Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Answering a Critic of Ayn Rand

The buzz about Atlas Shrugged is attracting attention on the left as well. Below is a response I typed to one of Ayn Rand's many new critics out there in the blogosphere.

We have a very different perspective on Rand's philosophy. What I see at it's core is a passionate love of man at his best. Far from being soulless, it reunifies man's body and soul and delivers them from the mind/body dichotomy that we inherited from Plato.

As for emotions, they are neither denied nor ignored by Objectivism. Rand was not advocating some sort of Vulcan approach to life. She would have considered it anti-human. Emotions, according to Rand, are automated value judgments. They are the summation of our previous thinking, and a reflection of previous evaluations. As such, they are not a primary source of knowledge. They only tell us what we already think, so they are only as good as the thinking that went into creating them. If our emotions seem to conflict with reason, that's not a sign that we should chose between reason and emotion, it's a sign that we should do more thinking to find the source of the conflict. It could be that our previous evaluation needs to be revised, or it could be that we've made an error in our current reasoning.

I don't know about you, but I find that a very reasonable and sane approach to the issue of emotions and reason. It disparages neither and fits both into their proper place. It is human in the best sense, because it appreciates the value of emotions in human experience while maintaining reason as our only source of knowledge. We should be neither emotional basket-cases following wherever whim takes us, nor repressed robots ignoring our feelings.

I agree with you that those who think they can mix Christianity and Objectivism are misguided. I view that as I view the attempt to merge Enlightenment values with Christianity. It certainly improved Christianity, but in the long-term I think it undermined the Enlightenment. Watering down poison will improve one's chances of surviving, but it would be better to give up the poison altogether.

Atlas Shrugged was not meant to be a realistic blueprint for how to accelerate the collapse of society. Its theme is the role of reason in human society. In order to dramatize the effect when a society abandons reason, the events and cast of characters are necessarily compressed. It took Roman civilization 500 yrs to collapse after the abandonment of the Republic. Rand chose to show that process in accelerated fasion, and as the result of a conscious withdrawal of reason from society, rather than the slow brain drain that occurs in a society in decline. The effect is far more dramatic and exciting.

Those who understand the strike as simply a tax revolt have missed the point of the story. Those who think of it as class warfare in which the rich win, have missed the point of the story. Rand's key identification was the immorality of the initiation of force by one man against another, or by a government against its citizens. As a corollary, she rejected all the spurious justifications for such force that have been advanced over the ages: right of conquest, divine right, the superiority of an elite, racial supremacy, vox populi vox dei, the needs of the many, etc, etc. Men do not own other men, neither in part nor in whole.

That is the moral point. There is also the practical point that societies based on enslavement inevitably crumble. Force drives out reason. You force a man to work, but you can't force him to think. All you can make him do is perform a set of manual tasks that you give him. In a society run on force innovation dies. The society deteriorates to a subsitence level, which is all that slavery is capable of maintaining over any period of time. The process of deterioration might be slower or faster given other factors, but it happens. The society becomes stagnant until it is swallowed up by a more dynamic culture.

You maintain that there will always be another titan to take the place of the ones who quit, but that is emphatically not true. In a culture that makes a point of cutting its titans off at the knees, people will stop trying to rise. No one will take up the burden of such a thankless job. They won't think, "Ah! Here's an opportunity for me!" They will think, "If they did that to him, what will they do to me?" They may not know enough to walk away from their job, but they know enough to keep their heads down. They know not to offer innovation where innovation is punished, not to work harder when hard work is for suckers. Not only that, but as the burden of society shifts ever downward, from the titans to the giants to the stalwart to the weary, more and more people find themselves cast in the role of sacrificial victim for the group. Eventually, you end up with a small, elite group at the top--call them aristocrats or call them commissars--living off the labor of the overburdened masses. That is not some airy theory, it is what happened when Rome fell, and it is what happened under communism.

You are correct, though, when you say that people who talk about reducing their productivity as a way of "going Galt" are not really emulating Galt. They are not walking away completely. They are shrugging, however. They are not completely rejecting our society yet, but they are showing definite signs of apathy towards its survival. They are not the $250k/yr wage earners either. It may not be entirely accurate to call them Galts, but they feel the same thing that Galt felt when he walked away from the 20th Century Motor Company. They are tired of their lives being regarded as the property of other men. Those are the people for whom Ayn Rand wrote, not just the titans, but all of us. She gave us the words to express the idea, and the moral courage to say, "Enough!"

