Archive for September, 2012

Food for Thought #15: Soul Searching

You know, for an atheist Ayn Rand seems strangely hostile to scientific materialism. In fact in “act two” of John Galt’s speech, Galt/Rand argues that both religious thought and materialist philosophy are downright evil. Rand actually considers these schools to be equally mystic, but as I dispute her claims I will generally refer to the one as ‘spirituality’ and the other as ‘rationalism,’ or just ‘materialism’ straight-up.

I consider scientific materialism to be a necessary component of any worldview that seeks to approach truth, but an insufficient component on its own. It’s necessary, because it’s the foundation of the objective knowledge on which our modern lives depend and thus can’t be denied with any honesty or self-awareness. But it’s insufficient, because it’s agnostic towards the meaningfulness of existence, and ascribing meaning to life is inevitable as far as human truth is concerned. Obviously such a truth isn’t eternal, it’s conditional. It’s human — a vital part of any definition of truth relevant to us as people. As David Foster Wallace put it:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

Other formulations of this concept have also appeared on this blog in quotes by such diametric philosophical opposites as Ralph Waldo Emerson and, yes, Ayn Rand. There are many more. And the reason this principle has such broad appeal is that it is what I just talked about above: a psychological truth about the human condition. It is NOT a declaration about the ultimate nature of reality. No, the real metaphysical debate begins when we try to square this subjective truth about ourselves with our objective knowledge about the physical world around us.

So let’s start where John Galt and Christianity both start: the parable of Adam & Eve. Galt/Rand finds it perverse. It presents the attainment of knowledge as a crime and personal responsibility as a punishment. And this is how it’s been interpreted in mainstream religion for much of history, to the benefit of institutional authority. But this interpretation is far too literal. It isn’t a declaration of objective moral truth; it’s a subjective psychological truth.

What the parable of The Fall is actually about, if it is to have value in a scientific era, is the existential absurdity of self-awareness. On the personal scale it’s the story of moving from childhood to adulthood, the loss of innocence, coming-of-age, taking ownership of yourself. On a species-wide evolutionary scale, it’s the story of humanity emerging from animality. It’s about the way metacognition alienates a person from the instinctive behavior of a beast.

This alienation from nature is the essential triumph and sadness of the human condition, and largely synonymous with our understanding of free will. Free will and the (sometimes paralyzing) ability to think about thinking are inextricably linked.

Considered this way, the Garden of Eden story makes much more sense. Adam & Eve live naked and in harmony with animals and nature. When they gain knowledge, specifically of moral concepts like good and evil (nature itself is amoral, after all), they lose access to this harmonious existence. They are alienated from the grace of God and must seek it out again, consciously.

Now I’ve already analogized the Christian notion of acting by the grace of God with the Buddhist notion of right action. Both of these notions are descriptions of the “everybody worships something” psychological reality. Each spiritual tradition offers a different something to worship in order to behave rightly, gracefully.

Christianity preaches that one should seek the grace of God by contemplating God. This is another term taken far too literally; I define it here as an all-encompassing ‘everything’ that cannot be comprehended rationally. Contra Rand, I think that not being able to comprehend everything rationally is perfectly acceptable, because if we take the word ‘rational’ literally it derives from the word ‘ratio,’ which by definition is the division of a whole into parts to be compared. In this case, your conditional existence as a human being already divides the whole of existence into your self on the one side and the world at large on the other. As the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita puts it, you cannot comprehend God for the same reason you cannot bite your own teeth.

Meanwhile, Buddhists preach that one should contemplate a fundamental nothingness. This too cannot be fully comprehended in a rational way; when a ratio encounters a zero, it becomes either equal to zero or simply undefined. This buttresses my argument about the God-like everything — even if you think that ‘everything’ is finite, and thus potentially comprehensible, the only thing with which to compare it (which is to say rationalize it) is ‘nothing,’ and you’ll remember from the last sentence, such ratios are either undefinable or subsumed into nothingness (which is why the nothingness is fundamental).

So the argument both belief systems make is that if one contemplates, or ‘worships’ these ultimately unknowable concepts, the microcosmic self will fall (back) into a harmonic alignment with the macrocosmic reality that transcends our understanding.

Obviously, both these strategies really piss Ayn Rand off because they promote intellectual humility and self sacrifice, not even in a material way but by the nature of the idea that the ego should be subsumed or sublimated into a greater truth about the world. Sadly, Rand’s alternative strategy is to emphatically deny the mysteriousness of the universe and sacralize your inherently conditional ego instead. This avoids grappling with the paradox of free will in a deterministic world, in fact denies the existence of this paradox altogether. That’s an extraordinarily petty form of worship, to say the least.

Compare that to Sam Harris, public atheist extraordinaire, who resolves this paradox by declaring the premise of free will to be false. To wit: observed reality obeys physical laws. Those laws are premised on determinism. Free will is incompatible with determinism. Ergo, determinism is real, and free will is not. Q.E.D.

Yet this argument is more or less useless “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life” (as DFW put it). It may be objectively comprehensive, but subjectively it’s kind of, well… immaterial.

For example, Harris valiantly tries to draw some actionable conclusions. He says that we are all just victims of circumstance, so we should seek to rehabilitate or sequester criminals rather than vindictively punish them, because they aren’t truly responsible for what made them who they are.

Of course our ability to choose how we react to criminality is an implicit premise of Harris’ suggestion. So if we believe we can make a morally superior choice, we must grant that same premise to the criminal’s choices, reintroducing moral responsibility into the equation. In the human moral calculus, the non-existence of free will is effectively a moot point. The idea cancels itself out. Rand actually points out the self-negating nature of this line of thought in Galt’s speech.

But Harris’ basic argument is that accepting the idea that free will is an illusion should not lead to nihilism and despair. It should logically make it easier for us to let go of frustrations and regrets and resentments. It should lead us to be more forgiving of our failings and others’, less prideful and selfish about our successes.   Morally and practically, his belief system operates on the same psychological premise as every other: plug the right metaphysical value judgments into your life’s motor, and it will drive you to right action –without your having to will it.

That last part is the key. If free will is synonymous with metacognition, thinking about thinking, directing your self, then the implicit promise of God’s grace, and Buddhist right action, is actually the same as Harris’ promise about accepting rationality into your heart: value the ultimate truth and your instincts will not lead you astray; you will be as free as humanly possible from the alienating power of metacognition. Orient yourself properly in metaphysical space and even as you are buffeted about by the winds of chance and fate, you will feel like you’re flying.

And please note that I say “feel like.” If Harris is right and the universe is strictly deterministic, then the goal here is to have a comfortable attitude toward chance and fate, not to actually influence where they take you.

This ‘attitude’ aspect applies to the religious formulations too. Christians believe in God’s omnipotent will, which is for all practical purposes the same as determinism. Buddhists’ emphasis on selflessness likewise suggests you should just stop fighting the endless phenomenal flux of the universe and embrace it with calmness and serenity.

But despite this shared trait the religions do something that Harris doesn’t, which  is impose a specific meaning on this overwhelming reality. The symbol languages that these faith traditions use may be outdated and taken too literally by modern adherents, but a purposeful narrative is there.

Sadly, that woeful literalism hobbles the real merit of religious thought and its allegories: the fact that the concepts these faiths offer up for contemplation aren’t humanly knowable, that the nature of existence is eternally mysterious.

For Harris, reality is eminently knowable through science and logic.  Yet Harris too embraces the mysteriousness of causation. Whenever he dismisses the role of your conscious thoughts in causation, he characterizes the actual source of both thought and behavior as “unknowable,” “obscure,” “mysterious.” His diction belies his epistemic surety.

So of the examples in this essay, it is only Ayn Rand who furiously refuses to accept this mysteriousness. “Fuck the universe,” she says, “I’m just as good at existing as it is, if not better!” It’s the very definition of hubris.

