October 30, 2010
Part 27iii of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
This section of Galt’s speech is largely concerned with how clever he was in recognising that the evil socialists who took over the 20th Century Motor Company were out to destroy him by converting him into their property; enslaving his mind in the process. This bit is actually an interesting indictment of libertarian thought: it demonstrates that libertarianism arises less from a wish to be free of the state and more a wish to be free from being responsible for the consequences of your choices on other people. This is interesting, inasmuch as it’s inversion of the charge that Rand lays against socialists: they wish to abnegate on their responsibility to deal with the consequences of their choices with respect to reality; libertarians wish to do the same with respect to the other. In this sense, ‘libertarianism’ may be inappropriate as a lable for this creed; ‘radical solipsism’ might be more appropriate.
She then continues her brief historical interlude by talking about how the Dark Ages were when the mind went on strike. Or went to Byzantium, perhaps, but we’ll skip over her utter lack of anything even approaching historical knowledge.
Rand then says: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” This is interesting, inasmuch as it’s a radical departure from Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, which states that the virtuous life is lived in between extremes of sin and arrogant righteousness. It’s possible that this demonstrates that Rand doesn’t realise she’s actually advocating a theory of ethics with moral components bolted on. Certainly, the rather Manichean approach she takes to the morality she judges to be her opponent would indicate this; yet more evidence that either Rand is being purposively obfuscatory or simply doesn’t understand what she’s saying. It also explains why her characters tend to one extreme or another; there is no sliding scale between extremes in AtlasWorld.
We then have the surprisingly broad statement:
“Do you ask if it’s ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle.”
This could mean practically anything; knowledge that one receives altruistic pleasure from helping other could constitute just cause to, say rob from the rich to give to the poor. This is another example of the internal inconsistency of Rand’s philosophy; one can use parts of it to argue for any course of action one chooses that may run counter to other parts.
Rand has an interesting pop at human rights:
“The doctrine that ‘human rights’ are superior to ‘property rights’ simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others; since the competent have nothing to gain from the incompetent, it means the right of the incompetent to own their betters and to use them as productive cattle.”
If nothing else, this explains the antipathy of the Right to human rights; clearly, they’re tantamount to socialism under this view.
We now come to Rand’s theory of Government:
“The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.”
There’s something interesting here, something buried so deep in the psyche and history that Rand, with her paltry knowledge of the subject, quite possibly would never have been able to dig out.
Being in the army is not like other jobs. While mercenaries do exist, throughout human history they have always been in the minority of armed forces, and every state has seen fit to maintain an army of its own. Why should this be? Surely, if this libertarian view of the market is correct, states should regularly be using hired forces in combat, the market for such producing stronger and more effective forces than state-backed armies.
Rand gives us the answer, although she does not know it. I gave her description of her opposing morality in the previous post as ‘A moral system which applauds the surrender of value for no return reaches its apotheosis in the ultimate surrender of values which is death’.
Her morality is based on the notion of trading; hence, the transfer of value for no return is anathema. Her concept of value is tied into living and existence – for her, zero is death. And herein lies the answer to the above: there can be nothing worth receiving in return if your offer includes the possibility of death. One can express this mathematically: any number, any value multiplied by zero is always zero. It will only ever be worth someone’s while to join the army if they are threatened with death or their return is somehow infinite. We can therefore assume that any properly libertarian army will surrender at the first possibility of defeat; any value specified in a contract cannot overcome the zero equation.
There is, however, something that can motivate one to join the army, and that is the unconditional. Only unconditional love can motivate a father to fight to the death for his family; only unconditional love can motivate a man to fight to the death for his nation. It is worth pointing out that the social policies implemented in the aftermath of the Second World War were aimed at ‘winning the peace’; demonstrating to the returning troops that the state they’d fought for was, indeed, worth dying for. This is because they now represented the conditions for the possibility of that state remaining existent; economies tend to be rearranged to serve those responsible for their survival. In this sense, Rand’s version of libertarianism does not reflect America in the 50s so much as a strongly isolationist America that did not require the mobilisation of its population to defend it, in which the industrialists did represent the grounds on which that economy progressed. The general rightward trend in world politics can be seen as representative of the fact that the advent of individualised weapons of mass destruction means that the masses are no longer required to defend the state, indeed, they have become a liability in this regard. If one wished to be really suspicious, one could argue that the Right’s deep and abiding love of Trident has less to do with an uncertain future and more to do with its placing of the defence of the realm in the hands of the elite and not the masses, with the consequent economic effects.
