Posts Tagged democracy

Applied Randology #13: The Counterfactual

At the end of my commentary on John Galt’s speech, only twelve hours before Mitt Romney’s debate performance rebooted the race from a potential Obama landslide into a genuine toss-up, I concluded that

If [Randians who have no respect for truth] are evil by [their] own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.

Oops.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that by the end of The Speech I had gone pretty far overboard mimicking Ayn’s bluster and absolutism in my polemic against her. But my point about the nature of the modern Republican Party is sound; what’s changed is that the Party’s truth-free and reality-averse political strategy is working a lot better now. I still think Obama is going to pull out a victory, but the GOP’s “political suicide” turns out to have been a lot less real than it seemed on the morning of October 3rd. So to moderate the hyperbole of my Galt’s Speech conclusions, I’m going to imagine the potential Romniverse — in decidedly less hysterical terms than conservative pundits use when they imagine (and I do mean imagine) the Obamaverse.

First things first: when it comes down to it, I don’t consider a Romney presidency to be the real danger in this election; I consider a win for the Romney campaign to be the greater danger, because it would mean objective reality lost to post-modern relativism and willful ignorance. Even his supporters seem to defend him primarily on the grounds that you can’t believe half the things he says, which is the worst sort of moral complacency (and the sort condemned so rightly by Ayn in Atlas Shrugged).

This moral issue is the true crux of the election. As far as governing goes, I made it clear very early on this blog that there are elements of Rand’s “Objectiverse” and parts of conservative ideology that I can appreciate.  Even though I prefer Democratic policies to Republican ones on the whole, it’s really the politics and the rhetoric of the Republican Party that I object to with the moral certainty I played up in the Speech commentary.

What elements of a Romney presidency would I be okay with? The most promising is that if Romney wins, we will get another stimulus bill to help goose short-term economic growth. Even though the Republican House has been the faction blocking more stimulus under Obama, it is more or less a given that Paul Ryan would convince them to reverse their position if they also held the White House. Jon Chait outlines that case here. Despite the infuriating fact that this is a perfect example of the “politics over policy”/”party over country” nature of modern Republican leaders, releasing the hostage economy would be good for the country, so I could take some solace in that.

But when it comes to the other accomplishments of a hypothetical Romney administration that I could potentially get behind, the other elements of conservative ideology I support, well… the situation is more troubling. I am extremely skeptical that they would actually happen. Specifically, I would be in favor of tax reform, a balanced budget, and deficit reduction, which are really all the same issue. But if the history of Republicanism over the last thirty years is any indication, expecting follow-thru on these goals would just make me (and Republican voters) Charlie Brown to the GOP’s Lucy.

Fiscal responsibility is the football, see?

After all, both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made sure to cut lots of taxes, but never got around to the cutting spending part. They didn’t put government on a diet, they just let it go malnourished. To be fair to Ronald Reagan, even as he racked up debt, he did pass responsible, bipartisan tax reform, and increased taxes several times to compensate for his initial tax-cut binge in 1981. So really it’s just George W. Bush who single-handedly starved America: he moved the country away from a year-to-year budget surplus that would have erased the debt by now, to annual deficits that added $4 trillion dollars to the national debt over 8 years. 

Now even though conservatives are constantly pointing out that President Obama has added even more than that in under 4 years, the cause of this massive annual deficit is the spending commitments made by Bush (two wars, a huge expansion in the Medicare entitlement), paired with tax rate cuts established by Bush, exacerbated by a huge drop in actual tax dollars collected due to the economic collapse (which also happened on Bush’s watch). So Republican campaign messaging that blaming Bush is old news, boring, or irrelevant… that’s willful amnesia and defiance of reality.

If we set our expectations based on how Republicans have behaved and not on what they say, then they are far more likely to slash taxes but preserve spending, therefore ballooning the deficit even more. If nothing else, Republican fealty to Grover Norquist blocks any meaningful tax reform.

But what about Paul Ryan? Would his role in this hypothetical Republican government lead to a change in GOP seriousness about budgets? He certainly seems to think President Obama should have prioritized fixing Bush’s deficit problem — even though he helped create it and has actually tanked bipartisan efforts to fix it.

Well, okay, despite that last, incredibly relevant fact, let’s pretend assume that he’s only been biding his time as a team player on his way to the real levers of power where he can get serious about slashing spending. I still have two concerns about this.

One is that fiscal austerity hurts the recovery. Europe proves this. In fact, the “fiscal cliff” coming at the end of the year represents just this problem: it cuts the deficit too much. And although Republicans want to get rid of the cliff, “cliff” is actually the wrong metaphor because the cuts would take effect over enough time, in future budgets, that they can be adjusted, turning the “cliff” into a controlled landing that actually resolves the budget/debt/tax issue responsibly.

