Posts Tagged republican

Applied Randology #15: Party Lines

Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”

But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:

*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.

*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?

*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.

*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.

*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.

So, without further ado…

PARTY LINES

For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.

The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.

These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.

In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line.  To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.

So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.

Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.

See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.

Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.

Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.

So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.

1. ECONOMICS

When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.

However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).

On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.

Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.

2. SOCIAL ISSUES

This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!

Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.

And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.

But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.

Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.

But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.

And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.

3. POLITICAL STYLE

This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.

I think it’s simplest to put it this way:

The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.

You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.

And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.

I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.

And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.

In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.

A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.

That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.

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Food for Thought #16: But What if They’re Right?

I like to play devil’s advocate. Among my liberal friends I prefer to make conservative points, to temper opinions with which I agree in broad strokes with conservative virtues they might otherwise dismiss. And among conservatives I try to demonstrate my appreciation for their virtues while suggesting reasons they should reconsider whatever dismissive attitudes they might have toward liberal ones.

I think this is a reflection of the philosophical values I outlined for myself last week, the emphasis on considering multiple angles before settling on an opinion or belief with certainty. And so despite the fact that just two days ago I mimicked Galt’s rhetoric to demolish his reasoning, I’m going to spend today investigating what I consider to be the central question of Atlas Shrugged:

What if John Galt is right?

The very first thing to point out here is that this is NOT the central question of the book as Ayn Rand sees it. You might’ve picked up on her version of the question. It was “Who is John Galt?” And the reason her inquiry is phrased that way is because as far as she’s concerned John Galt is clearly right. The book is built around validating his opinions from page one. So the “mystery” is, who is he, and what is he right about?

Well, one thing he is definitely not right about is his pathetically narrow-minded worldview — his bankrupt definition of value, and his vicious definition of virtue. No, he is basically forced to embrace this hilariously literal form of sociopathy to justify his goal, which is to see modern civilization crumble.

But it’s worth noting that his preferred form of protest is civil disobedience. So what he might be right about — or at least, what I think is worth contemplating he might be right about — is the answer to the following question pondered by liberals and conservatives alike: what if the current course of global civilization is unsustainable, and what if our only option for saving the human spirit is to radically and urgently restructure the way we live? What if, divorced from his nihilistic revelry in the idea, he is right to want to hit the reset button on society?

This question is probably more popular than most would care to admit. On top of all the religious groups who fetishize the idea that the apocalypse will occur in our lifetimes, secular pop culture is supersaturated with images of global devastation, and ultimately it’s the thorough intellectuals and hard scientists who are perhaps most acutely aware of and concerned about an actual, measurable, scientific apocalypse slowly creeping up on us as a direct result of our global development.

Politically, I have seen plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand’s reviled liberal populists agree with John Galt on this score, most recently on facebook of all places. Some decidedly progressive friends of mine posted the following Carl Sagan quote, which I have copied here from a blog that enriched it with links to real life news:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time– when we’re a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition.

Honestly ask yourself how much of this is substantively different from Ayn Rand’s fears about the future. Sure, Ayn would abhor Sagan’s invocation of the public interest, but if we grant that she considers her libertarian ideas to be in the public’s interest and is simply rhetorically neurotic, then the quote could very nearly have come out of John Galt’s mouth.

Another example. A young activist of my acquaintance posted this quote from Howard Zinn:

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.

These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.

That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that … the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.

And once again we can see that aside from some categorical inversions about who to blame, the rich or the poor, the public or the private, Zinn’s position is formally the same as Galt’s: the Establishment is intrinsically evil, it is enabled by the complacent masses fooled into playing along, and it must be abandoned as a moral imperative.

When I saw that facebook post I found myself compelled to comment in favor of moderation and conservatism. I feel this is an unfairly cynical take on mainstream society, and that revolutionary idealism is separated from enduring despotism by one fragile thread that is more often than not cut in the act of revolting.

But I swear by epistemic humility, after all, so I must ask myself: what if I am simply promoting the immoral, complicit passivity of the bourgeoisie? Rand, loathe to use such a Marxist term for the middle class, desperate to portray her teleological history as fundamentally different, nonetheless clearly believes this. And it must be admitted that no matter how much one values ideological caution, part of that value is openness to new evidence — and sometimes the evidence demands change sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower, bigger rather than smaller.