And here we see the real dividing line between metaphysically healthy values and destructive ones, and it is about dogma.  Valuable religious thought is that which contemplates paradoxes. Harris spends basically his entire tract on free will massaging the cognitive dissonance of believing in yourself even in the context of a strictly objective universe in which you have no creative role.  When one finds value in considering paradox, the virtues produced are openness to experience and the ability to withhold judgment. Science, often perceived as a force for judging and limiting imagination, and certainly a mode of thought that seeks to resolve paradox, also cherishes these virtues. The scientific method demands that we always keep our minds open to new evidence as it arises.  F. Scott Fitzgerald put it this way — “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Dogmatists cannot do this. They cannot cope with cognitive dissonance. They reject it or shut it down, and view the ability to operate with it as a sign of confusion, weakness, or moral relativism. And of course there are times when decisive action and principled stubbornness are called for, but that is not all times. There is strength in flexibility too.

Although Ayn Rand correctly indicts spiritual and material dogmatists for their myopia, her own values and virtues must be brought up on the same charges. She closes herself off to new experience, and judges everything. She chooses ideology over reality.

And because she accepts only absolutes, she sees in both the material and spiritual understanding only nihilism, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Well, Atlas, it takes one to know one.

Yet even Rand understands the “psychological value mechanism” in which values lead to behavior, and she therefore implicitly endorses the possibility that not your will, but your beliefs, are the cause of your actions.

And this is where the value mechanism seems to come into conflict with strict determinism, since by that premise even your beliefs are determined for you. If your brain states are physically determined, you cannot actually even choose to accept determinism peacefully. You either will or you won’t, but that’s up to the physical consequences of the initial conditions of the Big Bang rippling through time (and/or God).

I think there is a potential way out of this dilemma, in what the neuroscientist David Chalmers coined “the hard problem of consciousness.” This is the idea that even if we explained every mechanism in the brain that translates into the subjective experience of thought and emotion… why does it translate into a subjective experience at all? If we’re pure objects in a purely objective world, if the world is made of quanta… why are there qualia? Why would a clockwork universe include an abstract sense of self?

I see two explanations for subjectivity as a phenomenon. One is dualism, which in the philosophy of mind means that some aspect or aspects of mind exist independent of the body, non-physically (meta physically). The other is panpsychism, or panexperientialism, which means that there is an underlying unity between qualification and quantification, subjective and objective, mind and body, and that therefore the whole universe experiences phenomena in some subjective way, whether or not it’s recognizable as conscious or cognitive in a human sense.

I prefer panexperientialism for two reasons. One, because it hews more closely to Occam’s Razor and I like the elegance of that. Two, because I find it easier in this model to justify a participatory role for us in causation that is physically undetectable (since the influence of the psychological value mechanism on the course of events would be embedded within physics and not acting as an outside force on physics that should in theory produce noticeable deviations in physical observations).

So I have to admit that at heart I simply reject Harris’ premise. Our universe is not necessarily a strictly determined one. Experimental results always produce some variance, and the accurate readings and laws we derive from them must take into account the law of errors. There is some chaos in the world, some wiggle room. Reality clearly has deep structure, but it isn’t just a streaming video that we watch. A video game has deep structure too, and can also have any number of interactive inflection points.

Yes, we are at the mercy of an unimaginably vast set of complex physical interactions, and our ability to control even our selves within that system is potentially, even likely to be, trivial. But we are a factor, and we operate through that psychological mechanism, that choice of what we worship, what we value.

It’s not the most dignified metaphor, but we’re like a hamster in a ball. Sometimes we get kicked around and can only scramble to keep our balance inside our sealed sphere. But we can also throw our weight around, give our hermetic bubble some angular momentum from the inside, put a little spin on it.

In this way we’re also like a tennis ball — the angle and speed of our ‘spin,’ that is the orientation of our values, will affect the way we bounce when we make contact with solid ground, with hard reality.  Our conscious mind, our metacognitive ego, doesn’t willfully cause our behavior moment to moment, Harris is right. But we can mentally and emotionally align our inner selves, such that whatever alignment we choose will impel the spontaneous behavior of our ‘outer’ form in either harmony or discord with the way the physical world likewise compels and constrains us.

This is not a paradigm that asks us to disavow science and scientific inquiry, it is a paradigm for living life as an art form. It’s not about positive thinking as a means of getting what you desire; it’s about being your best self as an end in itself. What goes up must come down –but in the words of Albert Einstein, “gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”

I have to admit, though, that after 2500 words and the longest post of the blog so far, I find the final articulation of my vision for the mind’s role in creation to be pretty underwhelming. It’s vague and certainly not as intellectually thorough as I’d like it to be. But this is just a sketch, drawn in a couple days between snarky recaps of a mediocre book. And to some degree the tentative nature of my outline is intentional; my argument about dogma and paradox explains why I don’t feel the need to be definitive here. So what the essay is really trying to say is this:

Ayn Rand believes that our choice in values is binary. We can either affirm existence by declaring the universe comprehensively knowable, or we can succumb to an unknowing nothingness, which is to fall out of existence and die. I think the value choices are far more diverse than this, but let’s accept the binary premise and boil things down: Rand has it twisted up; we have to invert her choices.

I believe that we affirm existence by admitting the universe is not comprehensively knowable, by cherishing the mystery. I believe that undue certainty in our beliefs is what causes us to succumb to intellectual death. And being certain of this particular belief isn’t a paradox, not only because the belief is about accepting paradox, but because the belief itself is a constant reminder to remain humble in our discernment.

I believe that the myths of meaning most suited to our age are parables of math and science. Stories of ratios as an explanation for what rational thought is; of infinities and zeroes as correlates for God and nirvana; of spin and angular momentum, magnetism and gravitation, as metaphors for how we psychologically orient ourselves in some abstract n-dimensional phase space that encompasses all the possible pasts and futures.

In this vein, I offer Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems as a final thought and counterargument to Randian ideology. Godel posits that no matter what set of axioms you start with, if those axioms are usefully consistent, they are inevitably incomplete. They cannot prove every truth about natural numbers, which is to say about nature itself.

To be complete requires paradox. To be consistent is to forego the variety of wholeness. That is the story of the relationship between free will and determinism. That is the story of humanity. Polar opposites are interdependent.

That’s all I can really claim to believe. I promise that all of this navel-gazing will come into play in next week’s final commentary on Galt’s Speech, but if it isn’t satisfying to you, well… you can always consider it something to contemplate.

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3.7 This is John Galt Whining, part 2

PREVIOUSLY: John Galt clarified what he believes in — free will, fundamentally and without qualification — he shall pronounce unto us the various evils of believing in… anything else. Specifically, religion. Aaaand GO:

Galt declares that the Christian doctrine of original sin is the foundation of all “mystic” morality and points out various ways in which this doctrine proves religious values perverse.

Note, Galt says, that in the myth of The Fall man’s crime is knowledge, and that the Randian virtues of labor and desire are punishments. Note further that this view of the worldly and physical as fallen pits mind and body against each other. Consider the distress man has suffered for imagining his physical and spiritual desires to be in innate opposition! Fie, fie upon your God! Galt says.

Galt points out two camps of evil proselytizers, “the spiritualists and the materialists, those who believe in consciousness without existence and those who believe in existence without consciousness.”  Spiritualists dare to put limits on human knowledge by claiming God is the ultimate reality and beyond our comprehension. Well, fair enough. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it is an accurate summation. Meanwhile, materialists undermine individual liberty by claiming abstract Society is the ultimate good.

Uhh… what?

So first of all, categorizing materialists as ‘mystics’ seems a little bizarre. Secondly, calling them radical socialists as a class seems… well, par for the course, I guess. Once again Ayn’s attempts to bind her cosmology to her political economy utterly fail to make sense.

Next up: sacrifice. Did you know it’s evil? It is! Well, if you define it strictly as giving up something valuable or virtuous for something shitty and worthless. Which Galt does, with this lovely example:

If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty.

Yes, you awful superficial loveless mother, don’t sacrifice your values — abandon that fucking kid already, like a real hero! Fuck’s sake.

On we go, passing various Gross Mischaracterizations along the way. This train is going off the rails fast, though. Galt has decided that under the logic of sacrifice, all exchanges of value are zero-sum thefts, never mutually beneficial. Sure, if you operate within a narrow definition of sacrifice that you invented just moments ago so as to disqualify inconsequential outlier examples like a mother’s love.

Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Because writ large, a morality of sacrificing your self to meet the world’s needs is impossible to achieve. You would get sacrificed, and the world’s needs would still not be met. Take that, Jesus! Although to be fair I can’t really argue the point.

Spiritualists hide this futility by claiming possession of a sixth sense that contradicts and overrides the physical five. Materialists simply “declare that your senses are not valid, and that [materialist] wisdom consists of perceiving your blindness by some manner of unspecified means.” Pfft, who’s claiming that? (Somewhere in the world, Sam Harris rolls his eyes for reasons he cannot explain, because none of us knows why we really do anything because we don’t have free will.)

Basically, Galt says, both of these camps are just trying to wish reality away. If reality is A, spiritualists would rather it be Not-A. Thus their worship of the unreal, and their aspiration to non-existence. Materialists… well, Galt seems extremely confused as to what materialism actually is.

Really, Galt and Ayn are materialists. They believe in an objective reality that obeys the laws of physics, cause and effect, and they reject the claim that there is a plane of existence outside this.

Yet they also explicitly reject the claim that the mind is a mere byproduct of matter. So they are also spiritualists, since positing a free will that can alter the course of an otherwise physics-bound, deterministic reality necessarily suggests some unknown dimension of reality through which abstract thought can influence tangible matter. EITHER/OR, Ayn! Either/Or!

“The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles,” Galt taunts those mystics who would ignore the demands of logic. My point exactly, dude. Go fuck yourself. But no, we must put aside the fact that Galt has stumbled blindly into an eternally recursive paradox defining the relationship between self and reality,  because he’s still talking.

And just to add insult to injury he’s whining like a bitch about how the strong are the victims of the weak now. Was that a theme of this book? If so, too subtle! Needed another couple hundred pages of laborious exposition.

Focusing on the “mystics of muscle,” the godless materialists who have taken over the government (Psych 101: Ayn is channeling her childhood memories of Soviets & Bolsheviks!), Galt points out that maxims such as “I know I know nothing” and “There are no absolutes” are paradoxes. Apparently Galt is able to identify paradoxes now. Hey John, I’ve got a couple to run by you…

BAH, Galt cries, don’t you see?! The secret wish of these nihilists-in-charge is to return man to the synesthetic state of a baby, drowning in magical ignorance, unable to distinguish between subjects and objects, unable to think in coherent and discrete thoughts or integrate them into higher knowledge. These bastards want to dissolve the mind and the self into nothingness! A nothingness just like DEATH! DEEAAATTHHH!

Oi, and here we go with the education system again. Our teachers are teachers of DEATH! They instruct the impressionable youth to believe in nothing, and especially not facts about objective reality, and to rely entirely on magical thinking, like a “savage.”  Is… is that what college was like in the USSR, Ayn? No wonder they lost the Cold War. And I’m pretty sure the CEO of Boeing didn’t reinvent the laws of aerodynamics, so you can fuck right off.

Despite this Gross Mischaracterization of materialism and a liberal education as promoting magical thinking, Galt does get off a good line against the “free will is an illusion” argument:

Your consciousness, they tell you, consists of ‘reflexes,’ ‘reactions,’ ‘experiences,’ ‘urges,’ and ‘drives’ and refuse to identify the means by which they acquired that knowledge, to identify the act they are performing when they tell it or the act you are performing when you listen.

Zing! And yet somehow this pithy retort becomes part of an argument for laissez faire capitalism. GAH, give it up already! I’m sure there are libertarians out there who believe in material determinism. Come on, Ayn, where’s your imagination?*

[*…and other questions it’s 800 pages too late to ask.]

Galt doesn’t give it up already, obviously, and unleashes another furious rant about how the suffering of rich people is the surest evidence of the dehumanizing nature of modern society. I think downgrading the vast majority of mankind into a category of “subhuman moral pervert” is dehumanizing, but hey, what do I know.

The bottom line is this: a “mystic” is pure evil. If you do not accept Galt/Rand Objectivism explicitly or implicitly, you are a mystic. And whether a mystic seeks to negate the existence of  material reality or the existence of ethereal mentality, he seeks to negate his own existence thereby. Therefore, inevitably, a mystic is an “anti-living object who seeks, by devouring the world, to fill the selfless zero of [its] soul. … [H]is ideal is death,  his craving is to kill, his only satisfaction is to torture.”

Holy shit, is that what the world looks like from inside Ayn Rand’s head? Because that is fucking terrifying.

Next week, John takes us home by telling us what he actually likes about humanity. Namely, himself.

REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH: Ayn Rand’s Fear of Existentialism and Mystery

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Food for Thought #14: Fatalist Attraction

Let’s talk about Sam Harris. Sam is a neuroscientist and one of the outspoken “New Atheists.” His most recent book Free Will is a short polemic that argues free will is an illusion.

Here’s a quote:

Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.

For all of the criticism I level against Ayn Rand on this blog, I have to admit that this is exactly the sort of public intellectual argument she satirizes in Atlas Shrugged. She is (as I think a lot of people are) viscerally repulsed by the idea that, to put it bluntly, everything exists but you.

This is particularly relevant to the blog since the chapter summaries have finally reached John Galt’s Big Speech (itself kind of viscerally repulsive, I might add), and in this speech Galt declares free will to be THE primary, fundamental fact of human nature, what makes a man a man. And like Harris, Galt posits this not as belief but as fact, as unerring truth.

The difference is that Harris backs up his thesis with empirical scientific evidence, whereas Ayn Rand’s mouthpiece makes a purely abstract argument premised on a set of a priori logical axioms. Ayn Rand’s argument fails to live up to its own standards of logical rigor and loses validity rapidly from there. Harris’ argument, philosophically uncomfortable though it may be, is not quite as easy to dismiss. For example, citing influential experiments by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, Harris points out “activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.”

There are, of course, disputes over the Libet experiments’ objectivity. Cognitive scientist David Dennett points out that the subjects’ self-report about the exact moment they decided to press a button (which is to say, exercise will power) isn’t really an isolated objective measurement in the same way that the measurements-by-electrode of neuronal activity and muscle movement are.**

[**More details about the experiment and disputive arguments are available on Wikipedia.]

But however we want to interpret it, the fact of the experiment is that if the increase in neuronal activity began at millisecond 0, and the button was ultimately pushed at millisecond 500, the moment the subjects  identified as the moment of their conscious choice fell about 60% of the way through the actual physical process of the action. This certainly seems to suggest that our subjective sense of self is just interpreting reality on tape delay.

Still, the argument against free will has an unavoidable “Who’re you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ mind?” quality to it. Even if I concede that my subjective experience is really a retroactive interpretation of physically determined phenomena, practically speaking I still have to choose what to eat for lunch, when to text that girl back, and which life goals to work toward. I can “go with the flow” and forsake willful action, but I can also undertake willful action to alter the flow. From the subjective perspective, there is a clear experiential difference, even if objectively it’s all cosmic clockwork. To borrow a phrase usually applied to God by the religious, “You don’t have to believe in free will; free will believes in you.”

Which brings us back around to Ayn Rand and her unshakeable faith in free will’s reality. At the same time she insists on conscious volition, she insists on objectivity and rationality as the only modes of thought proper to its constructive exercise. And at the same time she insists on that, she declares that any science that might objectively, rationally dispute her initial premise is fraudulent and philosophically bankrupt.

So not to belabor a point, but Rand is not actually a champion of knowledge or progress. Though she is a champion of individualism, ambition, and liberty (all of which are clearly relevant to the matter of free will), her opinions about history and the arc of the Atlas Shrugged narrative expose her as a reactionary and a luddite at heart. One of the fundamental questions this blog is meant to explore is: how much value can I grant to Rand’s faith in free will and the value of the individual in light of the fact that most of her other beliefs are absurdly radical and mentally toxic?

The answer in general is not very much; there are plenty of better writers to find defending those ideals without all of the psychopathic baggage. But when faced with a militant logician arguing against the existence of free will, I suddenly find Rand’s similarly aggressive stubbornness in free will’s defense kind of sweet, even charming. In this light, I can almost make out a faint impression of Ayn’s shriveled, callous heart.

