Monday, June 20, 2011

Rand, the Myth, the Legend

The following is a response to an article posted on FaceBook:

Alright, firstly, I'm not an Objectivist, but I feel like I know a good amount about Rand and her philosophy - or at least I feel confident enough to say I know more than the author of the article. That being said, there are plenty of things I disagree with her on both politically and philosophically. I think she was a worthy intellectual, but she said and did a lot of things, particularly later in her life, that I don't agree with to be certain.

All that being said, my biggest problems with the piece revolve around a combination of question-begging and appeals to fear. Many times people try to deflect discussion by rhetorically employing what Rand called "anti-concepts" - where you infuse antagonistic or confusing properties into a given idea or person to make its invocation unpalatable. In that way it's easy to put a wedge between what a person really means and what another person might interpret them to mean. It's not unlike what conservatives have effectively done with terms like "Marxist", "communist", and "socialist." They are not mutually inclusive terms, but there is a conflationary usage of them as such.

Take, for example, a word like "capitalism". There's a contentious and conflationary usage of that word too. When I use the word "capitalism" I mean it in the classical way in which Marx coined it; a system where capital is allowed to be privately owned. When many people today use that word, they usually either mean a system of "profits over all" or more generally "corporatism." It's certainly true that Marx believed capitalism would invite the former (and subsequently the latter), but it's not precisely what is meant, economically, by the term. In any case, what happens is that we end up with somewhat antithetical ideas being rolled up into the same term, and that creates stigma and confusion along with killing honest debate.

Some people now use capitalism to describe an ideal free-market that they strive for, and others use it to describe the corporatist system they see today. They essentially start talking past each other. Supporters of free markets end up defending corporate interests and attacking egalitarian ideology. Supporters of egalitarianism end up defending the state and attacking free-market ideology (Roderick Long writes a good deal on this). I think this is part of what's happening with this article regarding Rand's ideas.

Take the first sentence:

"Some say that maybe it is a bad idea to base a political party's ideology on a belief that altruism, democracy and Christianity are "evil.""

Let's put aside the fact that, in all honesty, the Republican party, however more Randian they are than Democrats, are about as Objectivist as Paul Krugman. She was economically to the "right" by most peoples' conception, no doubt. But being an avant-garde feminist, atheist, pro-abortion, anti-war, anti-war-on-drugs swinger, as well as a habitual kicker-to-the-curb of conservative heroes (Reagan, Goldwater, etc.), there's just as much for most conservatives to not like about her. Contrast that description with the people you might see at a Republican rally and I think that assertion becomes questionable. In fact, my guess is that most Republicans who claim to admire her simply haven't read any of her works, or have only been exposed to snippets of it.

But the last part of the comment is what I really take issue with, and that's where I believe "anti-concepts" come into play for at least one of the terms; leading to misunderstandings, I think, of her subsequent positions.


Simply put, what she meant by altruism is not what most people who condemn her mean by it - and thus they usually fail to understand her point. Altruism was a word she employed as a concept roughly antonymous to psychological egoism - which would be closely associated to her conception of self-interest or "selfishness." When she claimed, as she did, that altruism was "evil" she meant purely, in an ethical sense, selfless acts - acting upon the values of others and not your own. Conversely, by self-interest she meant acting upon your own values. She also had an "Objective" system to help determine those values (which is something I largely reject).

So, in the way she employs these terms, giving your life for your children is not a selfless act in the strict sense - because you are appealing to self-interest in abiding by personal values. Feeding and clothing those in need whom you wish to help is also, in that way, not selfless as you are acting upon your own values. This, along with Objectivist parameters for determining said values (which, again, I personally reject), is how she comes to regard "selfishness" as a virtue in itself (rhetorically speaking, she would have been better off sticking to "self-interest"). By this (her) measure, doing things that conflict with your values, or doing things merely because you are being forced or asked to, is what is truly selfless. To her, this is not virtuous. This is what she believes is the underlying current of "altruism" as the Western World knows it.