The key word there is “responsibly.” Since the Republican record is so irresponsible, having a Democratic veto pen handy makes responsibility far more likely. A more powerful GOP would happily erase the politically painful (deficit-reducing) parts of the “cliff.” This is, once again, outlined in Jon Chait’s afore-mentioned article.

Chait is really the indispensible writer on Rand and modern Republicanism. In his 2008 book The Big Con, Chait points out that the only part of the Republican agenda that the party never compromises on is tax cuts for the rich. When the Republican Party is in power, Christian conservatives are constantly disappointed by inaction; budget hawks are constantly disappointed by profligate spending; the wealthy are never disappointed.

Which brings us to my second concern about Paul Ryan’s approach to balanced budgets. This one is not about a short-term shock to the economy, it’s about the long-term structure of the economy. As the facts of the last three decades make clear, economic growth under Republican policies accumulates at the top. Tax-slashers today say that the 1% pays a larger share of the income tax than ever before, so it would be immoral to tax them more. But this is another example of willful ignorance: not only does the 1% store a lot of its wealth in investments that are taxed at the lower capital gains rate, but their income tax rates have been cut over and over. So how could their share of the income tax grow when the rates are getting lower? Because they make so much more of the nation’s income! Tax cuts and economic collapse have moved lots of people out of the income tax brackets entirely. The people who don’t pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes, state and local taxes, sales taxes, &c, all of which are taxes that disproportionally affect the poor. Yet the rich, who have gotten richer and richer, complain!

The Romney and Ryan plans explicitly encourage this trend, and history confirms that this is the campaign promise they are most likely to keep. Add to that the gutting of domestic discretionary spending, and we would soon find ourselves in a country with a class of super-wealthy plutocrats paying fewer and fewer taxes while the poor face taxes that eat up a significant share of their income, undermining social mobility, living standards, and both literal and fiscal health. On top of that, cuts in clean energy investment and a draconian immigration policy would undermine the foundation of America’s strength in the middle and late 21st century.

So, hey, you might’ve noticed that my intention to look on the bright side of a Republican victory has hit a pretty solid wall, a wall whose bricks I like to call “evidence,” “facts,” “reality,” and “truth.” Frankly, call it whatever you want. The important thing to realize is that this course which would be a disaster for everyone except the super-rich plutocracy is the Ayn Rand dream scenario. It is literally the plot of Atlas Shrugged, except in real life it is Rand’s version of utopia that is being achieved by corrupt plutocrats and lobbyists taking over the federal government. Rand’s utopia just happens to be the rest of reality’s dystopia.

I think any Republican voters who come across this site probably disregard it, take offense when I say all these negative things about their party. But I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about the people in power, not the masses. The masses see corruption among the powerful and think, “Better vote for the guys who want to shrink government,” but those guys are the ones pulling the most corrupt con of all! And if this indisputable fact is depressing to Republican voters because it proves them to be ignorant dupes, well, the proper reaction is not to hide from reality, but to face it and reform themselves to be more virtuous. Don’t take it from me, take it from Ayn Rand! Her advice for individuals is actually extremely valuable, for the most part, because she loves individuals — it’s her advice for society that is disastrous, because she actively wants to see it fail! She’s very explicit about it!

In accordance with that distinction, please note that the explicit purpose of this post has been to figure out a way to respond to a hypothetical Romney victory with equanimity, to prepare to swallow and digest frustration and disappointment and channel it into something productive and creative. In short, to react like Hank Rearden or Francisco D’Anconia, Randian heroes.

Likewise, I will abide by another Randian ideal, one that she herself failed to live by: facing reality and the evidence clearly. In the context of this hypothetical Romney victory, that means I would have to remain open to evidence that his policies work better than I can reasonably expect of them bsaed on history and logic. But in the far less theoretical, uh, “actual reality,” I must acknowledge that Randian economics, and Randian attitudes toward society and community, in short all those things that Romney and Ryan represent politically — these have been proved by the historical record to be a civic travesty.

More than the economic policy, the social policy, the long-term vision of the role of government, I consider the defining feature of the partisan divide in this country to be modes of thinking. Do we validate a solipsistic philosophy that is closed to evidence, that so willfully defies reality that the weak-minded are dominated and impressed? Or do we reward a philosophy that is open to evidence and evolves, that allows itself to be vulnerable precisely because it is willing to adapt and compromise? As I discussed in my commentary on Galt’s Speech, I consider this issue to be the fundamental measure of moral virtue, and therefore the fundamental reason I’m obligated to call modern Republicanism immoral. Though I cannot speak to the intellectual character of every individual in either party, I can speak to the aggregate character of the two institutions.