But do I actually agree with Rand’s position? I’d like to believe in our minds’ ability to impact the course of physical reality, and I intend to outline a case for that next week, but unlike Ayn I want to genuinely grapple with how difficult it is to reconcile that belief with the reality of physics.

I mean, let’s face it: physical science has a lot of credibility. Every time you use a phone or a car or a plane, every time you ride an elevator or eat at McDonald’s, you are relying on the predictive power of physical science to ensure your safety. And it works! But the whole reason physical science’s predictions are reliable is because it assumes the universe can be computed, that it is a causally coherent, deterministic material system– after all, that’s the kind of universe where one could write an equation that explains gravity consistently across all of space and time. And lo and behold, there is an equation that does just that.

So long before neuroscience entered the, um, equation… the implications of scientific success dating back to the Newtonian revolution would suggest there is no room in the cosmos for human free will.

This is the point where a lot of people start looking for a back door for free will in quantum physics. But as Lisa Randall explains in her 2011 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, quantum effects by definition don’t undermine macro-level classical physics: if they did, then classical physics’ predictive power would break down. We know that any physical uncertainty due to quantum mechanics is already accounted for once we get to scales where a classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe, because the classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe.

As you can see, this thoroughness of logic is totally fucking depressing. And Ayn Rand, of all people, will have nothing to do with it. “You’ve got to stand up,” she says like Howard Beale in Network, “you’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being, damn it! My life has VALUE!'”

Unless you’re poor.

Oops! See, Rand’s obsession with objectivity, rationality, and explaining the world through mechanical and transactional metaphors makes it basically impossible for her to argue against a physically deterministic universe. But in such a universe, free will simply can’t exist. Her philosophy is a paradox.

In this way, Sam Harris is a more intellectually honest representative of Ayn’s metaphysics than Ayn herself, just like Joel Salatin the libertarian organic farmer is a more honest representative of her politics and economics.

Next week, when John Galt tackles the evils of irrational faith in the recap, I will seek to reconcile the paradox of free will with physical determinism in the reax. And I will do this by looking at religious thought, the one place Ayn Rand would never dare to tread.

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Applied Randology #11: Rand/Romney 2012

The old and poor can’t pay taxes on income they don’t make.

Well, it looks like Paul Ryan isn’t the only guy on the Republican ticket who’s a John Galt wannabe. As the Rand-obsessed writer Jonathan Chait of New York magazine will be happy to point out to you, Romney’s declaration of class warfare against the poor pegs him quite firmly inside the Ayn Rand Ideological Bubble.

Now, many grassroots conservatives view this ‘gaffe’ as an opportunity to make a winning ideological argument about an ownership society v. a dependency society. I think on those terms their argument is relatively persuasive. But that’s ultimately moot because the, uh, “facts” they want to use as a launching pad for that conversation are decidedly not real, and thus not legitimate evidence for validating their worldview.

As the chart above demonstrates, of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax, 17% pay through payroll taxes (giving them an effective tax rate of 15%, almost as low as Mitt Romney). Another 17% are retirees whose primary income is social security (MOOCHERS!). The remaining 13% don’t have enough income to tax. And as the chart below demonstrates, the ten states with the largest share of the impoverished 13% are all died-in-the-wool Republican states (except Florida, where a lot of the mooching comes from the afore-mentioned retirees).

The confederacy is a welfare queen. LOOTERS!

In fact, according to Ezra Klein, even most of that 13% pays payroll taxes (he says 61% of the 47% does). And on top of all of that, these demographics suggest that a majority of the ‘mooching and looting class’ votes Republican.

So Romney’s claim is misleading twice over. First he denies the reality of who pays taxes. Then he says the class of worthless bums he just invented all vote Democrat. And whadya know, if you take those false premises as true, then in imaginary Romney world America IS on the verge of becoming a permanent one-party socialist state, because once the moocher & looter class gets above 50%, the pro-government Democrats will win every election by promising people free stuff. A monopoly on democracy. And they’re getting SO CLOSE!!!

Except that’s not real. Not only does the moocher class not exist, but the purging of low-income households from the income tax rolls was accomplished by massive tax cuts. Tax cuts signed into law by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Chart from Ezra:

“And then, in 10 to 25 years, we’ll blame this on the Democrats!”

Obviously, this objective reality does not validate Republican ideology. It validates my argument against Republican ideology. Conservatives who want to use Romney’s comments to promote that ideology are denying reality so they can argue purely theoretically, starting from flawed logical premises.  This is, of course, exactly what we are seeing this month in John Galt’s Speech.

But I’ve made that point before, many times. What’s new about this particular story, and (a la Chait) actually kind of shocking, is that the Republican presidential candidate who everyone assumed was a moderate wonk in conservative clothing turns out to be a True Believer in False Reality.

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3.7 This is John Galt Whining, part 1

Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. John Galt, having hijacked every radio frequency in the world (or something), shall now proceed to explain the meaning of life, the universe, and everything to the sorry population of earth. I’m going to engage The Speech pretty seriously going forward, but I will breeze through this first part, because it’s the driest of the dry and, to be honest, pretty fuckin’ dumb. Brace yourselves.

LO, puny mortals! Mankind has followed a perverse morality and now suffers the consequences! All past moral codes are evil, because they are ‘mystical’ and/or ‘social.’ These false moralities value sacrifice and a belief in something larger than yourself. HORRIBLE!

The key to what you so recklessly call ‘human nature,’ the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. … [He] has no automatic course of behavior. He needs a code of values to guide his actions.

So one must choose values. Except there’s really only one choice, ‘existence or non-existence.’ Existentialism or nihilism. Does that mean that if you haven’t killed yourself you’re doing something right? No! It means that all value judgments are really choices between cherishing life and praying for death, up to and including your taste in smooth v crunchy peanut butter (crunchy peanut butter is the peanut butter of nihilism).

Man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking, which nature will not force him to perform. Man has the power to act as his own destroyer[.]

Ah, so the thing that differentiates us from plants and animals is the capacity for suicide. Are you feeling inspired yet? Wait, it gets better:

A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. Such a being is a metaphysical monstrosity, struggling to oppose, negate and contradict the fact of his own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain.

Okay then. How reasonable. If you’re keeping score at home, here’s what we know so far: good things are the opposite of bad things. Life, mind, reason, happiness, and existence are all GOOD. Death, ‘anti-mind,’ faith, pain, and non-existence are all BAD. 

More talk about how teachers are paid by the government to educate your children in spiritual bankruptcy, and you know, if the whole goddamn world is such a threat to your beliefs, maybe you’re just really fucking insecure.

Point is, mankind has free will. That’s GOOD. But unless you follow John Galt’s patented One True Way, you are abusing your free will and metaphorically killing yourself and everyone else! That’s BAD.  And if anybody tells you anything different about any of this, they’re deceivers and agents of  evil and destruction.

AND, if all that sound exactly like a fundamentalist religion, well… shut up. Because, OPPOSITE! So there.

Yes, Galt boldly says he believes existence exists, unlike you people. More GOOD words include “logic, truth, reality, and knowledge.”  You might recall from before that good things are good. I know it’s a lot to keep up with. It might be easier if you remember that all good things are effectively just one good thing, which is… whatever Ayn Rand thinks about those things. Let’s learn more about that now:

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.

Self-esteem! What are you, a little league coach? More GOOD words — independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, work, character. Yeah, no shit John. Also on the list is pride, which goeth before unintended irony. 

Galt goes on for pages defining each word in detail, mostly by using all the other ones. Then this diamond in the rough:

[Y]our character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining.

And:

Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor … and wreck you on your first attempt to move.

Preach it brother, amen! Exposit it, fellow human, exclamation! Now compare and contrast with this quote from the decidedly mystical Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.

So, finally, an axiom of Objectivism that isn’t ugly, misanthropic, and vaguely genocidal! Shame, then, that Galt follows up with more declarations that are ridiculous and out of touch with reality, like “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.” HA!

Things start to sound promising again when Galt lays down a hard and fast rule that a man must never, ever initiate force against another man because it violates every premise of Rand’s existential argument. Needless to say, I will be quoting it extensively later when Rand violates every premise of her existential argument in exactly this way.

