Atlas Blogged #32: The State Transcendent
December 31, 2010
Part 32 in a series of posts blogging the experience of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I’ve now finished the book, and this final post and the one preceding summarise my thoughts on the work. You can find the first post in the series here.
In the preceding post I discussed the possibility of Rand intending to subvert the judgement of the individual with regard to morality; to shackle the unskilled to altar of the rich by means of an internalised ethical system. It seems clear to me that regardless of what one believes Rand’s intent to have been, this is a necessary outcome of the non-aggression principle inherent in libertarianism: the shutting down of the one mode of competition available to the unskilled and condemning them to lose for reasons beyond their control. This is the direct counterpart of the shutting down of capitalism advocated by socialism; competition by means of the mind is forbidden in favour of competition for power, through means of political skill, charisma and force.
I reject both; all forms of competition – all freedoms to demonstrate one’s excellence in judgement – must be available to all within a truly free society. The obvious response is that not all freedoms can coexist; the freedom to use force is not consistent with the freedom to utilise one’s property. However, it’s not clear that the use of force in itself is a freedom of judgement; rather, the practical implications of judgements that involve force can be cashed out in ways that do not involve violence. I will explain this later in this post, but first I would like to bring to the fore a notion of judgement very similar to the one that Rand prizes, because her understanding of phronesis, or practical wisdom, is one of the most attractive parts of her philosophy. Needless to say, it’s one of the parts she ripped wholesale from Aristotle.
In order to do so I will draw on the work of Fleischacker, who has advanced a ‘Third Concept of Liberty’ which I have previously discussed. I will be repeating significant chunks of that discussion here, so previous readers can skip ahead to the section ‘A Transcendental Society’.
Fleischacker aims to demonstrate that there is an understanding of liberty, based on the works of Kant and Adam Smith, which falls between Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between the negative liberty of freedom from interference and the positive liberty of freedom to achieve goals. The former is the type of liberty espoused by right-wing libertarians like Rand and relies upon the simplistic notion of ‘revealed preferences’ as a guide to the choices of individuals. The latter can be understood as the capability of an individual to achieve particular outcomes being the crucial consideration when determining the extent of that individual’s liberty.
Fleischacker argues that the two concepts given above are insufficient to cover the most crucial form of liberty, which constitutes one’s freedom to determine the principles by which one makes judgements. To unpack this notion, allow me to introduce you to a crucial part of Kant’s philosophy.
Kant, unlike his Germanic descendants Hegel and Heidegger, was very much a liberal. His essay ‘What is Enlightenment?‘ remains a classic of liberal thought. The key to understanding his work (and the concept of liberty that flows from it) is to understand the notion of a transcendental argument. An argument is transcendental if it concerns itself with the conditions for the possibility of that which is under discussion. To give an example, the conditions for the possibility of the nice cup of tea sitting on my desk are various and many, including the domestication of cattle, the cultivation of the tea plant and discovery of pottery. The beauty of a transcendental argument is that understanding the conditions for the possibility of thing gives us a deep understanding of its nature. It is the conditions for the possibility of choice, of judgement, with which Fleischacker is concerned, and hence the nature of liberty itself.
What do we do when we make a judgement? What do we do when we decide whether to go to the shops, pursue a burglar or decide who to vote for? The answer is that we particularise a principle or principles; we bring the situation in which we find ourselves under one or more concepts and act accordingly. Our choice of action is determined by the principles we select as appropriate to a situation. It may sound odd to hear that we consult our principles on whether we should go to the shops or not, but here ‘principle’ is used in the broader sense of ‘concept’; the formalisation – the rule-making – of our experiences. When deciding to go to the shops, you select appropriate concepts relevant to the situation that ‘I am hungry’. These concepts will include ‘Food is available at the shops’ and ‘Money is used to purchase goods at shops’ but will not include ‘Elephants are grey’. It is with the proper selection of concepts that judgement is concerned.
How does this proper selection come about? It comes about by the individual’s assessment of those concepts against experience and against their desires, ‘desires’ here to be understood as incorporating what some would call rational desires to e.g. be moral. It is this assessment, this ordering of concepts and principles, which is a condition for the possibility of judgement, and as a consequence it is the free engagement in this exercise that is a condition for the possibility of liberty. You cannot say that you’re free unless you’re free to determine the principles by which you make your decisions for yourself.
This immediately excludes the narrow concept of freedom promulgated by right-wing libertarians; their emphasis on the sanctity of property rights excludes concepts which do not incorporate it. Expressed preferences in themselves do not demonstrate that an individual is free to determine their own principles. It also excludes the ‘positive’ concept of freedom but in a far more subtle fashion.
The development of one’s own set of principles as a guide to action is dependent on testing those principles against the world. If you prevent someone from learning the consequences of the concepts under which they make their judgements, you’re actively preventing them from deciding how they’re going to live their life. A focus on outcomes for individuals seeks to shield individuals from the consequences of their choices, and so removes their freedom to determine their own principles.