So this election is not ultimately a verdict on the candidates. It is a verdict on the nation, the people. It is a verdict on America’s relationship to objective reality. Will we choose to see the truth of our time and place in history and renew our commitment to democratic tradition, or will we choose to ignore the facts of the last several decades and allow ourselves to slip down the road to serfdom under a corrupt plutocracy that has bought the government?

Democracies get the governments they deserve. Let’s deserve our democracy.

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Applied Randology #4: Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm

Well, Our L’il Aynie got her first (probably not last) dose of media attention this election season when potential Romney Veep Paul Ryan disavowed his formerly effusive love for her, an image-moderating act that signaled he wants on the ticket.

But the Atlas Society, which advocates for Objectivism, made sure the world knew it still supports Ryan’s budget proposals, and released audio of Ryan calling Rand his number one philosophical influence and the reason he became a politician (which is an… interesting interpretation of her text).

Nonetheless Ryan now claims he rejects Rand’s atheist philosophy: “On epistemology,” he says, “Give me Thomas Aquinas… Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

Of course, as far as Ryan’s job as Chairman of the House Budget Committee is concerned, the relevant tenets of Objectivism are in economics and politics, not the more abstract area of epistemology. So that’s really a clever elision on his part — in reality it makes sense that Rand’s true believers can blithely dismiss his epistemic apostacy; his policy agenda is strictly by the book (in this case, Atlas Shrugged).

So to speak, anyway. It’s worth noting that in the book pretty much every single person who actively spends time or money on democratic political processes is a despicable soulless monster. In the Randverse, those involved with governance either preach liberal ideas as a form of denial about the damage they inflict, or are completely cynical two-faced operators.

To be fair, Paul Ryan might be a two-faced operator — all politicians are — but he’s not cynical. He, like Rand’s archetypal ‘evil progressive,’ is an ideologue in denial about the danger of his ideas; Ryan just comes by his ideology honestly.

And there are some other notable discrepancies between Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand: Ayn believes all religion is an exercise in covert nihilism; Paul is a well-read Catholic. Ayn believes all politics is an exercise in corruption; Paul is a politician. Ayn believed Objectivism as a whole “single-handedly solved an ancient philosophical puzzle” (atlassociety.org); Paul thinks he can selectively accept her conclusions about politics while rejecting the deeper philosophical premises on which those conclusions are based.

I think all this speaks to the factional tensions in the Republican party quite well. The party of old time religion has an economic agenda based on the philosophy of a radical atheist! Rather than render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mark 12:17), the theocratic wing of the GOP would render Caesar unto God, and the Rand-friendly wing would make a God of those things that ought be rendered to Caesar.

Rand, in her absolutism, poses a serious problem for those such as Ryan who would pick and choose from Objectivism like it was a buffet and not prix fixe. Hell, she poses problems for those like myself who would agree to disagree and just appreciate her as a champion of innovation, progress, and the spirit of willful individualism. The problem is summed up nicely by the caption on this XKCD comic:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.’ -Randall Munroe, xkcd

Commenting on that comic, Ari Kohen, who’s read Atlas, offers this critique:

Rand understood her novels to set the table for her Objectivist philosophy and, as a result, she intended for people who read her books to live their lives like [John Galt] … to think of other people as parasites and reject the idea that a political community binds people together in some morally meaningful way… One must be careful with this sort of thing because novels present their commentary and their conclusions without argument… she attempts to shape the way that people think about and interact with the world around them — to do political philosophy — without actually making any arguments for what are, ultimately, policy preferences with serious personal and societal consequences.

This is what is so alarming about the modern Republican agenda. It’s like the party is campaigning to bring about the Randverse, except the Randverse climaxes in economic apocalypse! To go back to a point I’ve made before (not to mention earlier in this post), politicians who employ rhetoric about restoring economic growth and making America great again even as they pursue policies that they must at least unconsciously know will cause society to collapse? They’re represented in Atlas Shrugged. They’re the villains.

You may say that this is painting with an extremely broad brush, but if you combine Paul Ryan’s draconian budget proposals with Grover Norquist’s perverse approach to tax reform (which he leads from an office at ‘Americans for Tax Reform’ in truly Orwellian fashion), the inevitable consequence is not fiscal responsibility but reckless debts and deficits, even default, that will provoke political and economic crisis. You cannot starve the beast and put it on a balanced diet at the same time.

