December 2, 2009

Rand on Capitalism vs. Altruism

For the purposes of the commentary to my Thanksgiving post I had occasion to search my Objectivism Research CD Rom for "altruism." The following passage [click continue reading] from 'For The New Intellectual' made a tremendous impression on me when I first read it, lo those many years ago. It hasn't lost its punch.

I consider FNI to be the best of Rand's non-fiction writing and I highly recommend it to everyone. In a brief 224 pages the reader gets a compendium of the author's thoughts on history, philosophy and morality in the form of a review of her major works of fiction: We The Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged. Fifty pages precede this under the heading, For the New Intellectual. First sentence: "When a man, a business corporation or an entire society is approaching bankruptcy, there are two courses that those involved can follow: they can evade the reality of their situation and act on a frantic, blind, range-of-the-moment expediency-not daring to look ahead, wishing no one would name the truth, yet desperately hoping that something will save them somehow-or they can identify the situation, check their premises, discover their hidden assets and start rebuilding."

Damn! Where's my copy?! Gotta read it again.

From chapter 1 of 'For the New Intellectual' by Ayn Rand - 1963

The businessman, historically, had started as the victim of the intellectuals; but no injustice or exploitation can succeed for long without the sanction of the victim. The businessman, who could not accept the intellectual leadership of post-Kantian Witch Doctors, made his fatal error when he conceded to them the field of the intellect. He gave them the benefit of the doubt, at his own expense: he concluded that their meaningless verbiage could not be as bad as it sounded to him, that he lacked understanding, but had no stomach for trying to understand that sort of stuff and would leave it respectfully alone. No Witch Doctor could have hoped for a deadlier concession.

By becoming anti-intellectual, the businessman condemned himself to the position of an Attila. By restricting his goals, concerns and vision exclusively to his specific productive activity, he was forced to restrict his interests to Attila's narrow range of the physical, the material, the immediately present. Thus he tore himself in two by an inner contradiction: he functioned on a confidently rational, conceptual level of psycho-epistemology in business, but repressed all the other aspects of his life and thought, letting himself he carried passively along by the general cultural current, in the semi-unfocused, perceptual-level daze of a man who considers himself impotent to judge what he perceives. It is thus that he turned too often into the tragic phenomenon of a genius in business who is a Babbitt in his private life.

He repressed and renounced any interest in ideas, any quest for intellectual values or moral principles. He could not accept the altruist morality, as no man of self-esteem can accept it, and he found no other moral philosophy. He lived by a subjective code of his own—the code of justice, the code of a fair trader—without knowing what a superlative moral virtue it represented. His private version or understanding of altruism—particularly in America—took the form of an enormous generosity, the joyous, innocent, benevolent generosity of a self-confident man, who is too innocent to suspect that he is hated for his success, that the moralists of altruism want him to pay financial tributes, not as kindness, but as atonement for the guilt of having succeeded. There were exceptions; there were businessmen who did accept the full philosophical meaning of altruism and its ugly burden of guilt, but they were not the majority.

They are the majority today. No man or group of men can live indefinitely under the pressure of moral injustice: they have to rebel or give in. Most of the businessmen gave in; it would have taken a philosopher to provide them with the intellectual weapons of rebellion, but they had given up any interest in philosophy. They accepted the burden of an unearned guilt; they accepted the brand of "vulgar materialists"; they accepted the accusations of "predatory greed"—predatory toward the wealth which they had created, greed for the fortunes which, but for them, would not have existed. As a result, consciously or subconsciously, they were driven to the cynical bitterness of the conviction that men are irrational, that reason is impotent in human relationships, that the field of ideas is some dark, gigantic, incomprehensible fraud.

Philosophy Posted by JohnGalt at December 2, 2009 6:23 PM

First I will second Brother JG's recommendation. I read this on his advice a couple of years ago and it is a great refresher for those who have not read Rand in many moons, or a good catch-up for those who missed it.

But I am still not down with this. Dagny and I started this argument March 21, 2006 and while it did end up with my reading "FNI," I cannot apologize that the ideas I cherish actually help other people. Adam Smith started with the food on his table, and the wonder that it was provided by disinterested parties. I can appreciate your reasons for an action being self-interest, but why deny the reflection, the reaction that you also contribute to others.

My belief can be established with one anecdote: Bill Gates did far more good for others than Mother Theresa. And he did not have to wash his clothes in the creek. I am updating this story to 2009 to say that Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO, did more good making $600 Billion than Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will do giving it away.