So, whatever. Fuck it. To set the stage for next week’s segment, Galt gives up on sounding reasonable and throws down the gauntlet. YOU (everybody in the world who doesn’t have Galt’s personal stamp of approval) live in fear of all those BAD words. WE (Galt’s elite) live our lives in pursuit of all the GOOD words. WE worship LIFE WORDS. YOU worship DEATH! DEAAAATHHHH! So DIE!

Christ, what an asshole.

NEXT WEEK: John Galt explains why Christ was an asshole.

REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH: Ayn Rand, Faith, and Free Will

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Food for Thought #13: John Galt, Idiot

As this blog finally takes on John Galt’s infamous speech, it’s worth tying together all we’ve learned about Ayn Rand and Objectivism so far:

The Atlas Society, Washington’s most explicitly Randian think tank, declares on its website that Rand’s work

was credited by stunned intellectuals as having single-handedly solved an ancient philosophical puzzle.

Sounds impressive! Except not only does Ayn’s writing fail to actually do this, but she is ignored as a crackpot among mainstream philosophers. Why oh why might that be?

The plot of Atlas is a riff on F.A. Hayek’s road to serfdom argument. But Hayek’s belief in the moral superiority of laissez faire capitalism was based on the premise that it produced the best humanitarian outcomes — a consequentialist moral logic. By this reasoning, Hayek tempered his libertarianism by admitting that some form of universal health insurance and a bare-bones social safety net would be wise for human stability and prosperity.

By contrast, Ayn argues for her even more radical libertarianism — really, anarcho-capitalism — in morally absolutist terms. In contrast to Hayek’s consequentialist ethics, Rand’s are deontological, or rule-based. Hey, you know what system of thought is traditionally associated with an absolutist, rule-based morality? Yep, religious thought! Even though she is an atheist rationalist materialist, Rand’s morality is awkwardly akin to a declaration of faith — faith in what? The infallibility of her own reasoning.

But since honest faith is anathema to Rand’s sensibilities, she claims to have objectified and quantified her belief in moral justice by declaring money a measure of it.

Awkward: this is effectively synonymous with the prosperity gospel practiced by many evangelical Christians today. Man, did Ayn Rand hate Christians. Nonetheless, both she and Joel Osteen claim that adopting the right metaphysical value judgments will inevitably lead to material success.

This position of a moral law also evokes religious ideas of karma and ‘right action’ sourced from the non-theistic eastern philosophies that she hates even more than Christianity, if that’s possible. Taoism and Buddhism preach that emptying one’s self of passions and desires will make one sensitive to the true nature of the world, and thereby allow one to live in harmony with reality — what a Christian might describe as acting by the grace of God.  Similarly, John Galt warns Dagny that she will have to learn the wisdom of non-attachment to join the elect in their utopian Atlantis. Jai guru galta om?

So the mechanisms of moral reckoning and spiritual alignment in Objectivism are not all that different than those of religious tradition. It should be no surprise that the intellectual pitfalls of faith that Ayn inveighs against — denial of reality, blindness to man’s nature, epistemic closure — are all sins that Ayn herself commits.

Yet Rand doubles down! She commands her believers to mistrust all other sources of potentially authoritative knowledge. She adapts Shakespeare’s famous “First let’s kill all the lawyers,” into “First let’s kill all the teachers.” She considers science — and particularly physics, the fundamental science that investigates the nature of material reality — corrupt, as illustrated in Atlas Shrugged by the character of Doc Stadler and noted in this excellent 2009 essay by Jonathan Chait. This is the behavior of a cult leader.

In short Ayn Rand is glaringly ignorant about her own metacognition. By indiscriminately applying Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle to propositions that do not fulfill its requirements, she tricks herself into holding beliefs that are strikingly similar to the beliefs she hates most, because her logical process dictates they must be exact mirror images of each other. She fails to see that diametrically opposed points are symmetrical.

Ayn obscures her philosophical incompetence (from herself as much as from her readers) by presenting the fictional world of Atlas Shrugged as if it accurately accounts for objective reality. Never mind that her interpretation of modern and ancient history is riddled with errors and mischaracterizations, quickly disproving any equivalence between her Objectiverse and the actual universe. She seems to think she can validate Objectivism regardless by proving it true in the Objectiverse, which she created for the specific purpose of proving Objectivism true.

It’s no wonder that someone so solipsistic would wind up making criticisms of faith and ideology that apply best to her own. And no wonder that such a self-contradicting thinker would claim to champion progress and intellectual innovation while vilifying one hundred years’ worth of it. Atlas Shrugged is not the solution to an ancient philosophical puzzle; it’s a crappy pulp novel from 1957 that might have been an intriguing sci-fi novel… in 1857.

A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketnoted on The Colbert Report that Ayn’s last published piece of writing was a warning about Ronald Reagan.

Ayn thought Reagan’s fusion of religiosity and political ideology would be a disaster for America. And yet that combustible mix is exactly what Ayn herself has advanced, despite a truly epic number of logical contortions adopted to avoid this self-awareness (in the psychological style of Jim Taggart, her nihilistic antagonist).

For all her nominal praise of intelligence and advancement, she expressed views that are anti-education, anti-science, anti-social, pro-greed, and pro-apocalypse. She invented an alternate reality, filled it with nostalgia for an earlier era that never existed, and then called this a prophecy and a way forward.

So when Ayn Rand darkly foretold the now-obvious long-term consequences of Ronald Reagan’s political coalition, she was just as accurately condemning herself, and the happy absorption of her beliefs into that very same coalition is the proof.

Objectivism isn’t some sound philosophy with which to disagree. It is a failure by its own standards: it is a contradiction that must be maintained by its believers to avoid grappling with an objective reality they are not prepared to deal with, in the style of Jim Taggart, Rand’s nihilistic…  well, you get the idea.

Who is John Galt? A joke.

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3.7, This is John Galt Speaking, “Hype Machine”

PREVIOUSLY: Hank Rearden quit and joined John Galt’s hippie utopia.

Jim knocks feverishly at Dagny’s door at some ungodly hour of the morning to inform her that Hank has disappeared. Dagny is tremendously proud of Hank, and wonders why she persists in trying to save society if she feels so good about his leaving. Good question! She tells Jim she will not help track Hank down, and he leaves in a fit.

Scanning the day’s papers and seeing only brusque dismissals of any stories about social unrest, Dagny is chagrined. Propaganda!

It was strange, she thought, to obtain news by means of nothing but denials, as if existence had ceased, facts had vanished and only the frantic negatives uttered by officials and columnists gave any clue to the reality they were denying.

Silly Ayn, America’s problem isn’t an excess of negations, it’s an excess of positions. Facts don’t vanish, they just drown among fictions. If anything it’s a testament to how free our speech is! You’re probably thinking of Soviet Russia. You seem to get them confused. A lot. Anyway…

After a week, Dagny receives a short letter from Hank: “I’ve met him. I don’t blame you.” Dagny gets all wistful that she doesn’t get to hang out with them all in Galt’s Gulch.

At work our heroine has difficulty focusing on the task at hand. She keeps thinking of Galt down in the tunnels, all sweaty and muscular. She checked payroll and he was listed there under the pseudonym… John Galt. Wait. …What?

That’s not even a shitty cover, it’s not a cover at all! This is ridiculous. Wasn’t he just telling Dagny two chapters ago that the two of them boning is what would get him caught? You dumb shit. Ladies and gentlemen, Ayn Rand’s vision of the world’s smartest man.

Moving on to another spinning newspaper montage, things are really going to hell now. Roving gangs! States seceding! Seceding states collapsing into authoritarian feifdoms and violent chaos!

“The editorials went on speaking of self-denial as the road to future progress,” the narrator says sardonically, even though that’s basically the argument for fiscal austerity, a.k.a. the Republican (and libertarian) platform — not to mention a logically sound extension of Ayn’s beliefs that society’s problem is overconsumption and you can’t consume more than you produce.

As the situation grows dire(r), the White House announces that Mr. Thompson will give a special address to the nation on the global economic crisis. The speech will be simulcast on all radio and TV stations and the web, even though it doesn’t exist.

