Planet Littlewood

June 24, 2013

Mark Littlewood recently called for the names of benefit recipients to be made publicly available. Let’s imagine what that kind of world would be like.

There was a sign on his window again. Every morning when he opened his curtains, it would always be there, blocking out the light. He ripped it down every night, but it was always put back up. Even worse, it’d started changing every day. Originally the sign was just £2,953.60, but now it’d started rising by £8.11, every day. He considered just leaving it up this time, but Kev felt very strongly that this would be letting the bastards win.

It was his neighbor. He’d caught him at it a few times, coming back in from another fruitless job hunt, finding John slapping paste onto the glass and placing the various sheets of paper along a carefully measured line. His balding head bent over in intense concentration, John actually brought a level along with him to ensure that the sign was perfectly aligned. Such fastidious attention to detail doubtless explained why John had been able to keep his database job when the call centre downsized.

Every confrontation went the same way. Kev would yell out, and John would turn around with a vicious grin on his face. He’d then turn back to his task, aware than Kev could do nothing at all. Kev didn’t own his house, and his landlord was perfectly happy for scroungers like Kev to have their shame displayed on his property, even though he’d made his fortune on the back of the diminishing pool of Government housing benefit. When Kev had first complained, the landlord had laughed him out of his office and added John as a Facebook friend.

It had been so different, only two years ago. John and Kev had been colleagues, although never friends. Then the banks had gone down again. Prime Minister Littlewood, as he now was, had told the public that the problem wasn’t the banks, it was the Bank, and had come to power on the back of a promise to scrap the Bank of England and prevent credit bubbles ever happening again. Now there was no interest rate, only multiple competing interest rates, but somehow things hadn’t picked up. The papers were saying that this was all a necessary market correction and there was nothing the Government could or indeed should do.

But this correction seemed to be taking a very long time. People were getting angry, and so the Government had created The Register. It was a big online database containing the name and address of every benefit claimant in the UK, along with the amount they were claiming. Initially it had been an identity fraudsters’ paradise, with hundreds of thousands of people finding they’d lost their benefits to a range of criminal gangs. The Government claimed they’d sorted all this out, but Kev kept hearing stories about old ladies found dead in their flats because their pensions had stopped and they didn’t know how to look for help.

The call centre Kev and John worked in had let hundreds of its staff go. Lots of new centres were opening in Uganda, apparently, as part of this African Boom. Kev was happy for them, but there seemed to be a great deal less work around here, and every job he went for he seemed to be competing against people with far higher qualifications than him. Shortly after he left, John had started pasting signs on his window.

He should leave, he supposed, and look for work elsewhere. He really wanted to – the day after The Register was extended to people who used the NHS John had put a sign on his window saying ‘Treatment for herpes – £30′ because Kev had gone to the doctor to get cream for a coldsore. But if he left he’d count as Voluntarily Homeless and under the very strict new restrictions on benefits he wouldn’t be able to get a place to live anywhere else without already having a job. His benefits just covered the cost of living, and certainly didn’t extend to the train or bus ticket he’d need to attend interviews. He felt trapped.

Turning away from the window, he switched on the radio and started to make breakfast. The Today programme was playing, and the Prime Minister was on.

“…The Register has been a fantastic success in incentivising people to get into work and letting the public know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. That’s why today I’m pleased to announce the logical extension of this programme.

“From today, all benefit claimants, young and old, will be required to wear a yellow armband on which will be written the precise amount they claim from the State every year. When you meet a benefit claimant on the street, you should know exactly who they are so you can tell them what you think. Only through transparency and public information campaigns like this one will everyone be able to take part in monitoring how taxpayers’ money is spent. Remember, cutting spending helps the economy – and that’s what this initiative would help to do.”

Kev swore. Things were about to get a lot worse.


