FiveBooks.com: Anne Heller on Libertarianism

My interview with FiveBooks.com was recently published on their website. I discuss five books on Libertarianism. The beginning of the interview here:

Can you define libertarianism?

I will give a quote. This is what H L Mencken said in 1926: ‘It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.’

Your first book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

If you read only one book about libertarianism, read this legendary 1957 novel, a 1,100-page deconstruction of the Marxian proposition, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ It took her 14 years to write Atlas Shrugged and that wasn’t working on it part-time. That was working very, very hard and at one point she stayed inside her house or on her property in California for a month. She was very intense. This is her magnum opus. Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenburg in St Petersburg, Russia, and was 12 when the Russian Revolution took place and all her family’s property was snatched.

How old was she when she left Russia?

Twenty-one.

So she was properly Russian.

Oh, she was Russian. You should have heard her voice! So, Atlas Shrugged is the mature, the fullest expression of her rejection of any kind of collectivism. It’s probably the only novel of ideas that was written in the form of a detective story. It’s a real page-turner. The heroes of the novel are the entrepreneurs in America in the mid-20th century – the steelmakers, the coal miners, the productive people have all been disappearing from public view and nobody knows where they’ve gone. This happens over the course of ten years, and the heroine, Dagny Taggart, who owns a railroad, which is the controlling metaphor for the novel, tries to find out where they’ve gone, because she’s not able to run her business without all these wonderful suppliers. The ones who are left are all dolts taking government handouts. What she finds out is that a man, the hero, John Galt, who later becomes her lover, has been recruiting the best people everywhere to go on strike. Nothing in the economy can be done without these people, and they stay on strike until the nation comes to its senses and stops becoming a socialist economy. It’s basically about the Roosevelt administration and what it did to the economy. It’s a fantastical rebuttal.

There aren’t many people who would think of America as a socialist society.

Well, she did. And there were lots of people who did in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Before Roosevelt, before the Depression, you can’t imagine how much less government regulation there was in the United States. And that’s the America that Ayn Rand and H L Mencken loved. It’s a whole kind of old-school libertarianism. It’s isolationism, free markets, free minds and not letting the state get too powerful. Individual rather than state power.

It is the only page-turning critique of the welfare state, the bureaucratisation of the ‘altruistic’ impulse, and the transformation of America from a culture of self-reliance to one of self-entitlement by an author whose four mid-century novels (with The FountainheadAnthem and We the Living) sold one million copies in 2009.

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Objectivism: A Reader Comments and Heller Responds

Two weeks ago, in through the transom came a long and thoughtful comment by a reader calling himself Michael M. His purpose was to point out mistakes he thought I had made in my critique of Objectivism and the Objectivist movement (“Why I am Not an Objectivist,” 4/20/2010). Another mistake policeman! I thought. And another one who apparently hadn’t read the book I wrote before hauling me off to duffer’s jail! Still, the writer made many interesting, if orthodox Objectivist, points. Here is his letter, in full, and  his letter with my responses below it. I’d like to hear from anyone who wants to chime in.

12 Reasons the Author Cannot Be an Objectivist, by Michael M.

2010/5/10 at 4:26 pm

Ms. Heller,
Here are 12 different reasons why you are indeed not an Objectivist that you should deal with if you ever intend to publicly defend your position again:

1. “… some men and women calling themselves Objectivists (a title Rand explicitly reserved for herself and a pair of early followers) have adopted a strategy adherents used in her lifetime to stave off critics and equivocators–that is, to claim that anyone not agreeing with all Rand’s ideas is by definition benighted, probably evil (“punishing the good for being good”), and not worth listening to on the face of it.”

a) The thoughts and actions of “some men and women calling themselves Objectivists” are not relevant to the validity of Rand’s philosophy. It consists of a specific body of ideas each of which is valid or not solely on the merit of its content.

b) In one of the earlier TV interviews of Rand making the rounds on YouTube, the interviewer stumbles over what to call her followers, and she volunteers, “Objectivists.” Much later, grasping no doubt the dangers of an explosion of self-styled spokes-persons, she made the distinction between herself, the creator of the philosophy plus the few whose writings and speeches were subject to her approval and the rest of us who were just “students of Objectivism.” The utility of that distinction was rendered meaningless by her death, since at that point, the philosophy became forever a closed body of ideas to which no one could add anything more.

c) There is nothing in Objectivism to suggest that a failure to agree with every tenet makes one benighted or evil. To the contrary, all of Rand’s intellectual heroes whose achievements she urged us to emulate agreed with all of her ideas: in philosophy, Aristotle and Aquinas; in literature, Hugo and Dostoevsky; in music, Rachmaninoff and Chopin; in art, Vermeer and Salvador Dali. The hallmark of objective judgment that was her first great lesson to me was to formulate one’s judgments in terms of “because of” and “in spite of” to account for each aspect as consistent or contradictory to reality. The term “evil” was reserved for those who were consistently and consciously committed to anti-life positions and actions. That you felt it necessary to camouflage your accusation in the anonymous “some men and women” reduces your conflation of disagreement with evil to a cheap shot.

2.”… Paul Johnson noted that he wanted to focus on the ”moral and judgmental credentials” of certain modern intellectuals whose mission was to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they–Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy–run their own lives? he asked. There is no reason not to ask the same of Rand.”

…as long as you remain aware that not even the actions of Ayn Rand herself bear on the validity of the ideas that are the content of her philosophy. I repeat: ideas stand or fall on the merit of their content alone, not on what others do with them.