So it is set for the week of Thanksgiving, and Jim tells Dagny the President wants her there. She won’t speak on camera, but she’ll be part of the photo op and attend a policy conference with the President and other national leaders after the address (this being the reason the speech will be broadcast from New York and not DC). Dagny consents as long as she can bring good ol’ Eddie Willers as a body man slash mascot.

So that’s what she does. On the big night, she strides into the studio and scans the motley crew of pathetic villains before her. She is shocked at how aged — curdled, really — Dr. Stadler has become since completely selling himself out. He sees her with a look of “guilt turning into hatred,” and turns away “as if his refusal to see could wipe a fact out of existence.”

PAUSE. Isn’t the move from guilt to hatred basically the heroes’ character arc in this book? She specifically has Hank abandon guilt as naive, and what John Galt calls indifference I call bullshit, because he clearly wishes the masses ill. Ergo, hatred. Guilt turning into hatred.

And by the way, wiping facts out of existence by refusing to see them is what Ayn does on every page  — remember her fundamental logical fallacy. Apparently the result of her blindered M.O. is a lot of projection and transference of your own negative qualities onto innocent bystanders.

And one more thing! Ayn keeps saying that the moochers and looters’ unconscious strategy is to not do anything themselves as political leaders, let businessmen take care of all the hard work, and then take credit for governing well. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Rand fans, any guesses?

In the words of Nelson Muntz, “Stop hitting yourself, Ayn! Stop hitting yourself!”

PLAY. Where were we? Dagny decides she’s not going to participate in this charade after all. Jim has a conniption. Hey look! It’s the two sentences I’ve had to use in basically every recap. Thank God the book’s almost over; I’m running out of synonyms.

Just as she prepares to go, and just as the broadcast is about to start, the sound tech gingerly approaches President Romney Thompson and tells him that they’re having technical difficulties.

Specifically, there is some phantom signal that’s interfering with transmissions all across the country. Nobody knows what it is or where it’s coming from. Everybody in the studio is unsettled and perplexed.

Just then, the phantom signal itself goes live. A crisp voice, clear as day, calls out over every speaker in the country.

Ladies and gentlemen … Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a report on the world crisis. That is what you are going to hear.

Dagny, Doc Stadler, and Eddie all gasp. Dagny and Stadler exchange a look of recognition, because she knows he knows Galt and now he knows that she knows Galt too, and nobody knows how Eddie knows Galt but I’ll give you a hint: it’s fucking stupid.

For twelve years you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. … [A]nd if you want to know why you are perishing — you who dread knowledge — I am the man who will now tell you.

WOO! Bust out the popcorn people, and prepare for ENLIGHTENMENT. I only hope Ayn applies logic more consistently as John Galt than she does as herself. Because if  not this is going to be very embarrassing.

NEXT — THE SPEECH, “This is John Galt Whining, part 1

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Applied Randology #10: How the Other Half Lives

Today we’re going to play “Pretend Republican,” a game in which I consider negative takes on the wildly successful Democratic convention from the perspectives of a birther, a moderate conservative, and a libertarian.

PROLOGUE: CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE

Before I play contrarian I want to offer one plaudit to the Dems that will give you a sense of where I stand ideologically. The praise goes to Julian Castro’s analogy about the American Dream being a relay from generation to generation and not a sprint or a marathon among individuals.

The ‘relay’ metaphor exposes the blind spot in the Rand/Republican belief that capitalist outcomes are inherently meritocratic.  Paul Ryan has said that the GOP believes in ‘equality of opportunity but not equality of outcomes.’ Fair enough. Let’s say we have perfect equality of opportunity; the outcomes for Generation 1 are meritocratic. But those unequal outcomes distort the distribution of opportunities available to  Generation 2, warping the relationship between outcome and merit starting with Generation 2 and forever onward.

Castro’s invocation of future generations also contrasts sharply with the influential Ayn Rand’s extreme discomfort with the role of children and family in a person’s life. Remember, in Atlas Shrugged there are no major characters with children and all familial relationships are exploitive or even predatory. Not exactly traditional values.

Of course, Democrats don’t have a monopoly on thinking of the children. But with that frame of mind in mind, let’s explore the merits and nuances of a few Republican frames of mind. I’m going to start on the fringe and work my way back to the mainstream.

1. BIRTHERISM

So obviously, a pure birther sees the entire DNC as a puppet show orchestrated by a conspiracy of Marxists, and there’s nothing insightful about that. But if you take out the part that breaks down as soon as you use basic critical thinking skills (namely the forged birth certificate part), the argument for a socialist conspiracy is at least comprehensible, if still built entirely on paranoid conjecture.

The argument goes like this: 

Barack Obama wrote a book called Dreams from my Father — not “Dreams of My Father,” as Dinesh D’Souza, producer of the documentary Obama’s America, was quick to point out in a recent interview on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.” 

In Dreams from my Father, Obama describes his adolescent struggle to establish a sense of identity (a universal coming-of-age process that must be particularly acute for a mixed-race child who grew up in several states and countries). On “Real Time” D’Souza quoted Obama from the book describing his frustrated and angry teenage years and his attempt to find an identity by learning what he could about his absentee father and adopting his father’s character as his own. According to D’Souza — and I haven’t looked beyond Wikipedia to try and verify this — Barack Sr held a number of socialist and anti-colonial views, becuse he was from Kenya.

So obviously Obama is a very angry man who forever internalized a radical value system that may or may not exist, and was definitely not just a rebellious teenager going through a phase. And obviously he left hints and clues about this covert ideology in his post-graduate memoir. But what is his secret legislative agenda?

Well, I recently found myself in correspondence with a commmitted Republican who told me he believed Obama is pursuing the Cloward-Piven Strategy. This strategy, outlined by two political scientists in The Nation magazine in 1966, is to overload the U.S. welfare system with so many people that it provokes a crisis, which the left can take as an opportunity to reform entitlements into a system of guaranteed minimum income for everyone.

The flowchart connecting Obama to the Cloward-Piven strategy looks like this:

It’s so OBVIOUS!

Convincing! But the real irony of this conspiracy theory is that the goal of the Cloward-Piven strategy has been endorsed by the two most famous conservative economists of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (who advised Ronald Reagan!) And if you think about it, a straight-forward “minimum income” or “negative income tax” is a pretty libertarian-friendly approach to entitlements, because it is simple to understand and the benefit is distributed equally to every voting-age citizen (with maybe an extra per-child credit for families? Either way, let’s not get bogged down in wonky details). Point is, there would be far less opportunity for fraud or cronyism in the implementation of such a system.

But endorsement by libertarian heroes aside, the whole idea is just too hard for the right to swallow because it’s an explicit redistribution of wealth. And besides that, the Cloward-Piven strategy is an incredibly stupid way of reaching the goal, even if you think like I do that the goal could actually be a good idea. Luckily for us, nobody is pursuing that strategy!

2. MAINSTREAM CONSERVATIVISM

The truly incisive conservative argument against our government is your basic Hayekian aversion to bureaucracy, something that conservatives feel keenly and liberals tend to ignore. Through this lens, the Democratic convention was full of obnoxiously naive talk about preserving unsustainable entitlement programs, offering tax credits and subsidies to alternative energy, and generally avoiding any of the reforms that would seriously streamline government and balance the budget.

How serious a concern is this? Well, on a fundamental level the criticism is legitimate: government money + hundreds of legislators + dozens of executive bureaucracies = a million opportunities for cronyism and bribery. Part of this problem is actually uilt into the constitution — since the founders split up power among a lot of different people to avoid its concentration in a dictator, our system of government has a lot of built-in “veto points,” where one person or a small group of people can block the legislative process to extract favors. In political science terms, this kind of exploitation of your position is called “rent-seeking.”  

The problem when it comes to partisan politics is that each side sees cronyism in the other side’s behavior, when this is really one of the ways in which both parties are similarly corrupt.  No matter your noble intentions as a conservative or liberal, once you are an insider, all your honest attempts to bring your allies inside with you, or to make sure government money is going to the ‘right’ people on the outside, appear to be self-evident corrupt cronyism to your political opponents.

Since this form of corruption is essentially universal and you can only distinguish between it and honest brokerage by your personal ideological value judgments, Democrats are naive for not considering its costs and Republicans are naive for thinking there side is much better.

