APA 2014-1: The moral basis of capitalism, or something

atlas-picby Massimo Pigliucci

As I have done at the previous incarnation of Scientia Salon, the Rationally Speaking blog [1], from time to time I will report on this webzine on interesting conferences or workshops in which I participate. After all, the chief point of Scientia Salon is for academics to engage in discussions with a broader public about what they do.

My first report from this year’s meeting of the American Philosophical Association, being held in Philadelphia, will be a bit strange, as it covers a session off the main program, sponsored by none other than the Ayn Rand Society, and entitled “The moral basis of capitalism.”

Now, Randians, or Objectivists as they prefer to be called, are nowhere near the mainstream of academic philosophy, being pretty much ignored by any moral or political philosopher I know. Still, there are some professional philosophers in the group, and they do get together at the APA, if for nothing else but to put up their (usually pretty much entirely unvisited) book exhibit during the meeting.

At the 2014 APA-Eastern, the Randian session was chaired by James G. Lennox (University of Pittsburgh), and the speakers were James Otteson (Wake Forest University), Peter Boettke (George Mason University), and Yaron Brook (Ayn Rand Institute). Here is the gist of what they said, with my most certainly not neutral commentary.

James Otteson (Wake Forest University) got things started with a talk on Adam Smith’s theory of freedom as discernible from his The Theory of Moral Sentiments [2] and other writings. Smith, if anything, was even more anti-metaphysical than Hume, if possible, and therefore not particularly prone to elaborate on formal theories of this kind. Still, of course that doesn’t mean he did not at the least implicitly have a theory of human freedom, which is what Otteson is after.

According to the latter, Smith considers self-command to be a virtue, and one that requires deliberation and conscious intentionality. Smith thought that we naturally seek the pleasure of approval from others, which affects our judgment, sometimes in a negative fashion. Self-command, then, is what allows us to distance our judgments from what we would be delivering if we were simply seeking sympathy from others, moving us toward more of an impartial observer’s point of view.

Because we are social animals, we are subject to conditional imperatives that regulate our behavior toward others, of the kind “if you want to be happy / survive / have relationships etc. then do X.” Our default mode of operation is to comport with others’ expectations because we are social animals, but we can also choose not to comply with such expectations, if morally necessary. Smith says – possibly following Aristotle – that it takes practice to achieve self-command in the pursuit of virtuous choices.

Smith’s approach in moving us toward a more virtuous society, according to Otteson, amounts to a more palatable (to the Objectivist) version of what nowadays is called “libertarian paternalism.” In The Wealth of Nations [3] Smith concludes that governments should play a limited role in our lives, including maintaining security and public works such as infrastructures that facilitate commerce, primary schooling and so forth. Also, every citizen should be required – according to Smith – to acquire minimal educational skills (reading, doing arithmetic).

Comparing Smith’s with modern libertarian paternalism, as presented in the recent book Nudge [4], the main difference is that Smith talked about virtue arising locally, from decentralized sources; the authors of Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein, instead propose a centralized source for the proper “nudges,” involving the deployment of expertise by a small number of individuals (the experts in whatever the specific subject matter happens to be). Needless to say, Otteson thinks that Smith’s system is “morally beautiful,” while Thaler and Sunstein’s is reprehensible.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the above. I am no expert on Adam Smith, though what I read of him (and of his close friend, David Hume) definitely makes him come across as much more concerned with the human condition and much more skeptical of the intrinsic power of free markets than he is usually portrayed to be by the likes of Otteson.

I don’t doubt (though I stand to be corrected by any actual expert on Smith) that he advocated a limited role of government, which of course Otteson stressed over and over during his presentation. But there are two obvious considerations that ought to seriously temper any attempt at claiming Smith for the Randian camp: first, and most obvious, since it isn’t denied even by Otteson, Smith did see a role for government not just in providing security (the only role allowed by Rand herself), but also in building infrastructures and providing education. Second, yes, Smith talked explicitly only of elementary education and of what by modern standards would have been somewhat limited kinds of public infrastructure. But that was the 18th century, people! Who knows, perhaps a modern-day Smith would be fine with the Eisenhower highway system, or with free public education up to high school included. Things scale up during the course of the centuries, after all. And this, of course, without considering the obvious objection: okay, that’s what Smith thought. Too bad for what Smith thought…

On to the second speaker, Peter Boettke (George Mason University), who spoke on the relationship between the ideas of economist Ludwig von Mises [5] and those of Ayn Rand. According to Boettke the defining ideologies of the 20th century were decidedly anti-libertarian, namely, socialism, national-socialism, communism, environmentalism, feminism and other types of collectivism (yes, I know, environmentalism and feminism on the same level as the others? Wait, it gets worse). They were together responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths (I told you it was going to get worse! Environmentalism and feminism responsible for countless deaths? When?).

Ayn Rand was – according to the author – arguably one of the chief critics of collectivism (notice that from now on there is no distinction within the talk between the different types of collectivism, which are all subsumed under “socialism”; after all, they are all deadly). Rand approached the issue “from the heart” (his words, I ain’t kidding), while von Mises’ approached it “from the head.” The suggestion is that one needs both: a scientific (head) and a moral (heart) critique of collectivism.

Why, asked Boettke echoing Rand, is it so easy for socialist ideologies to penetrate young minds, why are they so appealing to idealist young people, despite the evidence of endless destruction brought about by socialism and other collectivisms?

This is puzzling to libertarians, particularly because socialism did not fail because of the shortcomings of humanity, as its defenders often maintain, but because it does not take into account the nature of humanity. (On this I actually agree, though of course I think that libertarianism suffers from precisely the same problem, just on the polar opposite of the economic-moral spectrum.)

von Mises apparently did not present a moral critique of collectivism – indeed, he committed the unpardonable sin (for the Objectivist) of granting its moral appeal. The economist focused instead on the economic irrationality of collectivism, on what he regarded as strictly “scientific” grounds (which are actually highly debatable, as macroeconomics is not a science in the desired sense of the term, like physics or biology, in my mind [6]). Of course von Mises was deeply committed to the ideal of a value-free economic science (which, I would argue, is simply bizarre), and since for him capitalism, but not socialism, can solve the problem of economic calculation (i.e., figuring out what is the best way to run the economic system), socialism is therefore doomed regardless of how morally appealing it may be, it is an unachievable utopia.

Enter Ayn Rand, the strongest critic of collectivism from a philosophical and artistic perspective – according to Boettke – by way of her novels and short stories, and then eventually her non fictional essays.

Rand agreed with von Mises’ economic analysis (of course), but strongly disagreed with his moral one: for her individual rights are the means to submit society to the moral law, and anything that goes against that precept is simply evil.

Rand, said Boettke, realized that economic literacy is needed in society, but that it is difficult to achieve for most people, so she saw her novels as a way to teach economics (as well as philosophy) to the masses. At this point I had to call on all my Stoic self-control not to audibly grunt in the middle of the small room. I am happy to report that I succeeded.

So back to Rand: collectivism is a false ideal in part because it works via taxation, which in her mind amounted to theft and to the fostering of a culture of parasitism. Rand’s protagonists in her novels are men (yes, usually men) of achievement who demonstrate what would happen to society if the real producers of innovation and wealth, “shrugged,” to recall the title of one of her most famous works of fiction.

At this point Boettke launched into a rant against the ideas of Paul Samuelson, a leading economist of the ’50s and ’60s (and hence contemporary to the von Mises-Rand debate), who was a strong critic of laissez-faire capitalism, and therefore a major target of Rand. “The social responsibility of businesses is to earn profits, nothing more, nothing less,” stated Boettke rather categorically, arguing that it was a “culture of moochers and looters” that leads to the ruin of humankind. That is what Rand was rebelling against in her famous discussion of Robin Hood, for her a symbol of the idea that need, and not achievement, is the source of rights in collectivist societies. (The fact that the overwhelming majority of people think of Robin Hood as a moral individual, given the circumstances of the story, was completely glossed over and left unaccounted. No need to argue with the moochers and their supporters.)