Rand goes on to point out that the economic success of an enterprise is driven not by the workers within but by the mind that designed the machines and identified the goal, thus providing the conditions for the possibility of the enterprise. My use of that Kantian term indicates that I think Rand is partway right here, but she ignores the aggregate judgements made by workers employed by that mind, who add to the value of the enterprise. It is not a single judging mind that makes a company, but many; semi-skilled and unskilled workers use their minds too.
We then have Rand’s indictment of state-funded science as aiming at some non-useful truth and thus employing the mind to identify truths but not functional truths. This is a gross perversion of the mind, apparently. This argument would perhaps have some traction if not for a single word: ‘specialisation’. Blue-sky research may require a lifetime to produce results that are useful in practical terms – to claim that someone is evil because their work does not produce such during their lifetime is just stupid.
Rand then calls on the remaining ‘minds’ in the world to set up their own libertarian communes and await Galt’s arrival, like the vengeful messiah he is. After a repeat of the libertarian oath: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” the chapter thankfully closes.
Part 28 is here.
October 26, 2010
Today’s preliminary growth estimates from the ONS are good news for anyone who thinks the coalition Government is on broadly the right track.
Just take a look at this chart:
It’s pretty clear that growth in all sectors is returning to trend, ameliorated in this quarter by anticipation of the Spending Review. I would predict weakened growth in the construction sector in Q4, because (a) it’s winter, and building things in icy conditions is difficult, (b) Government construction projects are now curtailed for a while, and yet (c) the infrastructure projects funded in the Spending Review will lend some confidence to the sector. I wish I actually had some money to invest in this sort of thing.
There’s still quite a way to go before it gets back to trend, so even weakened growth in construction will probably be around 2-3%. Regardless, it seems pretty clear that the possibility of a double dip recession is receding, and that our current economic strategy is the right one. I can only assume Alan Johnson is wailing and gnashing his teeth.
October 25, 2010
Astute observers of the press (for a very broad definition of ‘astute’ that includes anyone who reads the Sunday papers) will have noticed that the Royal Family is line for a very literal windfall from the enormous expansion of offshore wind that’s planned for the next couple of decades.
The Crown Estate, the nice chaps who administer the land owned by the Sovereign, own all of the seabed up to 12 nautical miles off the UK’s coast. This has never really been an issue in the past, as the only really economically relevant use of the seabed has been oil pipes and Telecom cables. They have mineral rights, but not hydrocarbon rights.
However, if you want to put anything on the seabed, you have to pay the Crown Estate for a licence to be able to do so – the same sort of rent a landowner receives for having a pylon on their property. Since all the cables bringing in that juicy offshore wind electricity are going to go across the Crown Estate’s section of the seabed, they’ll have to pay for it.
One of the classic Liberal campaigning issues has always been land reform, because of the rent-seeking activity of the people who owned the land. Indeed, the Georgist song referenced in the title of this blog post refers to it; land value taxes having been something we’ve been pushing for over a century. Labour are very recent converts by comparison. The argument is, broadly, that no-one should be able to profit without actually doing work – in other words, if you’re just extracting rent without doing anything useful with the land itself, you should pay for it.
The Crown Estate’s licensing arrangement is classic rent-seeking; they’re charging for access to property they’re not using themselves. This land is going to become increasingly valuable over the coming years, as more and more uses for our maritime holdings become apparent. This affords us an opportunity to institute a bold experiment in land reform and LVT: I propose we sell off our nautical estate and institute a Seabed Value Tax.
