Saturday, July 03, 2004

Objectivism and Ayn Rand

One of my friends (who just started her own blog, The Cynic's Corner) has just suffered a relapse into Objectivism, the philosophy created by Ayn Rand that is characterized by a rejection of altruism.

Objectivism is flawed on several levels. First of all, its logocentric, though that applies to virtually any comprehensive philosophy. However, the hostility Objectivism has to external authority makes this an especially fatal flaw. Rand cannot simultanously claim that one must be free to live ones life as one choices while at the same time making prescriptive codes of conduct and/or feelings. I have the right to give to charity, and I have the right to feel guilty if I don't! At the point where I am forced to not to do either of these things, I'm merely a slave to a dogma Rand finds more preferable. Ayn Rand is at best the rich conservative's John Stuart Mill. Second, its unsustainable. While Objectivism purports to support unbridled capitalism (and has been lauded for it by numerous conservative/libertarian pundits), the philosophy actually doesn't support capitalism at all. Professor Mark Skousen of Columbia University Business School remarks that
Roark [the protagonist in "Fountainhead"] denies a basic tenet of sound economics--the principle of consumer sovereignty. When the dean of the architectural school tells Roark, "Your only purpose is to serve him [the client]," Roark objects. "I don't intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don't intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build." (1994:14) This bizarre, almost anti-social, attitude sounds like a perverse rending of Say's Law, "supply creates its own demand," or the statement made in the film Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." But supply only creates demand if the supply can be sold to customers; and people come to a new baseball field only if they want to play or watch. Supply must satisfy demand, or it becomes a wasted resource.

Most capitalist authors argue that the system requires social input because the freedom of contract necessarily requires the consent of all involved party's. Christian Michel of the Acton Institute writes "Once again, if a price is paid, it is not necessarily the one that the buyer or the seller had expected to obtain at the start of the negotiation; thus, as in any social relationship, the wishes and the interests of others must be acknowledged." However, Rand seems to view the social aspect of business affairs as a necessary evil that accomponies a "free" life. Her ideal man, Roark, lives in a distorted reality that doesn't hold up in the real world. Skousen continues "The fact that Howard Roark represents the ideal man in Ayn Rand's novel and the fact that she denigrates other characters in The Fountainhead who "compromise" with client's demands suggest that Ayn Rand is philosophically in denial when it comes to comprehending the nature of business. She denies the very raison d'etre of capitalism--consumer sovereignty."
Third, Objectivism only holds up under a very narrow, deontological view of freedom. Isiah Berlin points out that "Freedom is not simply freedom of action but also freedom from the consequences of the action's of others." Rand's major limit on one's freedom of action is that you can't use other humans as a means, only as an end of themselves. Thus, I can't for example rob someone because that's using him as a means to my enrichment. However, a comprehensive view of freedom has to take into account the inadvertant ways where our actions constrain others. The easiest example is Environmentalism. A Objectivist businessman would be acting perfectly morally in clearcutting giant tracts of rainforest that he owns to sell to the market. As long as he owns the land, he isn't, in a Objectivist sense, doing anything wrong. However, the environmental damage that such an action can take has harms that extend throughout the world. Furthermore, the people who are most vulnerable to environmental catastrophes are the poor and disadvantaged, as they can't afford the expensive protections and technologies the rich have to shield themselves from environmental damage. The likely consequences of such environmental degredation on the global poor is immense. The reduction of trees will lead to desertification, which in turn hurts substinence farmers. Air and water pollution will cause an increase in disease and a reduction in life expectancy. Global warming will raise sea levels, having catastrophic results on seaside and island nations (the Pacific Island state of Tuvalu is estimated to be underwater in 50 years). Environmental refugees will cause instability and increase overcrowding in cities. Herman E. Daly, Senior Economist in the Environment Department
of the World Bank writes in POPULATION, TECHNOLOGY AND LIFESTYLE: THE
TRANSITION TO SUSTAINABILITY
"Increasing Northern incomes at the cost of Southern sustainability will lead to global insecurity. It will result in an increase in "environmental refugees" fleeing human made disasters, poisoned water, air, and soils, soil erosion, and desertification."

The list goes on in on. All of these have drastic and real impacts on people's life, liberty, and freedom. All are also entirely inconsequential in an Objectivist state. There is a fundamental myth behind Objectivist philosophy, and that is the false distinction between Public and Private. There are virtually no actions that one takes that are devoid of a public consequence. Thus when Rand argues that one shouldn't act for others or use them as an end, she makes an arbitrary judgment on which actions are sufficiently rooted in the other to qualify. The end result is that taking an extra minute to help an old lady cross the street is viewed as more invasive than precipitated massive species loss and environmental destruction through logging. Somehow, I'm not convinced.

4 comments:

MK said...

On face, disregard the comment that David cites in reference to Objectivism denying sound economic principles. The author of the "card" (excuse the debate slang) immediately negates any credibility that he holds when he refers to Roark as the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged. Roark was the protagonist of The Fountainhead. Sorry Mr. Author. Sorry, David.

I apologize for posting something that reminds one of an LD rebuttal, and for not posting anything too substantive - but you can come to my "blog" and see for yourself what Objectivism is really about.

MK said...

On face, disregard the comment that David cites in reference to Objectivism denying sound economic principles. The author of the "card" (excuse the debate slang) immediately negates any credibility that he holds when he refers to Roark as the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged. Roark was the protagonist of The Fountainhead. Sorry Mr. Author. Sorry, David.

I apologize for posting something that reminds one of an LD rebuttal, and for not posting anything too substantive - but you can come to my "blog" and see for yourself what Objectivism is really about.

David Schraub said...

That's a typo on my end not his. He just wrote "Roark" I added in the bracketed portion, of which I obviously (and embaressingly) screwed up. It will be fixed forthright.

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