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Monday, March 9, 2009

"How Can We Take These People Seriously?"

I noticed this blog post titled, I'm Not John Galt, in the Harvard Political Review :

The conservative blogs are afire with Ayn Rand fetishism. Apparently, by raising the top marginal tax rate back to where it was in the Clinton years, President Obama is "punishing" the most productive members of society.

Au contraire. Here is my idea of "punishment." You take a person who was born into poverty, who was born without highly marketable skills, who lost out in the genetic and social lottery. Then you condemn him to rotten schools, with limited access to health care, with no security and therefore no freedom to take risks. And then you
call him and others like him "the slackers, the entitled, the net tax consumers." To me, that's punishment.

But, hey, that's just my own sense of fairness. You might also be interested to know that the empirical evidence is on the side of angels: higher tax rates don't reduce productivity.

But some conservatives are trying to demonstrate the connection between high taxes and low productivity by causing it, that is, by inducing lots of people to "go Galt." In other words, they're trying to get people to punish themselves and punish society at the same time. How can we take these people seriously?

I thought that this piece represents, in short form, all of the major liberal philosophical premises and is thoroughly typical of the leftist argument against capitalism. Therefore, to the extent that these ideas are currently destroying the world, it is important to analyze them.

One thing I have noticed about left wing intellectuals is that they rarely make an argument, i.e., they rarely state a premise and then analyze it or attempt to prove or disprove a claim. Rather, they dismiss the wide spread interest in Ayn Rand as "fetishism" or liken those devoted to reason and capitalism as "cultists" or "dogmatists". I believe that the source of this type of hostility is not directed at Objectivism per se but to reason as such and is a consequence of the modern philosophers' assault on reason.

In a previous post, I discussed pragmatism and quoted Ayn Rand discussing the consequences of this doctrine:

...this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of “competent investigators” who can “predict and control” reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature. [emphasis mine]

To the modern philosopher (or left wing intellectual), everything is subjective, there are no black and whites, i.e. nothing can be proved. Such a doctrine results in the rejection of any objective standards and therefore gives rise to ethical relativism, multiculturalism, etc. This doctrine also gives rise to the false alternative between religion and subjectivism. In other words, if the world is unknowable and secular arguments unprovable then a man who seeks certainty in any field has only one alternative - belief in the absence of evidence, i.e., faith or religion. Consequently, the modern philosopher equates any principled approach to ideas with religious faith and dismisses it as dogmatic or simplistic and smears its adherents as "fetishists" or "cultists". Therefore, to any group who takes reason, logic, and principles seriously the writer is led to ask: "How can we take these people seriously?".

(Note that even religionists have bought into this false alternative in the context of the "intelligent design" argument. In other words, they claim that "reason" or science is just another form of religion.)

In the second paragraph he asks us to consider someone "born without highly marketable skills, who lost out on the genetic and social lottery." Such an approach represents the philosophy of determinism. According to this idea, people do not have free will - they are predestined by their genes and/or "environment". Note the false alternative implied by this typical "nature vs. nurture" argument. You are determined, this argument goes, the only question is how you are determined.

Leftists use this argument to justify expropriation of wealth. If one person arbitrarily has wealth and another does not - it must be due to chance factors. Therefore, the state must "level the playing field" by redistributing wealth from the haves to the have nots. This argument is used not only to justify "death" taxes like the inheritance tax but also to denigrate and vilify anyone who claims a right to their property or wealth. According to the writer, having your wealth expropriated by the state is not "punishment". To him, by implication, it is justice.

To start, man has free-will because he has the choice to think or not and therefore, to act or not. Second, determinism is an impossible position to hold logically as the fact of volition gives rise to the concept of truth and falsehood. For example, I assume that the post writer deems himself to be determined, so his genes and environment must have destined him to write this post. Consequently, how can he ask us to accept his claim as true? His statement has the epistemological status of a dog bark. It just happens. If one is not free to think or focus his mind, the issue of whether he is right or not is irrelevant. It is literally noise.

There is another aspect to this argument. Even if you accept that man has free will, it is certainly true that a child's upbringing and their physical attributes can make it more or less difficult for them to succeed. For example, a child whose parents provide education should have an easier time than one whose parents beat them or keep them in a dungeon. If a child inherits wealth, they would have an easier time becoming wealthy than one who doesn't by definition. So what does this imply? Is this an injustice?

