Ayn Rand again

[From Bill Powers (940819.0845 MDT)]

Bill Leach (940818.1809 EDT)--

I am reasonably convinced (with full knowledge that I am really just
guessing) that Rand was driven by her unique experience (as is
everyone) but that in her case, she grew up in what she experienced as
an "oppressive", "hopeless" environment (Soviet Russia). She then
experienced the U.S. but saw what she believed was a trend toward the
same sort of government as she had escaped.

It's understandable that having experienced the oppression in Soviet
Russia (I didn't know that), Rand would have seen the freedom in the
United States as a revelation. Her philosophy, however, seems to be
designed as the "opposite of oppression." As often happens when people
take an extreme opposing position, the extreme may have as many flaws as
the idea to which it is opposed, because its form is largely dictated by
the ideas it is intended to negate. Ideology really does get in the way
of clear thinking, whether it is "for" or "against." I've lived long
enough to have made most of the same mistakes, so I speak from
experience.

In seeing capitalism and extreme individualism as the answer to
communist and Nazi oppression, Rand shows that she hasn't quite put her
finger on the problem. Communism used psychological and physical
pressure to force conformity of the people to a state religion;
capitalism uses economic pressure and a sort of official moral system to
do the same thing. In both cases, what makes life unpleasant for those
who buck the system (or simply can't escape it) is the fact that a quite
small group of individuals has managed to obtain the power to maintain
itself in a controlling position. In each case, the system works to the
advantage of those who already have the power, and is used to a great
extent to protect against loss of that power. Power rests ultimately on
the ability to control the means of applying overwhelming physical force
to those who oppose the powerful: armies and police forces and secret
services, whether public or private. Those who control the means are
also in a position to make the laws, and the laws state the conditions
under which those in power are permitted (or give themselves permission)
to use physical force whenever all else fails, assuming that any less
direct means is used first.

So Rand is mistaken when she confuses capitalism with freedom.
Capitalism can exist only in a climate that supports individual freedom,
but it also opens the door for those who, exercising their
Constitutional rights, feel free to achieve as much power over others as
they please. Power under capitalism is achieved by gaining control of
large amounts of money. This is the same thing that happened to the
idealists who followed communism: in the name of preserving equality,
fairness, and compassion for the underdog, certain people very quickly
turned these ideals inside out by saying that the struggle for the
people's rights required a strong dictatorship to assure success. Power
under communism was achieved in a much more direct way: by controlling
the police and army and the cadre of political appointees. Of course
that power also rested on control of the economic system, which allowed
the loyal to gain the rewards they wanted simply by supporting those in
power.

It's exactly the same dilemma we faced in the 60s and 70s, when the
Constitution supported the right of violent radical revolutionaries to
do their best to overturn the American system, the same one that gave
them the freedom to do so. A society nominally organized to recognize
the autonomy of human beings has difficulty with people who want to use
that recognition to deny autonomy to everyone else who differs with
them.

The appeal of Rand's ideas is obvious. They are a defense against power.
To that extent I am in sympathy with them. But Rand advocates a defense
that in effect isolates each person from each other person; there is no
concept there of a public community which each person considers part and
parcel of living a satisfactory private life. Individual isolation is
truly the opposite of collectivism! But it is just as much a mistake. By
envisioning a system in which each person looks out only for himself,
Rand is designing a society that will very quickly degenerate into a
Wild West mentality, one in which suspicion and distrust are inherent --
for when you know that no one around you is concerned with your
interests, you must be prepared at all times for conflict. As Robert
Heinlein realized, although he didn't know what he was saying, the ideal
society of this kind would end up with everyone going around armed.

With everyone armed, it's difficult for any individual to exercise
unlimited power over others. A bullet in the back, or a round from a
rocket launcher, can quickly put an end to such ambitions. There seem to
be a lot of people who see this as the next Utopia. But isn't this
exactly the brute society against which Rand rails? Isn't this a world
full of Attilas?

This is where the myth of the rational man comes into play. For the only
way in which a society of isolated individualists can exist in peace is
for all rational people to come to the same logical conclusions about
everything. If two rational people disagree over who is to have
possession of some property, they will weigh the benefits to themselves
under the hypothesis that A or B owns the property, and both will reach
the same conclusion, namely that A (or B) should own it. Thus conflict
is avoided by logical thinking.

As I said, Ayn Rand herself didn't exactly say this, but in her book,
_The virtue of selfishness_, Nathaniel Branden had a chapter in which
exactly this was said:

    Because a genuinely selfish man chooses his goals by the guidance of
    reason -- and because the interests of rational men do not clash --
    other men may often benefit from his actions. But the benefit of
    other men is not his primary purpose or goal; his own benefit is his
    primary purpose and the conscious goal directing his actions. (page
    58)

You will notice that Branden says that "other men may often benefit from
his actions," but does not consider the case implied by "often," which
is the one in which one man's actions for his own benefit work (even
accidentally) against the benefit of another. Branden's idea is actually
negated by Rand herself, when she admits that laws are necessary to
enforce contracts. If a society of rational men never had a conflict of
interests, no laws would be necessary, and no force to back them up. But
a more realistic view of the world would recognize that conflicts
between interests are inevitable, and that in a more mature society
there would be means of resolving them other than a resort to force.
That is, people need some shared concept of what is a good system under
which to live, so that conflicts can be resolved voluntarily, without
calling in the law or whipping out a gun. People have to be willing to
put their own interests in second place, on some occasions, in order
that the larger system concept be preserved. They have to be able to
recognize that backing off from one's personal demands is sometimes, in
the larger picture, more to their ultimate self-interest than
maintaining an implacable indifference to what others want or need.