The real difference between the parties on this score is where the money goes. The D’s are comfortable with all sorts of programs that the R’s see as completely without merit. The Ryan budget would slash the funding of all sorts of regulatory agencies whose budgetary footprint is negligible when compared to the big three: Social Security, Medicare, and Defense.

Which is why Democrats should be more sensitive to Republican criticisms in general, even though Republican proposals to cut discretionary spending are wildly insufficient and, I would argue, counter-productive.

3. LIBERTARIANISM

So the moderate’s critique of the Democrats is insightful, but it’s not really that partisan because Republicans aren’t much better, and the examples of discretionary spending that are held up as support for the critique are nowhere near the heart of the problem.

That’s only natural, because the heart of the problem is deeply bipartisan. The biggest beneficiaries of government hand-outs are the interests that can afford to swamp both parties with campaign funds and lobbying money. It is here where you see the very real trends supporting Hayek/Rand’s road to serfdom argument. Check out this Yahoo! Finance article from July analyzing the growth of the lobbying industry and the measurable return on investment that companies see from their lobbying expenses. Money quote:

“I think it speaks to the fact that government is a much bigger part of the economy,” Trennert points out, adding that many companies now actually view their lobbying expenditures along the same lines as R&D (research and development) or equipment spending. ” Companies are understanding better the idea that it is important…that it is a fiduciary duty to spend money and make sure your voice is heard,” he says.

The traditional Big Three sectors for lobbying are finance, pharmaceuticals, and defense. Let’s take defense as our representative example, because it’s the sector in which you see the biggest break between libertarians like Ron Paul and mainstream conservative hawks.

The first thing to note about defense spending is that it is back-door Keynesianism. Even as Ronald Reagan worked to cut all sorts of discretionary spending, he engaged in huge amounts of deficit spending for defense contractors. Now conservatives tend not to mind this because securing borders and trade routes is an undisputed responsibility of even a libertarian state. But this does nothing to change the fact that the sheer amount of money being earmarked invites all of the same concerns about corruption that Republicans see clearly when the money is being spent on poor people instead of bombs and massive warrantless surveillance operations.

It seems obvious to me that defense spending is exactly the area of government expenditure that should alarm libertarians the MOST, because not only does it contribute to the mountain of corrupting subsidies, but the results of that funding are generally the sorts of things the government could use to enclose the citizenry in a panoptical police state.

Unfortunately, both parties only get suitably terrified by this when the other is in power. When President Bush radically expanded the government’s ability to spy and torture and kill without oversight, liberals freaked out while conservatives trusted the decider. Now that a Democratic president is the one signing off on extra-legal targeted killings by remote-controlled drones, the Democrats spent a significant chunk of the convention celebrating our insanely powerful national security apparatus, while conservatives are obviously in a panic about the possibility the president will take all our freedoms away.

CONCLUSION: THE GRAND COMPROMISE

Now I’m not trying to be an alarmist in pointing out that the truly scary growth of government is in the sector(s) that no politician in their right mind would dare cut. I am not advocating we collapse society to avoid further progress along our current course. Anybody who isn’t dropping off the grid and moving to a remote log cabin needs to shut up about Randian apocalyptic ideals like that and accept that incremental reforms to the existing sytem are the least worst option.

Now I’m no wonk, but it seems to me we could radically simplify welfare and social security by replacing them with a (Hayek & Friedman approved!) Guaranteed Minimum Income, and we could make our defense spending far more frugal and efficient if we reasserted stronger judicial and congressional oversight of national security programs and reduced our budgets over a decade or two so that we eventually accounted for, say, 20% of the world’s defense spending instead of 40%, or approximately 2x China’s defense budget instead of 4x. Still gargantuan, just not so bloated and wasteful.

If we did all that we could theoretically shrink government A LOT (if we did all that we basically already would have), and from there it would be relatively easy to balance the budget and reform taxes by closing loopholes and flattening rates. Everybody gets something they want! We could even afford plenty of discretionary spending for infrastructure and R&D credits and other investments in human capital that have positive multiplier effects on the private economy.

Getting to a place like that is impossible means acknowledging that liberal concerns about undue corporate power and conservative concerns about undue government power are concerns about the same thing: the concentration of power and wealth among an unmeritocratic elite.

Putting aside the tremendous logistical obstacles, that’s the real reason we as a country can’t coalesce around a platform for comprehensive reform, even theoretically: the anarcho-capitalist right and the state-socialist left would both have to accept that the other side is… kinda right.

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3:6 The Concerto of Deliverance, “Bureaucrazy”

PREVIOUSLY: Poindexter the Regulator warned Hank that Wesley Mouch was quietly filling all the jobs in Hank’s mills with “goons.”

Hank learns from the newspapers that his workers asked for a raise — but they asked the Unification Board and not him. And the Board turned them down. The newspaper articles breeze right past that fact and paint Hank as a villainous robber baron. He thinks the “lamestream media” is

counting on the public to forget legal technicalities under a barrage of stories implying that the government was the natural cause of all miseries suffered by its citizens.

Wait, excuse me, that’s a transcription error. What Ayn wrote reads:

counting on the public to forget legal technicalities under a barrage of stories implying that an employer  was the natural cause of all miseries suffered by employees.

Sorry, wrong egregious generalization. Here I thought Ayn meant to satirize false media narratives from REAL life. My bad. Anyway, FOX, er, the “fictional press” is using heated populist rhetoric that Hank grimly thinks might incite the gullible to violence.

Meanwhile Hank gets a notice in the mail that all of his assets have been frozen to pay for back taxes that he doesn’t actually owe. He starts getting calls from IRS agents apologizing for the mistake, just a technicality, the hold will be lifted soon we promise etc. The highest-ranking guy Hank speaks to cajoles him into a friendly off-the-record meeting with the top power-brokers at State, just like the one Dagny had to attend last chapter. Hank takes all of these events in with keen diffidence, certain this is all some shell game to fuck with him but uncertain as to what for.

NEXT! Hank gets a call from his mom Lucille, pitifully asking him to meet with her and brother Buster. He relents and visits his house for the first time in months. Lillian is also there, which pisses him off, but he sits down and hears their case, the gist of which is that they’re terrified Hank will disappear like the others. They tell him they know they’ve been ungrateful and cruel and wrong, and please please will you forgive us?

But Hank is past caring. He rolls his eyes at them and tells them it’s too late. They didn’t respect him when it could’ve made a difference, and they’re only coming around now out of desperation. They haven’t earned forgiveness, they’re still just trying to dilute his awesomeness with their patheticness.

As he moves to leave, Buster tells him he can’t disappear without money and Hank realizes that’s the purpose of the tax freeze. Then, in a last desperate play, Lillian vindictively tell him that before they divorced she fucked Jim Taggart, who she doesn’t even like, so there.  Hank is nonplussed. “Oookay… what are you telling me for?” With that parting remark he sees her soul die inside and her face crumple in defeat. She has degraded only herself, and now she realizes it.  Hank exits.

NEXT! Hank is in New York for his meeting with Mouch, Taggart, Ferris, all the usual shitbags. They’re very unctuous, “Hank Hank, come in, we love your input, we should hang out more often!” He’s as bored with this schtick as I am. They run a Steel Unification Plan by him and he’s like “Makes no sense, everyone will go broke.” They do their best to ignore that and insist they must “equalize the sacrifice.” Hank is about done here, thank you.

Jim, like Lillian before him, makes a last ditch effort to keep Hank’s attention, but left with no rational argument defending the plan, he simply says he’s sure Hank will do something. This makes Hank realize (for like the sixth time) that their whole plan is to leave all the work to him and then consume all the value he creates. Jesus this chapter is nearly as repetitive as the last one.

Hank’s (and our) time thoroughly wasted, he storms off and drives back to the mills, only to see upon approach that while he was diverted the gang of goons Mouch had been slipping into his labor force has started a riot at the plant.

Before he reaches the mob at the gates Hank fishtails to a stop. Down a slope on the side of the road he sees a discarded body and rushes down to it. It’s Poindexter!

