystics of science, who would lecture me about the workings of the retina, the optic nerve, and the occipital lobe. Mystics of science might say that the depth and length we perceive are illusions because our brains and eyes process the data subjectively — despite the fact that measurements of space and time recorded by scientific instruments are accurate and objective, e.g. a building could be 100 feet long but our eyes cannot see this clearly.

The mystics of science hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality.

Kant once helped to save religion from science by persuading people that the experience of reality is subjective and knowledge comes from intuition. Dennett, in the name of science, simply buys into this Kantian error. To me, if reality is subjective, then wishes and thoughts can control it, which is a religious worldview that tells people to seek to change their lives through the power of prayer. In contrast, if reality is objective, then it exists outside the mind, in which case science and technology are the correct approach to improving human existence, and Francis Bacon’s maxim “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” is justified because the mind must obey reality in order to succeed. A true philosophical science says that we must learn about reality by observing the external world, instead of trying to use our minds to impose subjective phenomena onto reality. (Again, these are complicated ideas that cannot be presented in one short essay, but I try to explain it fully in The Apple of Knowledge.)

Now let me explain why atheism has very little to do with libertarianism and, contrary to Rand’s assertions, why there is no direct correlation between rationality and freedom. This is obviously true because, historically, the Marxists were (mostly) atheists, and the conservatives who have fought against socialism in America are (mostly) Christians. For one poignant case study, note that the famous science fiction author H.G. Wells was a notorious socialist, as were many men of science of his era. The trend continues to this day, as antisocialists tend to be religious, and socialists and modern liberals tend to be secular.

In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek tried to explain why men of science tend to be socialists. He argued that scientists seek order and patterns in reality, and this leads them to try using government to impose their ordered plans and schemes onto society; this is a recipe for socialism, especially in the context of the Hayekian belief that freedom is consistent with an order spontaneously emerging from chaos. Just as a scientist might want to design a new plan for a car engine to improve fuel efficiency, a scientist might also want to design a new plan for an economy to improve allocations of wealth. The problem is that a car engine is a mindless tool, whereas an economy is a collection of thinking human beings, each with his or her own plans, standards of “improvement,” and rights to life, liberty, and property. Many of the bosses at the American government’s regulatory agencies are scientists or technologists with advanced degrees, and many of the nonscientists have degrees in economics and mathematics. The EPA’s regulators are often experts in the science of the environment and pollution, and therefore knowledgeable in chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, physics, etc. But their science does not dispose them to become libertarians.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom. If any group has been more responsible than others for saving America from a descent into total communism, it is the conservative movement, which is fueled by a belief, one which I think on its face is irrational and crazy, that God supports capitalism and the Bible demands that the American patriotic tradition of free market economics be defended. As Hayek has noted in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative,” the conservatives love capitalism not chiefly because of any of its virtues but only because it is the old, established, traditional system in America. This attitude is not particularly intelligent or rational, but it achieves a practical result — the defense of liberty by a vast portion of the American voters. To cite only one example, the Tea Party in the House of Representatives, backed by the Tea Party conservatives, has done much to stop Obama’s socialist agenda, although there was little it could do to repeal laws that were already passed, such as Obamacare.

Without much exaggeration it can be said that, absent the conservatives, you would not be able just to go to a coffee shop and buy a cup of coffee. Instead, the atheist Marxist central planners, chosen by Obama and his cronies, would assign your beverages to you, just as they want to assign your healthcare to you, and you would drink carrot juice instead of coffee whether you wanted to or not, and see the end of a soldier’s gun if you tried to escape from the socialist plan drinking. You owe your freedom to the Bible, at least to some extent, whether you like it or not.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom.

The best defense of liberty, which most libertarians ignore or are ignorant of, is a Biblical idea, the Golden Rule. This principle of ethics asserts that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Golden Rule Libertarianism (Hasan [2014]), I argue that the Golden Rule’s implementation in politics is, and can only be, libertarianism: if you desire the freedom to do what you want, you must let me have the freedom to do what I want; but if you force me to obey you, I will be justified in forcing you to obey me, which you cannot possibly want.

In short, the hatred of religion that is felt by some libertarians, especially those who entered the movement through Ayn Rand (but also, to some degree, through Murray Rothbard) is misplaced. If Rand’s “mystics of muscle” idea is taken seriously, then there is a basis in her texts for opposing the mystics of science as fiercely and ardently as we oppose the mystics of magic.

Works Cited

Hasan, Russell. The Apple of Knowledge. Norwalk, Connecticut, Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hasan, Russell. Golden Rule Libertarianism. Norwalk, Connecticut. Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, London. The University of Chicago Press, 1944
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, New York. Random House, 1957.




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Barbara Branden, RIP

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Two weeks ago I received a message from Barbara Branden expressing joy that her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), was now available as an ebook, with a new introduction by her. Nice going! I thought, to have a book in print for 27 years, and to be reintroducing it today, in a form of publication unknown when the book was written.

In her 84 years, Barbara herself passed through many forms and editions, without ever losing her essential being, or her essential spunk. When very young, she and her former husband Nathaniel Branden became acquainted with Ayn Rand — first as inquirers into the philosophic and literary work of an author who was not, at the time, particularly well known; then as virtual family members, the innermost of Rand’s inner circle; then as Rand’s chief publicists; then as her first biographers (Who Is Ayn Rand? [1962]); then as disillusioned former disciples (1968).

Now here is the very unusual thing: both Barbara and Nathaniel repudiated their absurdly flattering and credulous biography and many of the fanatical conclusions that their mentor had derived from her libertarian and Objectivist premises, but they didn’t throw the accomplishments out with the failures. They kept investigating and publicizing the best parts of Rand, her true intellectual accomplishments. And in 1986, Barbara produced the first real biography of her former friend, a work that demonstrated she could not only admire but also distinguish what was worthy of admiration. She showed where her earlier biography had gone wrong, and she had a lot to say about where she herself had gone wrong during the time when she wrote it. No maudlin emotions, no spite was expressed — but a great deal of gratitude for the true things Rand taught.

Very few authors ever repudiate anything they’ve written; even fewer repudiate their writings in a candid and discriminating manner. And very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden. I sometimes think that there would be millions more libertarians if there were only a few more people able to speak like Barbara. She was never interested in rhetorical victories or smart remarks (though she did have a taste for ironic epigram); she was interested in stating a case clearly and smoothly (no “ums” allowed). She succeeded, both in private and in public.

Barbara was a prize speaker at libertarian events, but I can tell you that she was also an excellent listener, one of the best listeners I have ever known among ideologically inclined people. She didn’t debate; she didn’t spar for intellectual advantage; she didn’t pretend to know what she didn’t know; she asked questions, acknowledged contrasting ideas, made suggestions, said things like “I hope you’re right,” and smiled with joy over the human fellowship that real conversation brings.

Very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden.

Memories. I remember sitting on the big couch in Barbara’s apartment in Los Angeles, while she took a day to help me with the research I was doing for The Woman and the Dynamo, my biography of Isabel Paterson. Rand was Paterson’s disciple, and Barbara was Rand’s disciple, and now Barbara was helping me, the latter-day disciple of Paterson. She was completing one of the many circles that libertarians needed to complete. When my book came out, Barbara received it with pleasure, despite the different interpretations it presented of some important things in her own book. Another author would have resented them; she assuredly did not.

I remember attending the party that preceded the auction of some of Rand’s papers, at Los Angeles in 1998, talking with Barbara, and watching her pose for pictures with Nathaniel. She didn’t pretend not to cry; not all the cycles of her life had been pleasant for her, although she was happy to see this particular cycle returning on an upward curve. She did not cry when I talked with her on the phone while she was recovering — oh, this was many years ago — from a cancer that could have claimed her life. I called, fearing to find her at death’s door. Not at all! Her voice was a little weak, but her spirit was confident. “I am learning,” she said, “not to be a cancer-prone person.”

I remember Barbara telling me about the time when she (and Nathaniel, I believe) were arguing with Bennett Cerf, Rand’s publisher, a man known as a modern liberal. “I don’t think that went very deep,” Barbara said. “When we pressed him about the liberal idea that people should sacrifice to help ‘those less fortunate than themselves,’ he finally said, ‘We have to do it, because otherwise they’ll destroy us.’”

I remember looking forward to visiting Los Angeles so I could go with Barbara to her favorite restaurant (a place with “Hamburger” in the name) and hear more of her stories. I remember Barbara’s healthy appreciation for handsome, hunky men. I remember her humor. And I remember her good humor. Some people are born bitter; others have bitterness thrust upon them; Barbara always refused that gift. She was interested in more vital matters.

I remember so many other things about Barbara . . . but how strange it seems to say “remember,” as if she were actually gone. True, she died on December 11, 2013 — in her sleep, after leaving a hospital where she had been treated, apparently with at least temporary success, for a lung ailment. But no one who knew Barbara Branden will believe she is actually gone.

rsquo; he finally said,




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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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The Steel Curtain: The Pauls’ Attack on the Libertarian Party

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The rise of Ron Paul and Rand Paul has brought great attention to such libertarian ideas as auditing the Fed and the need for an antiwar foreign policy. But because Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 presidential bids were GOP primary attempts, their net effect was to bring libertarianism into the GOP fold. The phenomenon was confirmed by Rand Paul's Senate victory as a GOP candidate, and by the fact that many Americans now associate libertarian ideals with the Tea Party, with which the Pauls themselves are associated, and think of the Tea Party as a Republican group.