Boettke concluded by bringing the debate up to date: socialism, he suggested, is still an animating ideology, as seen with the recent Occupy movement (despite the fact that Occupy actually had a highly heterogeneous ideological matrix, but let’s not get ugly facts get in the way of a beautiful theory…). The socialist debate is not a dead horse, he said, it is a live one, and it is for each generation of political and moral philosophers to continuously engage it, just like Ayn Rand did. (Groan.)

Finally, the evening concluded with Yaron Brook (Ayn Rand Institute), who talked more directly about Ayn Rand’s moral basis for capitalism, the topic that, after all, gave the title to the entire session. Rand objected to reliance on the common defense of capitalism (a la von Mises), the idea that it maximizes some economically defined utility function. For her the idea of the common good is undefinable and simply an excuse for collectivists to take over. (To be fair, as far as I can muster, Rand had some seriously justified issues with the “collectivism” she and her family experienced in the Soviet Union, but of course Stalin was no Marxist, nor was he an environmentalist or feminist…)

The moral justification of capitalism, rather, is that it is the only system consonant with man’s nature as a rational being. Reason is assumed to be the key to all man’s successes, the instrument by which all human values are attained (please notice that the continuous use of the terms “man” and “mankind,” rather than human beings and humankind, are the author’s not mine). Moreover,and crucially for Rand, reason is the attribute of an individual, not a group property (she acknowledged that people can correct each other’s thinking, but cannot think for one another – this, of course, represents an extremely naive view of human epistemology, to say the least [7]).

The goal of man is flourishing, “the survival of man qua man,” as Rand put it, apparently unfazed by the fact that to define “flourishing” is just as challenging as defining the common good. She rejected any value that puts the emphasis on the group, and emphasized that we don’t know what is good for us, we discover it through our use of reason. (This sounds superficially, but only superficially, like Aristotle, the only philosopher who Rand acknowledged as an influence on her thinking.)

Rand stated the obvious when she claimed that you cannot put a gun to an engineer and tell him that from now on 2+2=5. A little less obvious is the similarity she draws between that case and the idea that one cannot put a (governmental) committee in charge of telling a company the value or appropriateness of a new drug. The metaphorical gun in the latter case, of course, is the regulatory force of government, and for Rand it is far more devastating than the one pointed to the head of our unfortunate engineer.

So, collectivism (in all its forms, environmentalism and feminism included) for Rand restricts the ability of man to flourish, destroying both the possibility for innovation and the motivation to innovate. The kind of strong individual rights favored by Objectivists, then, become the necessary bridge concept between human (individual) reason and the workings of society. Rights mean freedom from coercion, and the only real right is the right of the individual to pursuit his own goals and flourishing, however he sees fit. Property rights – so dear to libertarians (for whom Rand had little sympathy) are a derivative of individual rights, since property is necessary for the flourishing of the individual.

Capitalism, according to this logic, is the system that protects all of us because it recognizes individual (and property) rights. Notice, incidentally, that all property, in Rand’s view, ought to be privately owned, there should be no such thing as public land or buildings, and that the sole job of government is the protection of individual rights, i.e. the protection from physical force by others (contra Adam Smith, see above). Rand’s capitalism is a “leave me alone” capitalism, none of this “mixed” system so fashionable today, concluded Brook.

The author went so far as to state that the essence of the idea of justice is the idea of trade: the individual’s ability to offer value for value. Capitalism rewards reason and innovation, and irrationality is penalized. Capitalism is a morally just system, because you get what you deserve via your ability to trade. (Double groan, if you permit me.)

Why, then, is socialism so appealing to people? (This seemed to be a recurring question that really bugged all speakers at the session.) Because, according to Rand, people believe in altruism as a paragon of moral behavior, and socialism is an altruistic system, despite its practical failures. The idea of service to others is a moral ideal for many, which is why people are willing to evade the horrific consequences of socialism and the obvious successes of capitalism. Needless to say, this is entirely mistaken, and it is selfishness that is truly moral, in Rand’s universe.

I hope the absurdity of the Objectivist notions discussed at the session is evident enough [8], perhaps nudged a bit by my interspersed comments (except for the groaning, that’s not an argument, just an emotional relief valve). The interesting thing for me was that – this being, after all, a professional meeting of philosophers – I learned precisely nothing new about Rand, Objectivism, capitalism or collectivism. All I was exposed to was dogma – both economic and moral-political – devoid of supporting argument. I’m sure this was entirely satisfactory to most of the people in attendance, being already part of the Objectivist club, but it was astonishing how the session actually made it onto the program of the APA (albeit as a special one, outside the main set of events). Fortunately, there was a nice dinner and a significant amount of wine waiting for me to conclude the evening…
_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] See, for instance: Metaethical antirealism, evolution and genetic determinism, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 28 December 2012.
[2] The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Wiki entry.
[3] The Wealth of Nations, Wiki entry.
[4] Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, Penguin Books, 2009.
[5] Ludwig von Mises, Wiki entry.
[6] Rationally Speaking podcast, episode 51: Joseph Heath on Economics Without Illusions.
[7] Social Epistemology, by Alvin Goldman, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[8] If not, I invite you to read my four-part series on Objectivist “philosophy,” published at Rationally Speaking: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Politics.

70 thoughts on “APA 2014-1: The moral basis of capitalism, or something

  1. Interesting article. From the article, “collectivism is a false ideal in part because it works via taxation, which in her mind amounted to theft and to the fostering of a culture of parasitism”, so if one believes progressive taxes are philosophically morally justifiable then why?

    I myself justify the moral basis of capitalism with Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” and Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”. Nozick in particular is the philosopher’s response to a philosopher (Rawls) and argues quite well what is economically morally justifiable.
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1975/mar/06/the-right-to-be-rich-or-poor/

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  2. Citing Ayn Rand as occupying ANY moral high ground, as attempted by Yaron Brook and others, is ludicrous in light of the following moral position she articulated at the US Military Academy in the 1970s:

    “[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…. What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.”

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  3. Interesting.

    One of the first things one has to become aware of when tackling these issues is that all involved have completely different definitions of capitalism.

    Marxism: private ownership of the means of production & existence of a large free (non-enslaved, non-serf) class of people who do not own the means of production and therefore to survive have to be employed by those who do own them (note that free markets are optional, not a requirement)

    Most people today: mostly free markets & private ownership of most stuff & democracy (which leads to many a tiresome discussion when one tries to point out that many capitalist countries historically were, and some still are, dictatorships or monarchies)

    Randians: totally free markets & private ownership of everything & would totally work if it were ever tried, which it never has, and if it is tried and fails, it still hasn’t really been tried and only failed because it was still too socialist

    As a minor aside, I am not sure if “because it didn’t take human nature into account” is a good and sufficient explanation for the “failure” of “socialism”. I’d argue our modern mixed economy doesn’t take it into account either, and it seems to work quite well, or probably at least until the oil runs out.

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  4. Great article and very amusing, albeit it picks an easy target for ridicule. Rand paid the usual price for her substitution of philosophical analysis with propaganda. looking ridiculous and having no significance.

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  5. From what I’ve read, Randians/Objectivists are anti-pragmatism. Both in the philosophical label of “pragmatism” and in its use in economics (as Paul Krugman writes of Keynesianism, for example). I don’t know about capitalism’s “moral basis”, but I doubt that any society that attempts to have a (totally) free-market approach to providing some of people’s needs, like heath care, will ever succeed.

