Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where is John Galt? (when we need him)

Interest in Ayn Rand's economic philosophy has seen a resurgence recently with sales of her magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged", hitting new highs. This is understandable, seeing how eerily prescient A.S. was in describing our current economic mess and its origins. Specifically, the government, in its attempts to "do good", forces its citizens to subsidize those unable (or unwilling) to pay for what are deemed "entitlements". The "entitlement" which caused the most damage today is, of course, "affordable housing". In both Rand's America and ours currently, this inevitably leads to economic calamity. Following its initial error, the government compounds it by expanding its role even more, discouraging the most productive and innovative sectors of society. In the novel, government bullying eventually compels the entrepreneurial class to go on strike causing a collapse of society.
There are terabytes of commentary out there on Ayn Rand so there's probably nothing new I can add, but here are a few observations anyway.
She was a lousy writer of fiction. Her dialogue sometimes sounds like what you'd expect a middle school student to write. The characters are generally one-dimensional, almost cartoonish. Her plots are inventive but they're burdened by her oppressive didacticism. (A speech that continues for more than a hundred pages?!) She is best at depicting heroism - Howard Roark and Dagny Taggart are inspiring characters.
For those not willing to slog through the combined 2000 pages of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", watch the final summation spoken by Howard Roark (played by the miscast Gary Cooper) at his trial in the movie version of the former. It's the most concise description of Rand's philosophy you could fit into five minutes.
When it comes to government's role in a free society, Rand was an absolutist. She believed that the only role of government is protection of its citizens by the police, the armed forces and the courts. Two other anti-statists, Adam Smith and Milton Friedman were not so extreme. To the government functions Rand endorsed, Smith added the creation and maintainence of certain public works and institutions that would never be profitable to carry out privately. Friedman went along with Smith's list and added yet another, the care and protection of those unable to care for and protect themselves.
Rand believed in the primacy of individual freedom and of restricting the power of the state to co-opt the individual for its own purposes. That self-sacrifice - having a group of people, supporting, living for another group is not only wrong but perverse and destructive. That the state has no inherent right to the products of an individual's mind, time or labor. Only by providing the individual with a mutually agreed upon compensation may society have access to what he produces. That it's not only fair for a person to profit from his work but honorable and desirable. Implicit in this ideology is that the productive individual can allocate (spend) his resources much more wisely than a bunch of disinterested bureaucrats.
Rand believed in the importance of self-esteem, placing it with purpose and reason as the most valuable assets in life. That self esteem was not to be dispensed indiscriminately as it is by teachers and psychologists, but earned through accomplishment.
Since humans are inherently and primarily (exclusively?) motivated by self interest, it is best to utilize this characteristic by fairly valuing what it produces. This the basis of capitalism. And capitalism has proven by far to be the surest path to happiness and prosperity the world has known.
Rand believed in the positive impact of capitalism on areas other than economics. I found this statement in a compendium of her thoughts, "The Ayn Rand Lexicon".
"Let those who are actually concerned with peace observe that capitalism gave mankind the longest period of peace in history - a period during which there were no wars involving the entire civilized world - from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914."
When I first read this, I thought it was completely off the wall. Maybe there were no wars involving the "entire civilized world" but there were wars, including the most destructive war in U.S. history. However, in "Free to Choose", Milton Friedman makes the same point and explains that while there were 'minor' wars (Crimean, Franco-Prussian, etc.), they were greatly limited in scope. The one biggie, the U.S. Civil War, is presented as the struggle to undo the restriction of economic (and political) freedom as manifested in slavery. The relevant idea is that the surest way to world peace is through free market capitalism. That is probably true.
Rand's take on Marx's creed, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs", as the worst form of evil imaginable, is refreshing in its rejection of the notion that the collectivist state is a benign entity. The worst atrocities in history have been perpetrated or set in motion by powerful, collectivist, tyrannical governments. Some of these have used the soothing rhetoric of "progressivism" - advancing the "general good" - to attract popular support. Especially now, we should guard against this misleading and seductive ploy utilized by politicians seeking to expand their influence.
Mike Wallace interviewed Ayn Rand in 1959. It's on YouTube (in three parts) and it's fascinating to watch. Rand's eyes are constantly flitting around birdlike and she speaks with a heavy Russian accent. (A funny little detail I noticed is that she has her purse with her which she keeps on the floor next to her chair during the interview. I guess she didn't trust the CBS staff to watch it.) Surprisingly, Wallace did a good job challenging a few of Rand's assertions. Her responses were equally effective.
Finally, here's an excerpt from the book "Objectively Speaking - Ayn Rand Interviewed".
"[T]he worst phenomenon of a mixed economy: a combination of private interests -- private favorites, in effect -- and political power. This is what I call 'the aristocracy of pull'. A private group acquires the advantage of a government-granted monopoly and government funding, in order to exercise a degree of power with which no strictly private entrepreneur can compete. The only protection we have is that any endeavor organized by pressure groups attracts mediocrities, and the organization collapses through the weight of its own incompetence."
This is precisely what happened with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Unfortunately, the collapse rippled through the entire economy, causing severe damage.

I've been out of touch for a few days, with limited access to the internet. I came back today to read Mark Steyn's latest column on NRO. http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=Y2UwYjY5YTVkNzVkYjFmZDU5ODVmNTIxOWQxYzE2YWM= He is typically on spot about the faux outrage...OUTRAGE!!! over the AIG bonuses. Great stuff.

John Derbyshire made a comment during the campaign about Obama, saying that if elected he would tour the world with a giant "Kick Me" sign on his back. Well, the Prez didn't disappoint, recently sending a grovelling message to the supreme Iranian thug, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who promptly gave him a swift verbal boot in the rear.

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