Things were simpler when the GOP was for conservatives and the Libertarian Party was for libertarians. If, now, the GOP steals a large number of libertarians away from the LP, the LP will be doomed. Worse, Ron Paul's efforts have made mainstream America think of libertarianism as a right-wing political philosophy, more extremely to the right than conservatism. This is a tendency that Murray Rothbard, for one, would certainly have deplored. Rothbard fiercely criticized Ayn Rand's idea that "the businessman is America's most persecuted minority," asserting instead that many businessmen were statist hacks who benefited from corporate welfare. Yes, Rothbard might have felt differently during his paleolibertarian phase, but liberty has always been an ideal that paralleled leftist positions on certain social issues: drugs, immigration, gay rights, limits on police authority, and others. The danger now is that this parallel will be forgotten. The GOP will simply consume the LP, and true libertarians will have no political home.

Conservatives will always control the American Right because they vastly outnumber libertarians. If, then, libertarianism is considered a rightwing movement, it will eventually dissolve into nothingness. I fear that a steel curtain is going to be built, cutting libertarians off from our socially liberal positions, and fencing libertarianism in on the side of the conservatives. The Libertarian Party's national leadership has never been particularly clever or smart. It has often been obsessed with ideological purity at the expense of practicality and the possibility of winning elections. I doubt the leadership will have what it takes to save the LP from the Pauls’ implicit attack. To paraphrase Caesar, "Et tu, Paule?"

Things were simpler when the GOP was for conservatives and the Libertarian Party was for libertarians. If, now, the GOP steals a large number of libertarians away from the LP, the LP will be doomed. Worse, Ron Paul




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Are Objectivists Also Libertarians?

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The second Atlas Shrugged movie has now come out. Should this be viewed as a cause for celebration within the libertarian movement? Well, to know that we must first answer whether Objectivists are also libertarians. Is Objectivism a part of libertarianism?

Many people who claim to be Objectivists vehemently say No, it is not. My first reaction, on hearing them say that, is to think, “This is preposterous!” But it is hard to “answer” the question, because there is so much political and intellectual baggage caught up in it. In order to say “Objectivism is a type of libertarianism” you would need to define the two terms, and definitions vary so much that most people won’t agree on any two you give. And naturally, one doesn’t want to start a fight.

But let me put on my Objectivist hat for a moment and say: “In the next part of this essay I am going to demonstrate that reason and reality say that Objectivism is, in fact, a form of libertarianism, and I will be presenting the objective, neutral honest Truth.”

Here goes.

1. If “libertarian” means “extreme and radical defender of capitalism,” and “Objectivist” means “a follower of Ayn Rand,” then because Rand was an extreme, radical defender of capitalism, all of her true followers must be this type of person also. So all Objectivists are libertarians.

2. If “libertarian” means “a believer in the idea that aggression should never be initiated and violence should be used only in self-defense,” and this thought can be seen at the heart of Rand’s politics (consider the Project X episode in Atlas Shrugged, for example), then she was a libertarian and those who accept her philosophy are libertarians.

3. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property comes from natural rights and human nature, a belief that mirrors one of Rand’s core beliefs, then the same conclusion can be drawn: she was a libertarian and her followers are also libertarians. Rothbardian libertarianism and Objectivism are like brother and sister, and Rothbard’s anti-Rand play “Mozart Was a Red” was merely a case of brother being mean to sister.

4. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property rights are practical, pragmatic, and utilitarian, in the tradition of Hayek and Friedman, then yes, on the surface one might say that this is different from Objectivism. But let’s look more closely. The utilitarians say that capitalism will produce wealth and make people happy. Objectivism holds that capitalism is the system for “life on this Earth.” Translation: capitalism will make people happy. Rand bases her ethics on what will work in practical reality, although she takes this practicality and dresses it in the language of strict, almost puritan “morality.” Utilitarians like to say that they will obey whatever idea works best, whether it be capitalist or socialist, but in practice Hayek and Friedman were some of the most passionately idealistic and principled of capitalism’s defenders. Libertarian utilitarians take practicality and mold it into a theoretically consistent ideology based on the idea that capitalism will make people happy. Even in this sense, Objectivism is a type of libertarianism, if interpreted correctly.

5. If “libertarian” refers not to specific ideas but to a historical political movement and that movement’s members, then how can anyone ignore the steady foot traffic from Rand’s novels to the libertarian movement, during at least the past 50 years? This is the reason why It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand was so popular among libertarians. I suspect that an accurate poll of movement libertarians would reveal that at least 25% to 30% are post-Randian Objectivists, which is probably just as many as are Rothbardians or Ron Paul fanatics.

The truth is that the “official” Objectivist movement is a subset of libertarianism that, unfortunately, seeks to exclude and cast out anyone who disagrees with it, in an effort to preserve its ideological purity, which revolves around the quasi-worship of Rand; and that the “unofficial” Objectivist movement is overtly libertarian. Another truth is that many, perhaps most, of the other subsets of the libertarian movement are also obsessed with ideological purity and seek to cast out nonconformers. Anarchists hate minarchists, and vice versa, and some followers of Rothbard and his vision of anarchy are as stubborn as any Randroid. A more detailed account is beyond the scope of this essay, but can be found in Brian Doherty’s history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism.

But all these people, including the Objectivists, are libertarians, whether they like it or not. Any contrary belief is illogical, self-contradictory, and blatantly irrational — precisely the type of thinking Rand preached against, although she herself had a spotty and checkered history of applying her theory of strict rationality in her personal life.

Some Objectivists reason in this form:

  1. Rand defined Objectivism.
  2. Rand said that Objectivists are not libertarians.
  3. Therefore Objectivists are not libertarians.

This sequence of assertions has a remarkable simplicity, of the kind that often appeals to the young. But, of course, the truly Randian thought would be: what matters is not what people believe or say, even about their own ideas; what matters is what exists in objective reality. I couldn’t agree more with this essential Objectivism. And I hope I have selected an appropriate way to provide an “unanswerable” question with an objective and obvious answer.




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The Second Reel of Atlas

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The two questions I have been hearing from my libertarian friends all week are these: Have you seen the new Atlas Shrugged? Is it any good?

My answers are Yes! And Ye-es.

I was invited to attend a posh private screening with the producers in Manhattan two days before the official opening. David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society (neé the Institute for Objectivist Studies) and script consultant on the film, introduced the screening to a friendly audience of Rand enthusiasts. Esai Morales, who plays Francisco d’Anconia to perfection, also attended. It was a festive event honoring the Herculean efforts of producer John Aglialoro to bring this book to the screen.

As the lights dimmed and the film began, my biggest concern was whether the film could stand on its own merits, despite its being the middle chapter of a three-part story. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the entire cast and director were changed from Part I, making it virtually impossible to use flashbacks for exposition.

I am happy to report that it does indeed work as a standalone film. Three main subplots drive this episode: Dagny Taggart’s quest to uncover the secret of a mysterious engine that could solve the world’s energy crisis; the government’s enactment of “Directive 10-289,” which freezes all employment, wages, and even personal spending at the previous year’s rate, thus making it illegal for anyone to quit, retire, be fired, be promoted, earn less, earn more, or even spend less or more than in the previous year; and the inexplicable, almost spiritual, disappearance of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers at the hands of a mysterious stranger.

I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it.

Rand purists will be relieved to hear that the plot remains faithful to the original (almost to a fault). Some lines of dialogue have been inserted intact from the novel, and even the changes made in the name of streamlining remain true to Rand’s intent. Hank Rearden’s speech in front of Congress, in which he defends (or, rather, refuses to defend) his right to determine who will buy the metal he produces, is powerful and thrilling. It should resonate even with viewers who have never heard of Ayn Rand.

A few welcome adjustments have been made in the casting to acknowledge 21st-century racial integration, without drawing special attention to race. Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones), for example, is black, but the film places no greater significance on the fact than if he were blonde or brunette. He just is.

Similar updating of the story itself would make this film more accessible to non-Randians. Yes, Ayn Rand loved trains. Without trains, Atlas Shrugged would not be Atlas Shrugged. And yet, for audiences who don’t care one whit about the author of the foundational work, a 21st-century setting in which trains are the primary mode of transportation simply doesn’t make sense. The film’s producers attempt to explain this with a note in the opening credits saying that in the future, trains have become the most economical form of travel, but come on. No one is going to buy that. Train travel is luxurious and impractical, especially in a country as vast as the United States. Cars and planes can go almost anywhere; trains are limited to where the tracks can take them. It’s especially laughable when Dagny travels by herself to Colorado in her private rail car. How could it possibly be more economical for one person to take a train than a car?

Modern audiences will also have a hard time believing that a single man — such as Rearden (Jason Beghe), Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), and Francisco d’Anconia, could control the entire markets in metal, shale oil, coal, and copper respectively. I think my friends and colleagues, the ones I would like to convince by inviting them to see a film like this, would be able to relate to the story more if the heroes were adapted so as to represent smaller, more sympathetic businesses. I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it. Such a film would be true to the purpose of the book, but would not be held back by the setting and technology of 60 years ago. Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Coincidentally, I happened to see Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway the day after I saw Atlas Shrugged II. Several critics have complained about how the language of this classic play has been updated to modern vernacular for this production. I disagreed. Ibsen was a realist. He rejected the larger-than-life heroes and cosmic issues of classic drama to write about everyday people experiencing everyday conflicts. His protagonists spoke in current language about current issues. If he were writing today, he would be using today’s idioms and swear words. So while director Doug Hughes’ version is not true to the language of Ibsen’s play, it is true to the spirit and intent of Ibsen’s play. The result is fast-paced, tense, and very modern.