First, wealth is produced. It does not just exist. The producer of wealth is its owner by right and by any rational definition of morality. If a man can not keep the product of his labor, he is a slave by definition. The owner may choose to dispose of his wealth in any way he sees fit. If he wishes to consume it, save it, or give it to his children, it is his choice. By what right, does this writer claim that one's wealth should be expropriated by the state? To whom should the wealth be redistributed and by what standard? Is there some sort of Platonic form of perfect "fairness" which must be met? If one child's parents tuck him in at night and another child's parents do not, should the child who was tucked in have his or his parent's earnings confiscated and given to the child who was not tucked in? The leftist argument is an inversion. It holds that it is an injustice not to have one's property seized by the government and redistributed. The forced confiscation of one's earnings and property by the state is a monumental injustice.

Ironically, in making this argument, the writer points to "rotten schools" and references "limited access to health care." The "rotten schools" are the product of the government's public education monopoly which results from the very system I assume he promotes given that he is opposed to capitalism! The same argument holds with respect to the health care industry which has been virtually socialized through market distortions related to government regulation and Medicare. Notice he is not concerned about any crisis in the shoe market or the hamburger market - industries which are relatively free of government interference.

If this writer is truly concerned about those born into poverty, wouldn't he see that more wealth is the solution - not the problem? Even semi-capitalism has brought untold wealth and prosperity so much so that even the definition of poverty has radically changed [1]. For example, what does being poor today mean relative to what being poor was one hundred or two hundred years ago much less in the pre-industrial age? If he was truly concerned, wouldn't he argue for more freedom? Wouldn't more freedom allow those born into difficult circumstances to offer their labor for less than otherwise and allow more to gain employment? Wouldn't more freedom reduce costs and regulations and thereby allow employers to hire more people? Wouldn't more freedom increase productivity and increase real wages so much that being poor might mean only having three houses and 4 cars? In other words, if this writer is truly concerned with the poor - he should advocate individual rights and capitalism which leads to prosperity and economic growth. Instead, he argues implicitly for more government controls and statism which logically lead to misery and stagnation for everybody - not just the "poor" - as is clearly obvious when observing the government's education monopoly.

He argues that these "condemned" persons have "no security and therefore no freedom to take risks". In a free society, any one is free to produce, trade, and take whatever "risk" they deem to be in their self-interest. There is no guarantee - that is why it is called risk. If he had "security", why would he need to take "risk"? This is an outright contradiction. Of course, what he is actually calling for is not the "freedom to take risks" but the right to an outcome which is what he means by "security". By what right does anyone demand "security"? Where in nature is there a guarantee of "security"? Such a claim begs the question "provided by whom?" One can not claim the right to violate another's rights.

He then turns to economic empiricism to justify a claim that is prima facie ridiculous and morally offensive - the claim that "higher tax rates don't reduce productivity." First, note the sentiment - "we can steal as much as we want from these guys - they'll keep working..." Second, consider the economic argument. Let's see - say every day you go to work and at the end of the day a criminal stands outside the door and takes 90% of what you just made. How many hours would you be willing to work under those circumstances? Under these circumstances, how motivated would an entrepreneur be to take risks, innovate, and make capital investments if his return is practically nothing? Furthermore, say the criminal takes the money and consumes it so that rather than paying your bills and saving the extra, i.e., reinvesting into productive assets, the money is stolen and simply wasted. This represents a massive loss of potential productivity. On top of this, there are losses due to compliance since smart people must be employed to administer the compliance and decipher the byzantine tax code [2]. Magnify this by billions and trillions. Do I have to go on?

The offering of such an argument is a consequence of the total bankruptcy of the modern social sciences. Here again, we can see the effect of the rejection of reason and principles. Those not able to think in principle or who reject principled arguments outright, turn to empiricism, i.e., the analysis of quantitative data independent of concepts. Virtually the entire field of economics today is mired in empiricism. Accordingly, anyone can claim anything as long as they have a statistical analysis that offers some validity. This approach is so rampant that someone can apparently publish a paper claiming that the government can confiscate arbitrary amounts of income with no effect on productivity.

He ends with a fitting claim:

In other words, they're trying to get people to punish themselves and punish society at the same time.

In fact, going "Galt" means the exact opposite. Going Galt means recognizing that a man has the right to his own life and the right to exist for his own sake. If a slave stops supporting his masters he is liberating himself - not punishing himself. Society is simply a sum of individuals and has no actual identity, but, in this context, if the writer is implying that "society" are those who depend on the producers for their existence - society had better start taking these people seriously.


Burgess Laughlin said...