3. “One more thing: How are Rand’s precepts, “the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to the non-initiation of force,” facts? They are assertions–good ones to be sure–which are considered facts by Objectivists only because Ayn Rand held them to be true.”

a) Casting doubt on the efficacy of the human mind is self refuting, since the mind that casts it implicitly admits to its own lack of efficacy first.

b) Objectivism does not advocate the hegemony of individuals as a fact. It advocates as a fact the right of human beings to be free from hegemony if they so choose.

c) That human beings survive and thrive solely by applying reason to action in the service of life is a fact. That humans are volitional and therefore fallible is a fact. That physical force is the only means to interfere with the volitional application of reason to action is a fact. That the freedom from coercion by physical force or the threat thereof initiated by other fallible men in applying your own reason to your own actions in the service of your own life is a right precondition for human life is a fact.

d) No Objectivist has ever considered anything to be a fact only because Ayn Rand held it to be true, because entertaining such a notion would disqualify one from being an Objectivist in the first place. The philosophy specifically condemns such other directed standards and demands that everything anyone accepts to be true be independently validated. One cannot violate that principle and simultaneously claim to be its advocate.

4. “‘It is possible that the entire human race, with the exception of me, might become collectivist–and I will then damn the whole bunch of them without damning man as such. I do not form any conception of the nature of man by counting numbers.’ Here is Rand at her inductive (and solipsistic) best.”

This has already been refuted by two commenters above. Ditto.

5. “Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe.”

The single most fundamental choice facing a human being is life or death. The choice to pursue life instead of death implicitly establishes life as the overweening value against which all other values shall be measured. But given the fact of volition, there are two possible definitions of “life” qua standard: 1) life that is consistent with and fulfills the potential of what a human being essentially is — i.e., one’s human nature (qua man), or 2) life contrary to and in defiance of one’s nature. There are no other alternatives, and I wonder what led you to prefer the latter and what you expect mankind to gain from lives of self-contradiction.

6. “In this scheme of things, to demand to breathe clean air is to be anti-industry and anti-reason. To love open fields and the smell of the earth is to hate mankind. While I agree with Rand that science and the profit motive may eventually combine to resolve some of the problems that science and the profit motive have created, I don’t want children, old people, or poor people to die while we wait. I favor government regulation.”

Your slanderous hyperbole aside, your failure to comprehend the moral imperative to refrain from initiating physical force (as in 3c above) to gain, withhold, or destroy the values of other men makes your ends-justifies-the-means support of government regulation a forgone conclusion. It has obviously not yet occurred to you that absent government regulatory coercion, men would be amply able to establish other means of non-violent persuasion and protection. That does not easily occur, of course, to someone who doubts the efficacy of the human mind; but what pray tell makes the minds of government regulators any more efficacious?

7 “While “man” may not be–is surely not–”the means to the ends of others” [“Introducing Objectivism,” in The Objectivist Newsletter from August, 1962], neither is he “an end in himself.”

If Rand is correct in naming life v. death as man’s most fundamental alternative, one’s choice to pursue life — one’s own life — makes it the end goal and highest value. If you think that is incorrect, you need to name a more fundamental alternative that could establish some other end as primary. Your position, as it stands now, is just a wish to have it both ways at the same time.

8. “Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), …”

And why would you put that notion aside? If you are thinking of differences in concrete interests instead of differences in principle, you are in the wrong context.

What Greenspan renounced in 2008, was his own fantasy that liberty would engender a kind of virtuous omniscience in men. I do not know where he got that idea, but it certainly was not from Ayn Rand.

9. “… this gives me license not only to litter (alongside James Watts) but also to steal (with Goldman Sachs). This is what Whittaker Chambers was driving at when, in his 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote, ‘So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held ‘heroic’ in order not to be beastly.’”

How precisely does holding your own life qua man as your goal and standard of value give you a license to litter and steal? You have failed to grasp the most elementary fact about individual rights that permeates Rand’s writings throughout. Namely, that rights protecting the autonomy of individuals impose on each of them the imperative to refrain from violating the same rights of other individuals.

10. “According to Rand’s now-elderly New York City doctor, Murray Dworetski, Nathaniel Branden once told him that all streets and roads should be in private hands. But how would that work? Dworetski asked. People would pay tolls, said Branden. Dworetski remembered laughing. Would each city street–61st, 62nd, Lexington Avenue, 112th Street–be owned by a separate individual charging a separate toll? Perhaps, said Branden, apparently not seeing the humor or the resulting traffic jams.”

You are hopelessly concrete bound. “How would that work” is an interesting question not only when asked about the task of supplying roadways without resorting to the threat of physical force to finance them, but also for every other possible supply and demand problem one can imagine in a society of men. None of such questions nor their answers have any bearing on the question of whether or not human interrelationships — including their exchanges of values — should be voluntary or may be compelled by others.

So here you are again implying that the ends justify the means when the means require the taking of values by force from your fellow human beings in order to get the results that you want. And once again you have assumed the worst consequence that no one would ever tolerate and underestimated the capacity of men to provide roads for the cars that they somehow miraculously can provide without government coerced financing. You haven’t even bothered to recognize how complex is the problem of connecting the population of earth with instantaneous exchange of ideas like the one we enjoy in this blog, how little it costs, and how smoothly it runs — not to mention the notion that it only exists because governments have for the most part kept their distance from this achievement.