So YES! I have seen the new film, and I had a great time. And ye-es, it is good, but with some caveats. The story stands on its own. The main points about the sovereignty of the individual are strong and intact. It injects some delicious ironic humor, such as the placard held by a picketer that says, “We are the 99.98 percent!” John Galt is both mysterious and inspiriting — I can’t wait to see what D.B. Sweeney does with the role in the final installment. Exposition is handled deftly, using dialogue to bridge the gaps between Part I and Part II.

But I’m still not pleased with the casting. Diedrich Bader, best known for portraying intellectually challenged characters like Oswald on “The Drew Carey Show,” Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), draws laughter when he first appears as Quentin Daniels, the scientist working to unlock the secret of the engine. Similarly, Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) creates a stir with his small speaking role as Laughlin. Both acquit themselves well as dramatic actors, but they create a distraction when they appear onscreen, pulling audiences out of the scene.

Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Far from being cool and sophisticated, the new Dagny (Samantha Mathis) is frumpy, and she lacks chemistry with Rearden. Nor is there any chemistry between Dagny’s brother James (Patrick Fabian) and his new wife Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), the shopgirl with whom he falls in love, despite their social differences. In fact, none of the characters is particularly passionate, with the exception of Francisco, who moves and speaks with a natural intimacy, and Galt, who manages to inject more charisma and personality with his unseen, offstage voice than Dagny is able to create with all her screen time. Not surprisingly, Francisco and Galt are brought to life by the most seasoned actors of the crew, and it shows.

Despite these shortcomings, Atlas Shrugged II is an admirable work, made more difficult by the rigorous expectations of Rand’s hard-to-please fans. The original score by Chris Bacon is strong, and the special effects are impressive. I applaud the efforts of the producers and all those responsible for the script.


Editor's Note: Review of "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," directed by John Putch. Atlas Distribution Company, 2012, 112 minutes.



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Independence Forever

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I like independently published books. Some of the best books I’ve ever read have been published in that way. No, I haven’t abandoned HarperCollins or Oxford University Press, despite their manifold and great errors of taste, judgment, and simple common sense. But there are lots of books that have fascinated me that could never have appealed to the trendy recent college graduates who function as “editors” in the normal publishing firm — young people who know what they like, and it isn’t very much.

Could Jane Austen get Pride and Prejudice published today? Not by one of them. Not with that weird opening of her book. Imagine, she actually starts out by saying:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. “But it is,” returned she, “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Nope, that would be a nonstarter at HarperColliins. But I would read a book like that, any time I found one.

With these thoughts in mind, I was delighted to discover a new novel by Liberty author Russell Hasan, Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus. A creepy Eye, spells that can turn light into knives, people with special skills that put them in danger from "normal people," technology that might, in the wrong hands, substitute for humanity, the drama of growing up, the contest of the self-described "have-nots" against the "haves," the intransigence of individual choice — what more could a libertarian novel reader want?

Well, he or she might also want wit, humor, a warm grasp on the mundane world (in this case, the world of adolescents), and, in a fantasy novel, a plausible but dramatic relationship between the mundane and the fantastic. All these Rob Seablue has. The obvious influence of Ayn Rand has not prevented Hasan from doing things his own way. I can't tell you more about that way without spoiling the plot for you, but the book is ingenious throughout and most ingenious at its end — ingenious, I might add, without losing plausibility. Actually, the story continually becomes more plausible, as well as more exciting.

This first novel belongs, to an unusual degree, to its author, who is his own publisher. You can say the same thing about William Blake, you know.

Rob Seablue is available, like almost all other books in the wide, wide world, from Amazon — in ebook format readable on Kindle or any PC, Mac, or smartphone using the Kindle app.

Another recent independently published book that I believe will interest Liberty readers is Philip Schuyler’s The Five Rights of the Individual. I’m not sure that I agree with Schuyler about all elements of his theory of rights. For one thing, I think that all rights are ultimately one, and behold, he has five! But that’s close enough, and I don’t think that many libertarian readers will quibble about the point.

What I especially like about Schuyler’s book is the rich context — historical, social, moral, and psychological — in which he places his rights theory. He informs us, for instance, that we live in an historical era in which the US government “makes 350 pages of new laws each day” — and if you don’t think that entails a gross violation of rights, then you’re a bloodless political “scientist” who cares about theories, not about where they lead. I found Schuyler’s commentary on the psychological and cultural formations that support or destroy individual rights especially interesting. And thank God, his book is clearly and engagingly written — something you can’t say about 99% of university press publications on this subject and its conceptual neighbors.

I would be very remiss if I didn’t remind readers of Liberty that another of our authors, Gary Jason, recently published a fine collection of essays, many of which first appeared in these pages. His book is an encyclopedic account of political, economic, and cultural issues that confront libertarians and classical liberals (but it’s much more fun than an encyclopedia). Gary’s beat is everything from the environment to the movies, and you can never predict what will interest him. I don’t always agree with Gary, and strangely, he doesn’t always agree with me. But I always learn something from what he writes, and as I turn the pages, I always look forward to seeing what he’ll do with his material. That’s the effect of a real author.

When I was a student, eons ago, if I ever laid eyes on a libertarian book I clutched it to my bosom, fearing it would be the last one I found. Times have changed. Today, libertarian ideas are actually discussed on TV! But good books are still . . . well, they’re still not exactly common. The three books I’ve mentioned are very good books, and as independent in thought as in their means of publication. Take a look at them.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus," by Russell Hasan (Amazon Digital Services, 2012, 230 pages); "Dangerous Thoughts," by Gary Jason (XLibris, 2011, 632 pages); and "The Five Rights of the Individual," by Philip Schuyler (iUniverse, 2012. 287 pages).



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Liberty Against Anarchy

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Surveying the efforts of Free State Project immigrants to New Hampshire to “turn the state into a real-life Libertopia,” Mother Jones (September/October 2011) concluded that there was a “problem with attempting to create a libertarian utopia: No one — least of all libertarians [themselves] — can agree on what it looks like.” You see, some libertarians want even such basic government functions as the police “converted into purely voluntary organizations,” while others simply “believe the problem is too much government, not the existence of government itself.”

"‘Tis news to thee," a libertarian Prospero might respond. But while the debate of anarchism vs. limited government has long divided the movement, champions of a social theory should be able to explain to others what practice it logically leads to.

This was one of the issues that I would have liked to have discussed with Roy A. Childs, Jr. Childs (1949–1992) was a libertarian activist and essayist, known and loved by countless other libertarians — and readers of Liberty. Roy wasn’t the first person to make the case for “free market anarchism” — he was just the most articulate. (On anarchism before Roy, see R.W. Bradford, “In the Beginning, There Were Anarchists,” Liberty, June 1999.) Roy's untimely death ended any possible correspondence. But I continue to think of Roy, and I continue to want to write him as I do here.

* * *

Dear Roy,

We had “met” only once — in 1991, when you returned my phone message . . . at 2:42 AM. You very courteously asked your fellow New Yorker if you’d caught him “at a bad time.” Alas, I remember only two other things about that conversation: some disappointment when you told me you never received the mailed copy of my “Leonard Peikoff vs. Philosophy,”1 but great joy that I was actually speaking with Roy Childs.

I’m writing now to respond to what has become almost the locus classicus of contemporary libertarian anarchism: your 1969 “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.”2 For many, it was their introduction to — and entrance into — the advocacy of the “establishment of competing agencies of defense.” You yourself eventually abandoned anarchism but never rebutted the essay in detail.3 That is what I will now do, because all the “anarcho-capitalist” polemics since have been little more than its echoes.

You came right out with it: a “monopoly” government limited to retaliatory force could not continue as a “monopoly” government without initiating force, thereby violating that limit, its animating principle. Your foundational argument:

The quickest way of showing why it must either initiate force or cease being a government is the following: Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or a business colleague has established. Now, if he succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use of threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation — in short, free market anarchism.

“Suppose” — bull’s-eye. The fault in this thought experiment is a supposition that has no real-world referent. When confronted with any violent action of a citizen, including the self-proclaimed “use of retaliation” by anarchists, the policeman — i.e., the “night watchman” minarchist state — can’t just mystically intuit whether that force is offensive or defensive. His only course (if he is to remain a rights-enforcing entity) is to proceed with a standard investigation. When anarchists (if they are to remain anarchists) object to this “interference,” there can be no doubt what they are asserting: that a police investigation of a possible initiation of force is itself an initiation of force. With that, we have abandoned any hope of a legal system. It is an argument against, not the “monopolization” of the police function, but the police function itself: the assertion holds even if the “police” in question are themselves an anarchist “agency of defense.” The proper, sufficient answer: a police investigation of a possible initiation of force is no more obviously a coercive act than a possible initiation of force is a noncoercive act.

If anyone requires a Sanchez-and-Jimenez sketch, fine: the police encounter Sanchez dragging a bound Jimenez down the street. When questioned, Sanchez retorts, “Laissez-nous faire— leave us alone! All you need to know is that this man initiated force against me and I am now retaliating. I will presently imprison him in my basement.” Meanwhile, Jimenez is screaming that he’s being kidnapped. Now, is anyone going to insist that it’s an initiation of force for the police to take both into custody? Why — because this is a “private” matter between Sanchez and Jimenez? Private, “marketplace” matters are nonviolent (e.g., economic, religious, sexual, artistic) relationships between consenting adults, which is why coercion against them is said to “initiate” force. When two parties are trading fire instead of goods or ideas, privacy has fled the scene.