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Edison Hour

As a counter to "Earth Hour," the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism are encouraging people to turn on their lights in a celebration of the man who brought us the electric light bulb, Thomas Alva Edison. From their Facebook page:

In 2009, at 8.30pm on March 28, we are asking people across the world to
turn ON their lights and join together in a celebration of technology and
industrialization. For one hour, please use as much power and energy as possible
in order to celebrate the advancement of mankind.
It's as simple as a flip of the switch.

Thanks to the kids, we usually keep the lights blazing around here anyway, so it will be hard to light up more than normal. Maybe I should break out some Christmas lights and string them up.

(h/t Miranda at Ramen & Rand. Click here for her thoughts on the meaning of Edison Hour vs. Earth Hour.)

British MEP Speaks Out

This short speech had me wanting to cheer. I would love to hear one of our Congressmen speak out like this.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Atlas Shrugging?

Jake DeSantis has resigned from AIG, publishing his resignation letter in the NYT. His statement is not as uncompromising as it might have been, but he does reject any notion that he should feel guilty for the money he earned at AIG. He is nonetheless donating all of the money he should have received under his contract to those who have been hurt by the economic downturn, and he is daring Congress to retroactively tax the money away from the the recipients of his charity. That may be a misguided attempt to protect his coworkers by making the taxation of those earnings politically impossible. I don't think it will help, though, because there's nothing to stop Congress from simply inserting a clause to exempt charitable donations from the tax. In fact, it would make it much easier on Congress if they could say that they forced the folks at AIG to donate their money to charity, rather than confiscating it for the government. I would rather have seen the managers band together and fight any attempt to strip them of their compensation, but given the mood of the nation I can't really blame them for keeping their heads down.

To be clear: AIG has no right to one dime of taxpayer money. Having given them the money, though, the government has no right to deny them the right to use it to meet a contractural obligation to pay their employees. Any voter who accepts the bailouts while getting livid over the bonuses has swallowed the elephant and choked on a gnat, and the politicians who are making an issue of the bonuses are trying to redirect taxpayer anger from its proper target (them) to a scapegoat (businessmen).

Grimly Amusing

Today's Non Sequitur, which is an apt title for this particular joke.

Anger is being directed at the bankers on Wall Street, when it should be directed at Congress, the President, and the Federal Reserve. What I found amusing about the cartoon is how it sums up the attitude people have towards the rich and successful. Need a scapegoat? Does someone need to be thrown into the volcano? Look around for a rich guy, and toss him in. It may not solve the problem, but it's sooooo cathartic.

Stuck Inside of Wall St

James Taranto suggests that some of our fading rock stars join together and hold a benefit concert for Wall Street. This is definitely one of his better ideas. He asks his readers for recommendations regarding what songs should be played, or other ideas about how to organize it. In spite of past disagreements, I thought I would pitch in and do my part. What I would like to see at a benefit concert for Wall Street is Bob Dylan doing an reprise of an old classic. Something like this...

Stuck Inside of Wall Street
With the Bailout Blues Again

Oh, the policeman draws circles
On the sidewalk with his chalk
I’d ask him when my turn was
But I know that he don’t talk
And Congress treats me kindly
They furnished me with a cape
But deep inside my heart
I know I can’t escape.
O-bama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

Well, Greenspan, he’s in the Senate
With his pointed shoes and his bells,
Speaking to some French guy
Who says he knows us well.
And I know they’ll vote us money
If they think we’re gonna fail
But the money comes with strings
That’ll drag us all to hell.
O-bama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

Ayn Rand tried to tell me
To stay away from the gravy train
She said that all those politicians
Just wanna put you into chains.
An’ I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that,
But then again there’s only one I’ve met
An’ he just stole my bonus
An’ banned my cigarettes.”
O-bama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

The market died last week
And now it’s buried in the rocks,
But everybody still talks about
How badly they were shocked.
But me, I expected it to happen,
I knew they’d lost control
When they pumped it full of fiat money
And then shot it full of holes.
O-bama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

Now the president came down here
Showing everyone his gun,
And handing out free money
Y’know the bailout had begun
And me I had a contract
But I’d best not count on that
Cause the voters swallow elephants
But they choke upon a gnat.
O-bama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