The idea is to make some initial capital to help pay off our debt, while ensuring a constant revenue stream to help reduce the deficit. This will initially be low – most likely significantly lower than the current licensing costs of the Crown Estate – to encourage investment in maritime infrastructure. However, as these new industries expand over time, a SVT will help ensure that owners of undersea property will seek to make best use of it.
One objection that could be raised is that the seabed is a more crowded place than you would think – oil pipes here and there, international transmissions cables for communications and electricity, anchorage sites, shipping lanes, marine conservation zones – in fact, almost every type of infrastructure you would find on land has some sort of marine counterpart. The Crown Estate facilitates discussions between those with different interests with respect to the seabed, ensuring that – for example – no-one tries to lay cables across pipes. Selling off all its nautical estate would make it more difficult to co-ordinate these activities. However, similar issues on land are handled by legislation and agreements between parties, rather than a central body. There is no reason to think that something similar would not work underwater.
If this proposal is taken up, I suggest that the page of the Liberator song book that contains the words for the ‘The Land’, which is sung so gustily at Conference’s Glee Club, is replaced with the words to ‘Under the Sea‘…
October 20, 2010
Speaking as a professional greenie, the anguish from my fellow greenies over the undercapitalisation of the Green Investment Bank is puzzling. The argument appears to be that the enormous amounts of capital required to build our new low-carbon infrastructure cannot be sourced from traditional sources of investment – the figures given by Ernst and Young indicate a £450bn requirement with only £80bn of funding available from utility companies, project finance and infrastructure funds.
A Green Investment Bank would be able to create financial products for particular areas of infrastructure development; for example, you could buy an ‘Offshore Wind Bond’ and receive a rate of return depending on the success of offshore wind development projects. These would be funded by capital from the GIB. This would make it relatively easier for these products to access capital, making the financing of these projects much quicker and cheaper. Ordinary people would be able to do things like invest in Green ISAs, knowing that their money would be used for projects that would help us move towards a low-carbon economy.
Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? There’s a bit of a problem, and it’s because you’re creating what will be in essence a State-backed bank that will be issuing bonds with what will be in all likelihood a rate of interest exceeding that of gilts, £370bn of them, to be precise. Interest rates on gilts have been relatively low because there’s been significant demand from institutional investors for safe state-backed finance products. Add £370bn into the market and all of a sudden interest rates on gilts will go up as demand drops as a consequence of the increased supply of Government-backed debt. This is, you know, the very thing the cuts are intended to stop.
That’s not even looking at the fact that infrastructure projects have a relatively long lead-time, meaning that unless the bank is severely restricted in the bonds it is able to issue in the short term, it’ll suddenly acquire massive amounts of liabilities that it will have to service at cost higher than that of gilts. These costs will be passed onto project developers, raising their cost of capital. Indeed, the only people likely to make money out of this idea would be – yes – the bankers, and people providing financial advice, like, say, Ernst & Young.
The way to secure investment in infrastructure projects is to provide grants for nascent technologies and long-term revenue support for technologies on the cusp of commercial profitability – and to provide a stable policy environment with respect to their development. With this in mind, the fact that the RO system remains untouched following the Spending Review and that £200 million of new grants for manufacturing infrastructure and technology demonstrations has been announced, it would seem the sector is in a pretty good place. Institutional investors want to make money, and they will invest more in project finance if there’s a clear rate of return. Breaking them out of the habit up relying on Government-backed debt to do this is not helped by a GIB.
October 20, 2010
Part 27ii of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
Breaking this chapter up for analysis as it’s Rand giving all of her philosophy in one handy little package.
Rand begins to develop a form of virtue ethics based on thinking as a basic virtue. This is identified with endeavouring to find the truth. Its negation is refusing to acknowledge the truth, refusing to identify something as itself. She describes this as the basic moral choice, cashing out as the decision to exist or not – thinking being fundamental to the nature of man. Suspending judgement on the identity of an object is equivalent to refusing to think.
Let’s be fair to Rand here. There are at least two ways of interpreting this: first, that Rand is making the weak claim that refusing to make a truth claim on limited evidence is always morally wrong; secondly, that Rand is making the stronger claim that you should rely on your reason to always produce the correct identity for a given object or situation.