So how do we know when to draw the line? How do we sense the tipping point when a complicated problem that can be tackled incrementally becomes a crisis necessitating radical action? And do you see how these questions are vital to transforming Atlas Shrugged from a morally grotesque piece of shit into a troubling but deeply important exploration of current events?

Let’s quickly review the elements of the book through which I’ve considered Rand’s relationship to 21st century reality.  There are three major points of comparison and contrast:

1) Climate Change. If incorporated into the Atlas narrative, this is easily the most alarming scientific fact that supports Galt’s radicalism. But it’s problematic for Randians to even admit to, because the only way to realistically address it without, yes, blowing up society, is through collective action among nations, and agreements within communities, to sacrifice certain luxuries and economic efficiencies.

2) Elite Corruption. A universally acknowledged Very Serious Problem, but one that nobody can seem to agree on how to address. Conservatives blame governing elites. Liberals blame corporate elites. Both arguments have merit. But liberal priorities are superior, because the government corruption on which conservatives are focused is largely defined by the implicit sale of legislation to the donor class, which is made up of private sector elites.

3) Consumerism & Intellectual Atrophy. As with the elites, so with the masses: everyone can agree that people need to be better at being people. Everybody from Rand to Zinn finds excessive consumerism abhorrent, intellectual atrophy a cardinal sin, and their pervasiveness the largest cultural obstacle to solving the higher level issues.

These three issues together are basically the case for a Galt-like reboot of social order. And all three could only be truly solved in an enduring way if the entire population of earth had a — no pun intended — “come to Jesus” moment. That sort of moment is the ultimate fantasy of Atlas Shrugged, with Ayn Rand’s brain-with-a-penis, John Galt, as the Messiah. In real life, a universal moment of spiritual revelation like this is, uh… unlikely. To be diplomatic about it.

So as noted in the rundown, at the level of mainstream practical politics, this is why contemporary liberalism is indisputably superior to contemporary conservatism. While both sides are concerned with the issue of moral decay on the individual level (Issue #3), liberals see the true dynamics of Issue #2 more clearly, and beat conservatives on Issue #1 by acknowledging its reality and urgency at all.

This does not mean that conservatives don’t have vitally important points about the dangers of liberalism, points that we should keep in mind when trying to address all of these issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that aside from its merits as constructive criticism, modern conservative ideology has failed to develop any ideas of its own that properly prioritize our objective problems. 

For all the obvious reasons this diagnosis of contemporary politics applies equally to Atlas Shrugged. And as I’ve said since this blog started, I believe Atlas as a drama can be improved, um, dramatically. So here is my prescription:

The tragedy of Atlas is that John Galt is a philosophical superhero turned megalomaniac supervillain, who desires to see civilization destroyed because he feels injustice too acutely, because he feels wounded, hurt, and betrayed by the world and wants to reclaim it for all those who are likewise in pain. He is that great trope of comics and adventure fantasy — Anakin Skywalker gone Vader; Hal Jordan fallen from Green Lantern to Parallax; Jean Grey turned to Dark Phoenix; Willow to Dark Willow.

And Galt’s certainty about the need to see society collapse is tragic in the classical, Greek sense too, because if we take away Ayn’s unwarranted epistemic certainty, it is clear that Galt cannot know for sure that collapse is necessary. His actions are justified through arrogance, hubris, presumption. He has abandoned faith in human nature, not restored it. He has sacrificed society, not saved it.

This is where the ambiguity comes in not only for Rand but for us the audience. If Galt can’t know for sure that what he does is necessary, neither can we know for sure that our acceptance of the system is… well, acceptable.  To use another pop culture analogy, maybe Tyler Durden really did improve the world by blowing up the credit card companies. Maybe we are better off knocking our tower of Babel over before it falls on us first.

Do you guys see just how good this book could be?

In the end, though, this book is a fictional thought experiment. It allows us to explore transgressive ideas like that, but unless you move to the woods you can only be intellectually honest if you admit you are embracing our society, for all its flaws. Even if we accept that this may represent a dangerous complacency, it is easy to prove as the only morally sound choice.

In the case of climate change, for example, abstention from society will not save the individualistic, hermetic lifestyle. Short of engaging in terrorism, which is clearly morally unjustifiable even to the quasi-anarchist Ayn Rand*, engaging constructively with society is the only logical course of action. It is also the course of hope and hard work and humanity.

