February 13, 2006

An Atheist Refutes Objectivism

As one might expect, a group like the Rationalists of East Tennessee attracts a number of Ayn Rand adherents. Sunday, The Wife and I got to deal with quite a few of these sorts in an otherwise-fascinating discussion of how the Montessori Method works in the education of young children.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ayn Rand and her philosophy of "Objectivism," it examines human relations, ethical questions, and in particular the concept of freedom. Objectivism is avowedly atheist in its world view: we are here on this earth, now, and that's it. It further posits that humans are, fundamentally, reasonable and logical beings who, with enough clear thought, will behave reasonably to realize one's own happiness, and she takes a generally Aristotelean view of what happiness is. Thus a reasonable life, Rand argues persuasively, is a productive one; an idle life is both unhappy and contrary to logic. There is only this life and what we do with it; to have the life and do nothing with it would be foolish and wasteful.

But that's all internal. Political philosophy is the enactment of these ideas to the state and to human society, and in that respect, the Objectivist holds that there is ultimately only one right that impacts anything external to oneself: the right to own property. Since there is only this life on this world, what do we do with our time? At the end of the day, Rand says, the only thing that we can do is acquire and dispose of things that is what property truly is. Even life itself a property right because one begins life owning one's own body. Liberty, too, is a form of a property right because it involves the ability of one to do with one's property (including one's own body) as one pleases. So since life is about being productive, and being productive requires society to enforce property rights, society is therefore all about property and should be structured to maximize the freedom to use that property.

In terms of a productivity and property-centered society, the real question for modern Americans is whether you own your things, or whether you are owned by them. Acquiring material goods simply does not make people happy. And to be fair, Rand does not claim that it does; materials, property, possessions, and wealth are utlimately to her the byproducts of a productive, rational, happy life.

Rand's philosophy strongly objects to the redistributionist state as antiethical to liberty and human happiness. I think that Rand raises an important objection to the modern state-run social welfare system by pointing out that in practice, the well-meaning system seems to create more poverty than it eliminates, and therefore is counter-productive. Her concepts also have a natural appeal in that human nature seems to incorporate capitalism on an instinctual level. Capitalist activity occurs in all human societies, during all phases of history. That is people people naturally do things that they believe will make them better off for having done them. Rand runs with that ball, claiming that when people freely engage in a transaction, it is to their mutual advantage to do so, and therefore the transaction is morally good. The converse of this idea is that if a transaction were leave one worse off than they were before, the transaction would morally bad -- but if a voluntary transaction, Rand would say that the transaction was irrational and therefore both contrary to man's fundamental reasonable and logical nature as well as non-productive (since a logical, rational person chooses to be productive).

Thus, taxes are morally bad for two reasons, not just because the government extorts taxes through the threat of force, but also because the taxpayer receives less benefit back from the government after paying taxes than the value of the money paid in taxes. An enlightened taxpayer may consent to pay a certain amount of taxes to fund a minimal government necessary to enforce property rights, but no more than that.

Thus, the most evil and destructive figure in all of history, to Rand, is Robin Hood. Because he made the poor dependent on his largesse, they did not do the things they needed to do to lift themselves out of poverty. Because he stole from the rich, the rich become poor as well. And he did it all through the threat of violence.

So Rand proposes an atheistic world view that is based on the premise of maximizing personal liberty. Sounds like a great fit for me, and yet I reject it. Why?

Understanding both Rand's background (as an young girl, she was a refugee from Soviet Russia in the days when the Bolsheviks were running the show and things were starting to get really bloody) and when she was active as a writer (in the late forties and fifties, when Communism as an ideology appeared to be growing in power globally and forming itself as the diametrical opposite of the United States' capitalist ideals) helps understand the vituperative tone of much of Rand's writing. Unfortunately, her absolute insistence on doctrine seems to be the most enduring facet of her teachings: you are either for freedom or you are against it, she wrote, and there is no middle ground. And at the end of the day freedom really means property.