The second interpretation is clearly false, and moves towards a quasi-religious faith in reason itself. The first interpretation could be considered an ethical virtue, stating that the ethical man always aims to provide a truth claim for a given proposition. This is not unreasonable, although Rand fails to accept that there will be cases when equivocation is necessary – for example, predicting the outcome of a coin toss.
Rand claims her ‘morality of reason’ (note: Rand is actually referring to ethics here rather than morality; a common and thus forgivable error) is contained in a single axiom: existence exists, and in the decision to live. She then proceeds to develop a system of virtues and tools by which the ethical life may be led. The virtues are rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.
It’s not clear that any of these virtues necessarily follow from Rand’s axioms; she merely asserts this. ‘Rationality’ is intended to involve the recognition that nothing can take precedence over one’s perception of reality – but simply accepting that existence exists does not entail that the reality one perceives is identical to the one that actually exists.
‘Independence’ is the recognition that sole responsibility for assigning truth values lies with the self – but taking advantage of the knowledge of others after assigning a value to their integrity does not necessarily fall under this heading.
‘Integrity’ is the recognition that you must always act according to the precepts given by your reason and not fail to follow them – but recognising existence does not entail that you should always act according to your own judgements, and nor does the decision to live. One can quite readily abrogate this responsibility to another without contradicting Rand’s axioms.
‘Honesty’ is the recognition that the unreal is unreal and so can have no value; therefore acquiring value by exchanging it for something with no value (i.e. fraud) is to put yourself in hock to someone else’s lack of reason. There is no connection between this virtue and Rand’s axioms; the man who decides to live may choose to do so by defrauding others without contradicting his recognition of reality.
‘Justice’ is the requirement to recognise the virtues of others, to judge their moral character in the same way as you do the identity of objects, and to treat them accordingly – to do otherwise is to reward vice and punish virtue, leading towards death. This may be the case for wider society, but not the case for the individual – the individual may acquire value in this manner.
‘Productiveness’ is the forming of the world around one’s thinking, necessarily in a creative fashion as a consequence of that thinking. But it is not necessary to be creative to maintain one’s existence, even on Rand’s model of the mind – animals achieve it through ‘automatic knowledge’.
‘Pride’ is the mental equivalent of productiveness; one has to form one’s own mind into the values appropriate to match Rand’s morality. Quite clearly, if Rand’s other virtues don’t flow from her axioms, neither does this one.
Rand goes on to claim that the two ‘fundamental emotions’ are joy and suffering, which reflect the values she espouses – actions which further your life bring you joy, and so on. Happiness is only possible to the man who feels joy which contradicts none of his values.
So you can only be happy while doing things that further your life. Look at that claim right there for an indication of how daft a lot of this chapter is. Then go out and get drunk with your friends, and see if the happiness you feel has anything to do with furthering your life or contradicts your values.
Rand rants for a little while about how traders are only moral individuals, before breaking out the old libertarian moral claim, which is that the one fundamental moral principle (not ethical, I should point out; Rand appears to be advocating a peculiar combination of ethics and morality; a strange fusion of Aristotle and Christianity) is that no man may initiate force against another, because it invalidates their mind.
This claim, right here, is how libertarianism changes from being a morality of productivity to a morality to a morality of control – in exactly the way in which Rand claims to despise in the morality of the looters. The looters are unable to compete on the grounds of commerce with Rand’s titans of business, and so use force to obviate competition. The titans are unable to compete with the masses on the grounds of force, and so use commerce to obviate competition. Following either morality without exception involves the subjugation of one part of humanity in the name of the righteous. Both are wrong; a morality that discriminates against any form of competition – either in the fields of force or commerce – discriminates against mankind as a whole, as both capacities are present in some form in every person.