[*ED. NOTE: As my friend Max points out in the comments section, Rand actually does endorse terrorism. Certainly the Dread Pirate Ragbeard and Francisco, Galt’s two closest confidantes, employ terrorism on Galt’s behalf. Ayn hedges by focusing on the destruction of property and economic stability, but there’s no way their actions didn’t ruin the lives of millions of innocents and in Ragbeard’s case kill a number of people directly.]

So Rand makes the case that nothing short of civilizational collapse will cure our ills, and that there is no room for compromise in this appraisal. Thank God that none of her believers has acted on this, least of all herself! She was not only happy to join the aristocracy of pull, she collected her entitlement benefits from the U.S. government just like everyone else.

The most important takeaway from Randianism is that those who declare Ayn Rand’s intellectual positions correct yet seek to live in the middle, not living up to the revolutionary implications of their beliefs have accepted Rand’s premise and so must succeed or perish by its conclusions. Some do follow through in this way — the survivalists, those who live remotely and sustainably. Think of Joel Salatin, the self-sufficient survivalist organic farmer. But the middle-dwellers, the Paul Ryans who aspire to the aristocracy of pull, who dedicate their lives to tearing their livelihood down, it is they who evade the responsibility of choice and the reality of their value judgments. It is they who have no respect for truth.

And if that type of person is evil by his 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.

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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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Applied Randology #7: Ayn the Christian Fundamentalist

In a post from last week Gwynn Guilford of The Dish starts out exploring Paul Ryan’s monetary beliefs and ends up curating arguments about Ayn Rand.  Not that surprising, right? On the relationship between them, Gwynn points out (and isn’t the first) that Ryan’s “rejection of Rand’s philosophy has mainly emphasized his disagreement with her atheism,” and that his economic ideas are textbook Objectivist — something I also highlighted in my “Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm” post from May.

How can Ryan back Rand’s second-order political beliefs when her first-order metaphysical beliefs directly contradict his own? Easy: Rand’s metaphysical position is not actually atheistic, and her claim that it is is self-deception. As David Foster Wallace once put it (again, hat tip to The Dish),

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.

Rand chooses to worship money; her nominal atheism is superfluous. So the incisive quote I want to focus on today is Ryan’s from 2009, claiming that Ayn “does the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism.” This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about the free market. But it does tell us something important about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about morality.

First things first: there is a far better moral case for capitalism than anything Ayn comes up with. The simplest argument is the consequentialist one. Of all the economic systems in recorded history, capitalism has clearly produced the most wealth in the fastest amount of time, and done the most to raise living standards and promote widespread opportunities. In this way it is self-evidently superior to, say, mercantilism or feudalism or communism (let’s table the issue of democratic government’s role in capitalism’s success, for now).

Despite that bit of common sense, Ryan and Rand are libertarians, and as Ron Paul has said (and as I discussed during the GOP debates), libertarianism is indifferent to outcomes. The historical record is immaterial; moral justice comes from a set of first principles that are objectively right, such that when these principles are put into practice, whatever the results are, they’re fundamentally just too. From this position of moral absolutism, consequentialist arguments are moot exactly  because they are consequentialist.

And under this moral accounting, consequentialist arguments aren’t just impotent, but are in themselves a symptom of moral degradation.  Rand constantly pegs her villains as moral relativists who declare their actions immune to moral judgment because morality is a social construct or simply unknowable.  Any departure from an absolute morality is a heresy intimately tied to society’s overall moral bankruptcy.

This philosophical posture extends to Ryan too; you can see the moral absolutism in his “no rape exemption” stance towards abortion (another issue getting press lately). You also see it in the quote I emphasized above: Ryan prefers Rand’s convoluted faith-based justification for capitalism over the basic consequential argument that it makes peoples’ lives better.

Yes, Rand’s love of capitalism is faith-based, and for proof I refer you to Francisco’s speech about the value of money, as I recapped here (Dave Weigel also examines this passage in his Ryan-Rand coverage, excerpted in the Dish post I linked to above). In that recap, I explicate how Frisco isn’t just saying “greed is good,” he’s saying that there is an objective moral law at work in the universe bringing inevitable justice to human affairs. For the atheist materialist Rand, this sounds dangerously metaphysical, so Francisco adds a logically independent premise, that money is an empirically measurable mechanism by which this karmic market operates. Rand thus uses money as a literal token of objectivity, a fig leaf disguising the fact that her premises can’t be reached by logical deduction or induction: they are purely subjective value judgments.