Now the preachers were so offended
When Ayn said, “Throw 'way that cross,
Wherever there is sacrifice,
There’s someone playing boss.”
And they cursed her when she proved it to them.
Then she said, “Not even you can hide.
You see, you’re just like Marx.
I hope you’re satisfied.”
O-bama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

Now Geithner gave us two cures,
And begged us to jump right in.
The one was toxic assets
The other was a stimulus plan
We’d be a fool to take them
But who said we get to chose?
This is the kind of offer,
You know you can’t refuse.
O-bama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

When Barney says come see him,
In the Senate chamber room
We’d better travel Greyhound
Or our bailout money’s doomed
An’ I say, “Aw come on now,
We know he never travels coach.”
An’ he says, “Do what I say, boy,
If you don’t want to go broke.”
O-bama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

Now the bodies lay on Wall St.
Where the businessmen take their dive.
They all fall there so perfectly.
There’ll be video at five.
An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.
O-bama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Wall Street
With the bailout blues again.

(And for an encore, he could dedicate this one to Hillary over in Foggy Bottom.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

That didn't take long...

NR continues its crusade against Ayn Rand.

I'm too angry to say anything else at the moment.

Update: A little calmer now.

I knew that NR would eventually respond to the Go Galt phenomenon by trying to smear Ayn Rand. In fact, I predicted it. On March 8, at this blog, I wrote:

I’m expecting any day now for someone at NRO to remind their conservative
brethren that Ayn Rand was a heretic, and was excommunicated from the right by
W.F. Buckley himself, lo these many years.

So I'm not surprised that it was done. I'm just a little surprised at the thoroughness and the vindicativeness of it. A lot of the nastiness is of the same sort that I've been reading on leftist blogs. The leftists like to reassure each other that Ayn Rand is for adolescents only. Mature people know that one must set aside childish things like reason, individuality and freedom. That is what Rand called the Argument from Intimidation. I was a bit astonished at being called an adolescent by people who get their moral philosophy from the Bible.

Which brings up the one plaint, not usually made by the left, that the hatchet-wielders at NRO were almost unanimous on.
Alas, Rand’s “truth” leaves no room for God--or for disagreement. --Jonathan

...devoid of faith, hope and love... --Bradley J. Birzer

Ayn Rand makes for an entertaining novelist but a poor deity. --Daniel J. Flynn

On Christianity, Rand is a non-believer. And her fictional heroes are also
non-believers. Therefore, her central protagonists in Atlas Shrugged
and The Fountainhead were very entrepreneurial but avoided charity. In
real life, most entrepreneurs wanted to make a lasting mark with their
philanthropy. John D. Rockefeller, for example, was the wealthiest entrepreneur
of the late 1800s and was the largest donator to Christian and other social
causes in American history. --Burton Folsom Jr.

A friend who lost everything in the financial crisis took it as an opportunity
to come to both Christ and Ayn Rand. Knowing me as a fan of both, he asked how I
reconciled them, considering that Rand was an atheist. --Andrew Leigh

In other words, Rand must be wrong because she's an atheist. A news flash for them: Rand's atheism is a feature of her philosophy, not a bug.

If, at the base of a complex chain of reasoning, all one can offer is: because God said so, that's no argument at all. Conservatives have been beaten from pillar to post, because that was all they had to offer in the public debate. Ayn Rand offered a rational defense of capitalism grounded in verifiable moral principles. Conservatives have rejected it, because it would mean giving up the notion that there is a guy upstairs looking out for them, promising them that they don't have to worry about death, because they're going to live forever. In other words, it would mean giving up childish things.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Objectivist Round Up

I've been browsing the current edition of the Objectivist Round Up hosted by Amy Mossoff at The Little Things. I particularly recommend Burgess Laughlin's review of The Independent Scholar's Handbook, Doug A.'s takedown of an assinine segment by Colbert, and Rational Jenn's explanation of how to get children to solve their own conflicts. Check out the whole thing.

One of these things doesn't belong with the other

Another example of how clueless some on the right are with respect to Ayn Rand.

Mark Thompson, 50, was arrested Thursday night by UI police for resisting
arrest after he disrupted a speech by UI-Chicago professor Bill Ayers at Allen
Hall in Urbana.


UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Thursday evening that Thompson tried to
give Ayers a Bible and a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

It's almost funny, but not really. Someone needs to explain to Mr. Thompson that he can't have his life and sacrifice it too.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Yaron Brook on PJTV

It's not time to "go Galt," he says, it's time to fight.