This plays largely into why she finds Christianity to be "evil." For one, it, at least in dogma, endorses altruism - as such she sees Christianity as an abrogation of personal values as opposed to an augmentation of it (I think she might have a point scripturally but not as most Christians practice it). It's that abrogation of personal values and the embrace of "accepted" values which leads her to believe Christianity is dangerous. She believed that calls for the embrace of Christian values turned into demands backed by force and violence, which she spurned as an anathema to reason. Not only does that call to violently enforce Christian ideals conflict with the morality of the ideals themselves, ironically, but she felt that, even on the most individual basis, self-proclaimed Christian altruists were not altruists by any means - as many if not most don't share a completely selfless relationship with their actions. Rather they are often motivated, even subconsciously, by self-adulation, pride, righteousness, and ultimately the promise of reward or punishment in the afterlife. It would be easy to understand why people are so confused about Rand's position. She pulls a lot of her ideas and terminology from Greek philosophers. In fact, Aristotle explored the exact same idea (the contradictions of selflessness) in his own deliberations on virtue.

I think that it's worth noting that I differ from Rand in finding irredeemable qualities in Christianity. I think that sacrifice on behalf of total strangers, for instance, can fit more cleanly into a consistent system of personal values than she seemed to think. On the other hand, I think that Rand's criticisms of Christianity can, quite consistently, be used by Christians on the Right to point out the moral difference between helping those in need, being forced to help those in need, and forcing others to help those in need; the last two of which are arguably not virtuous nor Christian-like respectively.

All of this plays into the third accusation of her contempt for democracy. It needs to first be said that she was attacking, more clearly, unbridled democracy - the general concept of "majority rules." And she was generally attacking it for all the classically liberal reasons that most people on the Left (if they are not completely detached from their political heritage) should be able to identify with. She felt it a lesser evil than other forms of government, but a system that should be extremely over-checked and burdened so that it carries out only its purpose in protecting us from one another. So, she was in favor of democracy but only in the context of negative justice. Probably, more precisely, she would have been labeled a constitutionalist if anything. She admired the American system and infamously proposed that the Bill of Rights be extended with additional amendments to limit government power. But it was precisely the largely Christian populace's preoccupation with moralization and enforcing their "selfless" values which infused her with a great distrust of democracy in general. She felt that people had rights that weren't subject to popular approval, and that part of the polity had been employed, at least since the late 19th century, in undermining some of those rights under the banner of "democracy."

You can see how these basic misconceptions are laden with already-accepted premises that are designed to lead you to the authors conclusion(s) without even knowing what she really thought at all. That's bad enough. And then you see a phrase like:

"while saying people with tons of cash are "producers" who should govern."

That's just disconcerting altogether. It's true that Rand was partial to capitalists and conceptual producers (and with fairly good reason in the context of her beliefs), but saying that she believed that "producers" with tons of cash should govern isn't just laughable - it's dishonest. Firstly her core political predisposition is against force, coercion, dishonesty, etc. As such, she's quite opposed to pretty much anyone "governing" anyone in that they rich or poor. Secondly, the larger part of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, sets out vilifying MOST "producers" as incompetent if not malicious beneficiaries of government favor! In a conceptual argument between labor at capital, she falls towards capital every time. But in the context of the system we have, or the approximation of it in the case of her novels, she rails as hard as anyone against crony capitalism and corporatism. Most of the antagonists in Atlas Shrugged are greedy businessmen!

There's plenty more to dissect in the rest of the article, but I'll spare you that. It's one thing to be critical of Ayn Rand's ideas. Hell, I don't think much of her stories as far as stories go. But it irks me that those critiquing her have either clearly not read (not to mention understood) almost anything she's put forth or are they are being intentionally misleading in order to lead other people who are ignorant of her and her ideas to pre-packaged conclusions.

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