Thursday, August 02, 2012

Jennifer Burns's Sober, Well-Researched Take on Rand

As I'm not an Ayn Rand fan, after reading both some of her essays and Atlas Shrugged, I looked about for someone who could both make her appeal more understandable and provide some historical context to her radical ideas and situate them in the politics of their day. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right was an immensely helpful book. Well-written and researched, extremely balanced, this book gives both biographical narrative, as well as an intellectual history that is compelling and not particularly well-known. I find Rand much more interesting as a personality than as a writer or thinker. You probably won't walk away a Randian (I certainly didn't), but you might find an understanding of her eager audience, what motivated them, and why she was so divisive, inspiring both reverent devotion and venomous criticism.

Jennifer Burns deserves kudos for being even-handed, and for diligently, fairly, and respectfully reading her sources, and weaving them into a strong narrative of mid-twentieth century intellectual history.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Atlas Shrugged. So Do I.

Full disclosure: I am not an Ayn Rand fan, by any stretch of the imagination. Her non-fiction writings are ponderous, ignorant, and bigoted. Her fiction? Well, life is short, far too short too waste on it by my lights. Filled with bloated prose, idiosyncratic jargon, character dialog that takes the form of speeches lasting pages, and exposition that masquerades as description, it makes E. L. James seem like E. L. Doctorow in comparison. For someone who promoted herself as an expert in both history and philosophy, she evidenced only a cursory knowledge of either.

On the other hand, many leftists love Ayn Rand, or seem to today, much more so than conservatives do. Shocking? Well, most people talking about her these days are progressives. Of course, they typically do so as a way of making ad hominem attacks on conservatives. According to Google, the Huffington Post has had over 1300 posts mentioning Ayn Rand in the last year. National Review Online? 159. And National Review is famously the place where Ayn Rand was read out of the conservative movement in the 50's. (Inasmuch as she needed reading out. On many occasions she actively claimed she was neither a conservative nor a libertarian and wrote scathingly about Ronald Reagan and Friedrich Hayek.)

What about Rush Limbaugh? What about Paul Ryan? Don't those guys love her?

If you decide to do a little digging, you find that guys like Limbaugh  are focused on one specific thing in Ayn Rand. This transcript of from Limbaugh's show is pretty typical:

RUSH: There’s a book called Atlas Shrugged. It’s a long book. Have you heard of it?
RUSH: It’s by Ayn Rand, and it’s about this very thing. It’s about the producers throwing up their hands in frustration and just saying, “To heck with it. I’m not doing this anymore. I am not gonna pay these exorbitant tax rates. I’m not gonna be one of the few in this country productive and everybody feeds off me,” and they just quit. It is a very, very long book. A movie was made of it within the past year, which, by the way, I’m sure you could rent that DVD somewhere.
RUSH: I have seen the movie. It’s okay. It will entertain you. It’ll make the point. Reading the book is a commitment because it’s very long. The thing is, this is starting to happen.
Similarly, when I ask my few conservative friends who are fans what they like about Ayn Rand, it isn't Objectivism, her painful philosophical "system" that reduces all morality to self-interest as narrowly constructed as the individual chooses. They have in common exactly one novel: Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand herself described her main calling as that of novelist -- it was what she always imagined she would be when she grew up.

If Dostoyevsky wrote novels of ideas, Atlas Shrugged was a novel of "Idea," singular. It's not a good read. I don't recommend it to anyone. It's amazing that Atlas Shrugged would be number one on Modern Library's poll of readers for the most important novel of the twentieth century. But it is. And I think I know why -- at least I have a likely story that convinces me.

What, then, is her attraction? Her novel depicts a world in which bureaucrats employ moral language to do immoral things. When conservatives are told daily that they believe immoral things and act immorally, and the president vilifies individual achievement, the fact that someone has seen this sort of con-game and dramatized it is extraordinarily appealing.

Rand depicts a "strike" of producers, a group that includes industrialists, writers, artists, and capitalists. Today, in a stagnant economy where many companies and investors are refusing to put money in investments that could create jobs and stimulate production because of uncertainty as to what property rights the government will respect, the novel has a particular resonance. Consider that the government has passed health care legislation so byzantine that even its proponents admitted that they hadn't read it and didn't know what it entailed. When thousands of firms, striving to stay competitive, are then driven to apply for "waivers" from its onerous mandates, precious capital is drained from employment and production and into begging the government for favors. This sort of behavior lies dramatically at the heart of the novel.

Briefly put, what appeals to many sane people is the accuracy of a dystopian depiction of corrupt state capitalism followed by a "Capital Strike," in which people who produce take it upon themselves to stop "the motor of the world."

Take, for example, the Limbaugh quote. He hardly offers an endorsement of her philosophy. Rather, her appeal for him is that she accurately predicts one thing: that social welfare policies will reduce the incentives for people to produce and thereby harm the common good. That's it. No, "Greed is Good" Gordon Gecko sermonizing. No decrying of charitable impulses as immoral. None of the craziness that Ayn Rand filled books with for the last decades of her life. Even if Limbaugh were an Objectivist, that would only discredit him, not all critiques of encroaching government.

