Sunday, January 11, 2009

Re: Was Ayn Rand Right All Along?

Responding to my post "Was Ayn Rand Right All Along?", my friend and frequent intellectual sparring partner Paul Sawyer wrote the following:
Couldn't agree more. Although I don't know why you say the solution she set forward was "temporary." She wasn't so much advocating a economic or political quick fix as she was promoting a fundamental shift in philosophy, which necessarily would be permanent. Also, we shouldn't forget: she was first and foremost a philosopher. Not an economist...

Pretty sure you already know this, but I just want to say for the record I am NOT a cultish, Rand-deifying Objectivist. In fact, the Ayn Rand Institute kinda makes me want to vom. And not just because I'm wasted.

It also pisses me off when she claimed that Objectivism sprung out of her mind with ZERO influence from other thinkers. This is bullshit. She owes a huge debt to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Mencken, and Herbert Spencer. Shit, she even wrote Mencken a starry-eyed letter before she was famous that pretty much said she wanted to devote her career to the awesomeness he embodied (I'm paraphrasing obviously).

And here's my response, which is very much stream of consciousness and thus thoroughly unpolished:

Perhaps I'm interpreting the ending of Atlas Shrugged the wrong way, but it seemed as though the people living at Galt's Gulch were planning on rebuilding an American nation-state much like the one that had originally existed, just with John Galt's philosophical principles written into the Constitution. Thus, there would still be a federal government, but its influence would be tightly contained within the sphere that Rand thought appropriate. Such a project would be inevitably destined to fail.

I'll lay out my arguments more clearly in a forthcoming column, but I have become convinced that human nature is such that Rand's radically hands off government could not exist for any length of time. It would be hijacked by some internal or external actors seeking to maximize their own power and the whole cycle described in Atlas Shrugged would just happen all over again. That's just the nature of human bureaucratic institutions. Failing to recognize this fact is a sign that one is looking at the world through an incredibly unrealistic ideological lens.

Given that all of the above is true, the best solution is to facilitate a situation in which the nation-state has been eliminated altogether. Currently, the death of the nation-state would plunge us all into a dystopic state of underdevelopment. This is why the invention and adoption of technology that will enable the creation of self-contained and sustainable resilient communities is crucial. If food, energy, manufactured goods (all of the material requirements of modern life) can be produced within a community composed of only thousands or tens of thousands of people, then there would no longer be an economic justification behind having nation-states at all.

Of course, even after they've degenerated into pure parasitism, there's no way that large-scale governments will just go away on their own. They are run by entrenched hierarchies of bureaucrats whose lascivious lust for power over others knows no bounds. But, increasingly I don't think that's going to be the problem. The real danger is that the modern nation-state will go extinct before resilient communities are ready for prime time. If that happens, we'll be in a world of hurt. It could quite literally mean the end of the line for our current human civilization. It likely wouldn't be the end of the world, but horrifyingly large numbers of people would almost certainly die from starvation, exposure to the elements, etc. Seriously, just give some thought to what would happen to you if your electricity went off permanently and there wasn't any more gasoline available to power our vehicles.

We've previously discussed some of the events that I think will lead up to the demise of the modern nation-state. Ultimately, I just don't think our current societal structure will be capable of sustaining itself for more than a few decades longer--at most. Just look at history. Technological and social change always eventually get out ahead of any political power structure's ability to control. When this happens the existing social order dissolves and chaos ensues for some period of time until a new way of ordering society emerges.

For example, the industrial revolution resulted in the collapse of monarchy and agrarian feudalism and enabled the birth of the nation-state as we know it. There is simply no reason to assume that our current political institutions will fare any better as they run up against the numerous challenges that 21st Century technology is throwing at them. Look at the ongoing financial crisis. The byzantine web of overlapping financial obligations that we built was just too complex for the current economic and political power structures to handle. Computers and the Internet let us setup the system, but we didn't know what the hell we were doing. And now that the system has broken down, no one really knows how to fix it.

Rather than wasting precious time and resources attempting to repair a system that is clearly neither stable nor sustainable, we need to build resilient communities as soon as possible. That way, when the systemic collapse inevitably arrives, we will be prepared for it.

But back to Rand.

In Atlas Shrugged, as I said, Galt's Gulch was only a temporary refuge from which the novels heroes could weather the storm of the corrupt state's collapse. Then they fully intended to build up a new, pure state in its place. For all of the reasons I laid out above, this is not an attainable goal. Instead, what's necessary is the construction of millions of instantiations of communities built with the same basic blueprints as Galt's Gulch. That will be the new societal equilibrium. In the next era of human history, there will be no large-scale political organizations such as the United States of America.

It won't be anarchy exactly--and it certainly won't be utopia, but it will be radically different than the world of today. Hopefully, it will be better. In any case, we should do our best to try to make sure that it is.

(Obviously, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong about most of this stuff. The above only represents my thoughts at the moment. I make no claims of certainty here and my views and predictions will likely evolve further over time.)


Here's a somewhat random yet highly instructive example of how an organically formed community can better deal with a serious security threat than can any nation-state's bureaucracy.


jrshilpey said...