The Virtuous Citizen

August 1, 2012

Today, returning to blogging after a brief interval while I settle into my new job, I’d like to be a bit naughty and compare Chris’s two most recent posts, on Corporate Crime and the Rightness of Romney. The first concerns the role of incentives in law-breaking amongst our corporate friends, making the clear point that for any given legal enforcement framework there is a level of law-breaking for which the returns are greater than the costs (i.e. fines/imprisonment). We should therefore expect that level of law-breaking to obtain. Furthermore, this lesson applies to the whole of society too: criminals, like everyone else, take a rational approach to their law-breaking based on the costs and benefits of doing so. The Daily Mail assumption that criminals are simply evil is not particularly useful in understanding actual criminal behaviour.

The second covers the relationship between culture and economics, and briefly reviews a number of studies and arguments which link social virtues and cultural differences to economic growth. Certain norms, such as trust, individualism and wealth being seen as a good in itself appear to have a positive effect on long-term economic development. Culture is not simply the domain of politics, but flows from a variety of sources, including religion. This presents an interesting challenge to policy-makers, because as Chris says:

“On the one hand there are the (dwindling) number of economists who think that long-run growth is a matter of technocratic fixes, of establishing the right policies and institutions. On the other hand, there are politicians who think that culture can be changed by talk and wishful thinking. The truth is more interesting than either group realizes.”

Policy by itself has only limited impacts on culture, with other actors – and history itself – having a much stronger influence. This is interesting, because the implications of the findings mentioned above is that there is likely an ideal set or family of virtues that are conducive to economic growth if they are held as social norms; certainly, Chris refers to the claim that bourgeois values are conducive to growth.

For policy-makers or other actors looking to magnify growth, therefore, the promotion of this set of virtues would be helpful. Now, the constant advocacy of supply-side solutions to our current economic difficulties by a certain section of the debate – including those currently giving succour to Naomi Klein-esque conspiracy theories – would point to the peculiar bundle of virtues bound up with Ayn Rand-style libertarianism as being conducive to growth. In a world with little regulation beyond contracts between individuals, virtues which demand that one be proud of one’s own efforts and not engage in force or fraud to secure those of anyone else are most useful under such an understanding of economics; if markets are always the best way of delivering growth* then virtues most likely to lead to totally unfettered markets will help.

In contrast, virtues that include caring for others when one judges them to be incapable for caring for themselves will encourage the public advocacy of regulation on certain economic matters, as well as the setting aside of a portion of the wealth of individuals to non-productive uses, including, say, looking after the elderly. This will be less conducive to growth on this economic model.

However, what’s left out of this picture – and the reason I draw the contrast between Chris’s two posts – is that economic circumstances influence culture in turn. For example, for certain demographics file-sharing and piracy could be considered to be a norm. This is, effectively, the incorporation of crime into cultural mores because the benefits (free consumer goods) are much less than the cost (risk of being caught stealing). And so, you have a section of society actively agitating for their cultural norm to become legally recognised too.

Under Rand-style libertarianism, the ordinary worker is supposed to be content to be allowed to purchase goods and services from those with a greater capacity for production, to be content with a lowly lot in life and to be entirely dependent on their capacity to produce. In a hypothetical society in which everyone signed up to those norms, it is difficult to see how long those norms would last in the face of the overwhelmingly disadvantaged in that society agitating for a greater share of the wealth. Such agitation, even if illegal, would be rational: the benefits that may accrue would be far higher than the cost. Any libertarian society – or libertarian culture – would be fundamentally unstable as a result. Given the shift in attitudes towards the rich over the relatively small economic differences caused by the recession, it is difficult to see how anyone could claim otherwise.

Cultural norms both influence and are influenced by economic circumstances, and politics is influenced by and influences both. All three are deeply intertwined, and any useful understanding of society must consider them all.

*Tim does not claim this, but some of his fellow travellers certainly do.