But Rand admits of no such compromises. She says she's an extremist and
proud of it. Altruism means considering any act of self-interest as
evil; self-interest means considering any act of altruism illogical.
Those who find the situation somewhat less simple than that are accused
by Rand of being part of a "cult of moral grayness." The "new

intellectuals", it seems, are to be organized as bang-bang control
systems. Maybe we need to put that into the model.

You say:

What I am saying is that it seems to me that if one takes "Selfishness"
to be roughly "acting in one's own self-interest (and recognize that
only the individual can really determine for himself his own self-
interest) then acting in any other manner would not be control based
behaviour. Of [course] then the term has little meaning since no
matter what an observer might conclude, the observed is always acting
to control their own perception which is in their own best interest at
that instant as they perceive it.

Prrreee - cisely. What takes the wind out of Rand's sails is that we
ALREADY DO act in our own best interests as we perceive them, which is
the only way we can do it. There's no need to exhort people to do so.
The only discussion left is what is in our own interests, and to a large
extent that is arbitrary and subject to change. A bleeding heart do-good
environmentalist antinuclear liberal pro-choice pinko is doing exactly
what that person wants to do and considers to be in that person's own
best interests. So is a person whose views are exactly the opposite on
every dimension. Nobody is trying to INCREASE his or her own error
signals. There is irrefutable logic on both sides -- just ask.

It may turn out that the real resolutions of problems people have with
each other will come from a direction that nobody expects and that have
nothing to do with the arguments that people hurl at each other. Maybe
the answer to the nuclear-power controversy, and the difficulties we
have in finding economical alternatives, is to get smart and stop using
so goddamn much power that no matter what we do the cost in pollution
and money is unacceptable. Maybe the controversy over whether we should
spend our money at home or give it away to poor people elsewhere in the
world is to stop having so goddamn many babies that in the end we won't
even be able to support ourselves. Maybe the answer to terrorism is to
stop fighting it for a moment and ask what the hell it is that these
people want. Sometime, somehow, we have to grow up a little and look on
these problems as something to be solved rather than as conflicts to be
won. When you see children squabbling over their toys, do you hunker
down beside one of them and help to beat up the other one?

ยทยทยท

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Best,

Bill P.

<[Bill Leach 940819.18:34 EST(EDT)]

[Bill Powers (940819.0845 MDT)]

In seeing capitalism and extreme individualism as the answer ...

and

So Rand is mistaken when she confuses capitalism with freedom. ...

I agree with what you have said here except that I am not sure that we
agree entirely in our impression of Rand was saying.

I also believe that there is a significant difference between what is
called "capitalism" and what was originally termed "The American System".

The British Free Trade system is also capitalism but differs
significantly in the definition of both the responsibility and power
allowed to government as compared to the system proposed by the likes of
Franklin and Hamilton.

Though virtually all of the "founders" and the majority of
"Anti-Federalists" were suspicious of power it is primarily Hamilton that
seemed to recognize both the necessity for government power and the
specific dangers that such power presents.

It seems that Franklin understood and made clear his feelings when he
responded to a question with "A republic sir... If you can keep it!"
Jefferson considered "universal education" essential not as a "right",
nor as a benefit but rather as a necessity TO ENSURE the people
understood the basis for their governmental structure and would then be
qualified to recognize subversion of that structure. It seems that maybe
he did not recognize that the very system he wanted to protect the ideas
could be used to subvert them. Then again, maybe he understood a great
deal more after all he did say that the people should probably overthrow
their government about once every 20 years.

I did not get the impression that she confused capitalism with freedom
but rather recognized that "central planning" and regulation is the
danger. OTOH, I agree that the "rugged individualist" is no solution
either. I think that Rand made it quite clear that "Selfishness" or
"Enlightened self-interest" included recognition that some manner of
enforcing "fair treatment" and "mutual defense" IS in the interest of the
"enlightened" person (even if she believe that there could be only ONE
such solution -- hers).

Power under capitalism is achieved by gaining control of
large amounts of money.

This is true and is precisely why we have failed in realizing the dream of
the original founders. Hamilton in particular, was quite exacting in his
insistance that a primary responsibility of the general government was
the maintainence of the value of money. It is indeed due primarily to
his insistance supported by Washington and Franklin that our present
system is unconstitutional. They recognized as well as those that
knowingly used such power in Europe that if the experiment was to
succeed, allowing control of the value of money to fall to the hands of
those that would use such power for their private purposes would destroy
any chance for freedom to succeed.

Your last paragraph deserves a great deal of attention and time. Far
more than I can spend just now. At first I started to say that maybe
such a conversation should be reserved for private posting rather than on
the listserver but then again, your postings based upon your considerable
efforts to be true to the principles you have come to understand based
upon PCT vs my disagreements could be enlightning for many others
besides myself.

-bill