But the strongest psychological glue between Rand and fundamentalist Christianity isn’t the prosperity gospel, it’s the false equivalence they posit between moral relativism and modernism in general.

In a great post at Boingboing, Maggie Koerth-Baker explores why Christian fundamentalists vilify set theory in their math textbooks, honing in on an important point about the fundamentalist worldview:

Modernism, to the publishers of A Beka math books, is sick and wrong. The idea is that if you reject their specific idea of God and their specific idea of The Rules, then you must be living in a crazy, dangerous world. You could kill people, and you would think it was okay, because you’re a modernist and you know there’s really no such thing as right and wrong. Basically, they’ve bumped into a need to separate themselves from the almost inhuman Other on a massive scale, and latched on to modernism as a shorthand for how to do that. It doesn’t matter what you or I actually believe, or even what we actually do. They know what we MUST believe and what we MUST be like because of the tenets of modernism.

More importantly, they know that we are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz … are all just traps. They’re ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time.

And that paranoid dynamic is found all over Atlas Shrugged. It’s baked right into Rand’s thinking. Just look at the last chapter I recapped, in which the innocent Cheryl comes to understand the nihilism of her relativist husband.  Driven mad by his cruelty, she stumbles through Manhattan, seeing only that same nihilistic philosophy implicit in the eyes of everybody she encounters. Rand very explicitly claims the world is overrun with a perverse value system that lures the innocent masses to moral depravity. She explicitly cites art and culture as contagious symptoms of this rot. She denounces the false consciousness of religious thinking, but her train of thought runs on a perfectly parallel track.

This psychological sameness is what keeps intellectual contradictions from tearing today’s Republican party apart along religious v. economic lines. Both sides are united against the world — or more accurately, a shared dehumanizing misconception of the world.

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Food for Thought #10: Weather Or Not

“I shit better prose than this crazy bitch.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. In the case of Ayn Rand, there is a second act, she just sucks at writing it.

But now we’re near the end of the literary death march known as “Part Two: Either/Or” and things are finally starting to pick up again. The nation is firmly and totally under the control of corrupt executives and bureaucrats. Francisco has confirmed the existence of a conspiracy among the off-the-grid elites. And Rand’s morally abhorrent moral philosophy is beginning to come into sharper focus.

If we take a step back though, what becomes clear is that Rand’s morals are exactly what keeps Atlas from being more impressive. She has after all created a world of exhausted energy resources and excessive consumerism, where the heroes pursue technological advances that will create a more sustainable and renewable civilization, and the villains are vested big-money interests and the willfully ignorant politicians who enable them. Yet for some reason this book is about how the poor as a class should be treated as subhuman. What?

It’s also important to note that Ayn didn’t realize the depletion of natural resources was an actual looming danger, or that unchecked consumption poisons the earth as well as society. According to Ayn, the problems in the Randverse could have been solved long ago if Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt were left free to “Drill baby drill,” if only those yellow-bellied liberal pussies wouldn’t hold them back.

The irony, of course, is that the sustainability dangers are real in an objective way, verifiable by applied science and deductive reasoning. “Drill baby drill” might be a necessary stalling tactic to keep society running while renewable energy gains traction, but it is at best a stopgap measure. Rand’s Objectivist version has none of this foresight. Arthur C. Clarke she ain’t.

This is not that hard to understand.

So in Objectivism (if not objective reality), threats of fossil fuel consumption and environmental corrosion are just false fronts for the liberals to enact an evil agenda that they won’t admit to anyone, least of all themselves.  You can really see here just how influential the Rand worldview is on Republican ideology today.

This is why, now that we’re getting back to the thematically meaty part of the book, I’ve started replacing the protagonists’ talk of moochers and looters with vulture capitalists, moral vampires, and consumer zombies. The two sets of terms are vaguely synonymous but differ vitally in the details. Specifically, my descriptors cut across class and political boundaries whereas Rand’s place blame for society’s ills squarely on one side of the income and political spectra.

By making this change, I like to think I make the Randverse more widely relatable, not to mention recognizable as a relevant commentary on our world today. The American right circa 2012 thinks Ayn’s O.G. interpretation of Atlas is a relevant commentary on politics today, but their worldview simply doesn’t line up with the facts, the objective reality, in which we actually exist.

With this slight shift in the focus of moral blame I think the story actually gains potency as Ayn’s critiques get more extreme, rather than the original version in which the author’s awkward and bizarre proselytizing ruins the dramatic tension. Now, though the crisis is still rooted in moral degradation as Rand claims, the failings are not attributable to just one class or political party.