Moore's piece was interesting.... Interesting especially that he left out the fact that none other than Alan Greenspan was a Rand acolyte. Greenspan recently testified before Congress that his Randian worldview was shattered by the financial crisis. He had thought, he stated, that egoist self-interest would lead to self-regulation of securities and derivatives, which he and others argued the government should stay out of regulating. Indeed, the anti-regulatory dogma pushed by Moore's CATO has had increasing influence on public policy over the past few decades, so a strong case can be made for just the opposite of Moore's conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Sure, Greenspan was a Rand acolyte back in the day, but his actions on behalf of the Fed had Objectivists, libertarians, and many other sane people jumping up and down for at least the past eight years. His actions during this time were, in no way, in congruence with Objectivist principle. The Fed's mere existence runs counter to these precepts.

He threw the "My free market ideology has been shattered" line out there as an red herring to deflect scrutiny from the real source of this disaster, which is to say the government and Federal Reserve. The housing bubble was created by A) quasi-government institutions like Fannie and Freddi that insured these insane mortgage terms (terms that would have been offered in a free market) and B) the Fed keeping interest rates insanely low.

No one who truly understand free markets (and that includes Objectivists, even the crazy ones) would say that Greenspan embodied ANYTHING resembling a Randian worldview, his previous relationship with her notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

In the post above, I meant to type in (A) "terms that NEVER would have been offered in a free market."

I didn't type 'never' above. Which is unfortunate because 'never' is the key word here.

jrshipley said...

(A) Not entirely true. It is true that F&F securitized mortgages, but it's simply not true at all that only F&F did so. And in fact the ramping up of securitization and the complex traunching that immediately preceded the crisis was not done by F&F. Furthermore, F&F didn't even start buying up subprime backed securities until things started going south, in a misguided effort to prove their worth as a kind of bulwark. The facts as I have them from amateur research is that the major activities leading up to the crisis in securities, derivatives, crediti default swaps, etc. was unregulated private sector stuff.

(B) Maybe a contributing factor.

I stand by my previous claim that the theory that markets would self-regulate based on rational self-interest is one that was pushed by CATO types like Moore and one that was disastrously false. I'll leave it to Rand's interpreters to say whether she would have endorsed the idea.

Anonymous said...

I find it fascinating that when F & F goes bankrupt (as they should) the anti-capitalist myth-peddlers say, "They're too big to fail! They're too interwoven in our financial system to be left for dead!" and yet, when it comes time to examine the root causes of this boondoggle, it's suddenly, "Well, F & F were just a small drop in the pail, they weren't the only ones!" Which one is it?

Of COURSE private actors, be they individuals or firms, are "greedy." Well, what of it? Greed, even as the sentimentalists define it, is only dangerous if the risk inherent in the "greed" is externalized onto the public. Which is EXACTLY what the government did to create the economic collapse (maybe not even intentionally) and EXACTLY what they're doing to get us out of it. It's weird.

Whether the Fed and F & F are soley responsible for this, it's preposterous to allege that this is ALL due to economic freedom or that this all could've have been avoided if only we had left more decisions to the cooler heads of the government parasites.

Anonymous said...

(There's a couple times where I meant, "externalize the RISK.")

C. T. Gilbert said...

Your highly instructive example of an organically formed community (what an interesting choice of word, given the realm of this community) certainly is that. While a lot of intelligent, constructive idea-building is going on, the main theme seems to be one of endlessness. One poster talks about actions undertaken "unaccountably" because of the electronic world's anonymity: by that permissive, there is no one held to deadline, process, organization or direction, and so the think-tank goes on and on, and several good solutions emerge and are quickly dissolved as yet more put themselves together from the pieces. In this organic system, there is no one who has to be responsible, and held responsible, for a final decision. Another post talks about not wanting to be the guy who pulls the trigger on a certain, possibly damaging operation. This is then the perfect community, one where no one has to.

I'm not saying that freeform, boundless idea-volleyball isn't a good thing. Just that at some point a more cohesive, directed plan should take shape out of all of it.

Christopher Patton said...

I probably should have included some more background in that update. Thus far, Internet security has been maintained almost exclusively by the private sector--corporations, non-profits, and informal groups of experts. There is no government that regulates the entire Internet. For the most part, government intervention in the global network has been in the form of attempting with mixed success to block citizens' access to information that the government in question would rather they not have.

The Internet can function as it does because it's an interconnected series of independently operating nodes. One could destroy half of the servers and fiber optic cables in the world and the other half would quickly work around that and function just fine without them. Our energy, agricultural, and manufacturing infrastructures are much more hierarchical and hence more subject to hierarchical control as well as systemic failure. But this need not be the case.

It is in principle possible to build all of our critical infrastructure systems to more closely resemble the Internet. For example, the transition to renewable power should allow electricity generation to become far less centralized than it currently is. For all the reasons listed in my post, I think this is something we should vigorously pursue.

Christopher Patton said...

Regarding the discussion above about whether more government involvement in the credit market could have avoided the current crisis, I think it's crucial to keep in mind that government agencies suffer from many of the same basic problems as corporate structures. For one thing, limited information is always a problem. The main reason that markets are generally better than central planners at setting prices is that too much information goes into the prices for any single decision maker to fully grasp. When they're functioning well, markets serve to harness the collective intelligence of all their participants. Also, there's the problem of regulatory capture and other issues of corruption. There's no reason to assume that regulators will operate in the public interest out of the goodness of their hearts, either. Everyone has interests of their own that they'll seek to serve if left to their own devices. That's why transparency and checks and balances are at least as important as having regulatory oversight in the first place.