Over on Crooked Timber, Bertram, Robin and Gourevitch (BRG) have put up an interesting argument claiming that the commonly understood objective of libertarian ideology, freedom (defined as the absence of coercion) does not necessarily imply that a market economy is the best way of organising society. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, the cornerstone of a market economy, the freedom to enter into contracts of your choosing, is not necessarily freedom-maximising as it is entirely possible to sign away your freedoms when signing a contract. Whether contracts are freedom-maximising is therefore an empirical question not amenable to philosophical analysis, and cannot be used as an ideological plank.

Secondly, an economy in which the price of labour is its value in the marketplace permits coercion within the workplace; changing jobs is not a frictionless process and the cost of changing jobs can be sufficient in particular contexts (e.g. debt, supporting a family) to prevent a worker from selling their labour elsewhere. This permits out-contract coercion on the part of the employer; the example used by BRG is an employer demanding a female worker sleep with him or lose her job.

The above are sufficient to demonstrate that libertarian principles are not necessarily freedom-maximising, which would appear to defeat what is commonly held to be the point of the ideology. However, over on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski thinks differently:

“I think the idea that libertarianism can be understood as fundamentally about freedom, simpliciter, is a mistake. It is an even graver mistake to suppose that libertarianism is committed to the maximization of freedom. […] What makes restrictions of freedom acceptable, and what differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable infringements of freedom, is a matter of some dispute among libertarians themselves. For neo-Lockean libertarians like Robert Nozick, freedom as a moral category is strictly subordinate to a prior theory of rights – my freedom to sell my kidney is worthy of political protection because it is compatible with my right of self-ownership and violates no one else’s rights; my freedom to swing my fist at your face is not. For consequentialist libertarians, freedom will only be worthy of political protection to the extent that this is compatible with the underlying teleological theory. But no libertarian, as far as I am aware, holds that mere freedom as such is the core value.

If you asked the philosopher in the street what the core value of libertarianism was, I’d be amazed if ‘freedom’ didn’t make up a majority of the responses. However, the above represents a wholesale retreat from the value, into the domains of rights and consequences. In order to spell out what this means, let’s consider the three questions that would be asked by three groups of people when considering how to organise society, the Neo-Lockean Libetarians, the Consequentialist Libertarians, and the liberals (small ‘l’, most definitely):

1) How do we organise society to best protect a given set of rights?

2) How do we organise society to best achieve a given set of goals?

3) How do we organise society to maximise freedom?

Now, the position being advanced by Zwolinksi is that libertarians are asking the first two questions, rather than the third, and that freedom (of various sorts) is frequently found to be the answer to them both. The problem is that in both cases freedom as a value is secondary – if there is a better way of organising society identified in response to those questions, then freedom will be eschewed.

As a result, the root of libertarianism is applied incorrectly: the philosophy is only incidentally related to liberty, and even then only on a empirical basis. If a way is found of protecting property rights that involves surrendering some civil liberties, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. If a way is found of maximising prosperity that involves shackling people unable to pay their debts to some kind of work engine, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. By allowing the name ‘libertarianism’ to be associated with a creed that supports liberty only as a matter of likelihood, our political discourse is tarnished. I would therefore call on anyone discussing the subject to eschew the term in favour of something more suited. I would opt for Possessionism.

Those of you who, like me, find the Marxism*-style cult of libertarianism fascinating will doubtless be aware of the escalating conflict between the Cato Institute and those renowned champions of planet-raping, the Koch empire.The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, is attempting to resist its wholesale takeover by the Kochs, who own the majority of the shares of the Institute, and are seeking to turn it into a Republican meme factory. Which of course they’re entitled to do, because it’s their property.

Everyone who’s ever pointed out that libertarianism doesn’t work in the real world is now pointing and laughing. Much as I’d like to devote several hundred words to how hilarious this is, I direct you towards Noahpinion‘s piece, which does much the same thing.

*It would work in real life if only people were how we think they should be!

