15 March 2009

The underlying problem

It is the Ides of March and, therefore, issues of importance need to be looked at. Not that the EU is not important but, in many ways, it is the symptom, not the cause.

Yesterday I did a longish stint on the BBC Russian Service and, in the course of it, spent two minutes talking about the growing popularity of Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” in the United States and the ever more frequent signs of “Who is John Galt?” appearing at the continuing Tea Parties across the country. (This movement has been documented extensively by Instapundit, Sister Toldjah and Michelle Malkin, among others.)

The point, for those who do not know about John Galt is that “Atlas”, the productive members of society, withdraw their labour because they no longer want to carry “the world”, that is the huge and ever-growing load of government, politicians, civil servant, public servants, regulators, all those who do nothing but leech off them and use the money to run their lives. Since her day the problem has become worse and the situation in the US is such that people are seriously threatening to limit their work to the minimum necessary to survive in order to deprive the human and institutional parasites of their lifeblood.

But Atlas is shrugging as this placard says and the book is no #27 on Amazon.

I have certain difficulties with Ayn Rand. In the first place, she was not a very good writer and her novels are long, boring and lumbering. She is also, like so many political philosophers who comment on the present as well as try to tease out more permanent laws and theories, better at seeing what is wrong than at building up alternatives. Her solution as presented at the end of “Atlas Shrugged” is seriously unsatisfactory to anyone who really believes in individual liberty and is likely to turn into another Animal Farm.

Her worship of strength, contempt for any weakness, disdain for private charity and hatred for anyone who disagrees with her makes me feel that Whittaker Chambers was, yet again, correct when he caught a whiff of fascism in her writing, particularly in “Atlas Shrugged”.

More than anything I dislike her disciples and followers, though, one could argue, she is not responsible for them. Their reaction to anyone who disagrees with the slightest point Ms Rand made is vitriolic hatred and abuse, all of which, apparently, demonstrates their belief in freedom.

Having said that, I have to add that Ms Rand’s analysis of what is wrong with society in general both at a more superficial and the underlying level is unmatched. She slices through all orthodoxies and shows very clearly how it is they manage to produce the noxious results we all have to live with.

I have never been able to get through Ayn Rand’s novels but I have read a number of her essays, which tend to reformulate the same two or three ideas but they are good ideas. However, the best summary of the underlying problem is in the Introduction to her collection “The Virtue of Selfishness”, written in 1964.
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal”, which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; not does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
The subsequent essays try to establish some immutable laws of ethics that could underpin human behaviour, always concentrating on the need and advantage of rational self-interest.

Further down in the Introduction Ayn Rand says:
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value – and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards, the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of altruistic ethics.

Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgements today. An industrialist who produces a fortune and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people”, not himself.
Ayn Rand knew all about dictators being regarded as moral. Having escaped from Soviet Russia in 1926 she spent a good deal of her life in the United States, particularly in Hollywood battling against the various Communists who produced pro-Soviet propaganda, which culminated in the particularly evil or preposterous, depending on how you look at it, wartime films, “The Song of Russia” and “Mission to Moscow”. Here is a little more on the latter film.

We, too, know about this in the double-think and hypocrisy that prevents people from saying openly that Communism was the other evil ideology of the twentieth century and was responsible for far more deaths and a greater social, political and economic catastrophe than Nazism. Ah, we are told, but, at least the Communists meant well.

Finally we come to those well-meaning agents of altruism, the governments who take money away from those who work in order to impose what they see as a fair society, which just happens to be a society in which the elite has more and more entrenched privileges than the rest of us; the regulators who, in the spirit of pure altruism and paid for by the taxpayer, regulate our lives for our own good; and, finally and most importantly, the NGOs who demand more and more unaccountable power for themselves in order to run the world or various parts of it for what they see as other people’s benefits, destroying people’s lives and all hope in developing countries.

The EU (oh, yes, I was going to work my way round to it) is part of this world-view of altruism, in which the worst sin is exercising self-interest even if it is that self-interest that moves the world forward and spreads wealth around it. It is, however, merely a symptom of the underlying problem.