To paint with a finer brush, it’s worth nothing that liberals too have grand thinkers who consider their approach the natural evolution of Western political philosophy. John Rawls, for instance, is a hugely influential high liberal philosopher who advocates for a low- or no-growth socialized economy to better realize an ideal of justice as fairness.

Except no real liberal politician would dare hijack American institutions in the name of a radical socialism, no matter what Fox News wants you to believe, because capitalism is too well-loved in our democracy for that to be politically viable. The ideological reverse, however…

There is a sane middle ground here. An overlap between the merits of libertarian economic efficiency and the virtues of the liberal commitment to democratic legitimacy. This space is explored in John Tomasi’s recent book Free Market Fairness.

Tomasi’s goal is conceptually ambitious but modest in its particulars and prescriptions. He builds a philosophically coherent argument that economic liberty and the democratic social contract need not be mutually exclusive propositions, need not be in contradiction. In fact, as the historical record shows, they are two great tastes that go great together.

Down that middle path lies the potential for compromises superior to either side’s unilateral positions, and that will be the subject of the next Applied post. But for now, I think it must be stated firmly and without equivocation that objectively speaking, it is the radical ideological purity demanded by Republicans, even as they insist that the compromising, weak-willed Democrats are the covert ideological radicals, that is the primary cause of our inability to achieve civic reforms and a stronger economic recovery. Furthermore, in their obstructionism the Republicans are performing the role of the looters from Atlas Shrugged, only with an inverted looter ideology that loots from the public coffers of a legitimate democracy, rather than from private coffers in the name of an illegitimate kleptocracy.

And Paul Ryan exemplifies this problem in that he is substantively committed to Objectivist values even as he maintains nominal adherence to a religion with a doctrinal tradition of social justice. Although he would make a great Republican VP candidate with his rep for fiscal responsibility, his specific plans (particularly in conjunction with Grover Norquist’s monopoly on tax reform) are not fiscally responsible. And that is what actually makes Ryan the perfect poster boy for today’s Republican Party: he seems like what’s right about it, when in fact he’s what’s wrong.

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Food for Thought #9: Ahistorical Fiction

“Already we have far too much of this insipidity — masses of people … letting slip whatever native culture they had, … substituting for it only the most rudimentary American culture of the cheap newspaper, the “movies,” popular song, the ubiquitous automobile.” –Randolph Bourne in The Atlantic, 1916

This blog has touched on the end of the Gilded Age and rise of the Progressive Era before, albeit tangentially. As we begin to tackle how best to fuse liberalism and libertarianism here in the 21st century, it is worthwhile to revisit it, and to that end I’ll be drawing on Louis Menand’s excellent history of the period, The Metaphysical Club.

Menand chronicles how the rise of industrial capitalism radically intensified the disorienting aspects of modern life borne of relentless change and innovation. Politically, this turmoil manifested in the rise of progressivism as it sought to provide a necessary counter-weight to the opressively concentrated wealth of laissez-faire economics. Culturally — as illustrated by the quote above — it manifested as concerns about the corrosive effects of the new mass-produced consumer culture.  And philosophically it manifested in the creed of pragmatism, as developed most famously in the writings of William James and John Dewey.

Cut to Ayn Rand, writing from the 1950s, valorizing the Gilded Age laissez-faire society and condemning the rise of progressive politics as the death knell of actual progress. Like the thinkers of the time, Rand expresses concerns about vapid consumer culture — even though industrial capitalism is what made mass pop culture viable — while on the philosophical level, Rand’s Objectivism is a radical departure from the approach taken by that era’s great American minds.

What was their thinking? The school of pragmatism evolved as a response to intense mid-19th century debates about metaphysics, provoked by the rise of Darwinism and the attendant rise of material determinism.

Pragmatism took its name from the idea that as a philosophy it should be more than an intellectually satisfying  theory, it should be a practical system of thought useful for people in authoring their lives. To that end, it adopted a stance of metaphysical agnosticism. For example, pragmatists assumed free will exists, not as a claim about the metaphysical truth but for the simple reason that people experience situations involving decision-making all the time, so any philosophy that discards free will is void of practical application. 

Ayn Rand also believes in free will  (to put it mildly), but she asserts this as a given metaphysical truth, just like her claims about the moral nature of money are metaphysical claims not supported by logic.

"You know nothing of my work."

In fact her broadest and most problematic metaphysical claim is her ontology of logic, which we have already exposed as faulty here. The truth is that Aristotle’s First Law of Thought, that “A is A,” isn’t making a claim to metaphysical truth per se, which is how Rand wields it; it is claiming that for anybody to meaningfully communicate thoughts with anybody else, they must first agree on the meaning of the terms and symbols they employ in their language. It is a metaphysically modest claim grounded in pragmatic utility — the laws of thought are  not irrefutable truths about the nature of reality (that would make them the laws of reality), they are the rules regarding form that a human must follow to successfully convey content.