Yes, there are "Objectivists," that cult-like group of her devotees. They follow her into the sui generis swamps of supposed philosophy and science which she created. That group is pretty clearly a fringe phenomenon. There were urban legends, for example, that Congressman Paul Ryan was one such person, that he indoctrinated his staff in Objectivism. That has been disavowed both by Ryan and his staffers. The truth is that Ryan read Atlas Shrugged when he was younger, and he . . . . liked it. That's like holding Paul Krugman to be a wacko because Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels (which hold as an ideal a universe secretly controlled by hidden administrators) inspired him to go into economics. Heck, when I was 14, I read  Foundation series and loved them. They were my favorite books. I read them and re-read them. If I'd read Ayn Rand at 14, I'd have probably loved it as well. But his view of humanity is every bit as abstract and skewed as Ayn Rand's.

The strange thing that neither Left nor Right seems to get about Rand is that her achievement created a mirror image of Marxism, its equally evil twin. Both Marx and Rand seek to maximize human freedom, envisioned within a scientific, fundamentally progressive view of history that demands that we set aside traditional morality, belief in God, and existing governmental and societal institutions and base our lives on a science of humanity that is, alas, chimerical. Where Marx championed Labor as the source of value, Rand valorizes Mind and Rationality. Marx's core issue was the exploitation of the working class by capitalists, whereas for Rand, it's the exploitation of the creative and productive class by collectivists (construed as broadly as possible) that she sees as the social ill of the day. (One imagines Steve Jobs going on strike, shutting down Apple and retreating to an undisclosed location.)

Both Rand and mainstream conservatives recognized the rift between them: conservatives recognize the importance of public goods, of the common-weal, and they are friendly to institutions that locate the objective source of value outside of humanity entirely, within a transcendent God. One can hold firmly to those beliefs while still seeing the value in a story that dramatizes a creeping state that abolishes human freedom while maintaining the fiction that it's extending the range of human possibility.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Comte-n Pickin' Positivism

Last year, a blogging friend of mine posted an encomium to Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte. Along with the joy of discovering Comte's story, my friend conveyed a sense that Comte was on the side of the angels. Some of this is understandable: Comte is associated with creating the discipline of sociology, he supported Order and Progress, and he promised a better world through Science. However, Comte was far from an anodyne purveyor of Better Living Through Science. There's a pretty ugly grasping after power that lurks in his pages.

What Comte was proposing (in deadly boring prose) was nothing short of revolutionary: to give a general view of the progress of the human mind through history, and through "positive science" to solve mankind's problems. Comte posits that human development has three phases: the Theological, the Metaphysical, and the Positive. He establishes a hierarchy of scientific knowledge, culminating in Sociology, or Social Science. He feels that "Social Physics" can connect all the sciences, and while deriving from the speculatively, it may prove to move human progress (which is, above all, scientific progress) forward more rapidly. When Sociology has been perfected, all human knowledge will be directed by it. It will remedy defects in Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, etc.

There's little to suggest that Comte perfected some kind of Scientific Method that is universally utilized today. There's little or no discernible science behind it. The "scientific" nature of his goals seems more like a pose than anything else. From a modern vantage point, he reads like a marginally insane person. In observing his earnestness, I'm reminded of this quip I came across:
She spent all her life doing good to others. You could tell the others by their hunted look.
Reading through Comte's Positive Philosophy, I felt like one of the hunted others. And the hunt is part and parcel of Comte's approach. Once both the theological and metaphysical are undermined, there is nothing left but a social science and engineering that treats humankind as a material to be analyzed and manipulated. Mankind's problems are solved only once the Problem of Mankind is solved. Thanks, but no thanks.

C. S. Lewis spent much of The Abolition of Man drawing the connection between the Man's Mastery of Nature in the Enlightenment and Man's Power over Men in the contemporary world.
I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man's conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have 'taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?
The sort of Mastery Comte was after invariable leads to the sort of Power that tyrants abuse in the modern world. Interestingly, John Stuart Mill, who was initially quite taken with Comte, observed  that he attempted to "establish a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers." Mill rightly saw Comte's system as displacing traditional religion. Mill had some sympathy with it, but even he conceded that it endangered human freedom.

I love discovering unread writers and rediscovering new things in writers I thought I knew well. I'm reading a bit of the Utilitarians now. Auguste Comte, on the other hand, is leaving me cold.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Paul Ryan at Georgetown

Paul Ryan gave an excellent speech at Georgetown last week. The full text can be found here at the Daily Caller. Speaking at the oldest Catholic university in the United States, Ryan defended his economic proposals in the light of Catholic social teaching. Some folks seem surprised that Ryan is actually a Catholic (I saw a commentator describing his faith as newly discovered; I assume he "newly found" Christ and his Church in his bassinet).

Ryan addressed the issues using themes familiar to people who know Catholic social teaching, themes like the preferential option for the poor. Ryan notes that it's not synonymous with a preferential option for government spending. He urges that solidarity, concern for the common good, must be acted upon in a manner consistent with subsidiarity, respecting the rights and autonomy of individuals, families, churches, and local communities, that policies should be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Far too long, people have summarized Catholic social teaching as dictating as much spending as possible in practice, and that is simply not the teaching.

Obviously, he believes that his plan offers the best chance for lifting people out of poverty and improving the common good. Whether he's right or wrong, Ryan urges an ongoing dialogue, time and again, throughout the speech. My fervent hope is that people who oppose him, such as the President and his supporters, take Ryan up on his offer of dialogue, instead of their current tack, which is to demonize him as a Randian Objectivist who wants to push Granny off a cliff. Unfortunately, I'm pessimistic that this will happen at all in the current environment.

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