Poindexter explains he was shot for refusing to help the rioters. The riot itself has been staged so that Mouch has an excuse to pass the Plan he pitched to Hank even if Hank won’t sign off. And sure, he’s coughing blood and dying now, but he feels good about himself for the first time ever because he finally stood up for something. Hank makes him promise to use that newfound will power to keep breathing just a little bit longer, until Hank can find him a doctor. Nevertheless, as Hank picks him up and scales the hill back to his car, poor Poindexter expires in his arms.

Hank kisses his forehead and is suddenly overwhelmed with “a desire to kill.” Not the thugs who shot Poindexter, or the bureaucrats who hired the thugs. No, he wants to murder all of the nation’s college professors, just as a class of people, for teaching Poindexter the wrong values. He thinks Poindexter’s mother should have poisoned him as a child rather than send him off to higher education. Once again let me emphasize that I am not embellishing here. I just… there are no words.

PAUSE. Well, a few words. Seriously?? This is the sort of stuff you’d find in a serial killer’s notebooks after he was caught and be like, “Oh, I get it now.” Just, holy shit.

PLAY. Hank generously tempers his bloodlust for… teachers… by thinking how there were once good educators like Hugh Akston, the World’s Greatest Philosopher, who now lives in Galt’s Gulch and who, last time we saw him, was similarly extolling the satisfaction he’d feel if he murdered his peers. What a coincidence! A disturbing, disturbing coincidence…

Hank, in his blinding fury, strides right into the mob at the entrance to the mills. He sees that the workers loyal to him have somehow armed themselves and mostly quelled the rioting on the inside. Somebody on the roof is shooting down at the rabble around the gates with a semi-automatic in each hand. Hank admires his competent, efficient gunmanship. Yes, nothing more inspiring than a man on a rooftop firing indiscriminately into a crowd of people, am I right? Bashar Assad gets it.

Okay to be fair, in this particular case the mob is state-sponsored and here to do innocent people harm — and to prove that, a couple of the rioting thugs advance on Hank and beat him about the head, as thugs are wont to do. As he passes out he sees the gunman leap down from the roof, blow the thugs’ heads clean off, and carry him away.

Some time later Hank wakes up in his office. The staff doctor and superintendent are there taking care of him. They tell him the mills have been secured. The gunman was a newly-promoted foreman who smuggled in the arms so they could protect themselves, and no doubt he saved a lot of lives. He is waiting outside to see Hank.

The doctor and superintendent leave, and in comes the new hire: it’s Francisco! He’s been slumming it on the bottom rung of Hank’s ladder since he disappeared, just like Galt has over at Dagny’s. Frankie and Hank don’t fuck in the mud like Galt and Dags did, but you can tell they’d both be down if someone suggested it. It’s okay guys, your insane authorial God is cool with the socially liberal stuff.

Anyway they stare deeply into each other’s eyes and it’s pretty obvious that Hank is finally ready to leave the world behind for Francisco’s warm embrace and the pastoral beauty of Galt’s Gulch. Without further hesitation, they do just that.

NEXT — 3:7 This is John Galt Speaking, “Hype Machine”

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Applied Randology #9: The Opposite of Everything

In the wake of the Republican National Convention last week, I think it’s worth elaborating on something I first described back in January in Hayek Anxiety, the very first post in this Applied Randology series. Quoth myself:

 [T]he Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting.

To put it another way, the Republican Party inverts logic and truth in the same way Rand’s fictional progressives do.  And GOP CON 2012 proved to be an excellent demonstration of this phenomenon.

Let’s take Paul Ryan, because, obviously. The lies and deceptions in his speech have been well documented (even by Fox News!), but what pushes his lying into “self-contradiction” territory is the fact that all of his major criticisms of Obama focused on problems that Ryan himself is actually responsible for. I don’t want to beat a dead horse by fact-checking the whole thing, but I will flog it lightly.

Most obviously, Ryan himself tanked the fiscal compromises that he blames Obama for not supporting in both the case of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission and the credit rating downgrade — in the case of the debt commission, before the president ever saw the report in question; in the case of the credit downgrade, the House Republicans first held the country’s credit hostage, and then Ryan himself shot down the Grand Bargain on deficit reduction that the president offered to resolve the crisis.

However, even though it’s a less important issue, I want to focus on the GM plant in his district. Ryan infamously blamed Obama for the plant closing, and called the stimulus “cronyism at its worst,” despite the fact that Ryan was one of those cronies, requesting stimulus funds be earmarked for that plant because it would create jobs.

And nevermind that Ryan is undeniably relying on the gullibility and ignorance of voters to keep his case against the president afloat, the real irony in the GM example is how Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney’s behavior tracks with the story of certain Atlas Shrugged villains. To wit:

At the end of Part One, Dagny unravels the history of “the 20th Century Motor Company,” the Objectiverse’s version of GM. She learns that GM’s last owner before bankruptcy was a Bain Capital-esque investment company that petitioned the government for money to keep GM’s factory open. The government turned Bain down, and GM was kept temporarily afloat by an untenable loan from the private sector upon which Bain eventually defaulted — which is essentially the sequence of events Mitt Romney argued for in his notoriously ill-conceived “Let GM fail” op-ed. Frankly, the thoroughness of the parallel here is bizarre.

Speaking of Romney, I’ve already pointed out that the profile of Ayn Rand’s venal head of state character “Mr. Thompson” is an eerily appropriate description of Mitt, both physically and in political style. But the more relevant critique is on the policy level. Specifically he has promised to reduce the deficit all while raising defense spending, lowering taxes, refusing to cut Medicare, and while considering war with Iran and trade war with China. This is obviously impossible, giving Romney’s platform the same internal coherence as the progressive platform in Atlas Shrugged that argues Soviet-style programs will revive the free enterprise system.

Yet the most apalling example of Republican hypocrisy regards the fiscal cliff coming up after the election. Since no compromise was able to solve the credit crisis that Ryan helped to provoke, the parties agreed to a series of deep spending cuts to be enacted at the end of the year, cuts that will effectively ruin the recovery if no compromise is reached. If the sequestration cuts go through, or even if negotations hit a wall, we could see another series of unnecessary economic shocks.

With that history in mind, it was surreal to me to read an op-ed in Business Insider three weeks ago that argued the best way to avoid any problems with the fiscal cliff was to elect Romney and Ryan. The basic argument presented was that with Romney/Ryan in the White House, congressional Republicans will happily raise the debt ceiling and pass more stimulus bills on top of it — exactly the same obviously sound policies they have decried as radical and un-American when pursued by President Obama.

Furthermore, op-ed author Joe Weisenthal argued, Paul Ryan’s reputation as a fiscal hawk and budget wonk is exactly what gives him the credibility to get his fellow Republicans to… betray those very principles. Like The Wire‘s Tommy Carcetti, the price Ryan must pay for the Vice Presidency is the discarding of all the policies that he wants to be Vice President to promote.

So to sum that up, Weisenthal’s argument is that the hostage-taker should be in charge of driving the hostage back to her house, and can be trusted to do so because he has no integrity vis a vis his reasons for taking hostages in the first place.

Wow.

Peruse that argument again — this is where the insane parody of logic and ethics illustrated in Atlas Shrugged finds its full expression in the real life GOP.  The values of truth and good-faith negotation have been completely abandoned, and that is offered up as a reason to support those who abandoned them. The economic crisis depicted in Atlas Shrugged has come to life, they claim, so elect those who believe in the message of Atlas Shrugged, they say, even though that message is that we should welcome economic armageddon so that the rich don’t feel responsible for the middle class anymore. These rationales are perverse in how perfectly they contradict themselves.

Last week Mitt Romney spoke of wanting the president to succeed even as the historical record shows the Republican Party explicitly declaring their goal to be obstructing Obama for his entire first term to prevent his getting a second. Like Ayn Rand before them, the Republicans have created an unreal alternate “reality” in which their liberal political opponents are insane radical nihilists. Like Rand, they claim that everything is horrible because of this. Therefore they oppose everything and promise “real” America they will do the opposite of everything.

But as Ayn herself points out in delineating between Objectivism and nihilism, the opposite of everything is nothing. And if nothingness is at the heart of your ethics and your agenda, you aren’t the Objectivist party. You’re the nihilist party.

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