The man who founded the pragmatist ethos, Charles Pierce, said of logic’s role in human affairs, 

[Reasoning] inexorably requires that our interests … must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community. He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle.

Pierce’s premise here is that the collected observations and inferences of any one individual are inevitably insufficient for a comprehensive or verifiably accurate account of reality. A body of objective knowledge can only be built and sustained by a society dedicated to that common pursuit within and between generations.

Here we see that pragmatism, unlike Objectivism, is concerned with both liberty in the form of aiding man in the exercise of free will, and with the legitimacy of society as a whole. At the time pragmatism became ascendant, laissez-faire capitalism had reached a turning point. The economic right to freedom of contract had begun to violate the contract of freedom — the social contract.

Historical evidence of the dictatorial power of private parties to govern the lives of the masses during the Gilded Age includes JP Morgan’s centralized economic management as handled through the corporatization & conglomeration of formerly entrepreneurial and individualistic industry. But another key example is the Pullman strike, the national crisis that launched Eugene Debs to fame and first brought serious momentum to the labor and socialism movements in America.

In 1894, Illinois was the lynchpin of the nation’s railroad system, and the workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company all lived in the company town of Pullman. Facing a drop in revenues during a recession, Pullman cut their wages. But he didn’t lower their rent or the cost of goods in Pullman, all of which he obviously controlled. So it was very clear to the laborers that they were getting screwed, bearing the costs of the macroeconomy while those with enough power to better influence that economy simply preserved its benefits for themselves.

As with Morgan, the Pullman dynamic is ironically akin to the excess authority and impossible demands of Rand’s government planners. Not only that, but the strike was eventually broken by the government acting on the side of management, because the disruption of rail service itself threatened the macroeconomy. All of which is starkly opposed to Rand’s fictional government — not to mention her fictional 19th century.

Clearly the huddled masses couldn’t directly engage in fair negotiation with their corporate overlords. If they wanted real opportunities to exercise economic liberty, they would have to work through democratic institutions to petition for a renewal of the social contract.

The moral here is that while Rand’s view of anarcho-capitalism (as expressed by Rearden in 2:4) prizes economic liberty as an inviolate moral ideal, such fidelity produces blind spots — in this case that a social order emerging from the bottom up through privately-negotiated contracts can still produce despotic, top-down governing bodies as a practical reality. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Sure it works in theory, Marge. Communism works in theory.”

Another pragmatist quote, this time by the more well-known American philosopher John Dewey:

The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, … and in favor of the eternal forces of truth … underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.

One could find support for Rand’s fears of dystopian statism in this quote about bigness, but one could also read into it a progressive’s suspicions towards dystopian capitalism. After all, both of these anxieties are rooted in the dangers of excessively concentrated power, and they both feel the need to support Davids over Goliaths in response. The schism is over what institutional arrangements best to mitigate this problem. 

First result in a Google Image search for "American Culture"

Pragmatism, of course, prefers whichever arrangement produces real experiential liberty for the most people. Since pragmatism is so, well, pragmatic, it is better suited to deal with the muddy compromises of reality than the theoretically pure forms of either libertarian capitalism or socialist democracy. As we see in the quote up top, in an era of eugenics and scientific racism, the Dewey-taught Randolph Bourne argues for a multi-cultural America with each race and ethnic group sustaining age-old traditions as a bulwark against spiritually empty consumerism. This is not dissimilar to the Deist founding fathers encouraging a religious populace for the sake of social cohesion. As always, the argument is a practical and metaphysically humble one. 

But this adaptability to circumstances leaves pragmatism open to charges of moral relativism, which is not entirely an accident. The thinkers who developed pragmatism came of age during the Civil War and its aftermath, and the lesson they took was that moral absolutism led to immense human suffering. Yet after the meaningless slaughter of World War I, this philosophy fell out of favor to make way for ideologies more proactive about asserting moral values once again. Nonetheless, I believe the pragmatists’ metaphysical agnosticism — which is to say their epistemic skepticism — was immensely valuable. Certainly the dogmatic ideologies that took hold in the 20s and 30s only contributed to greater atrocities, atrocities by design even, in World War II.

So as much as Rand idolizes the period out of which pragmatism grew, she has discarded the lessons learned by those who lived through it. This is self-evident in her fables about Nat Taggart, in which she portrays the era with willful inaccuracy. And to end this quote-heavy essay on a famous one by George Santayana, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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