> The HPR writer says: "Here is my idea of "punishment." You take a person who was born into poverty, who was born without highly marketable skills, who lost out in the genetic and social lottery. . . . But, hey, that's just my own sense of fairness."

Both notions--the lottery of intelligence and the notion of "fairness"--come from a Harvard predecessor of the author above: John Rawls, philosophy professor and then chairman of the philosophy department at Harvard. More importantly, he was the author of such books as Theory of Justice, which was highly influential among "democratic socialists."

Basically Rawls, an avowed fan of Kant, applied Kant's notion of an unknowable world to individual souls. We can't know individuals' real souls--therefore we need to be tolerant of everyone and treat everyone alike. This is radical egalitarianism.

Politically Rawls advocating enough "free" enterprise to generate the funds needed for the welfare state. He also advocated excluding those from the political arena who did not agree with democratic socialism.

Rawls was an example of the broad and long-term power of academic intellectuals. Fortunately the tide may be shifting.

P. S. -- Indirectly, Ayn Rand addressed some of Rawls's notions in her article, "An Untitled Essay," Ch. 11 in Philosophy: Who Needs It. She names him and his book, Theory of Justice in several locations.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I recognized that! Theory of Justice! Guess I'm learning something. :-)

Good article. It seems that criticisms of Objectivism almost invariably fall into two categories: smears and jeers. Either you get misrepresentations of the philosophy (all for me and screw everyone else over) or scoffing (well, I was into that in high school but I grew up, etc...). He didn't interact with the specifics of Objectivism cause he probably doesn't know them. Yes, Rawls is mentioned in "Egalitarianism and Inflation."

In any case, I was pleasantly surprised at the comments in response the article.

Monica said...

Wow, awesome post. Hats off!

Anonymous said...

It's taken me a while, but I've finally decided to "go Galt" myself, as soon as it's financially feasible. I am not an entrepreneur or inventor or innovator - I'm just an American citizen who's been working hard and playing by the rules for almost forty years, so my decision won't cause many ripples, as it were. But I am neither slave nor serf. I've had enough. The looters and moochers of the Obama-Nation be damned.

Anonymous said...


Rearden, towards the end (which was really the beginning), heard people say to him, "You'll do something!" Ayn Rand wrote that Rearden, upon hearing this for the umpteenth time (this time from James Taggart), "felt a deafening crash within him, as of a steel door dropping open at the touch of the final tumbler, the one small number completing the sum and releasing the lock, the answer uniting all the pieces, the questions and the unsolved wounds of his life."

What we now have as President is a man who is intent on "doing something" and he is surrounded by men keen on "doing something" and with long resumes of "something."

But Obama is not a Henry Rearden and not a John Galt, not even a Frank Allen. The phenomenon of Obama and his men "doing something" is a something Ayn Rand might have described in terms of men making "meanlingless sounds" and "meaningless motions," of men making incantations to the worst that is humanly possible, in order not really to gain anything, but to ward off certain things, most important among them a knowledge of what is happening or of its cause and its remedy.

Rearden was being criminally counted on by such men. Who, in reality, can count on such men?

With regard to "highly marketable skills," who was ever born with highly marketable skills?

Attempting to divide people, at birth, into skilled and unskilled, favored and unfavored, is not an example of determinism, but of a fundamental evasion of the facts of man's nature. Man is born free, and is a creature of self-made soul (Rand's phrase), the moreso, the more he has to confront.

It is not in confronting evil, though, that an individual reaches his highest moments; it is in achieving his own happiness.

Michael Neibel said...

Good post:

I don't remember exactly but wasn't it Dagny who said something like "We didn't have to take them seriously did we?"

The Rat Cap said...


That was exactly the "double meaning" I had in mind when I named the post - given that the Harvard guy was the one who actually stated it regarding supporters of capitalism. Good catch.

The Rat Cap said...


Thanks for the comment. I am familiar with Rawls and had read Rand's essay years ago. I think you are absolutely right and it is clear that the author is a Rawls disciple explicitly or implicitly. That was a good catch on your part. Thanks again.

Galileo Blogs said...

"Those not able to think in principle or who reject principled arguments outright, turn to empiricism, i.e., the analysis of quantitative data independent of concepts. Virtually the entire field of economics today is mired in empiricism. Accordingly, anyone can claim anything as long as they have a statistical analysis that offers some validity."

This is an accurate identification of what happens when people fail to think in principles, and it is a good summary of the state of economics and many other sciences.

As a complete aside, I wonder to what extent this mindlessly empiricist approach is prevalent in certain physical sciences, such as drug research?