And people find things to exchange for greater value all the time, Rand says. No one is really poor; they just don't participate in the exchange of goods and services properly. Take friendship, for instance. Viewed economically, friendship is a transaction, a barter of services: I will be your friend if you are my friend in return. The value of having friendship from another is exceedingly high, while the cost of giving friendship, is very low. Thus, viewed through Rand's moral lens of economic value, friends are engaged in a mutually beneficial exchange of services, and therefore friendship is a good and desirable thing. Everyone has the ability to sell their labor, and if you sell your labor for its true maximum value, you will find that you quickly find yourself in a position to start accumulating material wealth. Your ability to use that wealth to boost your earning potential is limited only by your desires and abilities to do so, and through the magic of Adam Smith's invisible hand, your entirely self-motivated and greedy efforts to amass wealth, you have made a valuable contribution to society! Therefore, society should be structured to maximize the ability of everyone to engage in those kinds of transactions, because they are ultimately to everyone's benefit.

This is all so much hogwash, if you ask me. Man's fundamental nature is not purely logical or reasonable. We are not Vulcans or computers. Like any other living thing, Man's primary instinct is to survive. Because we are evolved from reactive forms of life, we make unreasonable decisions from time to time, motivated by emotions like fear and love. Fear and love are fundamental parts of human nature, and Rand rejects them. So Rand is doomed from the start because her premise about human nature is incorrect.

Sunday night, after briefly summarizing the concept of Objectivism to The Wife and explaining how Rand's system worked at the denouement of Atlas Shrugged, The Wife asked why I, someone who considers myself to have a strong libertarian take on the world and how it should be organized, would reject such a belief system. My answer was that not everything in life could be examined though an economic lens and not everything can be understood in terms of property rights. By playing only that one note, over and over again, Rand misses out on the fact that human existence is about more than the accumulation of wealth.

The example of this I came up with was to imagine that I had the super-surgical brain eraser, and I wanted you to sell me the ability to read. I would pay you "X" dollars, and in exchange, you would allow me to use this science-fiction device to permanently erase the ability to read from your mind. Never mind why I would do such a thing -- I would't propose it if it weren't to my advantage to do so. So how much money would I have to pay you for you to agree to do that? The answer any rational person would give would be, "I would never consent to that, no matter how large a figure 'X' is." The ability to read conveys value and enriches life in ways that cannot be reduced to quantifiable units of utility, much less of money.

Obviously such a device does not exist. But there are analogues which do. Personal liberty does exist. And like everything else, that liberty can be sold -- and indeed, it should be, at least in small parcels of time. Selling one's labor is, in effect, selling one's liberty. I sell my time, and my ability to do what I please in that time, to my employer in exchange for a certain quantity of dollars. So, after agreeing to the transaction, my employer gets the right to tell me what to do, and I have to do it. That's the employment relationship to Rand, a labor-for-money contract. Rand lived in an America where labor was scarce enough, and economic opportunities plentiful enough, that she did not seriously question whether a worker's ability to earn a living could exist in the first place.

So normally labor is sold in eight- to nine-hour blocks of time. But Rand would object, strenuously, to putting a limit on the amount of time for which labor could be sold. If I can sell my time from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., why not sell it until 6:00? Or midnight? Or for a week, or even a year, in a single transaction? If I can realize greater value for the sale of my time or, rather, the liberty to do as I please in that period of time, in larger and larger blocks of time, then the law should not stop me. Rather than working for $15 an hour, I might agree to accept an annual salary of $45,000. If I work 2,000 hours a year, I'm better off taking the salary than the hourly wage, after all -- and if my employer offers me the salary, then it must by definition be to our mutual advantage to do that.

All well and good, but what then is to stop a person from literally selling themselves into slavery? For a lump sum of money, I might sell all of my time to an employer. The pure Objectivist ultimately cannot object to such a transaction. Now, I would only contemplate doing such a thing if my circumstances were sufficiently desperate -- and a desperate seller of labor will not only sell an unreasonably long block of their time, but also will do it for an unreasonably low price and permit an unreasonable degree of intrusion into his liberty, all out of desperation. And the ultra-minimalist state that Rand would permit to exist will do nothing but enforce the terms of the voluntary transaction. Randians them must stand back and explain how this isn't really slavery since it was originally a voluntary transaction, and the real solution is for people to be educated about the true value of their liberty so they won't engage in transactions like that. To which I say, who will provide that education, since it sure isn't going to be the state?