11. “But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain A) public spaces and B) educate everyone, including those who wouldn’t or couldn’t educate themselves, and that we not let our civil society become unbalanced by too great a C) division between the rich and the rest of us.”

And how did you answer Rand’s question, “at whose expense? and by what standard?” There is no social contract that would justify the imposition of unchosen obligations on any human being — not individually, not by majority, not even by unanimity. You have no basis to claim that right over the lives of others except your own inability to imagine how problems could ever be solved without resorting to coercion. That does not suffice. Warm fuzzy feelings are no base for a moral politics.

12. In sum, you have grossly underestimated the depth of Objectivism. The necessity to focus in your task on the dates and details of Rand’s life left you insufficient time for a serious effort to understand her philosophy. Your attempts to apply it to everyday life are perforated with your own false assumptions. You have succumbed to the most common error of all in considering it. This error was perfectly stated above in the comment by Jeff Montgomery (emphasis added):

“However, I also don’t hold non-Objectivists to the same philosophical standard as those who have been studying the philosophy by itself for an extended period of time. Even some alleged Objectivists don’t understand her philosophy, and apply it poorly. It is deceptively simple, yet actually profound, and confounds anyone who views it through the lens of common premises and colloquial definitions.”

Some Reasons Why the Author Doesn’t Want to Be an Objectivist: A Dialogue

MM:
Here are 12 different reasons why you are indeed not an Objectivist that you should deal with if you ever intend to publicly defend your position again:

1. “… some men and women calling themselves Objectivists (a title Rand explicitly reserved for herself and a pair of early followers) have adopted a strategy adherents used in her lifetime to stave off critics and equivocators–that is, to claim that anyone not agreeing with all Rand’s ideas is by definition benighted, probably evil (“punishing the good for being good”), and not worth listening to on the face of it.”

a) The thoughts and actions of “some men and women calling themselves Objectivists” are not relevant to the validity of Rand’s philosophy. It consists of a specific body of ideas each of which is valid or not solely on the merit of its content.

ACH:
Well said. However, I was responding to an Objectivist letter writer whose tone of contempt I was describing in its historical context. This was not a condemnation of Rand’s ideas, as the sentence makes clear. It was a note upon the unsavory company in which members of the Objectivist movement must often find themselves, which is one reason I am not an Objectivist.

MM:
b) In one of the earlier TV interviews of Rand making the rounds on YouTube, the interviewer stumbles over what to call her followers, and she volunteers, “Objectivists.” Much later, grasping no doubt the dangers of an explosion of self-styled spokes-persons, she made the distinction between herself, the creator of the philosophy plus the few whose writings and speeches were subject to her approval and the rest of us who were just “students of Objectivism.” The utility of that distinction was rendered meaningless by her death, since at that point, the philosophy became forever a closed body of ideas to which no one could add anything more.

ACH:
b) On the contrary. Upon her death, Rand’s novels, essays, letters, etc. became a closed body of work. But ideas, by their nature, are open to explication, testing, expansion, criticism, and reinterpretation. This is as true of Rand as of Dewey, Tolstoy, or Freud. Your last sentence repeats a common assertion among Objectivists, but what is your authority for the assertion? And who can expect to succeed in controlling the use to which one’s ideas are put from beyond the grave?

MM:
c) There is nothing in Objectivism to suggest that a failure to agree with every tenet makes one benighted or evil. To the contrary, all of Rand’s intellectual heroes whose achievements she urged us to emulate agreed with all of her ideas: in philosophy, Aristotle and Aquinas; in literature, Hugo and Dostoevsky; in music, Rachmaninoff and Chopin; in art, Vermeer and Salvador Dali. The hallmark of objective judgment that was her first great lesson to me was to formulate one’s judgments in terms of “because of” and “in spite of” to account for each aspect as consistent or contradictory to reality. The term “evil” was reserved for those who were consistently and consciously committed to anti-life positions and actions. That you felt it necessary to camouflage your accusation in the anonymous “some men and women” reduces your conflation of disagreement with evil to a cheap shot.

ACH:
c) At her best, Rand encouraged serious, complex thinking about fundamental questions. At her worst, she had no interest in any thinking other than her own. But in the passage you quote I am not referring to Rand or her system of ideas but rather to her adherents who call themselves Objectivists. Please read some of the responses to Anthony Daniels’s essay, “Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls” in the February 2010 issue of The New Criterion (http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Ayn-Rand–engineer-of-souls-4385) and “The Ayn Rand Follies” in the March issue (http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-Ayn-Rand-follies-5175) for some colorful examples of Objectivist closed-mindedness and agitation.

MM:
2.”… Paul Johnson noted that he wanted to focus on the ”moral and judgmental credentials” of certain modern intellectuals whose mission was to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they–Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy–run their own lives? he asked. There is no reason not to ask the same of Rand.”

…as long as you remain aware that not even the actions of Ayn Rand herself bear on the validity of the ideas that are the content of her philosophy. I repeat: ideas stand or fall on the merit of their content alone, not on what others do with them.

ACH:
Rand called her system of ideas a philosophy for living on earth. What in the world can you mean by “the merit of their [the ideas’] content” if merit doesn’t lie in their power to guide us to a more joyful and productive, or at least more interesting, life? Does their merit lie in internal consistency?

MM:
3. “One more thing: How are Rand’s precepts, “the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to the non-initiation of force,” facts? They are assertions–good ones to be sure–which are considered facts by Objectivists only because Ayn Rand held them to be true.”

a) Casting doubt on the efficacy of the human mind is self refuting, since the mind that casts it implicitly admits to its own lack of efficacy first.

