Brick by brick

Reason links to this mildly irritating attempt at painting Rand as a “sinister” conservative. (Read both pieces. Doherty at Reason says in two paras what I say in ten.) After going on about the conservatives’ opposition to healthcare reform on the grounds of its redistributionist and socialistic nature, saying that Rand has had an influence on the movement,

In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms–that taking from the rich harms the economy–but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.

There is another way to describe this conservative idea. It is the ideology of Ayn Rand.

trying to psycho-analyze her (psychological projection at work, perhaps),

Anne C. Heller, in her skillful life of Rand, traces the roots of Rand’s philosophy to an even earlier age. (Heller paints a more detailed and engaging portrait of Rand’s interior life, while Burns more thoroughly analyzes her ideas.) Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum’s mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that “this may have been Rand’s first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism.’ ” (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite “sales tax” or “income tax.” The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)

describing her philosophy and her strange personal life, Chait comes down to the old now-I-will-tell-you-why-you-rightists-are-horribly-wrong-in-protesting-against-redistribution argument. “Luck.”

He writes-

The economic right may believe religiously in their moral view of wealth, but we do not have to respect it as we might respect religious faith. For it does not transcend–perhaps no religion should transcend–empirical scrutiny. On the contrary, this conservative view, the Randian inversion of the Marxist worldview, rests upon a series of propositions that can be falsified by data.

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue–thrift, hard work, and the rest–and poverty the lack thereof. Many Republicans consider the link between income and the work ethic so self-evident that they use the terms “rich” and “hard-working” interchangeably, and likewise “poor” and “lazy.” …

A related complaint against redistribution holds that the rich earn their higher pay because of their nonstop devotion to office work…

Now, it is certainly true that working hard can increase one’s chances of growing rich. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the rich work harder than the poor. Indeed, there are many ways in which the poor work harder than the rich…Few titans of finance would care to trade their fifteen-hour day sitting in a mesh chair working out complex problems behind a computer for an eight-hour day on their feet behind a sales counter.

For conservatives, the causal connection between virtue and success is not merely ideological, it is also deeply personal…Rand held up her own meteoric rise from penniless immigrant to wealthy author as a case study of the individualist ethos. “No one helped me,” she wrote, “nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

But this was false. Rand spent her first months in this country subsisting on loans from relatives in Chicago, which she promised to repay lavishly when she struck it rich. (She reneged, never speaking to her Chicago family again.) She also enjoyed the great fortune of breaking into Hollywood at the moment it was exploding in size, and of bumping into DeMille. Many writers equal to her in their talents never got the chance to develop their abilities. That was not because they were bad or delinquent people. They were merely the victims of the commonplace phenomenon that Bernard Williams described as “moral luck.”

Not surprisingly, the argument that getting rich often entails a great deal of luck tends to drive conservatives to apoplexy. This spring the Cornell economist Robert Frank, writing in The New York Times, made the seemingly banal point that luck, in addition to talent and hard work, usually plays a role in an individual’s success. Frank’s blasphemy earned him an invitation on Fox News, where he would play the role of the loony liberal spitting in the face of middle-class values. The interview offers a remarkable testament to the belligerence with which conservatives cling to the mythology of heroic capitalist individualism. As the Fox host, Stuart Varney, restated Frank’s outrageous claims, a voice in the studio can actually be heard laughing off-camera. Varney treated Frank’s argument with total incredulity, offering up ripostes such as “That’s outrageous! That is outrageous!” and “That’s nonsense! That is nonsense!” Turning the topic to his own inspiring rags-to-riches tale, Varney asked: “Do you know what risk is involved in trying to work for a major American network with a British accent?”

Such arguments have been made before, and I have tackled two of them, here (the Frank one) and here.

I wish Chait would make up his mind on whether he’s attacking Republicans, or Rand, because their arguments exist on different planes altogether. Its like writing about human sexual habits and then suddenly jumping to marsupials just because both happen to be related life forms. If one is speaking about Rand, she never claimed that “wealth represents a sign of personal virtue–thrift, hard work, and the rest–and poverty the lack thereof,” or that “the rich earn their higher pay because of their nonstop devotion to office work.” Her position was much more sophisticated. She wrote in her essay “What is Capitalism?” (an extract is available from this site)

The economic value of a man’s work is determined, on a free market, by a single principle: by the voluntary consent of those who are willing to trade him their work or products in return. This is the moral meaning of the law of supply and demand; it represents the total rejection of two vicious doctrines: the tribal premise and altruism. It represents the recognition of the fact that man is not the property nor the servant of the tribe, that a man works in order to support his own life—as, by his nature, he must—that he has to be guided by his own rational self-interest, and if he wants to trade with others, he cannot expect sacrificial victims, i.e., he cannot expect to receive values without trading commensurate values in return. The sole criterion of what is commensurate, in this context, is the free, voluntary, uncoerced judgment of the traders.

