Monday, 27 August 2012

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's writings polarize opinion. There are those who think she has all the answers, and those who think she has none. Both attitudes are mistaken, but it is interesting to ask why the attitudes arise.

One reason that I shall leave to one side is that the support for Rand's views which she offers in the form of academic philosophy, is not adequate. But this does not prevent some of her economic and ethical claims from being true. And it should not lead us to discard all of her work, and only to seek those true claims elsewhere. The fact that her explicitly philosophical works do not stand up well to academic examination, does not mean that we cannot learn from her novels. (We can also extract some useful ideas from her explicitly philosophical works. There is, for example, something to be made of her analysis of perception.)

One reason why Atlas Shrugged invites polarized responses is that it contains some propositions that are very easy to accept as obviously true, and some that are very easy to reject as obviously false. People can easily pick on one set or the other, and then jump to opinions about the whole work.

One obvious truth is that planned economies, in which government agencies dictate who is to produce how much steel or what trains are to run, are uniformly disastrous. Likewise, crony capitalism, under which some businesses get favours because they have friends in high places, is disastrous. Moreover, Rand sets out, in exquisite detail, the mechanisms of perverse incentives, laziness, incompetence and corruption that lead planned economies and economies that run on cronyism to disaster.

One mechanism with contemporary relevance is set out when Hank Rearden is trapped by Floyd Ferris, because he has sold metal to a customer in breach of regulations (part 2, chapter 3; pages 433-434 of the 2007 Penguin edition). Ferris admits that this was the point of the regulations. Set up lots of rules, let people break them, and then you have a hold on them. It would not be difficult to see those who appoint our modern zero-tolerance authority figures, the street wardens who catch you drinking alcohol in a park where that is forbidden or who find that you have put your dustbin out on the wrong day, as thinking in the same way, albeit on a much more trivial scale.

Another obvious truth is that we must face facts and live by reason. It is both disastrous and pathetic to live by superstition, or to think that wishing will lead to the results that one desires. The specifically political dangers are set out in John Galt's speech (part 3, chapter 7, pages 1,009-1,069). The speech is not only an attack on totalitarianism that is just as strong as George Orwell's attacks, although a good deal less subtle. It is also a powerful attack on mysticism in all of its forms, not least the form in which it may by invoked by totalitarians who claim to embody a truth that all must accept (pages 1,042-1,046).

The leading obvious falsehood, and the one that repels those who believe in a welfare state, is the claim that we have to go to the opposite extreme, that a government has no business doing anything more than maintaining law and order. Income tax is deemed to be theft, when the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld includes it in the sums that are to be restored to Hank Rearden (part 2, chapter 7, page 579).

It is true that a possible consequence of taxation is a "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" scheme, such as the one that ruined the Twentieth Century Motor Company (part 2, chapter 10, pages 660-670), but one could guard against that by having a firm limit to the ratio of public spending to GDP, ensuring that most resources were distributed in accordance with market forces. One third of GDP might, for example, be a sensible limit. One would also need to require an economically neutral tax system, not one that was riddled with special reliefs for particular activities, in order not to veer towards cronyism or central planning.

Moreover, while deploring central planning in general, we may recognize the need for some economic regulation, or some taxation of specific activities, for example to control externalities. That would merely amount to correcting for costs which the market fails to price into activities. We may also recognize that the market tends to under-provide public goods (in the economists' sense of non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods).

Another reason why Atlas Shrugged invites polarized responses is that the arguments are put in dramatic form, in which it is easy to be carried along by the story. This encourages those who think that the novel has all the answers not to look too critically. It also gives those who doubt the merits of the arguments an opportunity to slow down, to examine the dramas, to note that the characters on the wrong sides of the arguments make implausibly weak cases for their points of view, and then to suspect the quality of all of the arguments in the book. We can see this by looking at comments made by Wesley Mouch and by those around him to justify central control, and at the pleas by members of Hank Rearden's family for his financial support.

While the cases made by some of the characters may be implausibly weak, the portraits of some of the professional politicians, who have done nothing but climb the greasy pole, are delightful, and worth pasting up on the mirrors of some of our own ministers and mandarins. Another character whom we may spot in real life is the philosopher Simon Pritchett, who denies not only the significance of human life, but the power of reason, the validity of our concepts and our ability to know things (part 1, chapter 6, pages 131-133). Some of those who waffle under the banners of postmodernism and deconstruction are just as bad.

A third reason why Atlas Shrugged invites polarized responses is that it is easy to concentrate on one aspect or another of Rand's ethic itself, and to feel exalted or repelled, depending on the focus of one's attention.

To start with the exaltation, the ethic of setting yourself challenging and productive goals, and then striving with all your might to achieve them, only relying on support from others if they freely choose to co-operate with you, and never coercing nor allowing yourself to be coerced, is undoubtedly a noble one. Likewise, the call to live by fact and reason, not by superstition, is noble.

On the other hand, it is easy to be repelled by the lack of any requirement to help others: "You have no duty to anyone but yourself" (part 3, chapter 2, page 802). We need to look at what lies behind this view.

In his speech, John Galt says that we should not help people who claim our help as a right or as a moral duty that we owe them, but that it is fine to help someone on account of his virtues. The latter would be a trade, and the virtue of the person helped would be your reward. But helping those without virtue, even at no cost to yourself, would be "treason to life" (part 3, chapter 7, page 1,060). The ground for this last claim seems to be that helping those without virtue would corrode the foundations of society. We must insist that others live with the consequences of their own lack of virtue, otherwise people in general will sink into vice.

In the same speech, John Galt says, "A morality that dares to tell you to find happiness in the renunciation of your happiness - to value the failure of your values - is an insolent negation of morality" (page 1,014). In these words, he appears to expose an outright contradiction at the heart of the traditional morality of personal sacrifice that he attacks, in both its religious and its socialist forms. And he does indeed expose a contradiction, if and only if the first reference to happiness is, like the second one, a reference to one's own happiness. But that is a large point at issue. Should one's goal be one's own happiness, or the happiness of a wider class of people?

Rand could support the former option, by reference to her ethic of life. Random altruism would clash directly with that ethic. But we might not find her arguments for that ethic, in the form that it would need to take in order to yield opposition to altruism, satisfactory. And we should not fear that altruism would rob us of the admirable implications of that ethic, in particular the implications that we should strive, should achieve and should live by fact and reason. Those implications could be supported by other means.

It is rather disturbing that in the Valley, people do not simply give of their time and skill, even though the inhabitants are virtuous, and know one another to be virtuous. There is, for example, a charge for attendance at lectures and concerts, offered by some members of the community to others (part 3, chapter 2, pages 773-774). It is a point of principle not to give. One can see the sense of one's not being required to give, but a policy of not giving is decidedly odd. If it is based on anything, it seems to be on the attitude expressed by John Galt "that the unearned cannot be had, that the undeserved cannot be given" (part 3, chapter 2, page 798). If this were a claim that nothing could be consumed that had not been produced, it would be correct. But if it is meant as a claim about relationships between people, and not merely about the unforgiving relationship that nature has with humanity, then it is false.

Finally, even those who do not concentrate on selected aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy, but who take all elements into account, may still be encouraged to take up an extreme position on its merits. The reason is that her philosophy is presented and perceived as a package. It is easy to think that one must accept it all, or reject it all. But that is not so. We are free to accept some propositions within her philosophy and reject others, so long as we find support for the accepted propositions other than the supports that are so bound up with the package that their use would commit us to accepting the whole package.