ACH:
Yes, I too have read Rand on the fallacy of the Stolen Concept, meaning (for those who aren’t familiar with the term) to use a concept or an idea while denying the legitimacy of the very same concept or idea, such as to doubt one’s own existence when existence is a precursor of doubt. (Alan Greenspan is famous for taking this stance early in his Objectivist career). Yet I don’t know of any proof that we humans are aware of every fact or law that might affirm or refute the mind’s (total) efficacy.

MM:
b) Objectivism does not advocate the hegemony of individuals as a fact. It advocates as a fact the right of human beings to be free from hegemony if they so choose.

ACH:
I think the original commentator was using “hegemony” to mean control over one’s own destiny. I was responding to him.

MM:
c) That human beings survive and thrive solely by applying reason to action in the service of life is a fact. That humans are volitional and therefore fallible is a fact. That physical force is the only means to interfere with the volitional application of reason to action is a fact. That the freedom from coercion by physical force or the threat thereof initiated by other fallible men in applying your own reason to your own actions in the service of your own life is a right precondition for human life is a fact.

ACH:
I can think of at least one exception to each of your statements of “fact.” (In some people, for example, greed or lust can interfere with reason and often does.) But each exception is probably an aberration. In general, these are important principles of human advancement, I agree.

MM:
d) No Objectivist has ever considered anything to be a fact only because Ayn Rand held it to be true, because entertaining such a notion would disqualify one from being an Objectivist in the first place. The philosophy specifically condemns such other directed standards and demands that everything anyone accepts to be true be independently validated. One cannot violate that principle and simultaneously claim to be its advocate.

ACH:
If you say so. (Have you read my book?)

MM:
4. “‘It is possible that the entire human race, with the exception of me, might become collectivist–and I will then damn the whole bunch of them without damning man as such. I do not form any conception of the nature of man by counting numbers.’ Here is Rand at her inductive (and solipsistic) best.”

This has already been refuted by two commenters above. Ditto.

ACH:
In this formulation, Rand is the black swan. (It is axiomatic that all swans are white—until a black swan turns up.) But if Rand perceives that she is different from the rest of her species, and thereby redefines the species, what is she using for a mirror? It’s an interesting question, as mirror imagery pervades her novels. Where she finds her mirrors is one of the lines of inquiry I follow in my book.

MM:
5. “Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe.”

The single most fundamental choice facing a human being is life or death. The choice to pursue life instead of death implicitly establishes life as the overweening value against which all other values shall be measured. But given the fact of volition, there are two possible definitions of “life” qua standard: 1) life that is consistent with and fulfills the potential of what a human being essentially is — i.e., one’s human nature (qua man), or 2) life contrary to and in defiance of one’s nature. There are no other alternatives, and I wonder what led you to prefer the latter and what you expect mankind to gain from lives of self-contradiction.

ACH:
Nonsense, I say. While this is a useful abstract distinction for Rand’s overall philosophical stance, many an intelligent thinker has identified other competing values in the human universe: a reverence for custom vs. a love of change, patriotism vs. a right to life, freedom vs. security. If I cherish a value that Rand rejected—such as the free nature of affection (vs. love as “spiritual payment” for pleasure received)—does that really make me a death worshipper?

MM:
6. “In this scheme of things, to demand to breathe clean air is to be anti-industry and anti-reason. To love open fields and the smell of the earth is to hate mankind. While I agree with Rand that science and the profit motive may eventually combine to resolve some of the problems that science and the profit motive have created, I don’t want children, old people, or poor people to die while we wait. I favor government regulation.”

Your slanderous hyperbole aside, your failure to comprehend the moral imperative to refrain from initiating physical force (as in 3c above) to gain, withhold, or destroy the values of other men makes your ends-justifies-the-means support of government regulation a forgone conclusion. It has obviously not yet occurred to you that absent government regulatory coercion, men would be amply able to establish other means of non-violent persuasion and protection. That does not easily occur, of course, to someone who doubts the efficacy of the human mind; but what pray tell makes the minds of government regulators any more efficacious?

ACH:
Slanderous? Hyperbolic, maybe. But no more so than your “forgone conclusion[s] and “failure[s] to comprehend.”

Though I may be a dim bulb who doubts the power of the human mind (as you assert), I am familiar with the idea of spontaneous order. I would argue that spontaneous order is a precursor of government, not a replacement for it. I’m of the view that government may properly be licensed to intervene in cases in which the citizenry is overpowered (meaning coerced) and there is no other form of redress. The Gulf oil spill is an example.

MM:
7. “While “man” may not be–is surely not–”the means to the ends of others” [“Introducing Objectivism,” in The Objectivist Newsletter from August, 1962], neither is he “an end in himself.”

If Rand is correct in naming life v. death as man’s most fundamental alternative, one’s choice to pursue life — one’s own life — makes it the end goal and highest value. If you think that is incorrect, you need to name a more fundamental alternative that could establish some other end as primary. Your position, as it stands now, is just a wish to have it both ways at the same time.

ACH:
I do like to have it both ways when I can. I also like this quote from Russell Kirk: “Order and justice and freedom, [conservatives] believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of  trial and reflection and sacrifice.” In this sense, like it or not, we act as a bridge to the future.

