Atlas Blogged #12: Rand Rants

August 13, 2010

Part 12 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 12: The Aristocracy of the Pull

The Pull Aristocracy referred to in the title here refers to the victory of Rand’s socialist strawmen over the men of commerce – now, the path to influence is dependent on who you can lean on to follow your will, rather than what your will can produce. They’re all on display at the wedding of James Taggart to the ambitious floozy he picked up in a department store. The poor floozy is secretly a good character – there’s no such thing as a morally ambivalent person in Rand’s world – who wants to succeed on her own terms, but is incapable of resisting Jim’s money.

Rearden’s wife, Lillian, guilt-trips him into taking her to the wedding reception, to demonstrate her value to Jim in terms of being able to deliver her husband to social occasions at which, other will interpret, Rearden will be paying tribute to Jim. Rearden’s reaction to all this is once again teenage, but I’m not going to dwell on that because the meet of this chapter is Rand’s male Mary Sue, Franciso d’Anconia, giving a speech about the virtue of money.

d’Anconia is still hilariously superhuman, effortlessly dominating rooms and parties by the sheer force of his presence. Exactly the sort of man, in fact, that socially awkward adolescents would aspire to be. His speech – or rather, Rand’s monograph – is at turns glorious and infuriating; Rand has chosen a belief system that is internally inconsistent and so is a conglomerate of wonderful truths besmirched by insidious lies. Let’s analyse it piece by piece.

“So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only be the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?”

When I started reading this spiel, I was quite impressed at Rand’s stalwart defence of trade as a system of social interaction, presaging the arguments of evolutionary psychologists that we’re set up to instinctively act in a way which produces mutual benefit.

“When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears nor all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honour – your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on the moral principle which is the root of money. Is this what you consider evil?

Then I realised that Rand is committing the classic failure of turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’; we instinctively aim for deals of mutual benefit without actually performing the calculation ourselves. This means that by interpreting our intuitions as a principle, Rand is overlooking the way in which they actually function for the collective good while often screwing over the individual. An instinct to protect your children even at the cost of your own life is good for the species, but not necessarily good for the individual. Rand’s rhetoric here is designed to fasten on to only part of our intuitive morality, and ignore the rest. ‘Moochers’ exchange emotional satisfaction for money. This is a valid exchange of value, one which Rand’s cash-focused principle fails to identify. I will move on to the reference to gold a little later.

“Have you ever looked for the root of production? Take a look at an electric generator and dare tell yourself that it was created by the muscular effort of unthinking brutes. Try to grow a seed of wheat without the knowledge left to you men who had to discover it for the first time. Try to obtain your food by means of nothing but physical motions – and you’ll learn that man’s mind is the root of all the goods produced and of all the wealth that has ever existed on earth.

Here, Rand is again capturing part of our intuitive sense of ‘knowledge’ while excluding the rest. She divides fields of endeavor into physical and mental categories – and assumes that there can be no link between the two. There are a number of unspoken philosophical commitments there – not least a very strong dualism of the mind, which is unusual for a philosophy which pretends to only believe in an objective reality. This gives rise to the obvious fallacy of this passage: non-rational animals can still procure food. Expertise, rather than simply knowledge, is a combination of physical capacity to achieve married with the knowledge of how to do so. The latter can be derived from instinct, putting the notion of rationality at the heart of Rand’s argument at serious risk.

“But you say that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak? What strength do you mean? It is not the strength of fund or muscles. Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Then is money made by the man who invents a motor at the expense of those who did not invent it? Is money made by the intelligent at the expense of the fools? By the ambitious at the expense of the lazy? Money is made-before it can be looted or mooched-made by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability. An honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced.

Quite how Rand squares this with her clear endorsement of unearned income from investments is unclear. Simply putting your money somewhere and relying on the work of others to add value to it doesn’t appear to producing anything yourself.

“To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labour that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but not more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgement of the traders. money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss – the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery- that you must offer them values, not wounds – that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods. Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade – with reason, not force, as their final arbiter – it is the best product that wins. The best performance, the man of best judgement and highest ability – and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. This the code of existence whose tool and symbol is money. Is this what you consider evil?

This paragraph contains a fundamental flaw in Rand’s position – that talent and demand are necessarily conjoined. It is not the case that a man’s productiveness is correlated to his reward, as the reward is determined by the choices of others – not that man. A struggling artist, who wishes to do nothing except paint, may have no demand for those paintings because of their subject rather than the skill put into their composition, and be forced to sell them at a lower price. That artist may be able to make more money from stacking shelves. His reward is not correlated with his productivity – or his talent. This is necessarily the case within a market-based system – your productivity and hence your reward is almost wholly determined by the wishes of others. And yet Rand rails against that very failing in socialism.

“But money is [snip, nothing new in this para].”

“Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek. Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward, or respect for the incompetent. The man who attempts to purchase the brains of his superiors to serve him, with his money replacing judgment, ends by becoming the victim of his inferiors. The men of intelligence desert him, but the cheats and the frauds come clocking to him, drawn by a law which he has not discovered: that no man may be smaller than his money. Is this the reason why you call it evil?

This is just stupid, and once again betrays Rand’s utter ignorance of how the world actually works. If you’re not Leonardo da Vinci, at some point you’ll need to hire someone with the expertise you lack. Obviously, it’s difficult to judge the work of someone in a field in which you’re not an expert yourself – but to say that you’ll necessarily destroy yourself if you do so ignores the fact that this is how almost every single business in the world operates.

“Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth – the man who would make his own fortune no matter where he started. if an heir is equal to his money, it serves him; if not, it destroys him. But you look on and you cry that money corrupted him. Did it? Or did he corrupt his money? Do not envy a worthless heir; his wealth is not yours and you would have done no better with it. Do not think that it should have been distributed among you; loading the world with fifty parasites instead of one, would not bring back the dead virtue which was the fortune. Money is a living power that dies without its root. Money will serve the mind that cannot match it. is this the reason why you call it evil?

I suspect this paragraph is the reason why a lot of young trust-fund Americans and old Etonians love Rand – it’s a reason to not worry about taking Daddy’s money! The argument Rand presents here ignores her own principles – I’ve written about this separately here.

“Money is your means of survival. The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life. If the source is corrupt, you have damned you own existence. Did you get your money by fraud? By pandering men’s vices or men’s stupidity? By catering to fools, in the hope of getting more than your ability deserves? By lowering your standards? By doing work you despise for purchasers you scorn? If so, then your money will not give you a moment’s or a penny’s worth off joy. Then all the things you buy will become, not tribute to you, but a reproach; not an achievement, nut a reminder of shame. Then you’ll scream that money is evil. Evil, because it would not pinch-hit for your self-respect? Evil, because it would not let you enjoy your depravity? Is this the root of your hatred of money?

Rand clearly hates advertisers, who do exactly this. Ironically, Atlas Shrugged was featured several times in Mad Men.

“Money will [snip – merely rhetoric]

“Or did you say it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil? To love a thing is to know and love its nature. To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It’s the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money – and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.

This, of course, is why rich men never ever resort to force or fraud to increase their fortune. This is so unspeakably dumb I can barely be bothered to say that Rand would probably condemn rich men who did do such a thing as not really loving money. In fact, everyone at the Taggart wedding in this chapter loves money and aims to get more of it, which they’re doing by force and fraud. It seems bizarre that Rand doesn’t realise that greed doesn’t always come out in the form she wants it to. I have no idea how else she can conceptualise a love of money, unless it’s love of the principle and indifference to the fact. Mind you, the indifference Rand has displayed to facts has been a feature of this chapter so far.

“Let me [snip, same as above]

“Run for [snip, again]

“But money demands of you the highest virtues, if you wish to make it or keep it. Men who have no courage, pride or self-esteem, men who have no moral sense of their to their money and are not willing to defend it as they defend their life, men who apologise for being rich – will not remain rich for long. They are the natural bait foe swarms of looter that stay under rocks for centuries, but come crawling out at the first smell of a man who begs to be forgiven for the guilt of owning wealth. They will haste to relive him of the guilt- and of his life, as he deserves.

I can only assume that Rand is referring to the likes of the ‘new generation of philanthropists‘. I can’t think of any real-world example of someone who’s earned their wealth but just feels awful about it. Of course, it’s pretty clear that AtlasWorld is not the real world, and has little relationship to it.

“Then you will see the rise of the men of the double standard – the men who live by force, yet count on those who live by trade to create the value of their looted money – the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In amoral society, these are the criminals and the statues are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters- by-law – men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims – then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenceless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.

Rand has this utterly confused. A man can live by both violence and production. This is so obviously true that her bizarre dichotomy isn’t really worth analysing further, except to point out that the world is full of mixed economies who haven’t succumbed to armageddon.

“Do you wish [snip, rhetoric on the above].

“Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who expected to produce it. paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked: ‘Account overdrawn.’

When I read this paragraph, I had to put the book down for a little while. This paragraph is responsible for all the gold-standard dullards in the libertarian movement, and relates in no way to the earlier parts of Rand’s argument. To give you a couple of examples from the earlier paragraphs: “Money is a tool of exchange… Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.” This is exactly right, and glorious in itself. Money is a representation of intersubjective value – value arrived at through mutual bargaining. It is a tool to represent that value more easily. But what Rand fails to realise is that because money is a tool, any physical manifestation of it has value in itself as a tool of exchange. The value of any given type of money is dependent on how useful it is – for example, you’ll need more euros if you want to buy things in the eurozone, so you’ll change more pounds into euros. This increase in demand raises the pound against the euro – you’ll get fewer euros per pound because more people want to buy things using them. Gold’s value is given by the marketplace, and as such is not an objective standard.

“When you have made evil the means of survival, do not expect men to remain good. Do not expect them to stay moral and lose their lives for the purpose of becoming the fodder of the immoral. Do not expect them to produce, when production is punished and looting rewarded. Do not ask, “Who is destroying the world”? You are.”

The final part of the speech I’m going to reproduce here (the rest is some wanking off about America) is, perhaps, the most accurate: when you punish independent production, production falls. This is why collective production is less effective than market production. But this is not a moral principle in itself, merely an observation. Rand, again, is unable to move from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’.

Analysis

Rand’s rhetoric is very powerful if one is instinctively liberal – it deceptively leads one into feeling that any form of state intervention constitutes force, and thus is immoral. But she can only reach that conclusion by ignoring so many facts and aspects of human experience that her conclusion itself is unproveable – it relies on supposition and emotion, rather than logic. This is peculiar for a ‘philosopher’ who prizes reason above everything else.

Part 13 is here.

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