Rand goes on (and on) to detail how she believes this morality came about. This is done in such abstraction, without recourse to actual facts, that it’s entirely irrelevant for this discussion. She sketches a schemata for the system of values she identifies as her opposition, based on a notion of sacrificing value – value, in Randian eyes, being that which sustains life, and is exemplified in money. A moral system which applauds the surrender of value for no return reaches its apotheosis in the ultimate surrender of values which is death. This is an important move, and one which we will return to later.
She then accuses the ‘mystics’; broadly, the religious who espouse a Christian attitude towards charity, giving, and self-worth of seeking to deny that A is A and to wish that the world was other than it is. Again, we come to the odd contradiction that Rand appears to not recognise: she values knowledge, but fails to recognise that the question, ‘What if A were not A? What if the world were other than I have been led to believe?’ is a consequence of not blindly accepting the world at face value, and is the key that unlocks scientific understanding of the world. ‘A’ may be ‘The Sun moves about the Earth’, but unless one is willing to question it, one will never find the truth of the matter.
Rand goes on to detail her philosophical ignorance: “Those who tell you that man is unable to perceive a reality undistorted by his senses, mean that they are unwilling to perceive a reality undistorted by their feelings.”
Again, this is clear evidence that Rand has never really understood any philosopher beyond Aristotle, and perhaps not even him. This is a pop at Kant and to a certain extent the empiricists preceding him, and it’s a bad one: encountering the world through the conditions of the possibility of perception is NOT encountering the world through one’s senses. The two are very different.
All that being said, the following paragraph has a great deal of merit:
“Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind. Your mind then became a fixed jury who takes orders from a secret underworld, whose verdict distorts the evidence to fit an absolute it dares not touch—and a censored reality is the result, a splintered reality where the bits you chose to see are floating among the chasms of those you didn’t, held together by that embalming fluid of the mind which is an emotion exempted from thought.”
Small concessions to unreason can have a devastating effect on the psyche; they leave one open to having the foundations of one’s mental world kicked away from beneath it. All the more reason, therefore, to not ignore really quite important philosophical ideas in your conviction that you’ve discovered the way in which reality works. Egotism and arrogance are not correlates of reason; you must be always willing to accept the possibility of error.
Rand goes on to detail Aristotle’s theory of causation and of science, ignoring the objections that’ve been lodged over the past few thousand years, not least that it rests upon you already knowing what causes what before you form a theory. This circularity flaw runs through Rand’s work.
The next bit is quite amusing:
“An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.”
Rand fails to recognise that she’s using a transcendental argument here; in essence, claiming that one thing cannot be identified without the presupposition of a given ‘axiom’ is the same (broadly) as saying that space and time are the conditions for the possibility of accessing the world. She’s using the same argument as her most hated philosopher without recognising that it leaves her open to accepting the consequences of his work, too.
She then claims that your senses cannot deceive you. Really. This is just stupid.
Part 27iii can be found here.
October 15, 2010
I like Tim Worstall’s blog; partly from a sense of lefty guilt at the dreadful business of taking money from people and calling it ‘taxation’, but mostly because it provides very snappy high-level analysis and is funny while doing it. A case in point is today’s post on the liberal-lefty reaction to people purposefully flouting a phosphate soap ban in Washington state; Tim points out that it had the unintended consequence of people smuggling in phosphate soaps from out of state, with all the environmental impacts inherent therein – more petrol used and so on. Cue lefty outrage at these dreadful people subverting a moral principle.
This makes a post by Charlotte Gore, also today, especially hilarious. She’s taking aim at the sense of entitlement displayed by many lefties and poor people with regard to public services, and arguing that it makes no sense to her that they would think it’s fine to just take other people’s money to service their own lives. But why would a libertarian find it surprising that if you promote selfishness, greed and individualism, people would become more selfish, greedy and individualistic, and care significantly less about the impact of their actions on other people? It’s almost as though moral principles about not harming other people aren’t separate from from moral principles about actively caring for other people, and if you get rid of one you lose the other too. Cue rightey outrage at these dreadful people subverting a moral principle.