MM:
8. “Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), …”

And why would you put that notion aside? If you are thinking of differences in concrete interests instead of differences in principle, you are in the wrong context.

ACH:
Yes, I am thinking of concrete interests. What are you thinking of?

MM:
What Greenspan renounced in 2008, was his own fantasy that liberty would engender a kind of virtuous omniscience in men. I do not know where he got that idea, but it certainly was not from Ayn Rand.

ACH:
What Greenspan renounced in 2008 were the ideas he articulated in his 1963 essay, “The Assault on Integrity,” first published in Rand’s newsletter, The Objectivist, evey word of which she edited and approved. He wrote, “Capitalism is based on self-interest and self-esteem; it holds integrity and trustworthiness as cardinal virtues and makes them pay off in the marketplace, thus demanding that men survive by means of virtue, not vices. It is this superlatively moral system that the welfare statists propose to improve upon by means of preventative law, snooping bureaucrats, and the chronic goad of fear.”

In October 2008, he testified before a House committee,  saying, “As I wrote last March: those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief,” and,  “There are additional regulatory changes that this breakdown of the central pillar of competitive markets requires in order to return to stability, particularly in the areas of fraud, settlement, and securitization.”

MM:
9. “… this gives me license not only to litter (alongside James Watts) but also to steal (with Goldman Sachs). This is what Whittaker Chambers was driving at when, in his 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote, ‘So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held ‘heroic’ in order not to be beastly.’”

How precisely does holding your own life qua man as your goal and standard of value give you a license to litter and steal? You have failed to grasp the most elementary fact about individual rights that permeates Rand’s writings throughout. Namely, that rights protecting the autonomy of individuals impose on each of them the imperative to refrain from violating the same rights of other individuals.

ACH:
Do you believe in the perfectibility of man? I don’t.

MM:
10. “According to Rand’s now-elderly New York City doctor, Murray Dworetski, Nathaniel Branden once told him that all streets and roads should be in private hands. But how would that work? Dworetski asked. People would pay tolls, said Branden. Dworetski remembered laughing. Would each city street–61st, 62nd, Lexington Avenue, 112th Street–be owned by a separate individual charging a separate toll? Perhaps, said Branden, apparently not seeing the humor or the resulting traffic jams.”

You are hopelessly concrete bound. “How would that work” is an interesting question not only when asked about the task of supplying roadways without resorting to the threat of physical force to finance them, but also for every other possible supply and demand problem one can imagine in a society of men. None of such questions nor their answers have any bearing on the question of whether or not human interrelationships — including their exchanges of values — should be voluntary or may be compelled by others.

So here you are again implying that the ends justify the means when the means require the taking of values by force from your fellow human beings in order to get the results that you want. And once again you have assumed the worst consequence that no one would ever tolerate and underestimated the capacity of men to provide roads for the cars that they somehow miraculously can provide without government coerced financing. You haven’t even bothered to recognize how complex is the problem of connecting the population of earth with instantaneous exchange of ideas like the one we enjoy in this blog, how little it costs, and how smoothly it runs — not to mention the notion that it only exists because governments have for the most part kept their distance from this achievement.

ACH:
I don’t especially—or at all–want government to build roads with tax dollars. But starting from this time and place, asking the question, “How would it work?” and expecting an answer that is not merely rhetorical isn’t unreasonable. Branden didn’t answer the doctor, and you didn’t answer me. The Objectivist proclivity to impugn rather than answer is another reason I’m not an Objectivist.

MM:
11. “But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain A) public spaces and B) educate everyone, including those who wouldn’t or couldn’t educate themselves, and that we not let our civil society become unbalanced by too great a C) division between the rich and the rest of us.”

And how did you answer Rand’s question, “at whose expense? and by what standard?” There is no social contract that would justify the imposition of unchosen obligations on any human being — not individually, not by majority, not even by unanimity. You have no basis to claim that right over the lives of others except your own inability to imagine how problems could ever be solved without resorting to coercion. That does not suffice. Warm fuzzy feelings are no base for a moral politics.

ACH:
Oh, dear, I’m being concrete-bound again, because I am looking to past examples and writings to instruct me about how a civil society may be maintained. As I understand the term “social contract,” it both preserves rights and imposes obligations, based on the consent of the majority of the governed and on the implicit consent involved in remaining where obligations are in force. The Preamble to the Constitution states its purpose as, in part, to promote the general welfare and secure “the blessings of liberty,” which Thomas Jefferson, among others, thought required education sufficient to elect good leaders. I think it’s a good thing if the governed consent to let the government (and other parties) provide schooling for all but not a good thing for the government to shoot or jail the uncompliant.

That said, “the social contract that requires” was a little strong.

MM:
12. In sum, you have grossly underestimated the depth of Objectivism. The necessity to focus in your task on the dates and details of Rand’s life left you insufficient time for a serious effort to understand her philosophy. Your attempts to apply it to everyday life are perforated with your own false assumptions. You have succumbed to the most common error of all in considering it.

ACH:
Have you read my book? Or do you adhere to Rand’s idea that to read a book you suspect you won’t agree with is to offer your sanction to the enemy and contribute to her coffers? How do you know anything about my time? I spent six years researching, reporting, and writing Ayn Rand and the World She Made. I am not so disrespectful of myself or of the remarkable Ayn Rand as to have (grossly or otherwise) underestimated the complexity of her work and the depth of her ideas. Although I was more interested in Rand’s literary than in her philosophical achievements, Will Thomas (Objectivist expert in residence at the Atlas Society), Timothy Sandfur, Robert Hessen, Al Ramrus, Nathaniel Branden, Henry Holzer—each of whom knows Rand’s thinking well—wrote to acknowledge my presentation of her ideas as clear, rich, and fair.

