Friday, October 30, 2009

Dear Editor, Reason Magazine:
The November issue of Reason, featuring an essay on Rand (Brian Doherty) and a review (by Nick Gillespie) of two recent prominently published biographies of her was inspiring and encouraging to those of us who value Rand's ideas and hope for her increased influence. Two minor criticism should be made, however.
Rand, contrary to Mr. Gillespie, was not a philosophical materialist but naturalist. Materialists include Thomas Hobbes and Ludwig Feuerbach and materialism is mainly reductive, claiming all is really nothing but matter in motion. Naturalists take their lead from Aristotle. Rand rejects materialism explicitly--indeed, she avidly derides materialists as "mystics of the muscle."
The one but serious enough problem with both Jennifer Burns' and Anne C. Heller's well composed biographies is that they extensively commit the genetic fallacy which involves the explanation of someone's ideas by reference to their childhood histories. In fact, of course, millions share many of Rand's ideas without sharing her history in the early Soviet Union.


Tibor R. Machan

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair @ Chapman University, CA. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) and author of Ayn Rand (Peter Lang, 2001).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Soros is Confused Again

Tibor R. Machan

According to the UK's Financial Times, international financial speculator George Soros is going to spend $50 million of his money in an effort to start a new think-tank whose purpose will be to counter the "unwavering belief in unchecked free markets …[that] remains pervasive in universities" ("Soros to invest $50m in economic think-tank," October 27). As Soros put it himself thus: “The ideologists in the free markets are still in command and I think they’ll be very difficult to remove because they have tenure." Actually probably because even those who don't have tenure consider the free market system sound while other options deeply flawed--but never mind.

There is so much wrong with Soros's claim and plan that it would take a book to refute all of it but, as Professor Don Broudreaux, one of the few genuine free market economists, and one who heads the economics department of George Mason University, put it, "Mr Soros should check his facts before wasting his money. As my colleague Bryan Caplan reports in his critically acclaimed book 'The Myth of the Rational Voter' (2007), surveys show that, while economists are to the right of their university colleagues in other disciplines, '[c]ompared to the general public, the typical economist is left of center.' "

As Caplan notes, university economists do tend to work from the free market frame of economic reference, but this is actually only in their purest theoretical studies. When they teach about the ways of the economy they normally factor in all the non-free market variables that are present in actual economies around the world, such as extensive government regulation and other intervention, protectionism, laws intruding on the employment relationship, etc., etc. Arguably, too, it is difficult to conceive of teaching and studying economics without the use of the free market economic model since trade itself, business and economic activity, rests on the idea that people voluntarily exchange services and products. There is no such thing as socialist economics since under socialism trade isn't voluntary. There is only socialist planning of production and consumption, all of which happens as a result of the government's orders. What else can economists do but turn "right" when they study and teach about bona fide economics? Imagine teaching and studying biology where life has been nearly fully extinguished!

What Soros wants to have done at universities is unclear but probably he is intent on having teachers and students focus on how production and consumption should be given firm direction by public officials. Because once one abandons the free market model, that is the alternative left, planning by edicts instead of the demand and supply of free market agents. Indeed, Soros appears simply to want to abolish the teaching and study of economics proper. Without such a drastic measure, economics will always be mostly about the conduct of free market agents who, of course, may be more or less constrained by regulations, and such. And that means that all economics will lean toward free market studies.

Soros tried to torpedo what's left of capitalism in the past, including by starting up a bunch of Open Universities in the former Soviet bloc where he appears to have been worried the public would embrace the free market, having had its fill with socialist planning. The designation of his institutions as "Open" came from Soros's vague affinity with the late Karl Popper's politics, advanced in that thinkers famous book The Open Society and its Enemies (1953). But while Popper had meant by "open" pretty much what "free" means in the context of political economy, Soros appears to have meant by "open" simply a society that's not closed to any experiment, however oppressive it might be. His schools, too, would be open to the teaching of any form of economics, preferably, I would guess, those he could proceed to manipulated for his own ends.

Whatever it is that Soros is aiming for, one thing is clear: he despises freedom in the market place. And so long as there is any trace of respectful discussion of free markets in universities, Soros is going to spare no money in thwarting it.

