individually objectivist, politically liberal, never statist – one man’s take on Atlas Shrugged and how it relates to the current political climate

(This will probably be my most contentious post to date, given how strongly some people feel about Atlas Shrugged, both positively and negatively. I welcome and encourage all comments.)

Cover photo for The Fountainhead (from http://www.aynrand.org)

I first read Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged, interestingly enough, in largely socialist Stockholm, Sweden. I was spending the summer of 2005 as an intern at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, and had brought along Atlas Shrugged to see what all the hype was about. Between being too poor to go out to bars/clubs/restaurants and the amount I was enjoying the book, I devoted all of my non-working hours (and, to be honest, more than a few working hours) to reading. I finished the book in about a week, though I had to skim the last bit (probably 20 pages or so) of John Galt’s speech.* Since then, I have re-read it a number of times.

The first thing that should be noted about my interpretation of Atlas Shrugged is that it relies heavily on having read We the Living, which Rand once said was “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write.We the Living is set in communist Russia, and tells the story of an extremely talented and intelligent young woman who is consistently thwarted in her attempts at professional success and love by her poor standing in the Communist party. The sense of futility that pervades We the Living is crucial to my interpretation of Atlas Shrugged, as context for Rand’s rejection of anything even remotely resembling socialism.

On a personal level, Rand’s ideas about the sanctity of one’s own mind and decision-making resonate very strongly with me. Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged identifies the following virtues (pp. 946 – 949**, heavily excerpted for length):

“Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking . . .

Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it . . that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is . . . the acceptance of an authority over your brain . . .

Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness . . . that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others…

Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud . . . that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.

Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature . . . that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions…

Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live . . . that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human…

Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man’s values, it has to be earned . . . that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind…”

As Rand says, adhering to these virtues is a profoundly selfish way to live. But my interpretation of Rand’s philosophy does not require solely self-serving acts. For example, my friends and family are extremely important to me. They have my love, and it is love given freely, not obtained from me by coercion or fraud. In light of that, sometimes I will do things that run counter to what my personal preferences would dictate in a vacuum; but it is not out of altruism. Altruism, according to the Merriam-Webster definition, is “the unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. My regard for or devotion to the welfare of others is far from unselfish, but instead arises from the happiness that my relationships with friends and family bring to me and the value that they add to my life every single day.

This philosophy also requires a complete ownership of the consequences of my actions. No one can force me to do something; what they can do is make the cost of not doing it high enough that I decide it is in my best interest. I don’t have to accept an invitation to a friend’s party, or obey traffic laws, or pay taxes. But if I choose not to do any of those things, I have to do so in full recognition that there may be costs of that action: a damaged relationship with the friend, a speeding ticket, or possibly jail time. I cannot pretend that those consequences do not exist and then cry “foul” when someone tries to impose them, that would be asking someone else to make an allowance for me that I had not earned. Just as I do not give my love to those who would obtain it from me by coercion or fraud, I must recognize that I cannot expect to obtain it from others in that same way.

However, significant problems arise if you try to expand Rand’s philosophy to a societal level, for one reason: markets are full of inefficiencies, and there is widespread disagreement about the extent of those inefficiencies.*** This, to me, is really the only difference between my political views and those of the staunchest conservative. I was an Econ major in school (which apparently already makes me conservatively inclined), and there are few things as elegant as market solutions to market inefficiencies. The prime example of this for me, as someone who has been particularly focused on environmental economics, is the success of emissions trading programs under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 in achieving real reductions in acid rain. The Environmental Defense Fund (hardly a conservative think tank) says that “[t]he market-based approach enshrined in the U.S. Acid Rain program has demonstrated that environmental protections need not compete with economic well-being“, while the Economist calls it “[t]he greatest green success story of the past decade” (behind the paywall).

So in my ideal world, the only role of the state would be to figure out how to send the proper market signals and then to sit back and watch as the economy hummed along, all transactions were based on a mutual agreement between two parties, and we erected a giant statue of Ayn Rand next to the Washington Monument. But I think, unlike Rand and many members of the Conservative party, that the market failures are too significant and too complicated to ever achieve that goal. That belief has pushed me firmly into the “liberal” camp.