MM:
This error was perfectly stated above in the comment by Jeff Montgomery (emphasis added):

“However, I also don’t hold non-Objectivists to the same philosophical standard as those who have been studying the philosophy by itself for an extended period of time. Even some alleged Objectivists don’t understand her philosophy, and apply it poorly. It is deceptively simple, yet actually profound, and confounds anyone who views it through the lens of common premises and colloquial definitions.“

ACH:
In this blog, I plan to offer news and information about Rand and, occasionally, thoughts and inquiries Rand’s life and work have raised in my own mind. I hope and expect not to confuse readers as to which is which.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write so thoughtfully, Michael. And thank you, too, Jeff.

Anne C. Heller

Why I Am Not an Objectivist

Toward the end of my recent interview on “The Atlasphere, Kurt Keefner asked me whether I am an Objectivist. I answered no. Comments by two readers–one brief and friendly, the other sneering and combative–asked why not. Before I give my reasons, I want to make a few remarks about the second comment, which I reprint here because I get so many like it whenever I speak or write about Ayn Rand.

“Because Heller is not an Objectivist,” the commentator writes, “she is incapable of going to fundamentals in doing a bio on Ayn Rand, other than some sort of journalistic exposition of simple facts without analysis. But even this would be compromised by the *choice* of facts to focus on.

“She doesn’t understand that you evaluate moral ideas by their relationship to reality, not [as Heller wrote] ‘evaluating their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators.’ The latter, instead, tells you how well those people are *executing* the moral ideals. Heller’s approach is utilitarian. Little wonder she mentions Marx.

“She doesn’t understand that genius is defined by single-minded focus on the facts of reality, taking those facts (inductively) and extrapolating extensively into generalities and conclusions that are true. Karl Marx was *not* one of those people. Marx worked backwards (deductively) from altruistic intent (“social good”) without regard for facts, such as the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to non-initiation of force, etc. To compare Marx to Rand belies a gross misunderstanding of fundamentals and genius.

“Why didn’t Keefner ask Heller *why* she was not an Objectivist? The answer to that question would give some indication of Heller’s own dishonesty in relation to reality and enlighten potential readers of her book of the landmines awaiting.”

I’ll assume that the reader is a so-called Objectivist. Three decades after Rand’s death, some men and women calling themselves Objectivists (a title Rand explicitly reserved for herself and a pair of early followers) have adopted a strategy adherents used in her lifetime to stave off critics and equivocators–that is, to claim that anyone not agreeing with all Rand’s ideas is by definition benighted, probably evil (“punishing the good for being good”), and not worth listening to on the face of it. A wonderful tautology!  It let Ayn Rand choose not to read books she knew she probably wouldn’t like and yet publicly condemn them. It may perform the same service for my anonymous critic.

To assume that your intellectual adversary is an idiot or just plain wrong also lets you misquote or misconstrue him. Why should you treat what he says or writes with respect? Thus my critic has self-righteously given a false impression of what I intended to convey about the relationship between Rand’s ideas and her life. Here’s the full quotation from the interview:

Interviewer: How deep into Rand’s ideas do you think one has to go to understand her as a person? She was a philosopher after all.

Heller: I think you have to understand them thoroughly in order to understand anything about her. She devoted her life to ideas.

Furthermore, what is interesting about the woman is her mind; the reason I wrote the book was to find out to my satisfaction how and why her mind worked the way it did.

That said, I think the other side of the coin — evaluating moral ideas by their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators — is legitimate and even necessary.

As to the ridiculous idea that a biographer has to agree with a subject’s views and methods in order to shed light on the subject’s life and works, about whom else would my critic say that? Marx? Dewey? Kant? Like them, Rand set herself up as a moral pathfinder and a secular oracle. In Intellectuals, Paul Johnson noted that he wanted to focus on the “moral and judgmental credentials” of certain modern intellectuals whose mission was to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they–Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy–run their own lives? he asked. There is no reason not to ask the same of Rand.

One more thing: How are Rand’s precepts, “the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to the non-initiation of force,” facts? They are assertions–good ones to be sure–which are considered facts by Objectivists only because Ayn Rand held them to be true. And by the way, the first two do not apply to those “subnormal” people Rand made sport of in The Fountainhead, do they? But then, as Rand wrote to Isabel Paterson in 1948, “It is possible that the entire human race, with the exception of me, might become collectivist–and I will then damn the whole bunch of them without damning man as such. I do not form any conception of the nature of man by counting numbers.” Here is Rand at her inductive (and solipsistic) best.

This is one reason I’m not an Objectivist.

Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe. In this scheme of things, to demand to breathe clean air is to be anti-industry and anti-reason. To love open fields and the smell of the earth is to hate mankind.  While I agree with Rand that science and the profit motive may eventually combine to resolve some of the problems that science and the profit motive have created, I don’t want children, old people, or poor people to die while we wait.  I favor government regulation.

While “man” may not be–is surely not–“the means to the ends of others” [“Introducing Objectivism,” in The Objectivist Newsletter from August, 1962], neither is he “an end in himself.” Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), this gives me license not only to litter (alongside James Watts) but also to steal (with Goldman Sachs). This is what Whittaker Chambers was driving at when, in his 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote, “So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held ‘heroic’ in order not to be beastly.”