October 12, 2010
Part 27i of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
Welcome, one and all, to the Big Philosophical Revelation Chapter, in which Rand spends sixty pages outlining her philosophy via her ideal male, John Galt. Some may consider this a little self-indulgent for a work of fiction, especially as much of the book has included demonstrations of many of the arguments given below. Let there be no mistake: this will be a long post, to the point where I’ll probably have to break it up into several posts to avoid causing your eyes to bleed. I originally considered simply quoting vast chunks of text to avoid misinterpretation, but it’s probably far better that I provide a synopsis of Rand’s arguments as the chapter goes on, and deal with them each in turn.
The Macguffin that allows Rand to have this lengthy monologue from Galt is a speech from the anonymous President of the USA at this point in Atlas Shrugged, the painfully ordinary Mr Thompson. His speech is intended to reassure the masses as social order breaks down in the absence of the titans of industry. Galt seizes control of the airways with a ‘new type of radio waves’ and delivers his speech instead:
“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the man who will now tell you.”
I’m sure everyone’s very grateful, Mr Galt.
Rand first discusses the morality that has led the world to this point, a morality of duty and selflessness which requires sacrifice with no thought of return. She dubs this unjust, as the only moral exchange is one of value for like value. The credo of business, in her sense, is therefore opposed to that morality; and so businessmen have withdrawn their labours in order that the world may enjoy the fruits of this morality.
She argues that this morality was either sourced from a notion of mysticism or society that demanded this sacrifice; that one’s life belongs not to yourself but to God or your brothers.
She claims that your mind is your basic tool of survival; inasmuch as it permits one to identify a course of action that will permit one to survive. You need knowledge of food and how to get it before you can eat it. Thinking, to Rand, is an act of choice; you are a being of ‘volitional consciousness’ in this sense. You can choose not to think – to ‘escape from your nature’. This is distinguished from plants and animals inasmuch as plants cannot make choices about how to acquire sustenance and animals have ‘automatic knowledge’ which necessitates course of action; if that automatic knowledge is inadequate the animal dies.
This is an extremely odd model of consciousness. It is immediately intuitively implausible; it requires that the knowledge we get from, say, smelling good food is derived entirely from our rational assessment of the situation and not ‘automatic knowledge’ to use Rand’s term. It requires that the human mind is wholly distinct from animal minds; not merely has some additional functionality, but that it is different class of entities. It precludes the possibility of similar reasoning features to that of man being present in animals like chimps or dolphins. It also implies a very strong dualism: we know that parts of our brains are similar to those of animals, and have similar functions – but Rand seems to be arguing for a strong separation of the mind from the body in this sense, as they cannot be functionally identical. This is simply wrong. It will be interesting to see what aspects of Rand’s philosophy this informs.
Rand goes on to argue that nature does not force man to think to ensure his own survival, so man has the power to act as ‘his own destroyer’. She claims that the history of the world is the history of our flight from our own mind, as we flee the means of our survival, unlike every other form of life. We have rejected the true standard of our morality as required by our nature, and embraced a standard that calls for our destruction. This is our choice, as rational beings. If we do not hold our own life as the ‘motive and goal’ of our actions, we are acting on the motive and standard of death.
This rather ignores the entirety of evolutionary psychology, which claims that man’s nature directs itself towards the propagation of its genes, rather than his own life.
Rand then sets out an extremely constrained definition of happiness as something that can only proceed from a life lived ‘rationally’; in Rand’s philosophy this is something that only obtain if and when a man lives as if his life is his own end, and achievement of happiness his highest moral purpose. In other words, only a life lived according to Rand’s philosophy can be happy.
This is so trivally untrue it’s barely worth engaging with. It’s a perversion of Aristotle; the happiness he argued was the end of human life was not happiness in the contemporary understanding of the term, but rather eudemonia, the flourishing life. It’s worth pointing out that almost everything discussed so far comes directly from Aristotle; his division of the soul into the nutritive, the perceptive and the rational corresponds to Rand’s division of plants, animals and humans given above. Yes, Rand’s Objectivism rests upon Aristotle’s tripartite division of the soul. It’s not surprising that Rand’s libertarianism appeals to rich kids; Aristotle’s theory of distribution rewards aristocrats for being aristocrats too.