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  6. How does anyone claiming high objective and rational standards manage to live in such an absurd virtual reality? Are they not aware that humans are social animals and would at best be a few fossils in East Africa without being substantially collectivist? This reeks of tea partiers telling the government to keep its hands off their medicare. What a collection of morans.

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  7. Thank you for your post and commentary. I would dispute only one point, namely your suggestion that I was trying to claim Adam Smith “for the Randian camp.” On the contrary, I was arguing that Smith is no Randian, and I meant to highlight some of the ways that they differ. Smith argued for a limited (but not non-existent) government, and he gave both empirical and moral reasons to support free markets. But, as I claimed, for Smith these positions were presumptive but not absolute defaults. His argument puts the burden of proof on those who wish to intervene in markets, and he establishes a relatively high threshold to meet in order to justify intervention. But he does explicitly allow for the possibility of intervention, and even goes so far as to suggest some possible candidates for intervention himself.

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  8. I really dislike the common practice of conflating moral economics with empirical economics. Ultimately the choice of an economic system is a moral decision, but it has to be based on a sound understanding of empirical facts, or it can’t possibly be a well-informed decision. The great merit of Adam Smith was the close attention he paid to the empirical. His “invisible hand” theory was an attempt to describe the way things actually work, not the way they ought to work. It was simplistic in some ways, and he did derive moral conclusions from it that can be questioned, but at least it provided an avenue for progress. John Maynard Keynes also had the merit of staying in close touch with empirical facts. Like Smith he did derive moral conclusions from his work that can be questioned, but at least he recognized that sound policies must be based on economic mechanisms that actually work. In contrast Rand, Marx, and von Mises all had in common a basic disinterest in the experimental method. They sometimes made hand-waving gestures in the direction of empirical facts, but that isn’t what they really cared about. Thus they end up with economic prescriptions that might seem morally appealing to some people but inevitably fail when put into practice.

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  9. Why is it the world is full of professional politicians and priests, but so few philosophers?
    Because they tell people what they want to hear, rather than the way it it is. This debate is more about what people want to hear, than the way it is and that is why it seems like some cross between religion and politics, not any rational examination of the forces at work.
    The fact is there are two sides to every coin and the feedback loops generally mean that one side of an argument serves to support the opposite view, than lead to any absolutist goal the partisan proponents argue for. There is that bottom up social energy, which invariably calcifies some top down civil structure. Too much government is totalitarian, whatever the form and too little is anarchy and not much economy on either end.
    People tend to be primarily focused on the binary code of good and bad, as it affects their own individual situation, whether that is as an individual, or being part of a group.
    I think the clearest enunciation of this is the old African saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a group.” Probably a saying that originated in the stone age and hasn’t been improved on.
    I would add that the objectivist tendency to view individuals as isolated units does remove them from the social context which provides them with larger meaning and uniqueness and makes it much easier to treat them as interchangeable, replaceable units.
    If we really want to understand how society functions, then thermodynamics is a useful place to start, starting with the basic elements of energy and space.

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  10. Excellent analysis.

    I am not a modern political person. I say that to excuse myself from today’s radical political schism in America. It’s a shame and a sham.

    The torrid of logic used by objectivist is the looting of capital reallocated to the masses, logic straight out of Marx. Yet, the problem falls apart when scale is applied to capital. The cost of a defensive weapon is enormous. In fact, it only takes a few weapons to equal or surpass all of the social programs in question. When the total cost of defense is tallied, the number becomes absurd. However, war defense budgets is a cherished ideologue of the objectivist and somehow falls outside the logic structure of their argument.

    When one looks at the infrastructure of the war machine, it doesn’t take long to see that a large portion of capital is based in government, i.e., a socialist cloak. The number of government workers in defense far surpasses the number of any poverty group in the nation. The warring government group does not add productive product to the economy, except to merely employ people. That is the exact same effect of a social poverty program. Not to mention the benefits are out of this world compared to the private sector.

    I was having dinner with a young scientist in training working for his Phd. He told me that it did not matter what he did because in his field money was no object. I asked why. His response, “We study things that will eventually be used in war.”

    In essence, when you add the soft sectors supporting war-like projects in the sciences, the amount of money is not only absurd but surreal. Now, place that amount next to the amount the objectivist say is the bane of capitalism. Exactly! Their argument becomes laughable, if not completely idiotic.

    It’s okay to want war as an ideal. It’s not okay to use illogical linkage to create a complicated and irrational conclusion. The bigger the words get, the greater the number that cannot track the sentence much less the logic, and the more the objectivist raise their hands in celebration.

    I am not for one group or the other. What I am for is a more logical argument when it comes to capitalism and resource allocation.

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  11. Before we try to determine if capitalism is moral, immoral, or amoral, we need to nail down what is moral.
    I think a major dose of pragmatism is required. People form governments – even if it is the Mafia or Daesh. At this point, the main issue of government is the management of weapons that can eliminate the human race.

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  12. Somewhere I came across a quote from Adam Smith, perhaps from “Wealth of Nations”, where he seemed to advocate for a social safety net. I really wish I could find it, but my Google-fu is lacking. I’ll keep looking, but are there any Smith-ies out there who might know what I’m talking about? It sounded downright lefty, coming from a hero of the capitalist right.

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  13. I’m not sure I agree with your usage of “greed” as it applies to knowledge.

    Someone “greedy” for knowledge would prevent others from obtaining it at all costs, i.e., outlawing, burning, or banning books, closing down the Internet, closing public education and school (remember one of Marx’s tenets was the establishment of social or public schools … a radical idea at the time), creating caste systems for class privilege.

    I think you mean “hunger” for knowledge is a good thing. Greed is an abuse. Attainment is a virtue. Easting a full meal (attainment) is much different than keeping all the food to yourself (greed).

    Greed leads to failure IMHO.

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  14. Massimo,
    Thank you for what is for me a walk down memory lane. When I was about 15, I read Anthem and some of Rand’s literary essays and remember being highly impressed. She spoke to my adolescent consciousness and my wish to find moral justification for my youthful belief in my own obviously superior capacities that no one seemed to notice at the time but myself. Besides, she wrote a strong defense of the poetry of Mickey Spillane (“Bootleg Romanticism”) that I was reading at the time.

    Later I read a book by Nathaniel Branden, which was much more coherent and reasonable, but exactly because of that, I found it easier to think through Objectivism critically, and realized how little of it could be applicable socially in a complex culture.

    Then much later I tried re-reading the novels of Mickey Spillane and realized that he is a perfectly dreadful writer, who just happened to express a certain zeitgeist. So I had to admit that even as a literary critic, Ayn Rand’s opinions weren’t worth much.

    I never got through more than 30 pages of one of her supposed ‘landmark’ novels, I don’t remember which one.

    The only thing I appreciate her for now is William F. Buckley’s anecdote, how when he first met her, the first words out of her mouth were, “How can intelligent man like you believe in god?”

    Which reminds me that the only text any Randian with any lasting power or any wider reach beyond Objectivist libertarianism seems to be George H. Smith’s “Atheism: the Case Against God.” Well, perhaps a few less doctrinaire passages by Branden….

    As for Rand herself: After reviewing the material available on the internet, including the remarks at Rationally Speaking, I have to say that Rand strikes me as one of the more intriguing young German philosophers of the 1860s. With a little discipline she could go far….

    Seriously, Rand’s philosophy is stuck in a mode of thinking that ranges from Kant, through the epistemological and logic problems of Fichte, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, tracking defiantly into the social issues addressed by Feuerbach, Stirner, and Marx, and culminating in a rivalry with Nietzsche over ethics – and there it ends. She doesn’t even make it to Dilthey or Husserl (let alone Mach or Frege), which leaves her unable to compete with either Heidegger or the Vienna School, although I can see her possibly trying to debate the Marburg Neo-Kantians (without much success).

