Food for Thought #8: End of the Worldview

In the last Food for Thought I laid out the logical error that patterns Ayn Rand’s thinking, and described her narrative M.O. like so:

She is deliberately trying to exclude the middle by using the logical tactic of the reductio ad absurdum to invalidate everything outside her argument as being disproved by contradiction.

The primary side effect of this tactic is that Rand backs herself into a philosophical corner and the novel itself becomes unbearably pedantic. By treating most of the history of human intellectual achievement as a nihilistic parody, and then defining Objectivism as the direct opposite and negation of it, Objectivism itself becomes a parody, a caricature of itself. Rand doesn’t just reduce her most-loathed views to the absurd; she reduces her own to the absurd, too. That’s why Francisco, my favorite character, has so far spent Part Two making questionable sermons in praise of illogical ideals.

Take Ayn’s belief in the moral incorruptibility of money, for example, which she forces into Francisco’s mouth in the “greed is good” speech from Chapter 2:2. S/he claims that “To trade by means of money is the code of men of good will.” But the code of men of good will is, obviously, to act by good will. Trade can be mutually beneficial without money as long as both parties negotiate in good faith. Money can make those transactions more efficient, but the moral character of the deal is decided by the parties and not the medium of exchange.

What Rand is really trying to do, then, is outline the code of morals by which ‘the moral law’ — or, for those of us who don’t categorically dismiss eastern philosophy, ‘karma’ — operates. Treating money as a spiritual totem and objective measure of karma is a totally unnecessary addition to this project. It is certainly not arrived at by deductive reasoning — the premise of an objective moral law that rewards honor, integrity, and hard work does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that those rewards come in a directly proportional pecuniary form. Furthermore, in an attempt to make the sanctification of money fit the experiential evidence, Rand admits her conclusion cannot be arrived at by inductive reasoning either.

Specifically, Francisco hedges that ‘money is only a tool’ whose karmic effects are only visible ‘in the long run.’ He claims that the only person fit to inherit a fortune is the one who would earn one anyway — which does not preclude people from inheriting undeserved fortunes — and that anyone with a fortune they don’t work to maintain will lose it.

This last qualification flies in the face of reality — anybody with sufficient funds can live off the interest and pay others to manage their investments, thereby purchasing more responsible financial management than they themselves could provide and thereby divorcing their net worth from their competency and merit, a.k.a. their moral worth.

Furthermore, fortunes can be created in bad faith and by exploitation, which Rand denies, and they can be used to oppress the less wealthy and accumulate unearned privilege, which Rand implicitly admits in her portrayal of Francisco’s corrupt ‘crony capitalist’ investors and their use of money to purchase laws squelching the liberties of the masses. Wealth does not by nature punish entitlement and laziness and can in fact be used to enable those same vices.

And since the idolatry of money cannot be arrived at as a necessary part of a moral code of honor, personal integrity, and hard work by deductive or inductive reasoning, Rand is ultimately making a faith-based claim about nature, a claim that describes the noumenal qualities of money as a Platonic ideal, rather than as a phenomenal reality. And faith-based claims, not to mention Platonism, are anathema to Rand’s stated beliefs. She is essentially preaching a prosperity gospel here.

This all follows from the fact that Ayn can’t just reject the Biblical wisdom that “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) — a verse which demonstrates that the prosperity gospel of the real world is itself a contradiction. No, Ayn must embrace the opposite stance, that money must be the root of all good. Yet this “either/or” choice is, again, a logical fallacy. Money doesn’t have to be the root of anything. Both positions are absolutist caricatures of a nuanced and multivalent reality.

Another example of Rand’s faulty invocation of the law of the excluded middle is in Francisco’s 2:3 speech to Rearden, when he’s declaring that the mythic Atlas should shrug if the world he supports is about to break his back. Whereas the former speech illustrated how Rand’s worship of money is literally unreasonable, this latter one exposes her irrational damning of humanity.

Early in the 2:3 conversation, Francisco tells Rearden that there are three kinds of people. There are Rearden’s equals, ‘giants of productive energy.’ There are Eddie Willers types, ‘men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity.’ And then there are ‘whining rotters who … drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills.’

Now even if you think that’s too reductive, it at least includes a “middle ground” option in the loyal, true, competent-not-excellent Eddie Willers. That’s more than one can say for most of Rand’s assessments of the world’s possibilities, except that Rand’s worldview as exemplified in the Randverse ignores even this middle ground that she herself provides. To wit —

After laying out the three categories of man, Francisco asks Rearden which type of person is riding the rMetal rails he and Dagny built, and Rearden admits it is the ‘whining rotters.’ But even with all Rearden’s equals going off the grid, where did all the Eddie Willers’ of the world go? Eddie is the book’s everyman character, the average Joe, and yet the character of the Randverse’s average man implied by her portrayal of the general populace, the “public at large,” is an intellectually insufficient and morally suspect character, a moocher. Not exactly our pal Eddie. Dare I say Ayn’s attitudes towards humanity are… contradictory?

Suffice it to say, that suffices to say. I don’t intend to spend all of Part Two picking apart the  many reductively absurd arguments Rand makes. Having spent Part One roughly delineating the ways in which I think the Randverse is relevant and/or irrelevant to our ‘verse, I now consider Rand’s erroneous delineation of same as mostly an obstacle to appreciating what actually works in this book. This dissonance will only get worse throughout Part Two’s remaining chapters.

So going forward I’m going to focus these analytic posts on articulating a stronger left-libertarian alternative to Rand’s over-the-top vision. If I spent Part One considering Rand’s thesis (the effective parallels to real 21st century issues, the shout-outs to Hayek and the attendant fealty to negative liberty), my Part Two will consider a reasonable antithesis.

That will come in handy in Part Three, when the Randverse delivers resolutions and conclusions to the issues it’s raised. There, I will seek a satisfying synthesis — in contrast to Ayn, who doesn’t so much synthesize her theories as bludgeon her antithesis to death with a mallet.

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