Simply “being rational” is not a substitute for police investigation, trial by jury, and the other features of a legal system that is universal and therefore impartial.

Consequently, even though a private firm (e.g., a bodyguard service) may advertise “protection” or “defense,” its first punch or shot becomes that “violent action of a citizen.” Yes, there is peace and mutual agreement — a private, capitalistic relationship — between you and your “friend or a business colleague,” but not between you two “retaliation”-seekers and those “aggressors.”

Logically, Roy, this “Q.E.D.” has no point of purchase. It is nothing more than a floating abstraction — a cloudy concept.4

Anarchism as a revolt against nature

Failure to distinguish what can and cannot be private has been central to most of the controversies surrounding “free market anarchism.”

Consider your response to one of Ayn Rand’s objections to it. She had written, “The use of physical force — even its retaliatory use — cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.” What you made of this is truly remarkable, demanding it be quoted in full. In your reply to Rand, you wrote:

This contradicts your epistemological and ethical position. Man’s mind — which means: the mind of the individual human being — is capable of knowing reality, and man is capable of coming to conclusions on the basis of his rational judgment and acting on the basis of his rational self-interest. You imply, without stating it, that if an individual decides to use retaliation, that that [sic] decision is somehow subjective and arbitrary. Rather, supposedly the individual should leave such a decision up to government which is — what? Collective and therefore objective? This is illogical. If man is not capable of making these decisions, then he isn’t capable of making them, and no government made up of men is capable of making them, either. By what epistemological criterion is an individual’s action classified as “arbitrary,” while that of a group of individuals is somehow “objective”?

Rather, I assert that an individual must judge, and evaluate the facts of reality in accordance with logic and by the standard of his own rational self-interest. Are you here claiming that man’s mind is not capable of knowing reality? That men must not judge, or act on the basis of their rational self-interest and perception of the facts of reality? To claim this is to smash the root of the Objectivist philosophy: the validity of reason, and the ability and right of man to think and judge for himself.

I am not, of course, claiming that a man must always personally use retaliation against those who initiate such [force] against him — he has the right, though not the obligation, to delegate that right to any legitimate agency. I am merely criticizing your faulty logic.

Sorry, but this is a parody of Rand’s writings on independent judgment and its corollary, individual liberty. The issue is not Sanchez’s deciding the next line of his poem or what color to paint his house. Here the “right of man to think and judge for himself” translates into Sanchez’s deciding how he’ll use force against Jimenez’s life, liberty, and property — again, hardly a private, “personal” matter. No coherent concept of liberty grants a man the “freedom” to do to others whatever he wants — even if he issues a two-minute statement assuring the public that what he did was based on his own “self-interest and perception of the facts.” (But if Sanchez does have that “freedom,” does Jimenez have it, too?)

Individual liberty is a social responsibility.

Simply “being rational” is not a substitute for police investigation, trial by jury, and the other features of a legal system that is universal and therefore impartial. Sanchez’s being “objective” (i.e., disinterested) regarding a conflict to which he’s a party is a flat-out contradiction — and another misrepresentation of a Randian concept.

I’m struck by the irony in your presenting the case against limited government as an attempt to correct an error, a “contradiction,” within Objectivism. Consider this exchange from the original (1936) version of Rand's novel We the Living:

Andrei: “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods.”

Kira: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.”

Andrei: “Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn’t it?”

Kira: “Not at all. Admirable. If you’re right. But are you right?”

This is often adduced as an example of Rand’s possible early flirtation with Nietzsche, though the closer comparison would be with Max Stirner, whose version of “egoism” posited that “the” (each?) individual retains “even the power over life and death.” Declaring that “we owe each other nothing,” he included murder as an acceptable act under his anarchism.5

Your anarchism, while purportedly rejecting coercion, also rested on the notion that “the” (each?) individual has a right to use force against others if one believes one is right — with no responsibility to prove anything to anyone else. Said notion is an element of the Stirnerite paradigm of me-subjectivism, the sacrifice of others to oneself, and anarchism, which is as anti-Objectivist as the Marxist paradigm of we-subjectivism, the sacrifice of oneself to others, and statism. This false dichotomy stands in opposition to Rand’s philosophy of objectivity, the value of each individual, and limited government. In the 1959 edition, Rand excised that foreign element, removing it from the body of Objectivism. With your "Open Letter" to Rand, you reintroduced it — with the same ethical premise leading to the same political practice.

In The Fountainhead, Rand's hero, Howard Roark, declared: “I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom . . .” Thank you, Mr. Roark: “Individual liberty” is a social responsibility. This equation has always been regarded as an abominable contradiction by those for whom privacy must obtain without context — the hobgoblin of “market anarchist” minds. Just as the egalitarian wishes to extend equality from the political realm to the socio-economic one, the anarchist wants to take privacy in the opposite direction. And just as the egalitarian condemns limited government as “economic royalism,” the anarchist condemns it as “law-and-order socialism.” But force, as we’ve seen, is no more anyone’s private business than wealth is everyone’s equal right. Roy, your confusion on this point exemplified, not refuted, Rand’s insight that self-styled “anarcho-capitalists” actually accept the “basic premise of the modern statists — who see no difference between the functions of government and the functions of industry, between force and production, and who advocate government ownership of business — [and merely] take the other side of the same coin and declare that since competition [i.e., privatization] is so beneficial to business, it should also be applied to government.”

A multitude of agencies acting on warring valuations of force is not peaceful cooperation under the rule of law, but armed struggle to establish a rule of law.

Unlike the institutions of civil society (e.g., a church), political society (subsuming everyone) is not a conventional, contractual union, whose private morality doesn’t constrain those who don’t join. It is the natural order we are born into, and its natural laws governing the use of force are not “products” or “services” one is free to reject. Is anybody is going to contend that it’s a contradiction to say individuals may do as they choose and must obey the noncoercion principle — that is, in effect to affirm that liberty really does entail the “freedom” and “privacy” to use force however one wishes? If not, it is not a contradiction for a public (“monopoly”) morality to have a public institution. It is precisely the socialization of law — the monolithic imposition of the noncoercion principle — that conversely creates the privatization of everything else.

(Consequently, when a man initiates force, he doesn’t just incur a “debt which he must repay to the victim,” as you said, but a debt that he also owes to society for breaking its laws. Crime cannot be a private matter between the assailant and his victims — or their “heirs.”)

Anarcho-anticapitalism

To repeat: you say, “There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation.” Why? Morally, we’ve seen that these “competing agencies” would no less than a “monopoly” government “initiate force” as anarchists themselves conceive it. So why would there be such “agencies” practically? Because the withdrawing of the policeman would allow them to arise? Only in the way it would allow all manner of “agencies” to arise. When the rights-enforcing policeman goes, he takes the market with him. There is no longer the universal administration of laws against aggression, the framework of a free market. The resultant anarchy is no more capitalist than communist, no more Rothbardian than Bakuninite . . . or Stirnerite or majoritarian or theocratic or anything else. What happens among a multitude of “agencies” (and nonaligned individuals) acting on warring valuations of force is not peaceful cooperation under the rule of law, but armed struggle to establish a rule of law (of whatever kind) — not market competition, but martial combat.6

The projection that most “agencies” would provide only “protection, defense and retaliation” assumes that almost all of the population had turned libertarian, a conversion evidently effected by the mere elimination of limited government. If we’re making armchair pronouncements, how much more breath does it take to proclaim that in the absence of the rights-enforcing policeman everyone will turn libertarian, thus nullifying any need for even those “agencies”?

Actually, Roy, you came pretty close to doing just that. In "The Nature of Government" (in The Virtue of Selfishness), Rand had posed a scenario:

Mr. Smith, a customer of Government [i.e., Protection Agency] A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

And you countered:

Unfortunately, though this poses as a convincing argument, it is a straw man, and is about as accurate a picture of the institutions pictured by free market anarchists as would be my setting up Nazi Germany as an historical example of an Objectivist society.

The main question to ask at this point is this: do you think that it would be in the rational self-interest of either agency to allow this to happen, this fighting out conflicts in the streets, which is what you imply? No? Then what view of human nature does it presuppose to assume that such would happen anyway?

By “anyway,” did you in fact mean “ever”? So, if all sides — if all people — are veritable embodiments of “rational self-interest” (which, for Objectivism, is an ethic, not an instinct), why even “picture” institutions whose very existence would be a testament that some men are not angels?

To the degree you didn’t dismiss the issue, you wrote only:

Obviously, there are a number of ways in which such ferocious confrontations can be avoided by rational businessmen: there could be contracts or "treaties" between the competing agencies providing for the peaceful ironing out of disputes, etc., just to mention one simplistic way. Do you see people as being so blind that this would not occur to them?

Fundamental breakdowns in mutual consent will be handled by . . . mutual consent. Perhaps now we should just concede your point: if only “rational businessmen” will be involved, why indeed assume that such confrontations would happen “anyway”?

That said, we must note that elsewhere in the letter you yourself assume the possibility of “defense agency” clashes:

Now, if the new agency should in fact initiate the use of force, then the former "government"-turned-marketplace-agency would of course have the right to retaliate against those individuals who performed the act. But, likewise, so would the new institution be able to use retaliation against the former "government" if that should initiate force.

All that’s needed is for those acts of aggression to occur simultaneously and we have a conflict more harrowing than the one Rand imagined.