    As a reader in the history of philosophy, I rarely decry a philosophy as simply out of date – but when it is outdated in its initial composition – and by 50 years, at least – the question arises, is there anything here still of use?

    Despite her insistence on rationality, Ayn Rand’s texts are best read expressionistically – she is signifying a certain historical angst over the failure of German Idealism to survive WWII intact.

    I may remark what I see as Objectivism’s the problems in political economy another comment.

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  15. I hate Ayn Rand, but before we all smugly dismiss her for her “irrelevance” it is worth remembering that more people have read and will read her books than anything any of us have written, by orders of magnitude. That means *real* influence, unlike what passes for such in the Academy — our last Fed Chairman was a Randian.

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  16. I appreciate the report, even if it was with “most certainly not neutral commentary.”

    If you were disappointed by this conference session in not learning new things about Objectivism, or hearing a lack of careful arguments for positions taken, perhaps I might suggest a look at the essays and dialogues on my blog. I think you’ll find that I am careful and fairly rigorous in my discussions, (especially if you read the footnotes.)

    I recommend starting with this essay on the nature of ethics: Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life and this one on the nature of (normative/proper) values: Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective.

    I plan to write essays on the nature of socio-political force and the nature of objectivity in the relatively near future, so keep an eye out for those. I also recommend the books on my “Books and Links” page labeled “scholarly debate”–they are quite a bit more in-depth than what you describe in the meeting.

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  17. Bill and James, no, Adam Smith was not empirical, nor did he have any enlightened philosophical stance. His ‘invisible hand” is the wind-up-the-clock-of-the-universe deity of Deism, shown to be both laughable and untrue by quantum physics and many other things of the 20th century.

    Beyond that, to go further than Massimo, macroeconomics in general is even less scientific than psychology.

    As for Randian Objectivism in general, I give it the back of my Cynical hand and tell it to get out of the way of the light.

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  18. Not quite what you asked for, but how about a quote from Hayek’s Road to Serfdom that clearly states he has no objection to a social safety net:
    “The preservation of competition [is not] incompatible with an extensive system of social services — so long as the organization of these services is not designed in such a way as to make competition ineffective over wide fields. … There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.”

    Quoted in http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com/search/label/Hayek

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  19. The thing about “Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand” is that he used the phrase a total of 3 times (possibly 4), and the strongest implication you can draw from these passages is “Sometimes things work pretty well when left alone for reasons we may not totally understand”. Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment gives some detail on the way later editors of his work and economists turned the Invisible Hand into a mysterious justification (known to be verified by true acolytes) of free market fundamentalism.

    Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist and ethical philosopher is fond of saying “Some men are born small; others attain smallness; but Adam Smith had smallness thrust upon him”. Here is a link to to an excerpt from (and further link to) one of his essays reinterpreting Adam Smith:

    http://adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.com/2009/03/amarya-sens-two-brilliant-essays-on.html

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  20. Ayn Rand considered the cornerstone of her Epistemology (in turn the cornerstone of her Objectivism) to be Existence Exists
    Yes you heard that right, the trouble with people who don’t get Objectivism is they refuse to see that existence exists. It’s laid out in her Objectivist Epistemology, which is pretty much a slightly expanded excerpt from John Galt’s famous lecture to all mankind. Some of it:

    “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

    “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.

    “Whatever the degree of your knowledge, these two—existence and consciousness—are axioms you cannot escape, these two are the irreducible primaries implied in any action you undertake, in any part of your knowledge and in its sum, from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end. Whether you know the shape of a pebble or the structure of a solar system, the axioms remain the same: that it exists and that you know it.

    “To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors—the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.”

    Source: https://www.aynrand.org/ideas/philosophy

    It’s sometimes said that by accepting a logically fallacious premise, one can prove anything. It intrigues me that “Existence exists” might be construed as a set being a member of itself, which Russell’s Paradox showed (with a very short proof) will get you into deep doo doo.

    On Ayn Rand as a writer, a very entertaining review of Atlas Shrugged was written by Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist and later (and maybe raised as) Quaker who translated the book Bambi from German. The Review was published in the National Review, though the current crowd there would never publish it because today they’ve embraced a new version of the United Front.

    An excerpt: “[Chambers described the book as] The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. … Both sides of it are caricatures”. The Children of Darkness at least “are caricatures of something identifiable. Their architypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders or, at any rate such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. … In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as “looters.” … “Looters” loot because they believe in Robin Hood, and have got a lot of other people believing in him, too. Robin Hood is the author’s image of absolute evil — robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). All “looters” are base, envious, twisted, malignant minds, motivated wholly by greed for power, combined with the lust of the weak to tear down the strong, out of a deepseated hatred of life and secret longing for destruction and death.”

    Chambers was a very humane character who wrote beautifully, and makes abundantly clear how his heart, and various horrors he observed led him to the Communist Party.
    (David Horowitz makes himself out to be Whittaker Chambers for the 21st century but reading his biography, I could not detect much trace of humanity — he seems to have joined the New Left to one-up his Old Left parents).

    I wrote about it, and provided a link, with some background at
    http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com/2012/08/whittaker-chambers-on-ayn-rand.html

    I listened to the 60+ hour rendition on Audible.com at double speed (the only way I could cope with it).

    I think a lot of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is uniquely valuable, but he does have a couple of screws loose, and when he asserts that conservatives understand liberals better than vice versa, I’d refer him to Chambers characterization of Atlas Shrugged, and the fact that so much of the New Right reveres the damn thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I say that to excuse myself from today’s radical political schism in America. It’s a shame and a sham.

    ———————-

    In fact, American politics is not radical at all. In truth, the centers of both parties are not very far apart, and this comprises the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

    There are actual fascist and communist parties in Europe who boast substantial electoral wins. Not long ago, the fascist party forced French elections to a runoff.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Front_%28France%29

    There is nothing remotely like this in the US. And it is not just France. Politics in Europe are far more radical than in the US.

    Like

  22. While on the subject of Bad Epistemology, here are some excerpts from an explanation of Von Mises “Economic Epistemology” from Reason Magazine Fall 1976:

    Praxeology is the theoretical approach to human action and, as such, treats only the formal relationships between incentives and individual actions. Economic analysis (or catalactics) derives from this more general theory of human action.

    empirical data tell us nothing about the underlying consistency, if it exists, in human action. Introspection, according to von Mises, is the only valid source of knowledge of universal truths concerning human action. This knowledge precedes experience, hence is a priori.

    Any theory of human action, hence any economic theory, must derive from fundamental self-evident truths that are known to every human being. These universal truths, because they haid for al individuais in every conceivable society and at every possible time, are absolute; therefore, the theorems or economic laws derived therefrom are also true absolutely. Emperical observations that seem to contradict such general theory are evidence, not of the theory’s defects, but of the violation of one or more of the conditions of the theory. (For example, the assumption of an inverse relationship between the price of a normal good and the quantity demanded is not invalidated by the existence of inferior goods.)

    Only by what he called “understanding,” von Mises claimed, can we hope even to approximate a reliable forecast of future ecorrornic conditions. This process of understanding involves an effort to anticipate the choices of other individuals ha; introspection and through the common ground of our humanity.

    Mises’s [book Human Action] is derived entirely from one universal axiom: “the axiom of action, ” as Murray Rothbard called it. This axiom states that men act purposefully.

    The ultimate “givens” of economies, according to von Mises, are the actions of human beings. But the simple observing and recording of actions is the task sf history – not of praxeology.

    “For the comprehension of action there is but one scheme of interpretation and analysis available, namely, that provided by the cognition and analysis of our own purposeful behavior.” We know how our thought processes work, and we can assume that other human beings think in the same way. According to von Mises; “There is only one logic that is intelligible to the human mind, and … there is only one mode of action which is human and comprehensible to the human mind.”