I must admit that it gives me some pleasure to see Soros behave this way which gives disproves all those who claim that people who escape from oppressive, tyrannical regimes automatically prefer the free society. Not so by a long shot, as Soros demonstrates all too clearly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ayn Rand & Philosophy

Tibor R. Machan

London, UK. My assignment at the conference in London, held at the National Liberal Club, was to discuss whether Ayn Rand's ideas had the kind of philosophical meat worth the respect of those who take the discipline seriously. Rand, most people know by now, was the Russian born best selling American novelist and non-academic philosopher who wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, two blockbusters, as well as We The Living and Anthem, less popular but very good reads. And she has claimed that she is an innovated philosopher who has challenged 2500 years of philosophy with her work, including such non-fiction books as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, For The New Intellectual, Philosophy: Who Needs it, and a technical monograph, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

What I said, in a nutshell, is that Rand has made significant contributions to philosophy, especially with her theory of concept formation and her view of the nature of human knowledge, as well as her ethical egoist ethics and her libertarian politics (which she liked, later in her life, to call "radical capitalist"). I showed how in fact there are bits and pieces of her thinking evident in the works of many highly respect academic philosophers, starting with the likes of J. L. Austin, of Oxford University, all the way to Philippa Foot, another Oxford philosopher. Austin's famous essay, "Other Minds," advances a view of human knowledge similar to Rand's in that both believe that for someone to know, it is required to be most up to date in one's understanding of the topic at hand without, however, needing to have some (impossible) final, finished account. This last has been very influential ever since a certain reading of Plato's view of knowledge gained prominence in ancient Greece and it has given support to all sorts of skeptical ideas about the human capacity to know anything at all. Rand has also reaffirmed a view of human free will in line with which persons are causes of their conscious actions and aren't merely being moved by impersonal forces around them.

The most controversial idea Rand has advanced is, of course, that laissez-faire capitalism, the pure free market, with no government intervention at all--whereby government is just what the American Founders stated it is supposed to be, an institution that's to secure the rights of the citizenry--is a morally superior political economic system to, say, socialism, the welfare state, fascism and other statist systems. (Her complicated demonstration of this position made some waives recently because Alan Greenspan, the previous head of the Federal Reserve Bank was associated with her and is thought to be supporting capitalism as Rand did [which, sadly, he is not].)

Another area where Rand's ideas are provocative, even outrageous by some accounts, is ethics or morality where she defends the idea that it is a moral virtue to be selfish--by which she means, to be a conscientious promoter of one's interest as the human individual that one is. Often misunderstood to be advocating simple self-indulgence, this ethical view is actually quite close to that of Socrates and Aristotle, both of who held that a morally good person is one he makes the very best of his or her life. In one of his many philosophical dialogs Plato relaid an exchange between Socrates and Crito, with the latter asking, "When you are gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?" and Socrates replying: "Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too." And, of course, Aristotle's believed that ethics has to do with the pursuit of a life of human happiness or eudaimonia.

What is interesting is that while Rand has received a lot of flack for supposedly championing reckless egotism and wild capitalism, she has, in fact, defended the very same political system we find sketched in the Declaration of Independence and her ethics is actually quite in line with commonsense: decent people take good care of themselves first and foremost--they practice the virtue of prudence--while also showing generosity to those who need and deserve help.

The one matter on which Rand had never appealed to most intellectuals, including the vast majority of academic philosophers, is in her steadfast opposition to coercing other people to do the right thing, including sharing their lives, labors and resources with others. This must be done, when and if it should be at all, voluntarily, otherwise it can have no moral merit whatsoever. And Rand has also never been forgiven her prescient condemnation of the Soviet Union as a system of slave labor and misanthrope. Intellectuals flocked to the phony claim that the USSR was to be a workers' paradise and she, who grew up there, made clear that they were deluded. This she paid for dearly.

Rand was also an unflinching unbeliever, someone who could not abide by the idea that human beings ought to trust a clergy on the basis of faith. Reason is the only guide to understanding the world, she taught. She was besmirched by Left and Right alike. This despite the fact that many of her very best ideas were actually shared by some of the stars of contemporary philosophy, often many years after she has put them on the record.