Getting Rand Wrong

 Posted by on 19 October 2008 at 11:01 pm  Academia, Economics, Ethics, Finance, Objectivism, Politics
Oct 192008

As someone who takes ideas seriously, I’ve always found it frustrating when philosophers take it upon themselves to offer judgments on subjects they haven’t bothered to devote serious time and attention to studying. The charge that philosophers (academic or otherwise) sometimes judge where the epistemically virtuous would fear to comment isn’t new. (For instance, it isn’t rare to hear someone claim that speculation from the philosophical armchair is a poor method of settling some contentious issue.) What makes this phenomenon — the venturing of unwarranted opinions — especially pernicious in the case of philosophers is that philosophers are supposed to be the guardians of rationality, revering the mind by sacrificing hasty conclusions at the altar of the well-formed argument. Philosophers are supposed to love wisdom and shun mere belief; when they make assertions that betray culpable ignorance, they sin against their profession as well as the truth.

I don’t know what it is about Ayn Rand that makes many philosophers think they can get away with saying whatever they damn well please about her without having studied her work carefully and honestly. I suspect that the real explanation has less to do with Rand and more to do with personal biases on the part of her critics. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon is nevertheless real. It isn’t just that many philosophers dislike Rand. We philosophers are an opinionated bunch; we dislike all sorts of things. Rather it’s that many philosophers will attribute all sorts of nonsense to Rand without actually considering what she has to say.

To offer an example, below is a passage from Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics. This work, published relatively recently by Oxford University Press, is intended to be used as a textbook on, unsurprisingly, virtue ethics.

“We can interpret Thrasymachus, and more obviously Nietzsche and Rand, as saying that, rather like hive bees, human beings fall, by nature, into two distinct groups, the weak and the strong (or the especially clever or talented or ‘chosen by destiny’), whose members must be evaluated differently, as worker bees and the drones or queens are.”

Um… what? Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Rand’s ideas will realize that she believes no such thing. Rand’s philosophical anthropology — her theory of human nature — does not recognize a distinction between types of human beings. Her ethical theory evaluates individuals on the basis of their choices, not their unchosen attributes, and she appeals to a univocal standard of moral evaluation — not to distinct standards for distinct types.

Hursthouse does not provide any sources that might justify her ‘obvious’ interpretation of Rand’s philosophy. But this totally wrongheaded interpretation of Rand was good enough for her editors and peer reviewers at OUP (as well as the numerous philosophers who gave her editorial comments on the final manuscript). Apparently that group of distinguished professors found nothing objectionable in Hursthouse’s characterization of Rand. Of course, realizing Hursthouse’s error would have required reading Rand.

(On a grimly ironic note, the above passage comes from chapter 11 of On Virtue Ethics. The chapter title? “Objectivity.”)

Hursthouse isn’t the only person who presents Rand’s views incorrectly in a way that betrays ignorance. Chandran Kukathas’s entry on Rand in the otherwise excellent Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another example. No, Kukathas… Rand didn’t think that integrity was “at the root of the idea of freedom,” her “real concerns” were not “the defence of the value of integrity (to the point of self-sacrifice) in the face of evil and moral despair,” and The Virtue of Selfishness was not a novel.

So far, we’ve seen a philosopher attribute views to Rand that she ‘obviously’ didn’t hold, and we’ve seen another philosopher misunderstand the fundamentals of Rand’s politics and misconstrue her central concerns. But Gerald Dworkin, a professor of philosophy at UC Davis, has recently exemplified yet another way of getting Rand wrong: saying that her ideas lead to catastrophe.

The forum in which Dworkin makes this charge is Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog — a blog featuring “news and views about philosophy, the academic profession, academic freedom, intellectual culture… and a bit of poetry.” The blog is run by Brian Leiter, currently John Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, and Director of Chicago’s Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values. Leiter is also the editor of The Philosophical Gourmet, which ranks the top philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. I read Leiter Reports semi-regularly, as it is a good source of professional news related to academic philosophy (faculty hires, moves, deaths, retirements and whatnot). In addition to this valuable material, the blog also features occasional leftist cultural commentary of more dubious value. Of extremely dubious value is Dworkin’s post “Blame it on Ayn Rand” in which he claims Rand is a cause of our economic troubles. Dworkin doesn’t really provide much of an argument for this claim, so I’ll attempt to provide him with a charitable reconstruction (a courtesy I’m not so sure he deserves… but for the sake of argument…).

Dworkin quotes a recent New York Times article on Greenspan’s involvement in the current financial crisis. (That article seems to get Rand wrong too; Rand didn’t have “a resolute faith that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly” but that’s beside the point.) The article implies that Greenspan’s positions on regulation — specifically the regulation of derivatives markets — were causally relevant factors in producing the recent financial crisis. Why did Greenspan hold his positions on regulation? Here, Dworkin invokes Keynes:

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

(I can’t resist noting that Rand held a similar view to Keynes about the importance of philosophy in history, though her insight was deeper than Keynes. Rather than viewing history as being primarily driven by political philosophy, Rand viewed metaphysics and epistemology as being much more influential. For more on Rand’s insights here, consult the title essay of For the New Intellectual, as well as the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It. Peikoff develops Rand’s insights on the philosophical motor of history in Ominous Parallels, the epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and in his forthcoming book on how epistemology shapes society.)

Greenspan was a student of Rand, and Rand argued for the principled separation of the state and economics, and thus for an absence of government interference in voluntary economic exchanges. She was a categorical opponent of governmental regulation in financial markets. Greenspan opposed regulation of derivatives markets. The current financial crisis was supposedly brought on by an absence of regulation in these markets. Thus Dworkin claims that Rand is “an important cause of the catastrophe we are in.”