    I.e. at least as far as economics goes, we need to abandon all that empirical crap brought in by the likes of Galileo and go back to Aristotle. Rand also considered Aristotle the only philosopher worthy of the name.

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  23. RE: “Peter Boettke (George Mason University)” who gave part of the presentation, you can assume any right-radical (or transhumanist for that matter) economist or social scientist from George Mason University really works for the Mercatus Center, essentially a right-wing think tank though it retains some characteristics of earlier think tanks (i.e. not being a total propaganda mill, but a place where academics with screwy ideas can work out and publish them, and to the conferences as professors from George Mason University.)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercatus_Center
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Boettke

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  24. Objectivism is dumb, just like all other ethical philosophies applied systematically. However, there is something to be said for selfishness, which is what Adam Smith showed. Through the division of labor and free trade, people make use of their comparative advantages and maximize wealth creation. This is the moral basis for capitalism. Incredible wealth has been created through capitalism. Average Americans are living better than the kings of history. To deny this is folly.

    Like

  25. Glad you pointed to Nozick. Singer’s review is comprehensive and fair and notable for how weak his own response is. The Utilitarianism he suggests in contrast to Nozick’s political vision, beyond being thin, sounds ominous — almost Orwellian. I trust administrators to determine how much forcible redistribution is sufficient to “maximize” happiness as I trust Oceania to make cigarettes.

    I am tempted to say that capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others … oh, I did just say that.

    Seriously, though, I don’t think that anyone has touched Nozick. And Nozick certainly put the kabosh on Rawls, whom I never liked, if only for the artificiality of his Original Position, which had none of the intuitive strength of the State of Nature thought experiments it was designed to mimic. Another terrific critique of Rawls is Allan Bloom’s “John Rawls vs. the Tradition of Political Philosophy.”

    Click to access 1959094.pdf

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  26. “Group”, “Collectivism”, “Socialism”, “Capitalism”, “Profits”, “Objectivity”, “Flourishing” all need definition.

    Their definition come from our creation, and our creator. For a long time, our creator was a mystery. 10,000 religions proposed millions of creators and the like. Hinduism alone has more than a million divinities (including the mythical Jesus). However we now know biological evolution created us, and it is eloquent about the human condition.

    Thus evolution can answer the randy ranting of the Randians. Why so lecherous? I will explain, and a casual look at Rand’s life and her obsessions show why.

    Human beings are of course nothing without group and the collective. We are just super-baboons, and without the collective baboons would be just game for the large predators, and stuck up the trees, unable to get to grain, nuts, roots, tubers, and water.
    http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/human-minds-absolute-relative-baboon-like/

    Thus “socialism” is entirely natural. Many Western social institutions, including distribution of entertainment (circenses), money and food (panem) to the poor originated in the Roman empire.

    Emperor Trajan formalized the “Alimenta”, a welfare program that helped orphans and poor children throughout Italy. “Alimenta” provided general funds, as well as food and subsidized education.

    Around 750 CE the Franks, on their way to “renovate” the Roman empire (as they put it), instituted mandatory secular education, mandatorily imposed on all religious establishments. Earlier the Franks had brutally nationalized the church to pay for a giant army which broke the back of the Islamist Caliphate, as it tried to invade Europe frantically (721-748 CE).

    Neither the Franks, not the Romans can be suspected to be anything than the Atlases upon whom civilization rests.

    Now for another silliness: what is capital? Well, three million years ago, there was no capital, but for the territory patrolled by our ancestors’ collectives, and the culture they inherited from their parents.
    Capital has become enormous in the meantime. There are many sorts of capital, hence of capitalism.

    The USA’s welfare has depended heavily, for 150 years, upon fossil fuel capital. The USA has been the greatest producer of fossil fuel in the world (presently 22 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, ahead of Russia, twice Saudi Arabia).

    Oil and gas go a long way to explain the superiority of “American Capitalism”.

    If one does not have oil, one has to have ideas. However ideas form intellectual capital, and that’s hard to translate into profit. Ideas come from education. To make a profit out of education is nearly impossible (even so-called “private” universities in the USA would collapse without public support).

    As the Franks showed, the way to do education is to make it free, and mandatory. Here we observe the creation of a form of capital that does not arise from profit.

    The truth? The state organize a sector of the economy, the free market. In this playground, there are rules, and rewards (so-called “profits”), because otherwise it would be too boring to engage in these activities. And what’s the state? The commander of the ultimate collective, the military.

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  27. Jasen,

    “if one believes progressive taxes are philosophically morally justifiable then why?”

    Because one believes that (a) any strong degree of inequality is the result of unfair distribution of wealth and other resources (i.e., there is no such thing as a level plain field), and (b) one prefers to live in a society where those who can afford it contribute proportionally more to public expenses so to lessen the burden on those who cannot.

    “Nozick in particular is the philosopher’s response to a philosopher (Rawls) and argues quite well what is economically morally justifiable.”

    Well, I tend to side much more with Rawls, and besides, Nozick significantly backtracked on his early positions toward the end of his career. Regardless, at the least that sort of debate is between thoughtful people who argue in a philosophically intelligent manner. What I saw at the APA was a caricature of that ideal.

    Alexander,

    “I am not sure if “because it didn’t take human nature into account” is a good and sufficient explanation for the “failure” of “socialism”. I’d argue our modern mixed economy doesn’t take it into account either, and it seems to work quite well”

    I’m sure it isn’t a complete explanation, but I do think it’s a long way toward an explanation. And I disagree about your take with mixed systems: they do seem to balance the individualistic and communitarian aspects of human nature. Of course different mixed systems do it differently, and with more or less success.

    James,

    ” I would dispute only one point, namely your suggestion that I was trying to claim Adam Smith “for the Randian camp.” On the contrary, I was arguing that Smith is no Randian, and I meant to highlight some of the ways that they differ”

    Thank you for the clarification. I did get the impression, though, that you saw Smith sympathetically, which is why you also highlighted what you saw as several similarities between him and the Randian position. But good to know.

    Bill,

    “Ultimately the choice of an economic system is a moral decision, but it has to be based on a sound understanding of empirical facts”

    I certainly don’t disagree. The point that I was trying to make is rather that still far too many economists see their discipline as a science that delivers results quite independently of any moral judgment, like physics, say. It is far from that, partly because economic theories are massively underdetermined by the data, which means one can (and should) help oneself to extra-economic criteria whenever feasible, and an important class of such criteria comes from ethical considerations.

    xlrqstudios,

    “war defense budgets is a cherished ideologue of the objectivist and somehow falls outside the logic structure of their argument.”

    I agree, though to be fair, Rand did say that the only legitimate role of government is the protection of its citizens from violence. Whether that requires the gargantuan “defense” budget of the US government is, of course, highly debatable…

    “It’s okay to want war as an ideal”

    Not sure what you mean exactly there, but I’m almost sure I disagree…

    Scott,

    “Before we try to determine if capitalism is moral, immoral, or amoral, we need to nail down what is moral. I think a major dose of pragmatism is required.”

    Ah, that’s a whole other discussion, having to do with meta-ethics. I have written about it in the past, and as many readers know, my own approach falls along the lines of virtue ethics. But broadly speaking, seems to me that morality can be understood as having the function of regulating relations among members of a group, most broadly among members of the entire human species. So consideration for others is built right into it.

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  28. I’ve mentioned him before, but the person I look to as putting the kibosh on Rawls is Walter Kaufmann, in his “Without Guilt and Justice.”

    Beyond that, Kaufmann opened my eyes as to the main reason to put the kibosh on consequentialist theories of ethics of any sort — we simply cannot achieve the “view from nowhere.”