That’s why it annoys me to see characterizations of liberals as “statists,” who are interested in the expansion of government because they want to “take away freedoms” or because they want to “control every aspect of your life.” In a post on “Ideological Positioning“, Matt Yglesias writes (h/t the Daily Dish):

“Don’t think to yourself ‘we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.’ Think to yourself ‘we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.'”

I have a bit of a problem with his characterization. While I agree that sometimes (maybe often) my advocacy of an increased role for the state in a given arena manifests as a “privileged vs. non-privileged” discrepancy, I think that it is always driven by my belief that there is an underlying market failure that is not being addressed, and that the government is the proper actor to address that market failure.

As I said above, I think that Rand’s rejection of anything that approximates a small step in the direction of socialism or increased governmental role is a reaction to her view of Russia as shown in We the Living. But I think at this point, in the wake of the financial crisis, even some of her most prominent disciples are allowing for possible cracks in that framework. From the 10/23/08 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, we have this exchange between Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Alan Greenspan, a member of Rand’s inner circle in the 1950s:

Chairman Waxman: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working.

Mr. Greenspan: Precisely. That’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.

Greenspan has since clarified that view, saying instead that it was “not the principal of competitive markets” that failed, but that the “major mistake was assuming what the nature of risk would be.” I have no problem with that clarification. I am perfectly willing to agree that the underlying model is sound, but I think that the human fallibility that overlays the model is significant. So significant, in some cases, that it justifies moving away from the model of competitive markets towards more state control.

So the disagreement, as I see it, is not one of “liberal statist” versus “conservative free-market champion”. Rather, the disagreement lies in the beliefs of each group (and the infinite intermediate perspectives) as to how to correct the market failures of a completely free market. It is not “big government for big government’s sake”, but rather “the smallest government necessary to correct a broken market.” My “smallest government necessary” is just bigger than that of most (if not all) conservatives.

* John Galt’s speech is right up there in terms of “passages that cry out for an editor” alongside Victor Hugo’s discussion of argot, the language of criminals, in Les Miserables. The argot discussion in Les Mis made me give up on the book as a whole. Luckily, Galt’s speech was so close to the end that I felt ok skipping the last part and moving on with the book.

** I only have access to an electronic version of Atlas Shrugged right now, so page numbers are approximate based on the location in the eBook and an assumed print length of 1088 pages.

*** This does not prevent my practicing the described “objectivist” philosophy on a personal level for two reasons: (1) Unlike the government, who must be concerned with the welfare of all of its citizens, I am concerned only with personal welfare, and (2) I make a conscious effort (not because I am compelled to, but because it is in line with my own values and morals) to account for the external costs of my actions whenever possible.

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4 Responses to individually objectivist, politically liberal, never statist – one man’s take on Atlas Shrugged and how it relates to the current political climate

  1. loumanji says:

    Great argument. Objectivism is wonderful as a personal philosophy and terrible as a foundation for one’s political views.

  2. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Can you expand on this statement?: “I make a conscious effort (not because I am compelled to, but because it is in line with my own values and morals) to account for the external costs of my actions whenever possible.”

    • frouglas says:

      I try to approach all decision making through an explicit cost-benefit paradigm, i.e. I consciously weigh the costs and benefits of a given action and will only act on it if I feel the benefit outweighs the cost. When doing this, I have to decide whether to include aspects of a behavior in my analysis, the appropriate weighting that various probabilities should receive, unintended consequences of my actions, etc. Clearly, I would never be able to explicitly identify each and every cost and benefit of a given action, but I do make a conscious effort to expand the analysis beyond just me and include the costs and benefits to other people that will arise from my actions. I don’t do this because of external forces that say I should or should not be accounting for other people when making decisions, but rather because it is something that I choose to do.

  3. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Maybe you could do a full post in the future going into some examples and expanding a bit more – this is a subject about which I am very interested. I’d especially like to read about actions that you determine are worth it (or unavoidable) despite serious negative consequences for others. On my end, I recently wrote a piece entitled “I Deserve to Die” about my moral culpability for my inaction in the face of murderous government policy.

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