See, now THIS is a contradiction.

Part Two, as I mentioned above, is titled “Either/Or.” Either Objectivism, or nihilism. And, well… I choose Neither. Insofar as it encourages a perilous, willful denialism, a false consciousness about the objective state of the world that endangers that world, Objectivism can itself be nihilistic. It is not always and necessarily so, but neither is altruism or progressivism. There is no mutual exclusivity between the two sides of Ayn’s “either/or” proposition; no contradiction. And once you surgically remove Ayn’s insistence that there is, Atlas Shrugged gets waaaay way better.

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Applied Randology #1: Hayek Anxiety

The 2012 election is heating up, so it’s time to start applying this book club to real life. Today, even though I vote Democrat, I’m going to explain how conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.

Disclaimer: I’m not formally versed in economics, I just read this book recently. But if you are so versed, and want to school me in the comments, by all means. And if you aren’t and things get confusing, read yesterday’s primer on Keynes & Hayek for context.

Alan Greenspan

To get a sense of the strange ways Ayn Rand has impacted American politics, look no further than the arguments between Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul during Congressional oversight hearings, excerpted in Paul’s book End the Fed.  Greenspan was a member of the inner circle that workshopped drafts of Atlas Shrugged with Rand herself. Paul named his son Rand. Yet despite their shared philosophical background, they are completely at odds over the economy.

Greenspan, of course, ran the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, and Ron Paul hates the Fed. A lot. During the GOP debate on 1/23, he spoke about how the government doesn’t manipulate the economy through price and wage controls (aside from a minimum wage, I suppose), but it does manipulate the economy by controlling interest rates and money supply. That’s the Fed. Paul’s economics are pure Hayek, so he thinks we shouldn’t do that. Peg the value of the dollar to gold and leave the economy alone. After all, since capitalism is undeniably the most efficient system for creating vast amounts of wealth, we should want the market to be as free as possible.

Being richer than your parents: The Everywhere-but-America-n Dream

Income Growth in America, 1979-2005

But some people aren’t so sure the wealth capitalism generates will automatically get distributed on the merits, and the libertarian vision is completely neutral to outcomes. Increasing income inequality and declining social mobility are only the technical terms for, I don’t know, the Death of the American Dream, but to a pure libertarian the American Dream was only possible thanks to the nation’s laissez faire roots, so as long as the system goes back to that model the socioeconomic outcomes will be right by definition, no matter what they are.

America's Lovable Crackpot Grandpa

Which means if Ron Paul became president and had a Tea Party congress to back him up in liquidating the national debt and dismantling the Fed, the global economy would undergo a severe contraction, but that would just prove the whole arrangement was built on an illusion in the first place and any terrible consequences caused by ending it would be necessary adjustments to get back on a sustainable track. From the perspective of the people in this hypothetical whose lives were okay until Ron Paul’s policies rocked the world, this logic seems obviously insane.

Despite that, Ron Paul is vital to national politics because of his extreme ideological purity. People criticize the Republican party for prizing ideological purity over all else, but the real problem is that mainstream Republican ideology is not pure, it’s a sick, self-contradictory mess. Ron Paul’s system of belief is internally coherent even if it’s externally problematic: he has integrity.

For example, Ron Paul’s policies for restoring American prosperity are not aimed at lowering unemployment, because under pure Hayekian liberty the unemployment rate at any given moment always reflects the best the economy can do; anything better is just a bubble waiting to burst. Can’t find work? Tough shit. Put down the bong and learn how to compete for the jobs that actually exist, or prove your ideas are valuable in the free market and create some jobs yourself. That part sounds Republican enough.

Yet in the same debate where Paul talked monetary policy, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were in a rhetorical arms race over who could create more jobs by cutting Mitt Romney’s taxes from 15% to zero. That isn’t honest Hayekian politics, it’s pandering. The rich donor class likes the tax cuts, the struggling masses in the voting class like hearing ‘job creation.’ But cutting taxes to promote job creation is actually Keynesian.

Professional Bullshit Artists

After all, insofar as people spend their untaxed money it will stimulate demand, which will boost the economy and thus, eventually, employment and tax revenues. JFK did this. Granted, those were demand-side “trickle-up” cuts, not supply-side “trickle-down” cuts. But either way the law of diminishing returns applies. Cut taxes too much and the growth won’t produce more tax revenues on the other end. It becomes fiscally irresponsible.