    Of course, to find Rawls problematic does not, by default, find capitalism moral.

    And, by that light, not to find capitalism moral does not mean by default to find it immoral either.

    Speaking of capitalism in the most generic sense, I find it amoral on the narrow meaning of that word.

    In other words, starting with Smith talking about capitalism as moral philosophy, that’s a wrong move.

    ===

    I find progressive taxes justifiable on pragmatic grounds. The wealthy arguably have a greater proportional stake in a stable society, rule of law, etc., than anybody else. If you or others call that “theft,” fine, we can (at least as a thought experiment) go back to Hobbes’ “Warre of all against all” and note that there will be a lot more people with lesser amounts of money than with more, and ask who you think will win.

    I also indirectly justify them on broader empirical grounds. Per what some rich Americans — ones who often oppose cutting the estate tax rate — note, a lot of being rich in modern America, when not due in part to the infrastructure and other apparatus that our taxes pay for, is due to …

    LUCK.

    It is most certainly not due to either some skills in Social Darwinism nor, to riff on “prosperity Gospel” Christians, is it a mark of blessing from and favor with god.

    It is rather one’s getting good in the non-mystical, non-metaphysical crapshoot part of life called “luck.”

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  29. A number of remarks, some stray. (Some is in response to Socratic — for some reason, I was only able to specifically reply, once, and now I no longer get a ‘reply’ button.)

    1. There is an artificiality to the entire discussion — not here, but generally. To ascribe “moral” or “immoral” like a thumbs-up / thumbs-down to a massive, complex entity like a polity or economy strikes me s hopelessly simplistic. Certainly one can imagine extremes, in which entire political systems are easily identified as “immoral” — say, North Korea — but the overwhelming majority of cases are simply too complex to apply simple labels. There are goods and bads to liberal/capitalist systems and goods and bads to socialist/democratic systems.

    2. That Nozick backtracked does not mean that the late Nozick is right and the early Nozick is wrong. I find Anarchy, State, and Utopia better than any of his later backtrackings. (Maybe the pressure of all his colleagues hating his politics got to him. =) )

    3. One needn’t justify capitalism — or opposition to substantial, deep redistribution — on the basis of any robust notion of dessert. One can justify it simply on one’s mistrust of the capacity of large scale administrative structures or bureaucracies to exercise wisdom in human affairs. (See my Oceanic cigarettes point.)

    4. Luck is always a factor, and it is one measure of our collective immaturity, vis a vis our Greek predecessors, that we want to try and “manage” its role in human affairs or even deny it. Re: Socratic’s point — I see no reason why I should be punished when luck goes my way, but have to eat it, when it goes against me.

    5. The esteem with which Rawls is held is something I have never understood. His history of philosophy is terrible — see Bloom’s critique, which I linked — his “Original Position” is artificial and uncompelling, as a proxy for the State of Nature — and it seems to me rather obviously a work in which the author already knew the conclusion he wanted and tried to find an argument for it. I see nothing in it that renders it an improvement to liberalism over Locke and any number of things that render it a devolution. I wonder whether it is so popular, less because it is really good, then because it told a certain class of people what they already wanted to hear and because it was really the only game in town, political philosophy being one of the weaker sub-fields, in the 20th century.

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  30. I’ll tackle the “flip side of luck” issue, and respond on Rawls and other things.

    4. For businesses, relatively lenient bankruptcy laws, a tax code that rewards investment in R&D, that allows for depreciation of various assets, all help one to avoid eating the worst of bad luck.

    Ditto for higher-income individuals on bankruptcy laws. Also, investments can be shifted from year to year to take advantage of various tax breaks. There’s various items in the tax code for “self-incorporation,” using that loosely, as an LLC, LP, or whatever.

    Also, the federal regulatory apparatus, in good times and in bad, is a safety net in that it is the assurer (theoretically) of a certain level of quality in your product or service.

    And, good friend Existentialist Comics has tackled Nozick vs. Rawls! http://existentialcomics.com/comic/38

    5. Totally agreed on Rawls, on all points. He’s another poster child for refuting the likes of Chris Mooney when he claims that only conservatives engage in “motivated reasoning.”

    3 (and 5) get at the previous two essays as well. Various ideas of justice, as well as economic structures, can be addressed from a variety of pragmatic stances without invoking ethics. That’s not to say that neither one can be addressed under ethics as well, but only that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    Beyond that, trying to find a Platonic Ideal for something like “justice” can be an issue: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/44

    1. This is why, on my blog, I call myself a skeptical left-liberal. (Left-liberal in American terms, re your previous note about European vs. American political parties.) There are various political ideas that I support, but that I know have no guarantees of producing the “liberal” results desired.

    Indeed, Rawlsian ideas of economic (and other) “fairness”? Sounds great. The reality? To be honest, at times, I would halfway apply Paul’s “not even wrong” epithet to his actual thought.

    Related to your political comments: I do wish we had a multiparty parliamentary system here! 😦

    ===

    To be snarky, and get back to that Existentialist Comics link to Bentham vs Foot I posted, I can “justify” large-scale income redistribution under quasi-Randian cloak, in the claim that I am a mystical, guruistic, panpsychic Objectivist. Did I butcher enough sacred cows there?

    Massimo, this comic is for you… David Chalmers! http://existentialcomics.com/comic/59

    And, speaking of book reviews, Peter Singer meets a Utility Monster: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/8

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  31. Even American “liberal” politics is to the right of the French National Front.
    Aravis said that the USA was a good place, see how bad a place France is. Bad mouthing France is a most honorable occupation in the USA. Decades of Rand ranting, and the like, is the reason why.

    The fascization of American politics started thanks to Nixon and McCarthy, in the early 1950s. “In God We Trust” was passed by Congress in 1954.

    Simultaneously, the Civil Right Movement was highly successful to give in reality to people of color the rights they had in the United Nation Charter (itself an evolution from the principle of the French Revolution of 1789, and thus an explanation of the anger of so many American intellectuals against France, as all too many are closet racist, or something similar).

    On the face of it, the “Civil Right Movement” ought to have been nothing: the great empires which founded the present civilization, the Greco-Roman, and the Imperium Francorum, were not racist.

    Official racism in the USA was extravagant, an outlier, a sort of rage only inferior societies doomed to annihilation have engaged in. Killing about 3% of the population of the USA (the “Civil” War, actually the most uncivil civil war known, this side of Rwanda), solved the problem. In part.

    Deluded aggrandizement of the “Civil Right Movement” is why the stripping of the Banking Act of 1933 (“Glass-Seagal”) could be done under Clinton, without anybody noticing.

    The Civil Right Movement unwittingly turned into being used as a cover-up for something much more dangerous: plutocratization. Civilizations have flourished, because of capital large enough to muster great armies, which, in turn, defended cities (that’s where the “civis” comes from).

    However armies function according to the Fascist Principle (one mind, one body), which gives them body and soul. Thus the army which makes the civilization possible is in danger of falling into a few hands (like in North Korea). Moreover, capital grows proportionally to itself, so those hands who control the most capital, especially if it is invisible, will become richer faster.

    Hence all civilizations can fall into plutocracies. What’s a plutocracy? An oligarchy so vicious, it rules not just with money, but with demonic means (“Pluto”). Historically, most societies were plutocracies. Human beings, though, are (evolutionary) made for democracy, instead of taking their order from “The Lord”.

    The impressive reforms away from plutocracy by the Roosevelts and Eisenhower, have been rolled back. Many people made a career to help with this roll-back. One ought to call them plutophiles. Randians are typical plutophiles: Alan Greenspan, a loud admirer of Rand, did his utmost to destroy the separation between banking and theft. Plutophiles spend their time seducing plutocrats, that’s their career.