You should have judged her scenario by the standard you began with: if each of the “agencies” — Police A and Police B — is a “truly marketplace institution,” why is anyone obligated to recognize either? We are free to reject the services of a private butcher or baker or LED-maker, so why can’t we reject those of a “private policeman”? But if this entity doesn’t obey our (including Mr. Jones’) demand to be left alone, how is he a private anything? To belabor the obvious: “private policeman” is a contradiction, “public policeman” a redundancy.

Instead, you continued to view the impasse mostly psychologically. Addressing Rand, you said:

One legitimate answer to your allegations is this: since you are, in effect, asking “what happens when the agencies decide to act irrationally?” allow me to ask the far more potent question: “What happens when your government acts irrationally?” — which is at least possible. And which is more likely, in addition, to occur: the violation of rights by a bureaucrat or politician who got his job by fooling people in elections, which are nothing but community-wide opinion-mongering contests (which are, presumably, a rational and objective manner of selecting the best people for a job), or the violation of rights by a hard-nosed businessman, who has had to earn his position? So your objection against competing agencies is even more effective against your own “limited government.”

This somehow fails to notice that in your opening thought experiment such “irrationality” — the refusal to recognize the authority of another “police” body — is the very origin of the first anarchist “agency” (whose viability is supposedly confirmed by the experiment's plot point [“b”] where the government police force doesn’t return this “irrationality”). But what it really misses is that the conflicts between the innumerable Smiths and Joneses will be ones not mostly of “irrationality” (of whatever type), but fundamentally of different concepts of justice whenno one concept is codified as law, which (rather than universal rationality and the “absence of the initiation of force”) is the essence of anarchism. What’s left for an “answer” is the claim that a public officeholder under limited government would be more likely to violate rights than a “hard-nosed businessman” anarchist because the former puts himself up for election, whereas the latter puts himself up . . . for sale.

Childs talks about “governments” as if there were no difference between Nazi Germany and an Objectivist society, i.e., between tyranny and government per se.

That would be crazy enough if it were true, but what’s actually crazier is that it’s not. Think about it: Is he for sale? Why does he have to “earn” his position? Certainly not because there’s still a policeman around to enforce competition, i.e., to protect the people’s right to take their money where they want. The only “competition” between such “businessmen” will be over who steals those people’s wealth. When the policeman withdraws, the millionaire’s money becomes paper and his gold a target. Just as egalitarianism doesn’t establish equality in the socioeconomic realm but does destroy it in the political realm, so anarchism doesn’t establish private enterprise in the political realm but does destroy it in the socioeconomic realm.7

Your assumption here — the capitalist economy will survive without a capitalist government — is one that is in fact shared by some leftist critics of “free market anarchism,” e.g., Mark Paul: a “rich man’s anarchy.”8 We should recall Engels’ January 24, 1872, letter to Theodor Cuno, where he (purportedly) contrasts the Marxist position with that of Bakunin: “[He says] the state above all must be abolished; then capital will go to hell of itself. We [say] the contrary.” Ultimately, these are merely contrary characterizations of the same means to the same end. Any abolition of limited government — statist or “anarchist” — will reap only astrongman’s despotism.

What is the “market”?

It’s not too hard to see how confusion over what constitutes the “market” arises. When a government denationalizes medicine, we say there is now a “free market in medicine.” So, we develop a formula: Where the state isn’t, the market is. Well, then wouldn’t 0% state be 100% market, i.e., “free market anarchism”?

No. As stated, the free market exists, not in the absence of all government, but in the presence of limited government — the rights-enforcing policeman. Political society is the primary, the yin whose conception — formation — outlines the yang of civil society. Several points in the letter evinced your failure to understand this:

  • “There is such a thing as the division of labor, the free market — and that can provide all the food man needs. So too with protection against aggression.”
  • “There is nothing particularly difficult about [understanding the prohibition of the initiation of force], and no reason why the free market could not evolve institutions around this concept of justice.”
  • “You would not argue that since there are needs for objective laws in the production of steel, therefore the government should take over that activity. Why do you argue it in the case of protection, defense and retaliation?”

The free market cannot provide protection against aggression because there is no such market until government provides protection against aggression; only then can a free (as opposed to black, underground, vulnerable-to-sundry-sources-of-coercion) market provide food and man’s other socioeconomic needs. The free market cannot “evolve” an institution of retaliatory force because there must first be such an institution to permit that market. Thus, government does not “take over” (from an “anarcho-capitalist” Eden?) protection, defense, and retaliation; its universal performance of these — and only these — is what defines the “free market.”

Just as egalitarianism treats socioeconomic products and services — i.e., what we don’t have a right to — as political rights, so anarchism treats political rights — protection, defense, and retaliation — as “services which . . . can be offered [or denied] on a market at a price.”9

Disputes and conflicts

There were a few other points that I might as well address, such as:

Another interesting argument against your position is this: there is now anarchy between citizens of different countries, i.e., between, say, a Canadian citizen on one side of the Canadian-American border and an American citizen on the other. There is, to be more precise, no single government which presides over both of them. If there is a need for government to settle disputes among individuals, as you state, then you should look at the logical implications of your argument: is there not then a need for a super-government to resolve disputes among governments? Of course the implications of this are obvious: theoretically, the ultimate end of this process of piling government on top of government is a government for the entire universe. And the practical end, for the moment, is at the very least world government.

We are talking about the need for a “given territory” to have a single government to ban coercion. “[D]isputes among individuals” — crimes — are investigated in the jurisdiction where they occurred. This would be meaningless under “free market anarchism,” whose whole premise is that no territory should be the jurisdiction of anyone or anything. There is now no anarchy between nations because there is no territory between nations — only borders. As for “disputes among governments,” what discord did you imagine limited governments would have? Even in our time, what intolerable “disputes” have occurred between the Canadian and American governments?

You continued:

Also, you should be aware of the fact that just as conflicts could conceivably arise between such market agencies, so could they arise between governments — which is called war, and is a thousand times more terrible. Making a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area doesn't do anything to eliminate such conflicts, of course. It merely makes them more awesome, more destructive, and increases the number of innocent bystanders who are harmed immensely. Is this desirable?

As pointed out, market agencies are entities between whom there is no possibility of violence, e.g., McDonald’s and Burger King. Entities between whom such “conflicts” are conceivable are not actual market competitors, but potential martial combatants. Despite your semantic protest that the “theory which we [anarchists] advocate is not called ‘competing governments’ … since a government is a coercive monopoly,” this possibility of “conflicts” (i.e., the “ferocious confrontations” you denied earlier) among anarchist groups parallels the political relationship among states (hence your comparison), not the economic relationship among businesses — anarcho-government, not “anarcho-capitalism.” Indeed, it was only your narrow and out-of-focus definition of the “market” — absence of all “monopoly” — that allowed you to apply that term to a state of civil war.

Are we to believe that war is the health of any state? Whatever happened to “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”?

How then did you maintain that the elimination of “monopoly” governments alone would end all war — by defining war as that which occurs only “between governments”? At the very least, “[m]aking a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area” prevents jurisdictional armed battles within that area. But talk about not recognizing the “logical implications” of one’s own argument: with your assertion that “market protection agencies could perform more efficiently the same service as is supposedly provided by ‘government,’” you were actually telling us that it’s the military “conflicts” of these anarchists that would prove to be “more awesome, more destructive” — or did you seriously believe their mercenary forces would pursue “efficiency” with less destruction?10 By the way, notice how now you are talking about “governments” as if there were no difference between Nazi Germany and an Objectivist society, i.e., between tyranny and government per se — the frozen-abstraction fallacy. Are we to believe that war is the health of any state? Whatever happened to “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”? Since goods will cross the borders of limited governments, what other feature of minarchism is so intrinsically militaristic as to favor the adoption of anarchism (whose “conflicts” you simply didn’t label war)?

Indeed, by the end of the letter you were reduced to the mantra that government is government is statism:

And there is the major issue of the destructiveness of the state itself. No one can evade the fact that, historically, the state is a blood-thirsty monster, which has been responsible for more violence, bloodshed and hatred than any other institution known to man. Your approach to the matter is not yet radical, not yet fundamental: it is the existence of the state itself which must be challenged by the new radicals . . .

This is the only alternative to continuing centuries of statism, with all quibbling only over the degree of the evil we will tolerate.

This merely magnifies the false dichotomy discussed before: Marx or Stirner, socialization of production or “privatization” of force, statism (“world government”) or anarchism. But limited government is the logical opposite of unlimited government, and a “degree of evil” isn’t what separates the protection of rights from their violation, i.e., Rand and stopping Sanchez’s dragging off Jimenez from Marx and the liquidation of millions. And yet your either-or appears to be at the heart of it, doesn’t it, Roy? If the “free market” can’t provide the “services” of protection and retaliation, doesn’t that undercut the argument that capitalism can provide for “all of men’s needs”? — that seems to be the worry. And won’t only anarchism (with no stateat all) guarantee a sterile society in which the spore of statismcan never germinate? — that seems to be the reassurance. This is yet another example of what happens to political philosophy when definition and context simply aren’t addressed.