If you fail to choose Rand’s way of living, you are guilty of defaulting on existence and passing the deficit to another, who must sacrifice their good for your survival. Or, if you don’t work for yourself, you must find a way of compelling someone else to work for you.
Mind you, if you can’t work for yourself, you’re a bit screwed.
Rand goes on to detail three axioms which she claims lie at the root of her moral code: that existence exists, something exists that one perceives, and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty that perceives existents.
At this point it becomes clear that Rand’s philosophical education begins and ends with Aristotle. Even a cursory glance at Descartes would give her a clearer formulation of what she’s driving at that than this clumsy expression.
She then directly references Aristotle by saying that the definition of existence is to be derived from the tautology A is A, that existence is identity and consciousness is identification. You are only conscious inasmuch as you are aware of something else, but more strongly than that, you are only conscious inasmuch as you can identify something in and of itself without the potential for contradiction as to its identity – in other words, you are only conscious if it is possible for you to be aware of something without being mistaken as to its identity. The corollary of this is that one cannot identify something without it fitting wholly within one’s sum of knowledge without contradiction; sense inferences are therefore a matter of deduction rather than induction.
While this is a fair summary of Aristotle’s theory of science, which is broadly about deducing from particular causes to give us knowledge of the world, it’s immediately obvious that it is far too strong a test for a non-omniscient consciousness. If you cannot identify something without the possibility of mistakes, according to Rand you’re not conscious. Since you can never hope to encounter every single iteration of a given object in the world, no-one is conscious, according to Rand. In addition, this definition stands against the scientific method, which uses induction to identify the falsity of hypotheses – not deduction.
Rand moves to shore up this model of consciousness by bringing in a moral element, one of reliance upon one’s own reason. Reason is the tool which allows us to identify objects in the world, and so one is required to rely on it in order to live, which is the goal of Rand’s philosophy.
This is just mad. ‘Have faith in the ability of your own mind to identify objects in the world, as if there’s dispute you can check it against the world’ clearly sounded worthy to Rand, but basing an epistemology on faith will screw you over time and again. By this principle, you should test your own judgement against the world without checking to see if anyone else had tried the same thing before. This explains why many libertarians are so anti-science; reliance on the work of others to generate knowledge is clearly anathema.
Rand clearly believed her own principle, as given immediately above: she never thought to check why everyone in the world wasn’t an Aristotelian, as though 2,500 years wasn’t enough to pick a few holes in his philosophy. It’s worth pointing out – just as minimum – that if the world had used the philosophy given above since ancient Greek times we’d still be in ancient Greek times, as modern science doesn’t use anything even remotely like that in its reasoning.
Part 27ii is here.
October 8, 2010
I’ve been doing my best to give myself an education in economics recently by reading anything I can on the subject, and am currently ploughing my way through Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, although ‘ploughing’ implies faster progress than has actually been the case. One of Schumpeter’s arguments – or, perhaps, talking points – about democracy focuses around the relative mental effort expended by the demos on those things over which they have little influence, and hence little responsibility.
This is broadly accurate, as anyone who’s ever tried organising anything by committee can tell you. People expend far less effort on anything for which responsibility is shared. The best way of making sure that something is done is by making it someone’s responsibility; depending on the reliability of that person, of course. Schumpeter seems to claim that something similar applies to democracy: because the relative responsibility of the individual with regard to society is very low, the individual spends relatively little of their mental energies on learning about politics and politicians, allowing themselves to be guided far more by emotion and intuition than in other areas of life. This is an astonishing insight, given that the psychological research that actually proved this point didn’t happen for another 60 years.
Schumpeter provides an explanatory framework for those results – one which is intuitively plausible. We can cash this out as the proposition that the greater the responsibility one has for a given outcome, the greater the level of mental effort one is likely to expend on affecting it.
