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Thursday, June 02, 2011

More Randian Nonsense

This bit was in response to a comment on my review of Atlas Shrugged on Amazon. The comment ultimately cited a piece of the Galt speech essentially stating that you were either right, wrong or evil-- that those who see the gray areas in choices are the worst of all. The commenter then presumed I must be in my late 20's and "haven't produced anything," then admitting he "could be wrong," but that I should "Let them [readers of Rand] discover reason and self-reliance on their own. It can only do good in their lives and is a step in the right direction."


No, you are wrong. About many things. I'm in my late 50's and have produced a considerable amount. I've produced many things that are valued by society, and also many things that are not. I have learned that mere production is not enough. I write software, compose music, and create art, among other things. But beyond that, I've been learning how to produce something far more important than any of that, and that's how to contribute to the happiness of others. In fact, all my creations have always been with the idea of contributing to the happiness of society. But of course, Rand has nothing but her utter disdain for "society."

But to distill the world into givers and takers is in fact a simple minded picture of reality. Not only that, Rand must contrive who is who to the extreme, in order to contradict that reality-is Robin Hood a giver or a taker? Obviously, he does both-but what is the net result? When the genius corporate exec produces a new metal from resources strip mined from public lands, destroying acres and acres of forest in the process, and polluting the atmosphere with his foundries, is he a producer, or simply a "user", a "taker", a "looter?" How many successful rich people in this world are of which variety? The problems are in fact very complex, such that probably none of us fully understand. To stick to a simple black and white representation of the world that bears only vague resemblance to reality, is at best "kicking the can down the road," to use a popular phrase, and at worst, outright destructive. I claim at the very least, that it's not *useful* as it leads people to believe that the gray areas do not exist, when they may be the most important factors to consider. A healthy respect for what we do not know does not exist when we've convinced ourselves that the problems and solutions are all simple black and white ones. The false dichotomy takes hold and ignorance rules.

And then we have the Rand and her minions who have convinced themselves that it's okay if all you want to do is to take all you can, justified by what is called "production." But what they have missed is that the true value of "production" is related to the value of the products to society. Am I a worthwhile producer (in the "Randian" sense), if all I produce is great music that no one but me wants to hear? What justification does Rand have if productivity is only for the benefit of the producer? Am I a proper "Randian" producer, if what I produce makes 10 people happy at the expense of making 20 miserable? Would Rand say that as long as I am happy that's all that counts? If so, don't forget that what it takes to make me happy is to surround myself with happy people. Is an individual, even a genius one, who ultimately takes (in the form of profits and the use of common resources) more than he produces properly considered a producer? How do you measure the net-gain vs. net-loss of such a producer, and how would Rand look at the difference?

Successful producers are not just those who have a certain genius. They also have to have a certain amount of luck. For every rich genius you can find, I can show you several others who have as much genius but aren't rich because they lacked the requisite luck. Being born into money, going to school with the right people, having the right teachers, liking the right things at the right times. Genius does not develop and prosper in a vacuum; it requires a proper environment, just like seeds need water and fertile soil to grow. It needs the luck of having landed in the right environment. And that environment includes many of the rest of us.

Like it or not, you share this planet with millions of others, most of which are NOT geniuses. They may struggle far more than you because of it, but even the genius businessman needs them, as that is where customers and employees come from. And the janitor is every bit as important as he is, because without one the trash piles up and the customers and employees hold their nose, avert their eyes, and next time shop or work somewhere else where the neat and clean is valued, and the provider of it given his due.

Another thing that Rand is completely off the mark about is emotions. She thinks herself so completely rational, but clearly she is motivated by emotions-anger without a doubt. She seems to forget that happiness is itself an emotion, and one that in my opinion is pretty ridiculous when achieved in complete isolation. What she misses is the role of emotions in society and where they have value. As it turns out, emotions and irrationality have a specific and important place in successful human relationships, and modern scientific studies, in both psychology and economics, have shown this. Emotions are something that Rand herself can be seen to have no shortage of, but doesn't understand well enough to see it.

Reason and self-reliance are laudable goals. I'm all for them. Ayn Rand's path to them however, is stunningly dysfunctional. Your Galt quote is a prime example-- the "man in the middle" is not saying that no choice exists, he is saying that there are more than two "sides" to evaluate. He is saying "what about strawberry?" when Galt is claiming that the choice is only chocolate and vanilla. Only the simplest of problems can be reduced to a clear dichotomy. Often there are pros and cons to a choice, tradeoffs to be made, unintended consequences to be identified. I don't say don't make a choice, only to make sure you are not choosing from an oversimplified and propagandized pair of ideals that have little or no bearing in reality.


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