Rand wrongfully pooh-poohs objections like the Tragedy of the Commons. If a scarce resource is overexploited and becomes unavailable to future generations, someone will be clever enough to think of a substitute because of the potential to become wealthy selling it. This is no longer a valid way of looking at the world, if indeed it ever was. What is the substitute for clean air or clean water or a functional high-atmosphere ozone layer? Iodine tablets, sunscreen, and respirator masks? Certain kinds of environmental goods simply cannot be replaced. There is no acceptable substitute for food. And when environmental resources become scarce, the wealth of a society dwindles and the society risks collapse.

Indeed, liberty itself will become a scarce resource in a hyper-libertarian society, and for all of Rand's disclaimers to the contrary, she advocates a microscopic government, so minimal a state apparatus as even Robert Nozick would discard the model as ineffective. So there must be limits on the exercise of economic liberty, or else there will be no liberty at all. Finding the social and legal balance point which maximizes liberty and wealth, while still preserving and sustaining it, is a very tricky business which defies simple, dogmatic solutions.

Leaving aside the fact that Ayn Rand's utopian ideals are ultimately every bit as self-destructive as the collectivist states to which she was so vehemently opposed, I also object that that the value of life cannot be reduced to the simple accumulation of wealth. This reduces life to a game, and a cynical, exploitative, and ultimately unhappy game at that. There's more to it than that.

Like I said before, there are values that become badly distorted when viewed exclusively through an economic lens. Friendship and love are not economic transactions or service barters. Knowledge and enlightenment are not commodities which can be bought or sold -- education can be sold, true, but the ability to translate the knowledge into enrichment of life is incapable of sale. And liberty itself is something that, ultimately, ought not to be put on the auction block. Putting a price tag on freedom makes it no different than toothpaste, and freedom is something better than that, something with a value that is not readily quantifiable. That which is not quantifiable is not a good subject of analysis, and at the end of the day putting a moral gloss on economic analysis itself is kind of bizarre.


Anonymous said...

Out of catty curiosity, what do those Randists look like? (Unless they read your blog, of course, in which case I'm sure they're quite charming and presentable.)

As a lonely high-SAT student at a high school that served a low-SAT population, I liked Rand because I felt her views validated my resentment of many of my classmates -- especially in regard to affirmative action for UCLA admittance (the one decent, commutable school I could have afforded), affirmative action for financial aid, and taxpayer financial support for unwed, underaged mothers.

My affection for Rand faded quickly once I got to college and met a few other followers (while fruitlessly trolling for friends and guys in the Libertarian group). The shift was due much less to reasoned analysis on my part than to the unappetizing characteristics of these other students. Mostly, they were unattractive, obnoxious, not particularly bright, 30-ish male liberal arts undergrads, who considered themselves the peers of 18-to-22-year-olds and expected to be desired as such. (Regardless of politics, this type overruns commuter schools with "state" in the title.) There were also one or two young nutty guys who otherwise fit that profile. Not a datable guy in the bunch, much less a Howard Roarke (sigh).

Not that there aren't plenty of legitimate reasons to disagree with Rand. But I always wondered whether her followers elsewhere might be more appealing than the ones I ran into.

Anonymous said...

P.S. How'd you get my husband to dress up as a Vulcan?

Burt Likko said...

Nancy, I bet that the Randies in our group would probably also not appeal to you. I think I recall the sort of fella you think is hot and these guys don't fit that definition. Although in their defense, most of them seem to practice appropriate daily grooming techniques.

And yeah, the Vulcan does look kind of like your hubby! I hadn't thought about that. According to the website that did the screen capture, it's the Vulcan from the end of "Star Trek: First Contact."