Insulation from consequences insulates you from both success and failure. Without these cues, it is impossible to assess whether your concepts are accurate, whether your approach to conversation or to work produces the results you would want. Therefore, this concept of liberty requires us to do something which is currently so far from the political vogue that even raising it may appear scandalous: we need to rehabilitate failure. Failure is currently understood as something that we seemingly can’t allow anyone to suffer, and something that you should feel deeply ashamed to experience. This is wrong. Failure is glorious. Failure is how we determine which principles we should continue to apply and which we should discard. I have failed repeatedly in my life, and I expect to fail many more times in the future. Failure is the key to learning, and the bizarre arguments put forward by the left against, for instance, grammar schools – “We can’t allow children to think of themselves as failures at 11″ – confuse the system with the individual. You don’t fail as a person when you don’t pass an exam, you only fail when you don’t apply that result to your principles.
However, it’s clear that not all failure is the result of bad judgement, and some will be the result of bad luck – which in itself is not useful. Breaking your leg accidentally, or developing a serious illness, are not learning experiences. The US healthcare system, which allows people to go bankrupt through healthcare costs, is clearly inimical to this concept of freedom. Similarly, poverty so extreme that you’re incapable of feeding yourself or affording shelter prevents you from developing judgement; the same applies to mental illness and physical disabilities. It’s also clear that avoiding the possibility of failure by virtue of the good fortune of having rich parents is in itself an impediment to the development of judgement.
We therefore have the outlines of what a state set up under this transcendental notion of liberalism would involve: the conditions for the possibility of the development of good judgement.
A Transcendental Society
Let’s begin with an exploration of how judgement itself is already a powerful force within our society – albeit a force that has strong obstacles in its path. Judgement, in the sense given above, covers nearly every endeavour within our society. A mechanic determining how to fix a car exercises judgement; a footballer exercises judgement when kicking a ball, a scientist uses their judgement when identifying whether experimental evidence satisfies a given hypothesis or not. It can been seen that judgement is both cognitive and non-cognitive, at least in the instance of its application – whether a footballer scores a goal or not is dependent on their understanding of the reaction of the ball to their foot or head, which will have developed over much practice. The concepts that they have which are utilised in the moment of judgement are not the product of chance, but rather of willed development. And there is much pleasure to be had in the successful application of concepts; our language is stuffed to the adverbs with words for it, be it achievement, success, victory, winning, completion, fixing, beating, accomplishment, building, mending, scoring, understanding, and many, many others. We know what successful judgement entails; the satisfaction of our wants and needs by means of the accuracy of our judgements against the world and in the context of social relationships.
It is the latter which helps us illuminate a key difference between a transcendental society and the sort of society advocated by Rand: Rand only applies excellence in judgement to areas of endeavour that can be used to make money, while the transcendental society sees excellence as a goal in any possible field of human endeavour. Excellent friendships, cultivated over many years, are understood as a good thing within a transcendental society inasmuch as they are the result of an individual’s judgement. To develop friendships you must develop an understanding of appropriate actions to be taken in conversation and with regard to your friend, and the concepts which generate those. Not in the least, you must understand the application of which concepts are likely to make them want to punch you.
This reference to violence presents an important point: destruction, in the sense of impeding someone’s ability to make judgements (by, say, rendering them unconscious or crippled) is not necessarily a useful thing in the context of a transcendental society. Nevertheless, as discussed above we need to be able to capture the failure implied by others wanting to commit violence on your person. This, then, can be the role of the justice system: to provide a non-destructive means of indicating the types of failure of judgement on the part of the individual within a given society that may otherwise lead to violent redress. It is clear that this must involve both adequate indication of failure and scope for that individual to develop their concepts based on that failure. One could call that punishment and rehabilitation, if one wished.
Of course, one could argue that this merely leaves the individual to the whim of society; if the rest of society is willing to commit violence against your person for a judgement you have made, then regardless of the excellence of that judgement you will suffer. This is clear; one can be an excellent burglar. But this, again, is to interpret freedom of judgement within the narrow Randian sense: your social judgements are as critical as your economic ones. If you are unable to persuade through the use of good judgement in the social sphere, then you should not be too surprised that your only avenue to pursue freedom of judgement is to make war on the rest of society. This is why Rand’s moral disempowerment of the economically incompetent is important: it prevents them from using their capability of force on the rest of society – in a democracy, this force is implied at the ballot box. Inasmuch as Rand’s non-aggression principle does this, it restricts their freedom to make judgements. If a society, which based on what we have discussed so far we can define as a loose set of agreed principles, attempts to determine an individual’s freedom to agree to those principles themselves, then it likewise attempts to restrict their freedom to make judgements.