    Naturally in 2008, half the plutocrats got all the money the other half had stolen from banks, and the public was asked to replenish the stolen banks, hence the deprived thieves. So here we are. Plutocratic, aka “derivative”, trading is 12 times world GDP.

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  32. ej,

    “She spoke to my adolescent consciousness and my wish to find moral justification for my youthful belief in my own obviously superior capacities that no one seemed to notice at the time but myself”

    Precisely. I never went through that phase myself (she is virtually unknown in Italy), but I can sympathize. What astonishes me is when intelligent, well read adults show no inkling of leaving that adolescent phase behind them…

    “George H. Smith’s “Atheism: the Case Against God.””

    I read it when I didn’t know of his connections to Rand, and I thought it was well written. Except I remember the puzzlement at his discussion of the idea that the military should be privatized. Now I know what he was talking about.

    Aravis,

    “before we all smugly dismiss her for her “irrelevance” it is worth remembering that more people have read and will read her books than anything any of us have written, by orders of magnitude.”

    Yes, I know. But as you also are well aware of, by that standard Jenny McCartney is much more influential than any sane medical doctor when it comes to vaccinations, so there you have it.

    “if only for the artificiality of his Original Position, which had none of the intuitive strength of the State of Nature thought experiments it was designed to mimic”

    We may have to disagree there. The veil of ignorance has always struck me as brilliant and obviously true. Which doesn’t mean I would trust Oceania to make cigarettes…

    “That Nozick backtracked does not mean that the late Nozick is right and the early Nozick is wrong.”

    Not per se, but I think he backtracked for good reasons.

    “One can justify it simply on one’s mistrust of the capacity of large scale administrative structures or bureaucracies to exercise wisdom in human affairs.”

    Right, except that capitalism has brought us multinational corporations, which are unelected and unaccountable large scale administrative structures or bureaucracies.

    Sword,

    “If you were disappointed by this conference session in not learning new things about Objectivism, or hearing a lack of careful arguments for positions taken, perhaps I might suggest a look at the essays and dialogues on my blog.”

    No disrespect, but I think I’ve given Objectivism and related ideas far too much of my limited time on this plane of existence.

    Hal,

    “It’s sometimes said that by accepting a logically fallacious premise, one can prove anything. It intrigues me that “Existence exists” might be construed as a set being a member of itself, which Russell’s Paradox showed (with a very short proof) will get you into deep doo doo.”

    Nice! Here is my take on Rand’s “epistemology”: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/11/about-objectivism-part-ii-epistemology.html

    Jake,

    “This is the moral basis for capitalism. Incredible wealth has been created through capitalism. Average Americans are living better than the kings of history. To deny this is folly.”

    But I still don’t see why increasing wealth is a moral thing. Wealth and morality seem entirely orthogonal to me.

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  33. Right, except that capitalism has brought us multinational corporations, which are unelected and unaccountable large scale administrative structures or bureaucracies.

    This has always baffled me. Why would anyone put more trust in a multinational corporation to act in his or her best interest than an elected government – even if that government is a large bureaucracy? Am I really better off getting health coverage from a for-profit private insurance company than the government?

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  34. If there is one lesson my years of amateur, real world philosophizing has taught me is Huxley’s admonition about trying to convince someone whose paycheck depends on holding the opposing view. Certainly it has been pointed out that those in the Randian camp, from Greenspan on down, are richly rewarded for arguing that position, given the profits from privatizing all aspects of the public commons. Now while I’m sure many holding the opposing arguments feel obligated to defend them, for those of us on the outside, this academic sparring is a little too ritualized. Like Sumo wrestling, the rules are so ingrained, no one thinks to step outside them and nothing really happens. Does anyone seriously think that should the veneer of civil morality wear a little too thin over the powers that be, that they would see the light and bend to these academic arguments? Or would they do as they always do and just hire slightly louder, flashier and more belligerently juvenile spokesmodels and tougher security to back them up?

    So why not step back a little and look at the bigger picture. Capitalism started, theoretically, as a method of transferring value around the economy. It became, at the same time, a method of extracting value out of the economy, by those managing it. Those profits held so dear. Now, in its late stages, has become an enormous, cancerous bubble of notational value, far exceeding the size of the economy on which it is based. How did this come to be? Money represents hope and desire and humanity is either led with hope, or herded with fear. So when this bubble of delusional hope does finally and completely explode, as all possible resources have been sacrificed to support its continuance, the tide will turn and you will find the opposite effect come to rule, that of paranoid fear and presumably most of us know which sector of society and the economy would benefit most from that and it’s safe to say, they would be quite reluctant to relinquish that power, once they have it. Safe to say, even current Masters of the Universe will not be safe, as they will make useful scapegoats to throw to the masses.

    So we can either continue these quant little academic sparring matches, or we can start to examine the actual forces at work and how they might be headed off at the pass, if at all possible.

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  35. Jim Lippard wrote:

    Check out Jonathan Wolff, _Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State_ (1991, Stanford University Press).

    ——————–

    Read it in graduate school more than once. Not at all impressed. My point re: Nozick stands.

    ———————

    Socratic wrote:

    Related to your political comments: I do wish we had a multiparty parliamentary system here! 😦

    ——————–

    So tiny, fringe extremist parties can hijack the government, when mainstream Right and Left are equally balanced? No thanks. Parliamentary government is responsible for Israel’s political woes; it’s responsible for BNP in Britain. It’s responsible for the basket case politics that is Italian government. Yuck. Systems like ours are no panacea, but they are way better than parliaments.

    ———————

    Massimo wrote:

    Yes, I know. But as you also are well aware of, by that standard Jenny McCartney is much more influential than any sane medical doctor when it comes to vaccinations, so there you have it.

    ————————

    Your example makes my point. Better not dismiss McCarthy, unless you want her persuading an awful lot of people not to get vaccinations. Your example is an argument *for* engaging the person and their ideas, not for dismissing them as “irrelevant.”

    ——————–

    Socratic on bankruptcy laws: Bankruptcy laws protect debtors not creditors. My father was unable to collect rent on half of a commercial property — thousands of square feet — because one of his tenants declared bankruptcy. Real Estate laws also generally favor tenants, not landlords. Good luck trying to evict someone, even if they don’t pay for months…or years.

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  36. Aravis, I don’t think it is worth engaging with McCarthy, or any true believer. But it is worth engaging in public discourse *about* what these people are saying. Hence the current post.

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  37. Rawls won the Nozickian rivalry in sheer volume of global literature distribution (distributive, rather retributive, justice being the goal). You can probably get a copy of Theory of Justice in cursive braille.

    Rand was important before the Internet (which would have revealed to her knowledge she resisted, or else she really wanted to own “objectivism,” and if so its well deserved for present and future criticism as exemplary modern cynicism). An “Ownership Society” would revere in her success, preferably for themselves, of course, in their own selfish lifetimes (sufficiently articulated by our former President raised on oil).

    Capitalism is impossible without laws and armies to defend and protect it, which ironically are socialistic. Americans have reliably always been against taxes, which is mistaken sentiment for having vanquished slavery, too. So, whatever the powers that be, recognize them, and remember they are also sentient mortals, too, just like yourself. You should try to make their ignorance less severe. How severe?

    That’s the difference between philosophers and non-philosophers, that the nons simply fail to recognize the error of mistaken identity (and all consequent argument track) and mistaken expectations (fatalism), as pseudo-philosophers claim there is no such mistake (because it was never taught at home, at church, or in prison, wherever fate landed them). Rand never realized how her philosophy could present so many problems, which is interesting because it is the same turning away as the flat earth ghost whisperers.

    How can problems be solved if they are mis-identified? The problem of morality is not lack of selfishness, as Rand claimed, but rather lack of recognition. Keeping the recognition minimal enables a minority to rule over a majority.