He also explains that what we need isn't simply another tax revolt, but a moral revolution. This is a must-watch for people interested in the "tea party" protests and the current buzz about "going Galt."

Monday, March 09, 2009

An Interview with the Vampires*

I got this from Rational Jenn. It's an interview to do with your children. I asked my 7 yr-old for his answers first, and then went through them with my 12-yr old daughter. I had her look away from the computer screen so she wouldn't see his answers.

What is something dad always says to you?

Him: "Do your work"

Her: Phrases in French.

(Hey, I gotta use it or lose it.)

What makes dad happy?

Him: The computer.

Her: Quiet kids, a full stomach, and a good nap.

What makes dad sad?

Him: Je ne sais pas.

(That's one of those French phrases they hear a lot. He's made it his own.)

Her: A hungry stomach, tired eyes, and noisy kids.

How does your dad make you laugh?

Him: Real funny jokes.

Her: Stories of his childhood, and some of his jokes.

(Emphasis hers. She doesn't appreciate my sense of humor as much as he does.)

What was your dad like as a child?

Him: Kind of mischievous.

Her: A good kid on the whole, but sometimes very difficult.

(Obviously, I'm telling them the wrong childhood stories.)

How old is your dad?

Him: Ummmm… I think he is in his 40s.

Her: 40-something.

(Close enough!)

How tall is your dad?

Him: A little smaller than a door.

Her: Between four and five feet—more likely closer to five feet.

(I'm a good bit shorter than a door, but I'm not that damned short. To be precise, I'm 5'-6.5".) ;)

What is his favorite thing to do?

Him: (Exasperatedly.) Play on the computer! (Parenthetically.) And read books.

Her: Play on the computer.
Did you peek at his answer? No, I just searched among your habits, and the first thing that came up was computer.

(Well, there you go.)

What does your dad do when you're not around?

Him: (Asks for clarification. Asks what ‘clarification' means.) Hang out with mom.

Her: I don’t know, we’re never around.

If your dad becomes famous, what will it be for?

Him: Je ne sais pas.

Her: For protecting his family against danger.

(I can see the headline: Man Shoots Intruder to Protect Family. Rather amusing, since I've tried to keep the presence of a gun here on the down low.)

What is your dad really good at?

Him: Reading.

Her: Playing D&D.

(Yeah... I'm just bursting with talent.)

What is your dad not very good at?

Him: Fixing different sort of stuff, I guess.
Like? The kitchen light.

Her: Doing a handstand.

(Yeah, I like her answer better.)

What does your dad do for his job?

Him: Teaches school at the house.

Her: He takes care of us kids while Mom’s at work.

What is your dad's favorite food?

Him: Stuff with low calories and salads.

(Sigh. No, not really.)

Her: I don’t know. What is your favorite food? Grandma’s food?

What makes you proud of your dad?

Him: He’s there when I always need help.

Her: He’s a Mr-Fix-It that we don’t have to pay.

(Thank you, baby.)

Him: Except the kitchen light.


If your dad were a cartoon character, who would he be?

Him: (Lots of discussion trying to sort this question. We don’t have satellite, so he doesn’t watch lots of cartoons.) Buzz.

Her: Bugs Bunny.

(Eh, what's up, Doc?)

What do you and your dad do together?

Him: Sometimes target practice, which I’d like to do today. I’m getting rusty on it.

Her: We play board games, and we have heart-to-heart conversations.

How are you and your dad the same?

Him: We’re both boys.

Her: We both have brown eyes and hot tempers.

How are you and your dad different?

Him: Well, there’s our hair, names, and uh, ages.

Her: He’s a grown man with a beard, and I’m a young twelve-year-old girl. And I’m not so into history as he is.

(They're very literal-minded.)

How do you know your dad loves you?

Him: Because he’s my dad!

(Duh! Don't all dad's love their children??)

Her: I know from his want to take care of me; the way he takes me to places that I like to go; and the way he gives me hugs and kisses when I need them, or want them.

What does your dad like most about your mom?

Him: They’re a couple.

Her: I think you like her just for being who she is.

Where is your dad's favorite place to go?

Him: Grandma and Grandpa’s.

Her: The library, the bookstore, and houses of friends and relatives.

*It's a joke!

Not really. :(

Yes, it is. :)

Maybe. ;)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Aimin' to Misbehave

Stephen Green has a post up on Pajamas Media in which he advises Republicans to stop playing nice with Democrats. He points out that regardless of what Republicans do, the Democrats will paint them as bad guys, so they might as well embrace the role and enjoy it.

