Monday, February 18, 2013

Ayn Rand and Rational Beings

Mikko I Arevuo posted on the Adam Smith Institute Blog
“Ayn Rand and the Free Market Revolution” HERE and reports on Dr Yaron Brook, president of Ayn Rand Institute, the advocate for Objectivist philosophy, about his new book co-authored with Don Watkins “Free Market Revolution: how Ayn Rand’s ideas can end big government.” 
However, Mikko I Arevuo, who advocates of free markets and small government parts company with the Ayn Rand Institute because it is atheistic, but he agrees with is more sympathetic to its objectivist philosophy and provides a one paragraph explanation of it outlined by  Dr Edward Younkins:
Hierarchically, philosophy, including its metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical dimensions, precedes and determines politics which, in turn, precedes and determines economics. Rand bases her metaphysics on the idea that reality is objective and absolute. Epistemologically, the Randian view is that man’s mind is competent to achieve objectively valid knowledge of that which exists. Rand’s moral theory of self-interest is derived from man’ s nature as a rational being and end in himself, recognizes man’s right to think and act according to his freely-chosen principles, and reflects a man’s potential to be the best person he can be in the context of his existing circumstances. This leads to the notion of the complete separation of political power and economic power – that proper government should have no economic favours to convey. The role of the government is, thus, to protect man’s natural rights through the use of force, but only in retaliation and only against those who initiate the use of force. Capitalism, the resulting economic system, is based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.  For Rand, capitalism, the system of laissez-faire, is the only moral system.”
I read most of Ayn Rand’s paper-back philosophy books and novels in the 1950s and 1960s.  I was struck then by its fatal weakness: to “save the world” she requires the world to adopt her objectivist philosophy, or at least behave as if they did, a most unlikely outcome.  Therefore, it ain’t likely to happen.
For Rand, capitalism, the system of laissez-faire, is the only moral system.”  That may well be logical, given her philosophy (ignoring for the meanwhile that ‘laissez-faire’ is a dubious fork of morality; but laissez-faire’s leading advocates in the 19th century were spokesmen for the capitalist owners who considered laissez-faire to mean freedom for them to oppose legislation (the Factory Acts) seeking to protect employees from their employers’ low wages, unsafe working practices, and their use of child labour.
Adam Smith’s advocacy of Natural Liberty was quite different from laissez-faire (he never mentioned the words). Natural Liberty, as expressed by Smith, equalised the rights of all participants in commercial society, employers and labourers.  This does not prevent modern economists from associating laissez-faire with Adam Smith’s name, a habit that goes right back to the early 19th century and continues into the 21st. Many advocates in the 19th Century conflated laissez-faire to mean  only freedom for employers and governments.
Rand’s assertion that her “moral theory of self-interest is derived from man’ s nature as a rational being and end in himself sits comfortably with neo-classical theories of ‘rational’ human beings (who ‘Max U’ everything).  This belief is unfounded.   Humans are capable of reasoning and their individual ability to reason is not the same as all of us arriving at the same answers or choices. Jails are full of the victims of their own ‘rational’ choices, given their circumstances, and many more prisons would be required if judicial processes were applied for the rational choices of those in government who inflict misery on their victims. Our behaviour in different circumstances may be considered individually as ‘rational’, given our individual perceptions of our specific situations, but there is no reason to believe our individual actions from our perceptions of the circumstances are subject to a universal rationality.  Humans in human societies are not like that. In practice there is no general rationality.
It is in this area that I parted company with Mises in his “Human Action” – a very large tome I read a few years back – in which he derives everything that follows in his book from the rigorous logic of the consequences of his founding proposition. 
I prefer Smith’s approach of studying what probably happened since a few humans left the forest and then, a minority at first, moved to shepherding and farming.  Another minority (“at last”) moved from country life to live in close proximity in what became towns, inevitably and indubitably, creating commercial society, at first by processing food from the country (and leather goods) in exchanges for processed food  for manufactured goods or services. The nature of those exchanges took many forms – some ritualistic and wrapped in contexts (now studied by anthropologists). It was these historical developments of traded exchanges that laid the basis for the creation of capital that led to commercial developments.  It was not a history of mere 5,000 years of debt (David Graeber) – it was more like 200,000 years of exchange. Those humans that remained (and remain) in the forest, or solely in shepherding or farming, remained there.  There is nothing ordained about what humans do, nor is there a particular direction by which they pass their lifetimes in multiple generations.
Smith did not require the conversion of everybody to new morality or a universal conformity to logic. 
In fact, Smith conjectured about humans as they were.  He made no predictions about the future  (except about the future of the former British colonies in North America becoming the wealthiest economy in the world by around 1875).  Instead he studied the past to understand the present; we might be better doing the same instead of fantasising about a utopian philosophy of life created by a unique individual, who some report had a charismatic personality, who sold thousands of books to undergraduates (watch her with students on 'youtube). 
Ayn Rand's philosphy has no chance of being adopted by 6 billion people.


Blogger airth10 said...

I am tempted to call Ayn Rand's Objectivism science fiction. But really it is philosophy fiction.

Never could Rand's philosophy be implemented or become reality. Most of her arguments are outlandish, like thinking reality is absolute. But what it does do is give people pause, to think that things could be a bit different or improved.

As a metaphor the invisible hand is a kind of philosophy fiction. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a reality about it, like Paul Samuelson and others have given it.

5:41 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Mostly right.
The motives for landlords feeding their serfs were real for without food serfs would die and be unable to work. The motives of Merchants who feel insecure about their capital if sent abroad were real.
Their motives led them to act the way they did, which had consequences. They acted because of the motives; not the actual consequences.
The IH metaphor described the motives that "led them"; it had nothing to do with the consequences that happened; only with averting their underlying concerns.

9:31 pm  
Blogger northierthanthou said...

When a political solution to a problem calls for mass conversion, it is not a political solution. It is a fantasy.

As is all of rand's work.

11:07 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

absolutely correct. It is the same with all those posts with plans to change aspects of the world's economies for more 'moral' arrangements by people in some very rich countries. I usually suggest that they move fromCalifornia or where ever and migrate to a poor country and convert, them morally before they become corrupted by richer country's immorality,which most poorer countries' people aspire to become.
You portray Rand's dilemma well, not that she would have thanked you. She seemed to have fallen out spectacularly with former disciples- much like Stalin did.

7:44 am  

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