The tribal mentalities attack this principle from two seemingly opposite sides: they claim that the free market is “unfair” both to the genius and to the average man. The first objection is usually expressed by a question such as: “Why should Elvis Presley make more money than Einstein?” The answer is: Because men work in order to support and enjoy their own lives—and if many men find value in Elvis Presley, they are entitled to spend their money on their own pleasure. Presley’s fortune is not taken from those who do not care for his work (I am one of them) nor from Einstein — nor does he stand in Einstein’s way—nor does Einstein lack proper recognition and support in a free society, on an appropriate intellectual level.

As to the second objection, the claim that a man of average ability suffers an “unfair” disadvantage on a free market—

…When you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you….

…The man who does no more than physical labor, consumes the material value-equivalent of his own contribution to the process of production, and leaves no further value, neither for himself nor others. But the man who produces an idea in any field of rational endeavor —the man who discovers new knowledge —is the permanent benefactor of humanity….It is only the value of an idea that can be shared with unlimited numbers of men, making all sharers richer at no one’s sacrifice or loss, raising the productive capacity of whatever labor they perform….

In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability.

The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong. (Atlas Shrugged)

Curiously, Chait quotes this last paragraph (“The man at the top…damned the strong”) and argues for a page or so against the “conservative” “belief” that the world is “fair” by proving that it isn’t. And thus Rand has been disproved. There is a name for such an argument. Unfortunately, my memory fails me.

As I have said before, anyone who believes in the “world is unfair” argument in favor of redistributionism must first apply it to America. For three centuries, the country has enjoyed a standard of living higher than most of mankind. That’s patently unfair to the Africans and Asians who were not fortunate enough to discover America, or the assembly line, or computers or a thousand other ideas. The redistributionist must therefore dismantle America, brick by brick, and distribute the resultant wealth among the many poor Asians and Africans. Let them too enjoy the fruits of the “American dream.” Of course, a redistributionist whose redistributionism is tied up to his nationality won’t agree to such a scheme. But then that’s understandable. Skin a socialist and you will find a nationalist; skin a nationalist and you will find a socialist. Two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

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Comments

  • Kalidas  On September 17, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Everything fine.. but honestly could not get the last line..

    “Skin a socialist and you will find a nationalist; skin a nationalist and you will find a socialist. Two sides of the same counterfeit coin.”

    Err.. a capitalist cannot be a nationalist?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 17, 2009 at 11:02 pm

      Not if nationalism or patriotism means to him what it means to me (talking about definitions, not “meaning” as in “meaning of life”). I have written about it before, here and here.

      An individualist cannot be a nationalist.

  • you12  On September 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    …When you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you….

    […]

    The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong. (Atlas Shrugged)

    Nah I don’t buy it. I think Rand is trying to over-idolize the ‘innovators’. Persons who engage in physical labor are as important as the innovators because the laborers actually turn the ideas into reality. For example – A group of architects won’t be able to build homes no matter how good their design.
    Rand has an obvious bias towards the ‘innovators’ because she would consider herself one. Of course there is a stark difference between an innovator and an laborer on an individual level but still it doesn’t make the innovator more important in the larger sense.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 19, 2009 at 12:38 am

      I grant the bias, but I also think its a valid one. Its very egalitarian, very Gandhian, the notion that all men are the same and that all work is equally important. But that isn’t so. One misreads Rand if one reads her as believing in a mental-physical (false) dichotomy. She doesn’t. An intelligent man is not all-brains-no-body. Similarly a not-so-intelligent man is not a zombie. The crux of the matter is, mere labor is a replaceable quantity. Skill/talent/genius isn’t. That’s what is her implication. She’s referring to productive ability, something that’s not possible without the mind.

      There is nothing wrong, no shame, in doing what one can do best. But bringing down genius to one’s own level, claiming that laying bricks is as important as designing a skyscraper, or writing a function as per specifications is as important as architecting an entire operating system, and all this on purpose, is unforgivable.