(And “historically,” the anarchy of the epoch before the rise of the nation-state was itself violent, bloody, and hateful enough to utterly negate its appeal as an alternative to [even somewhat] limited government, e.g., Thomas Sowell on the legacy of 19th-century liberalism: “The last great war to ravage the whole continent of Europe ended 85 years earlier, at Waterloo — and such horrors were considered permanently behind us.”11)

Political philosophy per se relates to another claim in the letter. Basically, you felt you were no more obligated to detail the workings of anarchy’s political society than Rand was those of minarchy’s civil society:

I do not intend to undertake a full “model” of a free market anarchist society, since I, like yourself, truly cannot discuss things that way. I am not a social planner and again, like yourself, do not spend my time inventing Utopias.

This confuses political philosophy (whose very purpose is to model — to explicate — political society) with “central planning” (the socialist state’s conceit for its coercing of civil society). As Friedrich Hayek and others have explained, no one can fruitfully discuss what would best serve the socioeconomic needs of a population because no man (or relative handful of men) can supply the requisite omniscience, viz., the calculation of an almost infinite number of factors past, present, and future (which is why, in contrast, Hayek speaks of the market’s coordination of information as a “discovery process”). But philosophy doesn’t demand omniscience. “Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed,” Leonard Peikoff writes, “deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era”12 — i.e., a set of common facts that require only observation and abstraction. This is why a single philosopher can generate a hundred rational principles but a hundred bureaucrats cannot generate a single rational price. It is why conservative anti-“rationalism” is appropriate towards socialist “central planning” but not liberal political philosophy — and that is why we reject both conservatism (which, ultimately, believes that men are incapable of abstracting from concretes — like beasts) and socialism (which, again, believes that some men are capable of knowing all concretes — like gods), and embrace classical liberalism. With it, we plan (i.e., align with natural law) a political society that doesn’t “plan” civil society.

This is why a single philosopher can generate a hundred rational principles but a hundred bureaucrats cannot generate a single rational price.

The fact is, you were not “talking about principles whose practical applications should be clear.” Again, anarchism qua anarchism can say only that there will be no “monopoly” government, no one law; the proposition of consequent universal noncoercion (i.e., the “free market”) is without foundation. Eventually, you conceded all this when, in your recantation of anarchism, you acknowledged the intellectual deficit signified by your having “never written anything about how free market anarchism would work.” It was evidently the forever-fluid nature of this ideal that ultimately crystallized your conviction that “anarchism functions in the libertarian movement precisely as does Marxism in the international socialist movement: as an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it.”13

Check your premises

Roy, while it failed to prove its case, your letter to Ayn Rand succeeded in one vital way: it encouraged people to critically review, rather than passively accept, what she presented as a comprehensive philosophy “for living on earth” — something that cannot be appreciated enough given the cultish elements that sprang up around (and still cling to) Objectivism. It inspired my own questioning of Rand’s propositions, including even the noncoercion principle itself.14 Think about that: one can never — in any context — initiate force? Wouldn’t that make noncoercion a Kantian categorical imperative, as opposed to an Objectivist contextual principle? And if emergencies constitute an “exceptional” context, what would constitute an emergency situation for a government — the inability to raise a sufficient volunteer army in the face of a blitzkrieg? “Even so, this would not give the rest of the population a right to the lives of the country’s young men.” OK, why not?15 Objectivism will go nowhere if it cannot answer the questions it raises.

You ended: “Let us walk forward into the sunlight, Miss Rand. You belong with us.” Roy, you walked forward no matter who did or didn’t join you.

Yours in reason,

Barry Loberfeld

 

Notes
1. http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/philosophy.html.
2. http://www.isil.org/ayn-rand/childs-open-letter.html.
3. “Anarchist Illusions” in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr. (1994) is the introductory fragment of a never-continued work.
4. The thought experiment clouds your own (implicit) premise, which is that a limited government, even if it protected contracts and retrieved stolen goods perfectly, would still, as a “monopoly,” have to initiate force to suppress “competition” with these “services.” Instead, it raises an entirely different issue: what happens when we don’t have a government that in any way defends individual rights? Whether by neglect or direct violation, a failure to protect rights at all is not what we generally mean by “limited government.” Rebellion against such failure does not lead inexorably to rebellion against government per se (see AMERICAN REVOLUTION), and people’s having to take the law into their own hands is not a “night watchman” state, but a state of anarchy.
5. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/max-stirner/.
6. In It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand (1971, pp.166–69), Jerome Tuccille related how he “went off to address a class of left-wing anarchists at Hunter College in New York City.” He mentions that “there to lend me moral support was a grouplet of right-wing libertarians.” At one point, a member of this “grouplet” asked these “left-wing anarchists” a question:
“I just want to know one thing. If we were living in an anarchist society and you people had your commune organized the way you wanted it, what would you do about private-property owners who didn’t threaten you in any way? Suppose there was a capitalist community five miles away that left you alone and minded its own business — would you co-exist with it or would you try to suppress it?”
Perhaps it was a reaction against the anarcho-capitalist and his little market place, perhaps they really meant it; I have no way of knowing for sure. But to this question there was a universal outcry from the class at large:
“We’d come in and kick shit out of you, man!”
“We’d beat your ass in!”
“We’d rip you off, baby! Just like that!”
I slowly started to gather my paraphernalia.
If these folks didn’t “forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults” (as Robert Nozick put it), they wouldn’t be left-wingers — they’d be capitalists. (“[P]erhaps they really meant it” — unbelievable. But note that the interlocutor came prepared; his question is from John Henry Mackay’s The Anarchists: A Picture of Civilization at the Close of the Nineteenth Century [1891].)
7. Hence the absurdity of affirming that anarchy’s citizens “would of course have the right” to do anything. Rights would be universally guaranteed neither formally nor practically; self-control of person and property would be determined solely by one’s luck in repelling predators. The old statists of the Left called the market a “jungle,” and the new anarchists of the Right call the jungle a “market.”
And how would one “be able to use” retaliation? Under minarchy, one is “able” to go to church, for instance, because there is governmental protection of, but not interference with, this activity. Without that protection, what practically guarantees that one is “able to use retaliation” without being stopped by anyone, including the party one alleges one is “retaliating” against? And morally, why should one “be able to use retaliation” without governmental interference — a question that returns us to my answer to your original thought experiment.
8. “Seducing the Left: The Third Party That Wants YOU,” Mother Jones, May 1980.
9. Your full statement: “We [anarchists] most emphatically do not accept the basic premise of modern statists, and do not confuse force and production. We merely recognize protection, defense and retaliation for what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price.” The very invocation of scarcity confuses force — retaliatory and aggressive — with production, since scarcity is an attribute of all human action. By this reasoning, we must also recognize assassination-for-hire (à la Murder, Inc.) and other “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” for “what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price.”
10. Then again, you also said: “Note that what is in question is not whether or not, in fact, any free market agency of protection, defense or retaliation is more efficient than the former ‘government.’ The point is that whether it is more efficient or not can only be decided by individuals acting according to their rational self-interest and on the basis of their rational judgment.” All right, so which in fact will the “free market agency” pursue with unmatched capability: (a) the objective implications of the noncoercion principle (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, assembly), or (b) the subjective “consumer preferences” of its clients — unless, as noted, it sees its greatest profit in (c) the plundering of its subjects?
11. Compassion versus Guilt, 1987, p. 238.
12. “Fact and Value,” The Intellectual Activist, 5:1, May 1989. Though “Leonard Peikoff vs. Philosophy” is critical of the essay, Peikoff is correct on this point.
13. Liberty Against Power, p. 181.
14. That questioning appeared in this very journal in June 1999. A version can be found at http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/anarchy.html.
15. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/draft.html. Rand doesn’t say; she just states that a lack of "volunteers in the face of foreign aggression" has never happened in a free (“or even semi-free”) society, the implication being that therefore it would never happen. So, first she concedes the possibility of a situation and proscribes one alternative that could be taken in it, only to then virtually deny the possibility, rendering the proscription moot.

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Defending Capitalism against Ayn Rand

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The titles that Ayn Rand assigned to the three parts of Atlas Shrugged proclaim her insistence that logical contradictions cannot exist in reality. By contrast, the title of the magnum opus of the ultimate charlatan in Atlas Shrugged, Simon Pritchett, is The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. Francisco d’Anconia and Hugh Akston explain to Dagny Taggart that whenever someone thinks he has encountered a contradiction, he must check his premises, and he will find that one of them is wrong (I.9, 7, 10).1

In this essay, I will follow d’Anconia’s and Akston’s advice. I will show that a fundamental contradiction pervades Atlas Shrugged because Rand failed to check her premises. She thought that the heroes she created were exemplars of pure, uncorrupted capitalism. In fact, the heroes she created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist. I will also show that this contradiction is extremely fortunate because it illuminates why capitalism is the most efficient and humane economic system ever implemented.

Rand often emphasized the importance of a person’s “sense of life” and of art as its expression (e.g., Rand 1975: 31, 33, 44). She defined her sense of life and its artistic expression most clearly in an essay she wrote on Victor Hugo (1975: 153–61). In it she said, “Victor Hugo is the greatest novelist in world literature” because his characters are “a race of giants,” who are not concerned with “penny ante.” “‘Grandeur’ is the one word that names the leitmotif . . . of all of Hugo’s novels — and of his sense of life.”