It should be relatively obvious as to how this relates to electoral reform, but I’ll map it out with an example just in case. I’ll use the 2010 result from Islington South & Finsbury:
|Liberal Democrat||Bridget Fox||14,838|
|English Democrats||John Dodds||301|
|Animals Count||Richard Deboo||149|
It’s clear that there were only two parties whose results are relevant; other votes had no chance to affect the outcome. The total votes cast were 43,555. Of these, 33,245 were ‘relevant’ in this sense. If someone had voted at random in this election, it would’ve had a 0.763 chance of affecting the outcome. Or, a 0.237 chance of being irrelevant.
It’s a bit presumptuous to assume that everyone voting under AV will use all their preferences when they vote. To be conservative about this, let’s assume that only half the voters for each eliminated candidate did so, and distribute them evenly between the two candidates.
Animals Count (149) eliminated. Lab 18444, LD 14875.
English Democrats (301) eliminated. Lab 18519, LD 14950.
UKIP eliminated (701). Lab 18694, LD 15125.
Greens eliminated (710). Lab 18871, LD 15302.
Conservatives eliminated (8449). Lab 20893, LD 17414. Lab wins.
In this version of the contest, 38307 votes were ‘relevant’, meaning that a person voting randomly would’ve had a 0.88 chance of affecting the outcome – an increase of 0.117. Even under very conservative assumptions, AV produced an increase in the probability of any given individual voter affecting the outcome of 12%. This is a direct increase of the influence of an individual over the outcome of the election; in essence, increasing their power over the process of electing a representative.
And, as Peter Parker nearly knows, with greater power comes greater responsibility. AV will produce an increase in political engagement across the population, because it will give everyone greater responsibility for the outcome. This increase will be probabilistic in nature and is based on the assumptions given above, but nonetheless is intuitively plausible. It takes a (slightly) greater mental effort to rank candidates in order than it does to put a cross in a box.
October 6, 2010
Part 26 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 26: The Concerto of Deliverance
Hank Rearden has no problems, even though his workers are demanding a pay rise, his family are screaming at him to help them, and the Government wants his support for a policy that will demolish the remaining steel industry. He’s got no problems because he’s finally entirely ‘moral’ in the Randian sense; he merely has to work and be content, because no man has a claim on him.
Unfortunately his striking workers turn out to be Government stooges who launch an assault upon his steel plant with the intention of wresting its ownership away from him by force. His loyal workers are welded into an awesome fighting force by a man who turns out to be Francis D’Anconia, and the attack is beaten off. This finally convinces Rearden to abandon the world to the moochers and looters, and retreat to Galt’s Gulch.
Rearden stands up to everyone who wants to take something away from him seemingly by dint of being ‘moral’. Despite this daftness, Rand’s action sequences actually aren’t bad.
Tune in next time for the longest monologue in ‘fiction’, John Galt’s speech to America, in which Rand sets out her philosophy. Why isn’t clear; why should Galt make an effort to be popular? Why should he show compassion to the outside world? Couldn’t have anything to do with Rand wanting to pull all the threads together, of course.
Part 27i is here.
October 5, 2010
I honestly don’t understand the argument being put forward in Labour circles that the curtailment of child benefit at the upper tax band will cause the welfare state itself to fall into disregard amongst the middle classes. It’s not a universal benefit. You only get it if you have kids. In the same way, you only get Jobseekers’ Allowance if you’re out of work. The distinction is between universal (everyone gets it regardless of circumstance) and conditional (you only get a benefit if you meet certain conditions).
What’s important is the principle that the welfare state is always there to provide a safety net if things go wrong. Child benefit will continue to be paid if you earn below a certain amount, in recognition of the fact that children are costly*. The state should be able to make that economic judgement. What it shouldn’t do – as Polly Toynbee claimed it should do on Newsnight last night – is say that having children is something that is valued. That’s up to the individual, not the state or society.
In general, for those benefits like income support and NHS prescriptions which do have an income-based element public support remains strong. No-one in contemporary British politics wants to scrap the welfare state entirely. What they do want to do – and which I would applaud – is to make sure we can afford it not just for the present generation, but forever.
*The way in which this has been implemented – which uses individual rather than household incomes – is stupid, I agree.