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  38. As an aside, take a look at Picketty’s “Capitalism”. r > g is the key to 21st century economics! I’ve just started it & find his intro chapter much more illuminating than any of the review I previously read.

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  39. Massimo,

    I’m sure it isn’t a complete explanation, but I do think it’s a long way toward an explanation. And I disagree about your take with mixed systems: they do seem to balance the individualistic and communitarian aspects of human nature.

    This is obviously not the real point of the post, so I don’t want to derail too much.

    The usual claim about socialism not taking human nature into account focuses on one single aspect of human nature – egoism – and depends on a strange understanding of what socialism is about – taking very starry-eyed utopian-communist subset of the diversity of socialist factions as a place-holder for all of them. Marxism, for example, very much takes egoism into account and has a very combative view of human history. Instead of saying “wouldn’t it be nice if we all shared” it sees the world dominated by egoistical interests and merely calls on the working class to unite against their real, common enemy instead of quarrelling amongst themselves.

    Perhaps even more importantly, was starry eyed utopian faith in human kindness, rationality and generosity really what dominated the communist countries that existed in real life? Surely not.

    A better argument can be made that they failed because a planned economy is simply not a good idea for a complex industrial society in peacetime (although it is ideal for times of total war, as demonstrated by everybody converging on directed industry during those times). In addition, the eastern bloc was never the wealthiest part of the planet even before communism, so people in the late stage USSR comparing their life with that of Western Germans or Americans and clamouring for capitalism was perhaps a rather naive comparison – is Russia as wealthy as the USA now, under capitalism? (And is that level of wealth long term sustainable in the first place?)

    As for our mixed economies, one thing that strikes me regularly is how profoundly damaging the hire and fire mentality is to human psychology. What people crave is security, the knowledge that they will still be able to feed their children in five or ten years, and stability, so that they can settle down, have long term friendships, and plan ahead. What they get is outsourcing of their job to Bangladesh, the need to move to different cities or even countries as they search for the next job, and constant technological changes that threaten to make their qualifications obsolete. And this “creative destruction” is seen as beneficial! It may work as an economic system for those who do the outsourcing, but it is not a healthy style of living from the perspective of human nature. And that is before we come to supermarket food and suchlike…

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  40. Massimo, ceteris paribus, is it moral to create more wealth for humanity? Don’t you think it’s immoral to destroy wealth? If a policy inhibits wealth creation, isn’t that a moral knock against it? I don’t understand how you don’t think there is any moral import to wealth creation and policies that would hamper it.

    Also, you said: “Right, except that capitalism has brought us multinational corporations, which are unelected and unaccountable large scale administrative structures or bureaucracies.”

    Corporations are different from governments. If there is competition and good regulation, corporations are more accountable than government. I get the feeling that you don’t understand the different incentives facing government and the private sector. You don’t have to be ideological to recognize the differences. Public choice theory analyzes government incentives. Voting and purchasing are two very different activities, for instance. People have more incentive to be rational about their purchases because it affects them personally, whereas the likelihood of someone’s vote deciding an election is infinitesimal, so there is virtually no incentive to be informed. Government bureaucracy is different because it doesn’t have to compete. There aren’t incentives to downsize and streamline and be efficient because they face no competition. This is the reason to be more pessimistic about government bureaucracy.

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  41. There are a number of problems with any economic theory that is based in any notion of ‘rights.’ The first is that such a theory tends to be a-historical. The whole notion that some sort of capitalism is historically necessary is as false as the notion that it has a determined beginning in a recent century. Capitalism is there as soon as the first symbolic wealth exchange appears, and this has a history of many centuries – but it is certainly not globally universal throughout that history.

    In a similar manner, we can see that any attempt to hypostasize ‘rights’ is a falsification of the diversity and contingency of human reality. Rights are generated within a given culture, and the notion has uses – political, ideological, legal, social, culture – but they exist nowhere else but within the bounds of such use. Any claim to right in a given culture where such ‘right’ is not universally recognized (within the culture), is a purely political move to attain political ends or economic; depending on the context, these ends may be just or unjust, but the question of justice derives from elsewhere, a complex development out of a simple recognition of our shared humanity. (If justice is too strong a word here – and it probably is, given its history in both ethical and political discourse – then let us simply refer to it as fair-play, born of human sympathy.)

    So, any notion that there could be a ‘right’ to property or a ‘right’ to wealth (earned or otherwise gained), whether derived from god or nature or some metaphysical whatever, is simply false. Rights are generated in political discourse and activity, and a society can always change or eliminate whatever ‘rights’ it inherits, or generate new rights as it pleases.

    This is not to disparage the use of claim-of-right political discourse – such is inevitable in a complex society with representative-democratic aspirations within a republican structure of government. And each claim must be weighed appropriately in terms of the interests of the individuals and of the society as a whole.

    Here economic claims of right need be treated cautiously within a culture of increasing complexity and diversity, and where the gulf between the wealth and opportunity of a minority and those of a majority becomes so wide as to threaten the stability of the society as a whole. American economies, both in relation to the global community, and fragmented between many different interest groups domestically, are far too complex and diversified to reduce to the kind of simplistic modeling we get from libertarians, Objectivist or otherwise.

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  42. Re (Alexander): “Marxism, for example, very much takes egoism into account and has a very combative view of human history. Instead of saying “wouldn’t it be nice if we all shared” it sees the world dominated by egoistical interests and merely calls on the working class to unite against their real, common enemy instead of quarrelling amongst themselves.”

    I was thinking exactly the same thing. Quite a lot of political tendencies put some effort into understanding human nature, but more importantly think they are hard-headedly realistic about it whereas their opponents live in a fantasy land.

    I think a better explanation is When the whole world is seen as a problem to solve, the “solutions” will tend to look like:
    (1) Establish control over the world.
    (2) Irrelevant, as you will never get to step 2.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re a Marxist or Objectivist. Yes, certainly to redistribute all property you must start by establishing complete mastery over the problem domain. This leads to very likely domination by the most paranoid and ruthless (Stalinism, Maoism)
    But if you have the “leave me alone” philosophy, and you don’t just say “I’d like to be left alone; to be as free and independent as possible” but set out to build a world in which everyone must be “left alone” you may be driven to do something very similar, such as make the electoral process manipulable via the institutions and money possessed by your particular “save the world” committee — the one trying to make sure that everybody gets to be “left alone”.

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  43. Aravis wrote: “In fact, American politics is not radical at all. In truth, the centers of both parties are not very far apart, and this comprises the overwhelming majority of the electorate.”

    Well for a while there (admittedly some time ago!) you had Charles E. Coughlin who had a huge following.

    If the economy goes really bad, these types of movements tend to spring up, no?

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  44. Hi Aravis,

    No thanks. Parliamentary government is responsible for Israel’s political woes; it’s responsible for BNP in Britain. It’s responsible for the basket case politics that is Italian government. Yuck. Systems like ours are no panacea, but they are way better than parliaments.

    It sounds like your objection is not to parliaments, but rather to proportional representation rather than a first-past-the-post system. The UK Parliament is elected by f-p-t-p, much like the US House, and there has never been a BNP Member of Parliament.

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  45. Jake,

    “ceteris paribus, is it moral to create more wealth for humanity?”

    Ah, but that’s the tricky part! That clause implies “if we do things as morally and justly as possible,” which may be incompatible with certain forms of capitalism.

    “Corporations are different from governments. If there is competition and good regulation, corporations are more accountable than government”

    First off, the empirical evidence clearly says otherwise, at this point. Second, accountable to whom? Shareholders, perhaps. Maybe consumers (maybe), but not to society at large. Capitalism, when it works, maximizes economic efficiency, but has intrinsically nothing to do with maximizing things like justice and fairness.

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