The heroes Rand created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand created heroes who embodied her sense of life and described how such heroes would fulfill their heroic natures if they engaged in economic activities. She thought that the sum of their economic activities and interactions provides a template of what laissez-faire capitalism would be like. She was wrong. When the heroes who embody her sense of life engage in economic activities, they function like Communist administrators, not capitalist businessmen.2

To paraphrase Rand, “Grandeur is the one word that names” the sense of life of Communist economies. They had no concern with anything “penny ante.” In the 1980s, when the economy of the Soviet Union was disintegrating, it was producing between 1.5 and two times more steel and cement than the United States and generating more electricity; it also had 2.5 times more machine tools. However, buttons, clothespins, babies’ pacifiers, and thermometers were always extremely difficult to find in the Soviet Union (Shmelev and Popov 1989: 82, 132, 144). Toilet paper and toilet seats were such rare and precious commodities that when McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Moscow, in 1990, its employees had to guard its restrooms to prevent customers stealing toilet paper and toilet seats (Goldman 1991: 166). The Soviet Union’s heroic economy also did not provide contraceptives or a single practical guide to contraception. As a result, Soviet women averaged at least four legal abortions during their lives; and the average was higher in the non-Muslim regions of the Soviet Union. In addition, large numbers of illegal abortions were performed. Anesthetics could be obtained only by a large bribe (Feshbach and Friendly 1992: 208–9).

In Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the villain, Ellsworth Toohey, completely destroys Catherine Halsey’s soul, and the visible sign of her corruption is that her mouth has adapted to giving orders, “not big orders or cruel orders; just mean little ones — about plumbing and disinfectants” (IV.10). Toohey has turned her into the opposite of a Communist. The Communists gave big, cruel orders and had no concern with mean little considerations. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are heroic because, like Communist bureaucrats, they produce or maintain impressive products, not mean little ones. It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of “penny ante” products, such as disposable baby diapers, menstrual tampons, or dependable contraceptives. But these distinctively 20th-century inventions improved the quality of life immeasurably by freeing people from preoccupation with brute, animal existence.

Most services would be included among “mean little” occupations. The Communists’ heroic obsession with production caused them to ignore services, which, with a few exceptions, they did not even include in their gross domestic product statistics. In fact, Marxists always used the term “the means of production” as a synonym for “the economy.” In modern capitalist countries, most businesspeople provide services. With one exception that I will discuss below, the only service that a hero in Atlas Shrugged provides is running railroads. This is clearly not a “mean little” occupation, and it was one of the few services that the Soviet Union included in its gross domestic product statistics (weight of freight times kilometers carried).

Moreover, Rand ignored all services in her representation of history (1963: 10–57) as a battle between Attila and the Witch Doctor and their antithesis, the Producer. Indeed, her practice of using “industrialist” as a synonym for businessperson excludes businesspeople who produce “penny ante” products, along with those who provide services. In his long speech in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt (i.e., Ayn Rand) says, “Productiveness is your acceptance of morality . . . productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of . . .  shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values;” and, “the industrialists, the conquerors of matter” “have produced all the wonders of humanity’s brief summer” (III.7).

It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of disposable diapers, tampons, or dependable contraceptives.

It is true that the great philosopher Hugh Akston owns a diner and cooks its food, which he does with extraordinary skill, making “the best-cooked food she [Dagny] had ever tasted” (I.10). However, Rand does not let this fact affect her conceptualization of productive work when Galt tells Dagny, “We take nothing but the lowliest jobs and we produce by the effort of our muscles” (III.1).3

In her short story “The Simplest Thing in the World” (1975: 173-85), Rand depicts a writer of fiction who cannot make a living because he has the same sense of life as Rand. The writer decides he has to create the type of story that will sell: “a simple, human story,” which consists of “lousy bromides.” “It mustn’t have any meaning,” and its characters must be petty because “[s]mall people are safe.” However, he is incapable of writing such a story. Every time he tries, his sense of life thwarts his conscious efforts, and he starts composing a story about heroes. The reason, as Rand explains in her introduction, is that his “sense of life directs . . . and controls his creative imagination.” To exemplify this fact, he begins to write “a story about a middle-aged millionaire who tries to seduce a poor young working girl.” He is “a big tycoon who owns a whole slew of five-and tens [i.e., discount stores].” But the author cannot write this story. As he develops the story in his mind, his sense of life makes him forget about the girl and transform the villain into a hero. As part of the transformation, he says to himself, “to hell with the five-and-ten!” The hero now builds ships because he is driven by “a great devotion to a goal.” He is motivated by “a great driving energy . . . the principle of creation itself. It’s what makes everything in the world. Dams and skyscrapers and transatlantic cables.” “[H]e wants to work — not to make money, just to work, just to fight” (emphasis added). So, an author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be; not even Sam Walton, who founded Walmart and built it into the company with the greatest revenue of any company in the world.

Because the Soviets had the same sense of life as the author in this short story (i.e., the same as Rand), they were extremely proud of the enormous hydroelectric dams they built, and their retailing was horribly inefficient. In the Soviet Union, people had to wait in long lines for any purchase. If someone had time to spare, he would wait in a line to buy something he did not need, in order to barter it with someone who had waited in another line to buy something else. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it set all records for number of customers: 40,000 to 50,000 a day, even though its food cost twice as much as the food in state-run cafeterias. It had twenty-seven cash registers. In Communist countries, the length of a line of customers showed how valuable the merchandise was at the end of that line. So, McDonald’s had to have ushers to tell customers not to go to the longest line (Goldman 1991: 166–7; Blackman 1990).

The opening of this first McDonald’s — an event that, as much as any other, marked the end of Communism — illustrates another serious defect in Communist-Objectivist ideals. A small notice in a Soviet newspaper drew 27,000 applicants for jobs as counter clerks, even though the anticipated salary was only average by Soviet standards. Those who were chosen had to be trained to smile at customers and speak politely to them. Their training was so successful that customers could not believe that the clerks were Soviet-raised Russians (Blackman 1990; Goldman 1991: 166–7).

An author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be.

Rand used “grocery clerk” to symbolize the antithesis of her ideal (1964: viii; 1975: 84). In her first novel, We the Living, when the heroine, Kira, sees her future lover Leo for the first time,she observes that “[h]is mouth . . . was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it.” However, Leo says to Kira, with bitter humor, “I’m nothing like what you think I am. I’ve always wanted to be a Soviet clerk who sells soap and smiles at customers” (I.4). Again, Rand reversed Communism and capitalism. Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

When Nathaniel Branden was the official Objectivist expert on psychology, he wrote, “[P]roductive work is the process through which a man achieves that sense of control over his life which is the precondition of his being able fully to enjoy the other values possible to him … [P]roductive . . . achievements lead to pride” (“Self-Esteem: Part IV,”The Objectivist, June 1967). Branden, as he himself later realized, was exaggerating. But he was exaggerating a truth. A feeling of control over one’s life and pride in productive achievements are certainly wonderful feelings. They can derive directly from the type of work done by Communist administrators and the heroes of Rand’s novels, especially if, like Howard Roark, they have an uncapitalist indifference to money and accept only those projects that appeal to them. However, a feeling of control over one’s life and pride in achievements do not follow directly from the type of work that most people in a capitalist society do: salesmen, accountants, insurance brokers, bank clerks, and manufacturers of “penny ante” products, like clothespins and underpants.

Nearly all readers of Rand’s novels, even those who disagree with her philosophy, recognize that she was a brilliant novelist. But not even her brilliance as a novelist could have made a gripping, inspirational novel about the work that is done in distinctively capitalist occupations, occupations that do not exist in Communist countries, such as advertising or being a real estate agent. In fact, the first jobs of the odious Wesley Mouch were in advertising (Atlas II.6).

Let us consider briefly the novelist whom Rand (1975: 119) regarded as the best of the naturalists, Sinclair Lewis. When Lewis wanted to write novels about admirable protagonists, he made them a dedicated research scientist (Martin Arrowsmith) and the president of a car company (Sam Dodsworth), who began his career as assistant manager of production. When Lewis wanted a pathetic protagonist, he made him a real estate agent (George Babbitt). Babbitt, like Dodsworth, is successful at his work. But Lewis says in the first chapter that Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry;” and he “detested the grind of the real estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them.”

The discussion so far illuminates a crucial benefit of the love of money. It entices people into occupations that they may not find interesting or inspiring, but are socially necessary; and it exerts constant pressure on business owners to provide what the public wants, not what they enjoy doing.

In all of Rand’s novels, only one business owner completely embodies the capitalist ethos. That is the press tycoon Gail Wynand, in The Fountainhead, who becomes fabulously rich through selfless service to the public, by providing it with what it wants: a lowbrow, sentimental, lurid newspaper. As he says (IV.11), he has led a life of “[s]elflessness in the absolute sense.” He “erased [his] ego out of existence” by following the principle, “Give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.” However, according to Rand, Wynand is guilty of the most horrible sin in her moral universe: betraying himself.

Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

Wynand’s opposite is Nathaniel Taggart, in Atlas Shrugged, who is supposed to be the archetypal capitalist. As Dagny recalls (I.8), “He said that he envied only one of his competitors, the one who said, ‘The public be damned!’” Nothing could be more antithetical to the motivation of a successful business owner in a capitalist society. This is the ethos of the head of a production unit in a Communist economy, who derives exhilaration and pride from productive achievement without regard to providing the public with what it wants.

Rand’s story “The Simplest Thing in the World” is an excellent illustration of this point. It assumes that an author with Rand’s sense of life is compelled to create a protagonist who does not work for money and therefore chooses to build ships instead of discount stores. This contrast is factually accurate. Someone motivated by money would not consider shipbuilding as a business career since, in economically advanced countries, shipbuilders can stay in business only by means of tariff protection or government subsidies or both. But he would certainly consider the business of discount stores, since they have proved to be the most profitable (i.e., socially useful) branch of retailing.