You see it as philosophically important to bifurcate between motive and action. Call me pragmatic, but we have a first lady who tells the graduating class in her commencement speech that they should not go to work for Walmart or Carrefour. The Nick Shultz piece (below post) you all so mercilessly destroyed merely tells the 20 year old that they are not bad people if they go into business. I have nieces that are quite conflicted about that and I welcome the reinforcement.

No, Keith, he did not in 185 words outline a complete worldwide return to free market principles and liberal fundamentals. And, no, jg, he did not provide a timeless compelling argument for individual dignity and self-ownership.

So cancel your American subscriptions. Shultz, from co-founding ( I believe) TCS to his position at The American has been an eloquent, reliable and stout voice for liberty. I think you do a disservice to liberty to attack what a single paragraph blog post did not say versus celebrating the important thing that it did.

No matter how smart you think I is.

Posted by: jk at December 3, 2009 11:49 AM

jk: point taken, and I will admit, I was being unduly harsh. I can only throw myself on the mercy of the court and plead that I did confess upfront I was being contrarian.

My only bleat is that starting a business with the primary motivation of helping the poor - especially in the current hostile business climate - is insufficient. That would be like telling Hank Reardon he had an obligation to develop his business because his wife and brother were dependent on his income.

Perhaps a rising tide does not lift all boats; those that have been wrecked and sunk by their captains stay on the ocean floor. That was my thought as regards our business-repressing government and a growing segment of our labor force.

So, forgive my over-reaction - which was intended just for that one line of thought, and not the entire article. As always, your parry is appreciated in the quarter...

Posted by: Keith at December 3, 2009 1:02 PM

No apologies required 'round these parts, Keith, that's why we play.

This is a long term (3-21-2006 through today at least) disagreement between Brother jg and me. Clicking through Shultz's post to Arnold Kling's comments, I do see the more direct altruism-through-bizness that you decry. Kling's daughter, his friend's daughter, my nieces, and everyone in earshot of Michele Obama's Commencement Address are told it is nobler to join the Peace Corps than Walmart*. I'll gladly accept the right choice for the wrong reason.

Posted by: jk at December 3, 2009 1:53 PM

jk: point taken - and while I want to think it through before I decide whether I agree or disagree, I'll take it under advisement.

I've also discovered I could have cited a better character from Atlas Shrugged than Hank Rearden in my last one. For a better example of an entrepreneur in whose business we might invest, consider Ragnar Danneskjöld instead. Check out this article, and then let's decide if you all want to invest in my IPO for this business:

Posted by: Keith at December 3, 2009 2:02 PM

Before I attempt anew to answer the question, "Why deny the reflection, the reaction that you also contribute to others" perhaps differently than I (or dagny) have done in the past, I'd like to point out that Howard Dean is down with jk's pragmatic victory: "I'll gladly accept the right choice for the wrong reason."

See his videotaped speech here where he says, "There's not so much of a debate anymore on the left about capitalism - and whether we should have it or not. There's a debate about how to have it. I think capitalism is always going to be with us because capitalism represents part of human nature. But the other part of human nature is communitarianism. There's a natural tendency of human beings, in addition to wanting to do things for themselves - they feel a great responsibility in wanting to be part of a community. And so then I think the debate for the new generation is instead of capitalism OR socialism is, we're going to have both and then which proportion of each should we have in order to make this all work. It's a much more sensible debate."

Posted by: johngalt at December 3, 2009 4:01 PM

That debate could only be sensible to Howard Dean.

Posted by: Keith at December 3, 2009 4:53 PM

No Keith, I don't think so. I think that debate is sensible to every Democrat and a great fraction of the remainder of Americans. And I contend the reason for this is Americans have been conditioned that helping others is at least as important as helping yourself.

On re-reading I don't believe jk is saying that. Nor do I take Shultz's excerpt to mean one should start a business for the express purpose of helping the poor. I think he was just saying, "Hey, if helping the poor is your big goal then you'll make more of a difference in corporate America than with some do-gooder charity scheme."

I'll leave the rest of my thoughts until tomorrow. The hour is late.

Posted by: johngalt at December 4, 2009 1:02 AM

And I was going to give you tips how to beat on me. My hero, Milton Friedman says the sole purpose of a corporation is to add value for the shareholders. Rand and Friedman would slow me down...