Localism was one of the reasons I got into politics; the obsession that the Labour Government (and before that, the Thatcher Government) had with emasculating local decision-making bodies was deeply opposed to some of my core beliefs. It was one of the reasons I joined the Liberal Democrats, and one of the reasons I wasn’t too upset about the Coalition, despite despising Tories. The Coalition Agreement contained a strong commitment to a Localism Bill, early details of which have been released today.

For me, localism is about human-sized decision-making; choices made a level where the individual can have most influence. There is therefore much to welcome about the Localism Bill, including the general power of competence, the Community Right to Challenge and additional pay transparency. However, the more interesting features of it are the reforms to planning and local referenda, which in themselves represent an interesting move away from the sort of strong libertarianism espoused by the Hannans of this world.

Put simply, the new Neighbourhood Plans mean that your neighbours will now have a strong say over how you dispose of your property. You will find it difficult to do many things to your house or your land unless you can win the approval of your neighbours. Businesses, in particular development businesses such as those who constitute the membership of my workplace, will have to spend vast sums campaigning to convince people that they should be allowed to build in their local area. It’s a wholesale push of the responsibility to secure public support for development onto business and away from the Government.

Giving other people such a hold over your property is anathema to libertarians, and it’ll be interesting to see what Conservative examples of the type make of it. Hannan appears to be in favour, his libertarianism seemingly in favour of state intervention as long as it’s at the local level. It’s difficult to see how you can make a principled case out of that.

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.

…for property, that is, and it’s one that’s illustrated by his 10-minute rule bill that’s he’s speaking to as I write this. The idea is that the law should be changed to prevent banks from lending out any money you deposit with them without your consent, as legally when you deposit any funds they become the bank’s money. This means that banks can lend out your money even if they don’t have enough money to pay you back. Under Carswell’s scheme, this would be changed to banks being required to ask you if they could lend out your money, and otherwise merely holding on deposit until you collect it.

This notion is called ‘honest money’ and is derived from the work of the Cobden Centre, a libertarian think-tank. And it stands in astonishing contradiction to the rest of libertarian thought; which revolves around the idea that the private sector always knows best and that Government should stay out the interests of private concerns as much as possible. This is a clear state intervention in the banking market, ostensibly on the side of the little guy who’s being taken advantage of by these terrible, terrible banks.

The problem is that banks are a business. They do what they do for profit. Under Carswell’s scheme, say you’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance and are receiving £60 per week. Thanks to the largely free banking system we have in this country, you could immediately deposit that in a bank without incurring any cost. However, under Carswell’s scheme, the bank would incur a cost for taking your money (staff time, processing etc.) but be unable to make a profit on it unless you consented to allow them to lend it out. Why on earth, in that case, would the bank want to handle your money? They’d either charge you a handling fee or simply refuse to take deposits from those who want to retain full rights over their money. In practice, therefore, the £60 would become perhaps £58 per week, unless you gave up your property rights in a way which seems anathema to Carswell.

The upshot is that the little guy would be in the same situation as he is now, as the least well-off can’t afford a handling fee for the use of banks. They’d either be excluded from the financial system altogether or give up their rights. This is a logical consequence of banks being profit-making entities.

This bill seems to be the result of the fetishisation of property rights – the near-worship of property itself – to the point where they overwhelm the interests of the least well-off. But as I’ve said before, that’s what libertarianism is all about.

Part 19 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 19: The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt

Another filler chapter, the main point of which appears to be that Rearden discovers that d’Anconia used to be Dagny’s lover and gets angry about it, even though it was, like, twelve years ago dude, and you’re still married to someone else. Rearden was still mad at d’Anconia in any case, as he feels d’Anconia betrayed him by allowing a shipment of copper he purchased from him to be sunk by pirates, even though d’Anconia specifically told him not to deal with his company as he was running it into the ground.

This chapter reminds us once again that Rearden has the emotional maturity of a fourteen-year-old.