The key to all of Keynes’ ideas is that they’re cyclical guidelines, not hard and fast rules. The economy crashed? Cut taxes and spend money until it fuels a positive feedback loop. But once the loop is running, STOP. If the economy is booming, raise taxes and save a budget surplus. That way, next time the economy hits a negative feedback loop, we can cut taxes and fund public works out of the surplus and not rack up such a big deficit. Fiscal responsibility! Conservative and liberal policies are both right, they just need to take turns.

Now, Keynesian spending can be a problem — flood the economic engine with too much money and it stalls out (stagflation). Or even worse (and this was Hayek’s fear), it can make the up and down swings sharper instead of smoother. Like, say, if you give tax deductions and tax dollars to home-owners who can’t afford a mortgage, that creates a bubble. Or if you give out massive tax cuts during a boom, that explodes the deficit. But neither Barney Frank nor George Bush was masterminding an evil conspiracy. They don’t even like each other. It’s just the same mechanism at play as in lobbying: systemic corruption without widespread individual corruption.

So clearly politics gums up the Keynesian On/Off switch. Once politicians hand out Keynesian dollars, it’s very hard to stop. They’d lose votes! What if the business cycle slumps when they’re up for re-election? They’ll overuse Keynesian tools to stay in office! Indeed, this is part of why our tax code is a mess of deductions. Look no further than President Obama’s well-received State of the Union Speech. Great speech; I liked it. But it involved a lot more tax complicating than tax simplifying.

Chemo treats cancer, but it also makes you sick.

Once Keynesian spending becomes never-ending and aimed towards specific interest groups by career politicians, it actually could trigger Hayek’s Road to Serfdom feedback loop. But as we see today, private enterprise is part of that. It’s the corporatist-lobbyist-politician loop. George Orwell himself pointed out in his review of Hayek’s Road that the people are right to fear corporate serfdom as well as state serfdom. Fascism is both, after all. It’s a balancing act.

Hayek actually considered himself a liberal, but in classical terms, where it’s defined by economic liberty and only out of that can social liberty grow. He said of conservatives that they are only as good as what they’re conserving. Today’s Republican policies would conserve deficit-expanding tax cuts and a 70-year bipartisan tradition of endless deficit spending on the military-industrial complex. If Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a vision of a bankrupt police state, the conservative party in America today is steering a course down that very road.

What then of the Democrats? They use the language of Ayn Rand’s villains, the language of social justice. And they’re part of the corporate-lobbyist-politician axis too. Yet neither group is full of secret nihilists; Rand is way too cynical there. Voters on both sides aspire to live by their principles and are maybe a little naive about policy, or like Rand’s heroes they simply can’t fathom their enemies or see their own flaws.

The reason I vote the Democratic side of the not-backed-by-gold coin is that the Democratic party’s parallels to the Randverse are straightforward and end there. Rand nails the naive self-defeating angle, and I get that. But that holds for the GOP too, and then on top of that the language of the 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. It’s a Jim Taggart move if ever there was one. Except in our world it’s Rand’s language playing the role that social justice language plays in the Randverse. Ironic, idn’t it?

The Debt: Both parties, finally working together.

Standing in the middle of all this is Ron Paul again, who demonstrates both the incoherence of mainstream politics and the inability of a rigid ideology to solve the problem. He is anti-Keynes, so he’s in the party that calls itself anti-Keynes. But both parties use (and abuse) Keynesianism.

Basically Keynes is like a drug. Drugs can be medicine. They can be a social lubricant. But you need to use them in responsible moderation. Hayek doesn’t want us to overdose or drive drunk or end up broke and homeless (oops!). So credit where it’s due: Keynes is the most influential economist since Adam Smith, and not without reason. Hayek was an economist, sure, but his truly important legacy is his political philosophy, which warns us about the dangers of Keynes’ powerful insights.

And even Hayek cuts across today’s political lines. In his last major work, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek was as radically libertarian as ever. He suggested we should privatize pretty much everything. But he also said the state should enforce a universal health care mandate and guarantee unemployment insurance, even if private companies supply them. That way, maybe, even at the bottom of the business cycle, people wouldn’t be desperate enough to vote for a well-meaning party that would accidentally turn the country into a militarized police state. Maybe.

So yeah. Conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.

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