Rand and Chambers II

More bloviating on Ayn Rand

Chambers (correctly) upbraids Rand for her heresies.

The first is Manichaeanism. She has an absolute black-and-white moral code. Her bad guys are all utterly bad; her good guys are all utterly good.

Considering the type of debate that swirls around the question of the morality  of capitalism, I myself see such Manichaeism as inevitable: by that I mean that any flaw, no matter how small, of the free market system, is inflated by its enemies, and any virtue of command-economies is exaggerated.

An attempt to give a nuanced or balanced view of the matter, in a work of fiction, is doomed to failure. If John Galt had any flaw, no matter how small, the enemy would point at it and crow: See! That proves capitalism is Evil!

So instead Ayn Rand took the route of being analytical. In a world of gray, when the paint is being spread from one white tube of paint and one black, and the argument is over whether the white tube is spreading black paint, that is, every failure cause by market intervention (e.g. the Great Depression) is blamed on the market, not on the intervention, then the only way to argue is to isolate the variables, and look at what the market would do under perfect conditions.  Only by isolating the white tube can you confirm that it is the source of the white paint.

Considering that Chambers commits (I assume deliberately) the egregious error of mistaking her anarchism for totalitarianism, I have entire sympathy with Ayn Rand’s approach. She is being as black-and-white as possible in order to be as clear as possible. She is attempting a romantic fiction rather than a realistic fiction, because her purpose is to inspire and uplift. She wishes to restore to liberty the moral sanction it has been unjustly denied.

I do not find her villains to be any more absurd or unrealistic than the villains in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. Wesley Mouch could be the brother of Wither; Simon Pritchett could be Professor Frost. Realism is useful for certain types of books (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, LORD OF THE RINGS, ILIAD) and not for others (ORLANDO FURIOSO, VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, PILGRIMS PROGRESS, PRINCESS OF MARS). Not only do I regard the charge that her characters are ‘unrealistic’ as an unrealistic charge, I regard it as actual lunacy–for it leads me to believe the reviewer has not read any books outside a very narrow modern range; in which case I wonder why he is reviewing. 

Ayn Rand is also guilty of the heresy of Pelagianism. Her characters are paragons of moral uprightness, and John Galt, by his own admission, is a prelapsarian man: Adam who knew no Fall. In one essay, she proposes that taxes be abolished, to be replaced with voluntary user-fees or payments. I suppose an unfallen man would always pony up his share of the public expense, and that unfallen princes would not demand beyond what pure reason dictated for needed public expense—of course, since there are no wars in Eden, and no crime either, it is not clear why the prelapsarians have any public expenses at all?

I can take proposals to abolish taxes as seriously as proposals to abolish death. The dear Ms. Rand loses my admiration and respect when she goes on in this vein. I am happy with unrealistic romance in novels; I am unconvinced by unrealistic romance as a program for political revolution.

(My stoic resignation to taxes does not extend to the income tax, capitation, or other direct tax. Such were among the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Sixteen Amendment should be repealed immediately–the Founders knew what they were doing when they specifically forbad such perniciousness.)

I agree that businessmen, no matter how rich, must be governed by the same laws which govern other men. Theft, fraud, breach of contract, must be enforced with absolute rigor against the wealthy: perhaps with greater rigor, due to the influence of their wealth over, the example they set to, others. I do not agree that particular regulations of labor, insider trading, allowing and forbidding certain trade practices, anti-trust regulations, and so on, are just, logical or practical.

I am a lawyer: I studied anti-trust law. A more unreasonable, unworkable and pointless set of regulations cannot be imagined. No businessman, no matter how sincerely he desires to conform his conduct to the requirements of law, can in fact do so: the laws are vague and self-contradictory. If his prices are the same as his competitors, this is evidence of collusion; if below, evidence of predatory pricing; if above, evidence of superior market dominance… all three of these are grounds for finding a conspiracy in restraint of trade.

If you do not believe me, look at the Alcoa case, look at the GE case, look at International Shoe. Judge Learned Hand in Alcoa specifically said it was unfair and unlawful to hire good help and seek business opportunities in a rational, competent way.

But I do believe that the courts betrayed the interests of the workingman forming a doctrine that a workingman consents to the risk incumbent in his job, even when the risks are hidden, or the conditions less safe than is reasonable and standard in the field. The legislative solution was Workman’s Compensation, an outrageous provision that bars the workingman from suing in a court of law. It is a prime example of regulatory capture: the Workman’s Comp boards became instruments of business policy.

Chambers is right that Ayn Rand’s characters fornicate with no provision made for the rearing of the young. These nymphs and satyrs who indulge in sex only when it is a rational expression of their highest values to do so are fortunately sterile. Children would be a messy exception to Rand’s otherwise clean system of reducing all human interactions to marketplace exchanges of mutually beneficial consent among equals. This flaw, call it “The Childless World” theory, unfortunately follows her libertarian followers to this present day.

The Childless World theory is just as absurd for other dependants, widows and orphans, the lame, the mad, the infirm. A just people would make provision for all such, as a just man makes personal provision for his family. Even ordinary friendship is poisoned if put onto a value-for-value basis.

Rand, by the way, was not an apologist for Big Businesses any more than she was for an aristocracy-of-birth. I am actually puzzled how anyone could read her to mean this. The first scene in the book concerns the unfairness of a Big Business (Taggart Transcontinental) using an unfair union-style regulation to squeeze out the competition (Phoenix-Durango) in a fashion that is Starkly, Utterly, and Unambiguously condemned as wrong and immoral  by the characters who serve as the author’s sock puppet. Some of her heroes are big businessmen, true, but an equal number of her villains are. For every good philosopher there is a bad philosopher; for every good scientist there is a bad scientist. I can think of no other author who went so far as to line up the oppositions so symbolically and systematically.

Perhaps you are assuming free enterprise automatically favors the large, established businesses. She the makes the point, and I think correctly, that the opposite is the case. Little firms like Microsoft (remember back when it was little?) in a free market, are always overturning giants like IBM. It is when markets are regulated that the little guy has no chance to overturn the dominant dinosaur, and for the reasons Lordbrand gives above. In other words, love of the free market means indifference to big business, not love of big business.

Some of her superheroes are little guys running start-ups, railroad employees, a bus driver, a housewife. She lionizes not business for its bigness, but free enterprise for its fairness.

As a Christian, I reject both Manichaeism and Pelagianism. I assume businessmen are as prone as anyone to sin, and the warning against the wealthy men reaching heaven in the Gospels should give anyone whose treasures are store up in this world a moment of chilling introspection, if not terror. But neither does my Christianity incline me to favor a command economy. We Christians render unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and pay our taxes on time–but it is worse than folly, it is a positive evil, to look to the Big Brother for salvation.

I may look to outside observers like a libertarian, merely because my mistrust of the swords of  the powerful is greater than my mistrust of the coins of the rich. The rich you can refuse to do business with, by refusing their coins; the powerful you can refuse nothing.