Look. We cannot buy our way into friendship in Washington for the next four
years. We aren’t going to become popular by playing along with Harry Reid or
Nancy Pelosi or the president. Barney Frank and Chris Dodd aren’t going to
stop calling us names just because we vote with the majority. That’s not how
politics work, and that’s certainly not how these guys play ball. They play
hard; they play for keeps. And when their grand plans fail, they’ll need
someone to blame: us.

They’ll blame us in the corridors of power. They’ll blame us on the TV news. They’ll blame us on the blogs. They’ll blame us in a whole slew of new movies where evil white men are behind everything from the Democrat-created credit crisis, to the war we “lost” in Iraq, to a sand flea epidemic inflicted upon some poor, third-world nation. But we don’t have to let them get away with it.

I’ll give you another bonus quote from Serenity — again, absolutely free. Our intrepid captain, Mal Reynolds, tells of some sage advice once given to him by the late Shepherd Book, a former passenger: “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.”

Republicans spent the last eight years trying to do the “smart” thing, by buying out the Democratic agenda. It was “smart” to “take Medicare off the table” by
expanding it in ways so vast even Democrats hadn’t gotten away with it in 40
years. It was considered “smart” to “take immigration off the table” by forging a grand alliance with Ted Kennedy. It was considered “smart” to “take
education off the table” by federalizing it under No Child Left Behind.

Well, we’ve tried the smart thing and all it got us was a bigger, more
meddlesome government. Now it’s time to do the right thing.

The problem is that conservatives have a different notion of what it means to do the right thing, and that notion does not differ dramatically from the notion that the Democrats have. To both, being good means self-sacrifice. The Democrats are more consistent in demanding sacrifice from the population: higher taxes, more government giveaways, more regulation, abandoning industrialization on behalf of the rocks and trees, turning the other cheek to the enemy; the Democratic platform is self-sacrifice from beginning to end.

The Republican platform is to oppose those things... for two seconds, and then collapse. It isn't done from necessity either. Even when they had complete control of the government they enacted the Democratic platform. It is done because they believe in sacrifice too. To oppose the Democrats' calls for sacrifice, they hold up the image of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. That is not a refutation, it is an exclamation point. Instead of "sacrifice all," it is "sacrifice ALL!"

And to show they mean it, they practice the most fundamental form of sacrifice possible, which is to sacrifice one's independent judgment to the judgment of the mob. They have no principles that they will not toss under the bus the minute they feel pressured by public opinion.

Selfish? Not them! Bad guys? No way! They know how to go along to get along. They do it reflexively. They don't even have to think. They have a book that tells them what to think, and the book says: JUDGE NOT! TURN THE OTHER CHEEK! SACRIFICE!

The current right wing mini-rebellion against Obama's statist policies is taking inspiration from a different book, one by Ayn Rand. At the "Tea Parties" protesting the stimulus, we're seeing signs that say things like "Atlas is Shrugging," and "Ayn Rand was Right." On blogs people are discussing whether it's time to "Go Galt." That is appropriate, since Ayn Rand was the philosopher who provided a moral justification for capitalism. She is the one who said to each individual: your life and happiness are your most sacred values. Sacrifice them for no one! Is the rebellion a sign that her principles of egoism are gaining traction in the wider culture, or is this just a spasm? Is it just the worm wiggling before being speared by the hook? Or has the right finally found solid principles upon which it will stand?

Ayn Rand wrote an essay back in 1975 in which she compared conservatives to the White Army in Russia's civil war. Speaking of the Red Army vs the White, she said:

There was not much difference between them in practice, but there was in
theory. The Red Army stood for totalitarian dictatorship and rule by terror. The
White Army stood for nothing; repeat: nothing. In answer to the monstrous
evil they were fighting, the Whites found nothing better to proclaim than the
dustiest, smelliest bromides of the time: we must fight, they said, for Holy
Mother Russia, for faith, and tradition.

I wondered, even in those years, which is morally worse: evil--or the
appeasement of evil, the cowardly evasion that leaves an evil unnamed,
unanswered and unchallenged. I was inclined to think that the second is worse,
because it makes the first possible.

Conservatives have avoided naming the evil which underlies the left's ideology, because they would have to admit that they are clinging to the same evil idea: Sacrifice of the individual to a "higher power."