According to Rand’s now-elderly New York City doctor, Murray Dworetski, Nathaniel Branden once told him that all streets and roads should be in private hands. But how would that work? Dworetski asked. People would pay tolls, said Branden. Dworetski remembered laughing. Would each city street–61st, 62nd, Lexington Avenue, 112th Street–be owned by a separate individual charging a separate toll? Perhaps, said Branden, apparently not seeing the humor or the resulting traffic jams.

I have learned a lot from Rand–that people’s wishes are not necessarily my commands, even if I sympathise with them; that duty can be a logical trap. I appreciate her dedication to principles, to freedom, and to civil liberties. But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain public spaces and educate everyone, including those who wouldn’t or couldn’t educate themselves, and that we not let our civil society become unbalanced by too great a division between the rich and the rest of us.

Rereading “Darkness at Noon”

Preparing to read Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell (Random House), I have been rereading Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler‘s 1940 rendering of an old-guard Russian revolutionary’s thoughts as he faces inquisition and certain death at the hands of a new generation of Communist functionaries during the Stalinist purges of 1938. Koestler’s aging Bolshevik hero, Nicolas Rubashov, is said to have been modeled on Bukharov, Trotsky, and Christian Radovsky, but in his personal mettle and the relatively principled nature of his musings, he at times reminds me of Ayn Rand’s only “good” collectivist character Andrei Taganov in We the Living, whose noble spirit drives him to commit suicide rather than live with the corrupted nature of a revolution he sacrificed other people’s lives for: those he killed or watched die. In his prison cell, Rubashov compulsively remembers two innocent men and a woman, his lover Arlova, whom he betrayed and allowed to die–all for a revolution turned arbitrary and unworthy. He considers the forbidden word, “I,” and taps out its cipher on his cell wall in prison code, his last act before his execution for crimes he has confessed to but didn’t commit.

Ayn Rand disliked Koestler, just as she disliked Scammell’s other biographical subject, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and for similar reasons. In her view, neither dug deeply enough to hit upon the bedrock importance of  the individual self. Solzhenitsyn held to a pre-revolutionary, anti-Western Christian paradigm. Throughout the 1940s, Koestler defended Communist “ideals” against the temporary reality of Stalin. In a letter to Isabel Paterson in 1948, Rand calls Koestler “confused.” According to Robert Hessen, when asked about Darkness at Noon after a speech at the Ford Hall Forum, Ayn Rand answered with one word, “Junk,” and moved on.

Rubashov’s meditations on William James’s “oceanic” religious feelings and on the meaning of the self as at least partly limited by historical necessity and tied to duty are distinctly anti-Rand. But his nostalgia for a pre-Revolutionary world of boyhood Russian country houses and great books is Randian, and his thoughts about the paradoxes of Party loyalty cast a sidelight on both Taganov and Commandant Kareyev in “Red Pawn”:

“The infinite was a politically suspect quantity,” Rubashov muses, “the ‘I’ a suspect quality. The Party did not recognize its existence. The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.”

Rubashov’s thoughts go on:

“The Party denied the free will of the individual–and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to to choose between two alternatives–and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil–and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery.”

This was the world Ayn Rand braved emigration to a strange country to escape and that she fashioned Andrei Taganov, Commandant Kareyev, and Howard Roark to light the way out of. And yet Rubashov, who has not been permitted to enter “the land of promise” or even glimpse it “from a mountaintop,” as Moses did, and who dies in confusion, seeing “nothing but desert and the darkness of night,” is a tragic figure. We’ll see if the “confused” Koestler is tragic, too.

Anne C. Heller

Addendum…

Addendum . . .

Glenn Beck has stirred the pot again. On his show last week, the conservative broadcaster, radio host, best-selling author and all around phenomenon criticized any church promoting "social justice" or "economic justice," claiming that these words were merely code for Naziism and communism. (M. Caulfield/WireImag/Getty Images)

About my entry on “Christianity”: It’s important to note that, above all else, Rand disapproved of Christianity because of its core altruism. To “love one’s neighbor as oneself,” just because he is one’s neighbor, was anathema to her. Except, perhaps, for Thomists, Christians by definition embrace the obligation to feed and clothe the poor, which these days Protestant and Catholic churches commonly refer to as social justice. So I was wrong about Glenn Beck. Although a self-declared Christian–he belongs to the Mormon church–Beck is feverishly on Rand’s side when it comes to banishing the notion of an obligation to help others less fortunate than he. In a fascinating story called “Christians Urged to Boycott Glenn Beck” in yesterday’s “New York Times,” Beck is reportedly under fire from Christian ministers for demanding that church members resign if their churches “push” social or economic justice. More strangely, Beck, holding up a swastika and a hammer and sickle, warned darkly that our very freedom of religion and right to “read all the passages in the Bible as you want to read them” is threatened by communistic, fascist pleas for social justice–from Washington–and that we have only another year, if that long, to act. You can listen to Beck by clicking here.

So how does Beck arrive at this analysis? Certainly not from Rand, who rejected God right along with the Sermon on the Mount, the cross, and the beatitudes. I’d love to ask Beck in an interview.