The remainder of the chapter sees Dagny rushing to Colorado to talk to the scientist she employed to work on the static energy motor, in order to stop the ‘destroyer’ convincing him to jack it in. This could’ve happened a hundred pages ago, but it’s not really important, as this chapter serves to demonstrate something about Rand’s philosophy that’s been tickling at the back of my mind for ages.

Consider the following paragraphs, firstly an internal monologue from Dagny:

‘You – she thought – whoever you are, whom I have always loved and never found, you whom I expected to see at the end of the rails beyond the horizon, you whose presence I had always felt in the streets of the city and whose world I had wanted to build, it is my love for you that had kept me moving, my love and my hope to reach you and my wish to be worthy of you on the day when I would stand before you face to face. Now I know that I shall never find you-that it is not to be reached or lived-but what is left of my life is still yours, and I will go on in your name, even though it is a name I’ll never learn, I will go on serving you, even though I’m never to win, I will go on, to be worth of you on the day when I would have met you, even though I won’t…’

Now an argument between Dagny and d’Anconia:

“Franciso! … You do understand it, you know what I mean by that kind of man, you see him, too!”

“Oh yes,” he said simply, casually, looking at some point in space within the room, almost as if he were seeing a real person. He added, “Why should you be astonished? You said that we were of his kind once, you and I. We still are. But one of us has betrayed him.”

“You know, Dagny, we were taught that some things belong to God and others to Caesar. Perhaps their God would permit it. But the man you say we’re serving – he does not permit it.”

“There’s to be a second renaissance in the world. I’ll wait for it.”

Anyone who’s even cursorily studied Plato will be clapping their hands at this point. Both Dagny and d’Anconia are paying obeisance to no single man, but rather the Form of the Man of Talent. They worship not the iteration of the form in mankind, but rather the idealisation of it in itself, beyond the world of men. Similarly, anyone familiar with the works of Jesus Christ and his fans will recognise the unmistakeably biblical undertones in the quotes above – a second renaissance after a final conflict between good and evil? A man who takes the place of God as an object of worship?

This explains the bizarre characters of AtlasWorld – the titans, looters and moochers are so divided because they’re iterations of the Forms of Talent, Looting and Mooching; unlike in the real world where such qualities are all present in every person, in AtlasWorld people are divided by their adherence to Forms. It explains Rand’s antipathy towards Kant: Randian ethics are based on something out there in the world (or beyond it in the case of the Forms), which Kant demonstrates is unknowable in itself. Kant’s philosophy gives man the capability of determining what is moral without reference to anything external, based purely upon the way in which he encounters the world. Rand relies upon an external notion of morality, based on a concept of talent that lies out in the world and is iterated in man. It is worshipped by the titans of Atlas Shrugged and personified in the messiah-like figure of Dagny’s ‘destroyer’, whom we’ll meet shortly.

For this reason, my earlier description of Rand’s ideal society as an aristocracy of talent was incorrect. Rather, it is a theocracy of talent – a society in which talent is worshipped and before which all men must prostrate themselves. Like Plato’s Guardians, the rulers of Rand’s utopia are those who approach closest to the Form of Talent. It is therefore Rand who is the heir of Plato – not Kant. Rand has confused a rationalist theory of knowledge with rationality itself; distorted reason in the name of her false God.

For a man to be free, judgement of his actions must come from within himself and not pay service to an external standard, for the only judge of standards is man, and interpretation of standards will always lie in the hands of other men. Rand’s philosophy aims to deliver mankind into religious bondage to the rich, who are the arbiters of the market and hence the arbiters of talent. Liberalism has nothing to do with a society dominated by the high priests of commerce.

I do not know how far this Platonic disease infects other forms of libertarianism, but I would suspect many. It is, however, clear that Rand is the enemy of true liberty, and that her followers aim to set up a society in which the most fundamental liberty of all – the right of a man to make his own moral judgements – is to be suppressed in the name of the God of Talent.

Part 20 is here.

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’.


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.