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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thoughts on Objectivism

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I'll try to list exactly why I don't like Ayn Rand. I've actually done a fair amount of reading up on objectivism, and what it basically boils down to is a single, central tenet: There is no objective "good." Good refers exclusively to good for an entity. Furthermore, objectivism explicitly denies that one man's gain must come from another's loss (note: Due to the fact that the value of money is tied to the fact that there is a limited supply of it, this is bullshit by definition, but when money is circulating around frequently enough it tends to appear that it isn't). Finally, we come to the role of the state. Certain political scientists draw a distinction between "Positive Liberty", which means that the state actively enables the freedom to do things by providing the means to do them, and "Negative Liberty", which means that the state does not actively restrict the freedom to do things by regulating them. Rand was a huge believer in limiting the state to the defense of negative liberty. In short, Rand is what we'd call a classical liberal or libertarian - modern liberalism is largely defined by its commitment to positive liberty.

On its own, this philosophy is not inherently invalid. I disagree with it, but that doesn't make it invalid. However, like classical liberalism, its real-world application is predicated on the following assumptions:
A) All people are trustworthy and honest, and they will do the right thing without being coerced to do so.

B) Coercion stems exclusively from the government.

C) All people have equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background.

D) Your position in society relates directly and exclusively to how hard you are willing to work.

These assumptions are why people who disagree with Rand, such as myself, take every opportunity to rake objectivism over the coals. Let's pick apart the flaws here:

A) This is blatantly not true. If it were, we wouldn't need government anyway. Furthermore, as objectivism states that there is no objective good, "doing the right thing" here means doing the right thing for the individual. That second thing isn't by definition a problem, until we come to the next assumption:

B) The cardinal sin of objectivism is coercion and the use of force to achieve an economic end. This is where the philosophy's inherent cognitive dissonance kicks in - the assumption that only the government can coerce people into something. Because the philosophy assumes people's inherent goodness, it also assumes that they won't, say, monopolize oil and then charge through the nose for it, or hire private troops to fire on striking workers, or underpay people so drastically that they'll die of starvation if they don't work the insane hours you tell them to. Unfortunately, as anyone who's studied the industrial revolution in America can tell you, those examples were all too real. Objectivism's only answer to the worker who is coerced by a corporation is to redirect them to the next assumption:

C) Technically, this is true. Technically, nothing is stopping you from going out into the world, inventing a new product, and marketing it until you become a zillionaire with your own corporate empire. The catch is, it's somewhat difficult to do all this when you're working a 20 hour day in an unregulated factory for a man who thinks that the only good result of paying his workers enough to survive is that they can make more money for him that way. It's good for him, therefore it's good. Meanwhile, the despondent, oppressed worker with the dreams of the future and the willingness to work his ass off to make it happen is kicked one more time into the final, and most degrading, tenet of the philosophy:

D) This is where the philosophy moves from merely fallacious and factually flawed to being downright insulting. "But wait a moment," cries the objectivist, "both the man at the top and the man at the bottom began with nothing, didn't they? Surely the fact that one is rich and the other works for him is simply the result of one being more skilled. If the poor man were more skilled than the rich, then the dynamic would have been reversed." This is the underlying fallacy behind objectivism as economic policy: We all have equal opportunity, and the same liberty that I have, every human being has without the need for qualification or protection of that liberty.

This aspect of objectivism is objectively wrong. Perhaps once, long ago, we really did all start from nothing, but now the outcome of your life is determined more by who your great grandparents were and where you were lucky or unlucky enough to be born than it is by the result of your efforts. Let's use me as an example. My parents both grew up broke - my dad in South Boston, my mom in South Africa. Both were intellectual enough to make it out and attend college, then law school. Even with my father having been laid off for two years and counting, and my mother working part time, my family's income is probably in the top 1% of users on this site (no, I won't tell you what it is.) That's all well and good for them - both are pure success stories by Rand's standards. Both worked their asses off, and because of that hard work, both succeeded. Now, let's factor me into the picture. I attend a private school with a tuition higher than what most people make in a year (before you crucify me, you should probably know that I'm on very heavy financial aid due to the aforementioned situation with my dad.) I've never had to work my way up from anything, and unless the economy gets far, far worse in the next year I will never have to. And yet, chances are very good that I'll attend a fantastic school and get a high paying job simply because I was born lucky.

As we peel away Rand's assumptions one by one, we find that this is the core of everything: How much of what you do with your life can you control? I'd argue not very much. I've tutored kids from the DC public school system who think and act at a fifth grade level and read at a second grade level, through no fault of their own. These kids desperately want to learn - it's entirely their choice to attend the tutoring - but because they were born into poverty in the city with the worst public schools in the country, they are blocked. These are kids who learn faster than I ever did, and genuinely want to work, but can't.

The natural human reaction to injustice is to try to help the one wronged. Rand offers another suggestion: Let them starve. Ayn Rand followed a principle she called Rational Self-Interest. She viewed actions as rational if and only if they were done primarily for the benefit of the self. Consequently, she looked down on Altruism, which as classically defined means self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Rand boils down to this: Self sacrifice is always, and by definition, a bad thing. Self interest is a good thing when your results come from your own work. Self interest is bad when the results come from someone else's work. In practice, this means that to Rand, an industrialist slicing his own salary to assist those working for him - i.e. benefiting from the industrialist's genius - is sacrificing himself to aid in the bad kind of self interest of his workers, and is therefore doing a bad thing.

Hopefully, the implications of this are starting to come clear. Unfortunately, these did not occur to Ayn Rand. Her heroes are without exception self-made leaders, visionaries held back only by the chains of the less visionary. The concept at work here is called the Sanction of the Victim - Evil exists because good people allow it to exist. This is the source of the title Atlas Shrugged - Atlas sacrifices himself to carry the world on his back, and in shrugging and finally casting off the world which only exists by its subjugation of him, he is virtuous and victorious.

Rand sees in black and white, with no understanding of the concept of a gray area. I've never read Atlas Shrugged, but I have suffered through The Fountainhead and rolled on the floor laughing at the absurdity of Anthem. Her heroes are invariably self made men, and her villains are invariably government bureaucrats who actively try to thwart progress in the name of a warped vision of collectivism while in reality leeching off the progress of great men to advance themselves with no effort. The book actually goes so far as to call them "Looters". To call these antagonists strawmen would be to insult that term - a half-stuffed scarecrow could be considered a photorealistic representation of Arnold Schwarzenegger more easily than one could spot any connection between Randian villains and the beliefs actually held by any person, alive or dead.

Supporters of the novel have done little to help their case - one reviewer told Rand that "You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you."

There is a length limit on posts, and I've pretty much exhausted my knowledge / what I can be bothered to pull off wikipedia at the moment, so this'll be pretty much it for my rant. If anyone disagrees with me, please feel free to let me know and come up with a good reason why I'm wrong. I'm all ears.
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