The economic role of money in constantly driving economic participants to provide the public with what it wants is related to an admirable moral attribute of the free market. It is completely democratic and non-coercive; no one can interfere with other people spending their money on what they want. In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” (1967: 17, 20) Rand showed that she was fully aware of this fundamental attribute of capitalism (the italics are Rand’s):

[T]he works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines. But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read.

The tribal mentalities attack this principle . . . by a question such as: “Why should Elvis Presley make more money than Einstein?” The answer is: Because men work in order to support and enjoy their own lives — and if many men find value in Elvis Presley, they are entitled to spend their money on their own pleasure.

It is the Gail Wynands who provide true-confessions magazines and Elvis Presley CDs.

At this point, many readers will object that Ayn Rand appreciated the value of money. She ended Atlas Shrugged with its hero tracing the sign of the dollar in space, made a gold dollar sign Atlantis’ “coat of arms, its trademark, its beacon” (III.1), and herself often wore a gold dollar sign pinned to her dress.

Yet in The Fountainhead, Toohey asks Peter Keating about Roark (II. 4), “Does he like money;” and Keating replies No. But long before that, the reader has learned that Roark’s abnormal indifference to money is one of the essential characteristics that make him the hero of this novel. Indeed, in “The Simplest Thing in the World,” Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sometimes has her heroes claim that their goal is to make money. At the opening of the John Galt Line, which is by far the greatest achievement of both Dagny and Hank Rearden (I.8), a reporter asks Dagny her “motive in building that Line.” She answers, “the profit which I expect to make.” Another reporter cautions her, “That’s the wrong thing to say.” But she repeats it. Yet before her trip begins, she looks at the crowd that has gathered and notices that they are there, not because these people expect to make a profit, but “because the sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others.” The description of the ride on the John Galt Line is the most exhilarating fiction writing I can recall reading; and I have read a great deal of narrative fiction, in ancient Greek, Latin, English, and French. For Dagny, “It was the greatest sensation of existence; not to trust, but to know.” “She felt the sweep of an emotion which she could not contain, as of something bursting upward.” And what about the engine drivers? Every one of them who was available volunteered to drive the train despite persistent warnings of danger. Surely, they were not motivated by money.

At least in their economic interactions, money should be the primary consideration of the heroes of a novel that ends with the dollar sign traced in the air. In Part I, Chapter 1, Dagny’s parasitical brother James says to her, “I don’t like Hank Rearden.” Dagny replies, “I do. But what does that matter, one way or another? We need rails and he is the only one who can give them to us.” James Taggart, typically of him, replies, “You have no sense of the human element at all.” This conversation crystallizes capitalist and uncapitalist mentalities.

Nevertheless, the economic decisions of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are constantly motivated by the human element. That is true even of the one major character in Atlas Shrugged who is a pure capitalist, Midas Mulligan. He says he joined the strike because of a vision, in which he “saw the bright face and the eyes of young Rearden . . . lying at the foot of an altar . . . and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes” (III.1). In Part II, Chapter 3, Francisco asks Rearden: did you want the rail you made for the John Galt Line used by your equals, like Ellis Wyatt, and by men such as Eddie Willers, who do not match your ability but who “equal your moral integrity” and “riding on your rail — give a moment’s silent thanks”? Rearden answers Yes. Francisco then asks, “Did you want to see it used by whining rotters?” Rearden answers, “I’d blast that rail first.” Francisco then explains that by "whining rotter" he means “any man who proclaims his right to a single penny of another man’s effort.” But no economy, whether socialist or capitalist, could function for one day if producers acted in this way. In Part II, Chapter 10, Dagny says that Nathaniel Taggart, supposedly the archetypical capitalist, “couldn’t have worked with people like these passengers. He couldn’t have run trains for them.” But no one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

No one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

I will conclude with the most frequently quoted explanation of why the market is the most effective means of providing people with what they want. It is by Adam Smith, in Book I, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest. We address ourselves . . . to their self-love.” Butchers, brewers, and bakers had a very low priority in Communist countries. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it had to train its own butchers (Goldman 1991: 166). It is also unimaginable for an Ayn Rand hero to be a butcher, brewer, or baker. The self-interest and self-love that induces people to become butchers, brewers, and bakers and to perform those jobs well is totally different from the heroic self-love of Rand’s heroes. It is an unheroic desire to support themselves and their families in comfort and security.

In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” Ayn Rand showed that she understood as well as Smith why love of money is wonderfully socially beneficial. In her fiction, however, her anti-capitalist sense of life obliterated that knowledge.

***

Footnotes
1. I cite passages in Rand’s novels by the part of the novel in which they occur and the chapter in that part. I do not cite page numbers because there are many editions, and each has different pagination from the others.
2. I write “Communist” with a capital “C” to indicate a member of a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. Many people have championed a communist society (with a small “c”), beginning with the first two extant projections of an ideal society: Plato’s Republic and Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, both from the 4th century BC.
3. Several of the heroes provide services while they are in Galt’s Gulch. But these jobs are merely stopgaps until they return to the world and use their talents again in their real work.

Bibliography
Blackman, Ann 1990: “Moscow’s Big Mak Attack.” Time (February 5).
Feshbach, Murray and Friendly, Alfred Jr. 1992: Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege. London: Aurum Press.
Goldman, Marshall 1991: What Went Wrong with Perestroika. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Rand, Ayn 1963: For the New Intellectual. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1964: The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1967: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1975: The Romantic Manifesto, revised edition. New York: Signet.
Shmelev, Nikolai and Popov, Vladimir 1989: The Turning Point: Revitalizing the Soviet Economy, translated by Michele A. Berdy. New York: Doubleday.


Editor's Note: This article is part of a much longer monograph with the same title. It can be obtained from the author at stevenfarron@gmail.com.



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The Anthem Film Festival — A Report from the Scene

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This month in Las Vegas, The Afghan Nightmare took the FreedomFest Grand Prize at the annual Anthem Libertarian Film Festival. The film is remarkable for its stunning cinematography, dramatic story arc, and powerful message. Director Klaus Erik Okstad spent four months embedded with the Norwegian army as they labored to prepare Afghan forces for NATO troop withdrawal in 2014. This intense, eye-opening documentary demonstrates the futility of modern "nation-building" warfare. We see how ill prepared the Afghans are to defend their own people after more than a decade of someone else’s doing it for them. In one telling example, the Afghan soldiers refuse to walk from the main headquarters to an outpost just one kilometer — barely more than half a mile! — away, and demand that the Norwegian soldiers build them a road and give them a Jeep. It's the welfare principle in practice, destroying courage, skill, and self-reliance.

Documentaries stood out at Anthem this year. Films took viewers around the world as they explored issues of freedom, choice, self-reliance, and accountability. In addition to "visiting" Afghanistan, attendees met seven unlikely Detroit entrepreneurs in Men at Work. Entered the fascinating world of business in Ayn Rand & The Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged. Visited four continents with best-selling author Dinesh D'Souza in his pursuit of Obama's past. Explored the facts surrounding global warming in An Inconsistent Truth. Debated the risks and rewards of vaccinations in The Greater Good. Learned more about states' rights and the constitution in Nullification: The Rightful Remedy. And visited a tiny village in Honduras where a disabled man has been building a helicopter for the past 50 years. In his shed.

Anthem is in its second year as part of FreedomFest, "the world's largest gathering of free minds," where over 2,000 attendees and 150 speakers gather each year to discuss politics and economics, science and healthy living, arts and history — and now, movies.

Anthem's goal is to give libertarian filmmakers a venue and a community. Janek Ambros came last year as an attendee and went home with the determination to make a film that would be accepted for screening at Anthem. This year he submitted his short narrative Closing Bell, which takes viewers inside the mind of a stockbroker in the final four minutes of trading as the market was collapsing in 2008. Closing Bell was not only accepted; it won the award for excellence in filmmaking in that category. Others attending Anthem and FreedomFest this year expressed a similar determination to make worthwhile films with self-reliant protagonists and libertarian values. They also networked with seasoned film makers and producers.

Husband and wife film makers Ted and Courtney Balaker each submitted films, albeit in noncompeting categories. Courtney's short narrative The Conversation, about a likable college couple discussing libertarian principles over coffee and tea, won the award for Best Libertarian Ideals. Not to be outdone, Ted won the same award for his short documentary Don't Mess with Firefly, about a professor at the University of Wisconsin who was forced to remove a poster of the cult classic TV show Firefly from his office door because it posed a threat of violence. Yes, the poster was considered armed and dangerous. FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) stepped in to safeguard the professor's right to free speech, with a little Twitter help from the TV show's stars, Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion, and bestselling writer Neil Gaiman.

Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro, producers of the Atlas Shrugged movies, closed the festival with a preview of Part 2, which will open in theaters October 12 of this year. Part 2 has a new cast, new director, new scriptwriter, and even a modern setting, "the day after tomorrow," as Rand wrote in the book. They also updated the cast to include ethnic diversity that would be more reflective of a modern near future. How might Ayn Rand, who demanded (but was never granted) script approval in her lifetime, feel about this change in her characters? "Rand's all-Caucasian cast was realistic in the 1950s," Kaslow explained, "but it would not be realistic for the day after our tomorrow." Part 2 will be screened at Anthem next year.

The Anthem Film Festival was one of the most popular events at FreedomFest. Films were screened to SRO crowds who lined the walls and sat on the floor, even after additional seating was provided. It is providing a venue for libertarian filmmakers and film lovers alike. What will next year bring? We can't wait to see.




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