Posted by: jk at December 4, 2009 10:18 AM

Having freshly re-read the 2006 dialogue which you linked I have come to the conclusion that the obstacle to your acceptance of the capitalist morality, as a replacement for rather than a sidekick to, the altruist morality is your focus on convincing others that your way is better. Not just any others, but the most died-in-the-wool emotionalist liberal do-gooder collectivists you're likely to meet. From time to time it is wise to sit back and examine your premises: Is there anyone on earth whom you might find "unreachable" by logic and reason? Rand said that anyone who denies the existence of reason can't be persuaded by it, so there is no use in wasting your time or breath on them.

I'm sure you feel that it is important to bring the light to these people, many of whom are beloved family members. But if they can't acknowledge that collectivizing productivity destroys it, ala John Stossel's example of the Plymouth Colony, then you have no hope of success in convincing them that WalMart is a greater good than the World Wildlife Fund.

Rand addressed both of these facts in Atlas Shrugged. Rather than convince the public that altruism was evil, her heroes abandoned the public and struck out on their own. And your well-meaning refusal to give up on the socialists amongst us is mirrored in Dagny Taggart's refusal to watch her grandfather's railroad rot into oblivion when she "knew" that through brute force of her own will she could "save" it.

Let's return to the Rand excerpt I published above: "The businessman ... made his fatal error when he conceded to them the field of the intellect." By doing so, "the businessman condemned himself to the position of an Attila." ("Attila" you'll recall is Rand's term for the men who practice persuasion by force.) And this is why the modern Progressives can denounce businessmen (corporations) as the selfish rich who say "screw everybody else." Because as a result of his abandoning the realm of philosophy the prevailing morality of our time is altruism.

I wholeheartedly agree that we can't afford to spend forty or fifty years teaching a proper morality, like the progressives did in fostering altruism. We now have an emergency situation where the tree of liberty is about to be exterminated. But to rally around a national return to healthy corporatism in return for accepting the bridle of "helping the poor" on the backs of corporate profit will not defeat the Progressives and their creeping socialism. The first step - the very first step - must be to denounce altruism on moral grounds. "Don't tread on me." "Don't spread my wealth - spread my work ethic." Countless other signs and slogans express the individualist moral ethic of capitalism at the expense of altruism.

The Tea Parties have done this, and the Progressives lashed out against them. Sarah Palin does this and they elevate her to the level of pariah. The ideas that Rand invented, and that we are promoting, are on the verge of widespread acceptance, and the Progressives know it. The only thing they can offer in return is to call us names and offer to let capitalism "coexist" with their socialism - as though they could survive without us! We can win this fight, this battle of ideas, because ours is the idea inherent in Americanism. Americans of every race, religion and economic station understand and trust these values in their gut. But the biggest obstacle to our success may be the realization that we may have to let a few friends think poorly of us for a while if we're to be successful in "securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Posted by: johngalt at December 4, 2009 7:52 PM

I wrote a long, thoughtful, reasoned response and my browser froze. So please accept this short, disjointed rant in its place.

I do think you have nailed it, brother. Software guys look for patterns and this is definitely a pattern around here. My position as blog pragmatist is secure for the near future.

I'm also tempted to agree on the moonbats. I'm never going to reach them, related or not. But I have succeeded in convincing a few that there is a serious opposition and that there is indeed a liberty component to opposing coerced charity. There's some value in that.

There is more value -- and here I will quibble -- in reaching those in the middle who are not devoid of reason. It's me against unions, teachers, Hollywood, and five centuries of literature. If I come in, guns-a-blazing, I lose their thoughtful consideration quickly.

I don't know that I have ever really turned anybody on to liberty theory, for years and years of trying. But my heroes are the "happy warriors." Jack Kemp, Milton Friedman, and Tony Snow were hard to dismiss, whereas Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter even put me off.

I'll end by destroying my credibility with ThreeSourcers. I consider myself pretty pure on first-principles liberty (much of my reasonableness is feigned), yet I'll go with Governor Dean a bit of the way. There is an intrinsic element in humanity that yearns to improve not just our own lives and environment. I'll go with Ms. Rand on the dangers of letting that emotion rule our life. But part of individual achievement is improving things outside of your circle. If I get kicked out of the Objectivist cocktail parties for that then so be it.

Posted by: jk at December 5, 2009 12:00 PM | What do you think? [10]