This seems like an appropriate point to move onto education. Education is often seen as a great liberal dilemma, inasmuch as public education will necessarily involve the promulgation of a particular viewpoint. However, in a transcendental society this is less of an issue. Public education is still a clear necessity – the loose set of principles that comprise a society have to be understood by those born into it, to give them the scope to decide whether they wish to leave or to seek changes to those principles within the framework of that society. For example, Britain as a society is comprised of an extremely loose set of principles which govern areas as disparate as investigations of the natural world, the election of governments, modes of developing friendships, different types of sexual relationship, and the culinary arts. It’s perhaps best if one thinks of these sets as a Venn diagram; circles within circles, some which interlock, some which do not, some which have multiple instances of rules for a given occasion, and many more besides. The negotiation of this conceptual landscape is the task of an individual’s social and economic judgements; and that individual’s reflection upon which concepts he or she wishes to use is the freedom under discussion.
It is therefore clear that public education should be aimed at giving an individual the tools they require to navigate this landscape and reflect upon the conjunction of it and their own desires. Public education would be unnecessary if society did not already exist when that individual was born, but given that it does in order to engender the possibility of reflective judgement within it education is necessary. Therefore, in our transcendental state, an individual should be given the opportunity to learn as a minimum the aggregation of judgements that led to the present society (i.e. history & literature), the forms of acquisition of knowledge present within that society (i.e science and the humanities), and the conceptual tools necessary to unpack and reject it all if appropriate (i.e. philosophy).
This must be given to all, as it constitutes the conditions for the possibility of an individual developing their own judgement. However, the choice as to whether to accept this education as useful knowledge remains that of the individual; the first lesson to be taught is to not blindly accept anything taught unless one judges that source of knowledge to be effective. It is this criteria which places the power of judgement with the individual, and overcomes the liberal worry of the State imposing a particular viewpoint on its citizens. The State gives the individual the tools that enable him or her to reject it if they judge appropriately.
I have just outlined two requirements for the transcendental state, both of which involve public expenditure. There are others, including of course defence and health. Who funds this expenditure? It will, of course, be the members of that society. At this point, I’m sure, Randroids will be up in arms complaining about the removal of property rights being antithetical to freedom. However, this again reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of judgement by right-wing libertarians: property rights are the product of force, not of judgement.
If you decree that you have a right to your property, then unless others agree with your decree your right only extends to your ability to prevent other people from taking your property away from you. Certainly, you can hire protection for your property, but that means that property rights are conditional on being able to afford them in the first instance: you require property in order to secure property. Rand – and other right-wing libertarians – attempt to get around this by purporting a kind of naturalistic property right, based on adding value to a given piece of land or other type of property. However, in order for this to work, you need access to property to add value to. Again, we come to the circularity problem: you can only acquire property if you have property already. Rand attempts to avoid this by decreeing that your body is your property, but the existence of slavery (and multiple philosophical thought experiments around personal identity) demonstrates that you do not necessarily control your body if you are in possession of insufficient force. As such, it’s not something you can base an absolute on. Property rights are the accrued judgements of individuals, both living and dead, within your society. In this sense, your ability to convince other people to leave your property alone determines the extent of your property rights in the modern age. It is the rejection of this form of competition that, in my view, is Rand’s crucial attack on freedom of judgement.
It is therefore up to the individuals within that society to compete over different principles of payment for public services. I would argue that taxes on wealth and externalities are far preferable to taxes on consumption and income; the former penalise inactive possession and unpaid-for consequence, the latter penalise employing judgement. In this sense, the television licence is an almost perfect tax: a tax on possession of an object for which the proceeds go towards useful educational material. This has somewhat been subverted by the BBC’s expansion into other areas, but that is a matter for another day.
A constant complaint of the left is that today’s society is too materially-focused; concentrating on acquiring property rather than any real good. What they have failed to recognise is that the only way of shifting society’s focus from property is to shift the goal of judgements away from property alone and towards excellence itself. Judgement, as mentioned above, is a prime driver of society, and its goal defines that society’s shape. The abrogation of one’s judgement to the State will not make you happy; surrendering your most fundamental freedom will inevitably lead to a stultified society. However, aiming one’s judgement purely at material goods removes so much scope for employing it that it will necessarily do the same in time. Expanding the scope of judgement to every imaginable type of excellence, by freeing individuals to do so, will produce a society in which everyone, regardless of income, has the opportunity to achieve what Aristotle called Eudaimonia purely by the development of excellence in their own lives – in their friendships, in their hobbies, and in their families. I have only given a brief sketch as to how this can be achieved, but the key is to reject both materialism as the single goal of judgement, while simultaneously rejecting the decisions of any authority as a guide to one’s own life. The transcendental society is one in which excellence is open to everyone in all forms – commerce, society and the arts, for example – but in which none of those excellences are prescribed.
Nevertheless, one must pay for oneself – and in contemporary society the scope of judgement can be limited by the sheer size of one’s employer, wherein many decisions are made at a level above the employee, reducing their scope for judgement. It is therefore clear that to leave open the possibility of advancing in commerce, our State must provide the possibility of excellence in other areas of endeavour. With this in mind, I leave you with one clear policy recommendation: FE colleges, sources as they are of courses in areas as disparate as languages, plumbing and artistry, must be expanded and free passes given to not just the least well-off, but those on middling incomes too. Access to the possibility of excellence should be how we judge our society, because everything else flows from it.