What Conservatives Don’t Know About Ayn Rand

Rand on Duty and Compromise, Christianity and the “Sub-Normal,” Abortion and Free Markets

A little more than twenty-eight years ago, on  March 6, 1982, Ayn Rand died of heart failure in her small, high-rise rental apartment on East 34th Street in the Murray Hill section of New York. Although for three decades Alan Greenspan had been one of her closest friends and followers, she neglected his advice to invest in stocks and bonds. She kept her money in a savings bank across the street from her apartment. She left about $800,000 in her estate, a significant sum for the time but much less than she might have amassed had she bought property and shares in America’s great companies with her decades’ flow of royalties. She cared little for luxury, however, and was afraid of financial markets she did not understand. She wanted only enough to work in peace.

She also left a body of work that champions laissez-faire capitalism as passionately and persuasively as that of any writer of the last century. She loved the idea of capitalism, not because it offers the greatest standard of living to the greatest number of people or promotes the common good, though she declared that she believed it does these things.  She loved it because, by her lights, it is the only economic system ever devised that both depends on and advances individual rights, including the right to live as one sees fit and to own the fruits of one’s labor as money and private property. “The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is justice,” she wrote in 1965. In other words, her allegiance was to individual rights before capitalism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, traditionalist conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Whittaker Chambers, and Russell Kirk had trouble with Rand; they couldn’t get her to keep quiet about her less orthodox prescriptions and opinions. (At least they listened to her speeches and read her work.) In 2010, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the Tea Partiers seem not to know that Rand HAD any unorthodox views. Yet both–and every conservative from Reagan to Ron Paul–have invoked her argument that capitalism is not just the best of a bad set of choices but rather a categorical, MORAL good. They use it as a coup de grace in arguments with liberals and other pro-regulation, pro-Democratic “nanny-staters” about the proper limits of government power and what it means for government to redistribute wealth to the people whom FDR, Rand’s nemesis, called the ill-fed, ill-housed, and insecure.

If there was one thing Ayn Rand hated, it was the appropriation of some of her words and ideas at the expense of others. Her ideology was a SEAMLESS whole, she and her followers insisted. She contemptuously called the practice of picking and choosing among her tenets “cashing in” on her name. She had a habit of threatening to sue those who did it, especially those who marched around with signs claiming to be “going Galt.”

Here are some of her radically individualistic ideas that 2010 conservatives ignore.

• Duty, to country, family, etc.

Duty is one of the “most destructive anti-concepts in the history of moral philosophy,” Ayn Rand wrote in 1974.  By “anti-concept,” she meant a false idea designed to undermine and replace a true one. In this case, the true idea is “causality,” the law of cause and effect that guides a sane person’s attempt to match his means to his ends and his actions to his conscious principles and goals. “Duty destroys reason,” she wrote. “It supersedes knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions. Duty destroys values,” she added. “It demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command and transforms values [that oppose “duty”] into a threat to one’s moral worth.” As a notable example, Rand emphatically opposed the military draft. Does Sarah Palin support conscientious objectors?

• Christianity

She hated and feared it from childhood as yet another ruse by power seekers to humiliate and manipulate individual human beings. For one thing, “an omniscient being, by definition, is a totalitarian dictator,” she wrote. “Ah, but he won’t use his power? Never mind. He has it.” For another, she loathed what she saw as its fetishistic celebration of suffering and human sacrifice. “I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal, she told Alvin Toffler in 1964. “A man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious. . . And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors.” She was a lifelong atheist who wore a dollar sign where others wore a cross. It’s my guess that Glenn Beck, who likes the notion of a Christian nation, would not approve.

• Compromise

“There are two sides to every issue. One is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” In typical Russian utopian fashion, Rand viewed compromise as craven and degrading, possibly because she was a Russian. Since Russians have been ruled by dictatorships for at least 300 years and have never attempted to govern themselves, wherefore compromise? It’s nobler to insist on what you’ve never tried to practice. In America, compromise is a way of life. Come to think of it, perhaps the Tea Partiers DO admire this in Rand.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

WELCOME TO MY BLOG

Readers often say that reading Ayn Rand changed their lives. A few days ago, a young Turkish immigrant named Zuhal came to my apartment to interview me for a blog she writes and told me how encountering WE THE LIVING two summers ago changed her life: it inspired her to leave her family and friends in Turkey and move permanently to the United States. She wanted to be an American, free of the constraints of religion, superstition, and tradition. Specifically, she told me, when she read the ending scene of the novel, in which Kira, the heroine, risks death and perishes while trudging toward Soviet Russia’s border with the West and freedom, Zuhal made up her mind that, for her, living without freedom is not living at all.

During five years of writing a full-scale biography of the remarkable Ayn Rand, I, too, have been changed. I have learned to listen more carefully to the logic and quality of thought our politicians and social critics bring to their political and economic arguments. I’ve become convinced that individual rights make up our most important inheritance and that “unearned guilt” (in Rand’s apt phrase) and the propagation of political fear erode it. I have stopped thinking that “altruism” is an uncomplicated, entirely benign concept.

In the days and weeks to come, I’ll use this blog to write about the ways in which Ayn Rand has affected my thinking and that of others; political and moral questions she raises but does not answer to everyone’s satisfaction, including mine; and her still-powerful influence on large, important corners of our culture.

I’ll also post some of the comments about Rand and my book that I’ve seen on websites and in chat rooms that I think are wrong-minded in interesting ways. I’ll answer all gripes and divergent opinions and invite you to do the same–as well as state your own opinions–in a comments section.

My first blog will be on “What Conservatives Don’t Know about Ayn Rand.” I’ll post it on Saturday, March 6. I hope you’ll join me.