      If you read the first two chapters of part three from Atlas…Atlantis and The Utopia of Greed, you will find some very interesting passages discussing people, their motivations, greed, ability and so on. Consider this passage-

      There were two other men working with [Ellis Wyatt]: a big, muscular roughneck, at a pump halfway up the wall, and a young boy, by the tank on the ground. The young boy had blond hair and a face with an unusual purity of form. [Dagny] felt certain that she knew this face, but she could not recall where she had seen it. The boy caught her puzzled glance, grinned and, as if to help her, whistled softly, almost inaudibly the first notes of Halley’s Fifth Concerto. It was the young brakeman of the Comet.

      She laughed. “It was the Fifth Concerto by Richard Halley, wasn’t it?”

      “Sure,” he answered. ” But do you think I’d tell that to a scab?”

      “A what?”

      “What am I paying you for?” asked Ellis Wyatt, approaching; the boy chuckled, darting back to seize the lever he had abandoned for a moment. “It’s Miss Taggart who couldn’t fire you, if you loafed on the job. I can.”

      “That’s one of the reasons why I quit the railroad, Miss Taggart,” said the boy.

      “Did you know that I stole him from you?” said Wyatt. “He used to be your best brakeman and now he’s my best grease-monkey, but neither one of us is going to hold him permanently.”

      “Who is?”

      “Richard Halley. Music. He’s Halley’s best pupil.”

      She smiled. “I know, this is a place where one employs nothing but aristocrats for the lousiest kinds of jobs.”

      “They’re all aristocrats, that’s true,” said Wyatt, “because they know that there’s no such thing as a lousy job—only lousy men who don’t care to do it.”

      The roughneck was watching them from above, listening with curiosity. She glanced up at him, he looked like a truck driver, so she asked, “What were you outside? A professor of comparative philology, I suppose?”

      “No, ma’am,” he answered. “I was a truck driver.” He added, “But that’s not what I wanted to remain.”

      and this one where Dagny asks Dwight Sanders how he was going to repair the plane that she damaged when she crashed into Galt’s Gulch-

      “I think I’ve ripped the bottom. Nobody can fix it.”

      “I can.”

      These were the words and the tone of confidence that she had not heard for years, this was the manner she had given up expecting—but the start of her smile ended in a bitter chuckle. “How?” she asked. “On a hog farm?”

      “Why, no. At Sanders Aircraft.”

      “Where is it?”

      “Where did you think it was? In that building in New Jersey, which Tinky Holloway’s cousin bought from my bankrupt successors by means of a government loan and a tax suspension? In that building where he produced six planes that never left the ground and eight that did, but crashed with forty passengers each?”

      “Where is it, then?”

      “Wherever I am.”

      He pointed across the road. Glancing down through the tops of the pine trees, she saw the concrete rectangle of an airfield on the bottom of the valley.

      “We have a few planes here and it’s my job to take care of them,” he said. “I’m the hog farmer and the airfield attendant. I’m doing quite well at producing ham and bacon, without the men from whom I used to buy it. But those men cannot produce airplanes without me—and, without me, they cannot even produce their ham and bacon.”

      Actually that’s the premise on which her whole novel is based—the mind on strike.

      As for architects and laborers, its possible for an architect to work as a laborer. The laborer on the other hand, cannot design a building that will stand. If he could, he shouldn’t be working as a laborer. In an ideal world, he wouldn’t.

  • Saurabh Gupta  On September 18, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    a very innocent question. I m not makin a statement but just askin. Does greed go hand in hand with capitalist?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 19, 2009 at 3:24 am

      I’ll reply later today.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 19, 2009 at 7:29 pm

      Capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism, is a politico-economic system. Greed is a facet of human nature; you will find it whenever and wherever you find humans. Capitalism doesn’t make people greedy, if that’s what you are implying.

      An important point this, I don’t think greed is a bad thing. Desire for the unearned is, but that’s what not greed means. Greed is desire on steroids. As long as it is concerned with the individual himself, I don’t see any harm in it.

      About this assumption that capitalism somehow lets greed run riot, listen to Friedman if you haven’t done so already.

      Its a coincidence I guess, that O&M had this post yesterday. If Oliver Stone did one good thing in his entire life, it was creating Gordon Gekko, a character who’s full of contradictions, but who did say this

      The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

  • Pramod Biligiri  On September 21, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    “Skin a socialist and you will find a nationalist; skin a nationalist and you will find a socialist. Two sides of the same counterfeit coin.”

    Well said!

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