Let us examine this argument.

This argument gets its force from the claim that Greenspan was practicing what Rand preached. In an update to Dworkin’s post, Leiter snarkily remarks that “Greenspan was not only a friend of Rand’s, but a lifelong devotee of her ideas and her ‘philosophy,’ such as it is.” While it is true that Rand and Greenspan were friendly toward one another, it is demonstrably false that Greenspan was “a lifelong devotee of her ideas.” It doesn’t take a hell of a lot of legwork to discover this; thanks to Google, I didn’t even have to leave my armchair.

In The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan’s recent autobiography, Greenspan discusses the important formative influence Rand had on his intellectual development. In his discussion, he talks about how Rand encouraged him to look beyond mere economic data and more deeply into the values and ideas that move history and influence human action (including economic action). She was credited with broadening his perspective on the world and helping him reject logical positivism. He even describes himself as “writing spirited commentary for [Rand's] newsletter with the fervor of a young acolyte…”. But this enthusiasm was not to last; Greenspan’s autobiography claims that Rand’s philosophy has inherent contradictions, and that his “fervor receded.”

So Greenspan isn’t an Objectivist. His policies, as we shall see, reflect this fact.

We’re in the midst of a recession, teetering (some might say) on the precipice of a depression. What were Rand’s views about recessions and depressions? Well, Dworkin doesn’t say. His blog post doesn’t even bother to discuss which of Rand’s ideas were supposed to get us into this mess. He doesn’t explicitly discuss her ideas at all. If one consults Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal to discover her views on the causes of recessions and depressions, one is directed to the works of Ludwig von Mises. It is important (for getting Rand right) to recognize that while Rand found Mises’s economic analyses convincing, she had substantial philosophical and methodological disagreements with him. Mises was a Kantian who viewed economics as a primarily deductive enterprise (and thus was inclined toward epistemological rationalism). He also attempted to do economics in an ethical vacuum, divorcing economic analysis from any underlying normative framework. Rand, of course, rejected Kantianism, rationalism, and a strict division between morality and economics. But despite his errors, Rand thought that Mises’s economic theories represented a significant achievement.

At this point, I don’t want to provide a lengthy, detailed summary of Mises’s views on the business cycle. I may write something in the near future about the causes of our current economic woes, but I’ll hold off for now. The following short summary should provide a general indication of the economic views Rand found most convincing.

The most salient aspect of the Austrian theory of the business cycle is that implicates central banks as the fundamental cause of depressions and recessions. Ah! The plot thickens! Wasn’t Greenspan the head of our central bank? He was indeed. How do central banks cause recessions?

In a free market, the interest rate (the price of money) is determined by the law of supply and demand. Roughly, the supply of loanable funds that banks have (our savings) determines the interest rate, when taken in conjunction with the overall demand for money and the riskiness of potential debtors. Central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, distort this market mechanism by setting artificially low interest rates (interest rates below the market rate). What happens next? I defer to Wikipedia:

Low interest rates tend to stimulate borrowing from the banking system. This expansion of credit causes an expansion of the supply of money, through the money creation process in a fractional reserve banking system. This in turn leads to an unsustainable “monetary boom” during which the “artificially stimulated” borrowing seeks out diminishing investment opportunities. This boom results in widespread malinvestments, causing capital resources to be misallocated into areas which would not attract investment if the money supply remained stable. A correction or “credit crunch” — commonly called a “recession” or “bust” — occurs when credit creation cannot be sustained.

Loose monetary policy by central banks leads to people taking on more debt than they otherwise would. Artificially low interest rates allow more credit to be extended to risky borrowers. In our current case this lead to skyrocketing real estate values, since there was an increased demand for houses (made possible by banks extending credit to more and riskier debtors). This effect is obvious enough in the case of commercial banks, which more than doubled the amount of real estate loans they made (thus allocating large amounts of resources into the real estate market — allocations that wouldn’t have occurred in a free market for money and credit.

And then there’s the welfare state. Don’t let’s forget about Fannie and Freddy. The former is a holdover from the New Deal; the latter is a “government sponsored enterprise” created by the Emergency Home Finance Act of 1976, and designed to increase home ownership. Both of which did their part to screw us all by spurring on the housing bubble… and they were able to borrow money at a (de facto, if not de jure) subsidized rate in the marketplace because the public viewed them as being low risk (since the state would presumably bail them out, should the need arise).

All of a sudden, everyone’s in debt and no one wants to lend. Small wonder. Small wonder that risky investors are defaulting on their mortgage payments. Small wonder that the derivatives markets are screwing up (I’d argue that we can only make sense of the kerfuffle in the derivatives market in light of monetary policy). Small wonders that major financial institutions are losing their credit rating because they took on too many risky debtors.

We frequently hear that that the market got drunk. What was it drunk on? Cheap credit. Who was the man behind the bar? You can probably guess.

In May of 2000, the Fed Funds rate was 6.5%. By June of 2003, Greenspan had slashed it to 1%, and it stayed there for more than a year (and remained ridiculously low for much longer). Would Rand have found this type of monetary policy commendable (or even tolerable)? Of course not. She’d read her Mises. Moreover, she regarded central banking as morally repugnant and politically unnecessary.

There’s much more to be said about our current credit crunch and how to evaluate it in light of Rand’s moral and political philosophy. But it should now be evident that Dworkin (and Leiter) are wrong on all counts. They were wrong about Greenspan; they were wrong about Rand. Their errors on these subjects betray a culpable ignorance. One needn’t do much research to figure out Greenspan’s real views on Rand, or Rand’s views on economics. Twenty minutes with Google and Wikipedia would probably have gotten the job done. If a philosopher is going to assert, in a public forum, that another philosopher’s ideas lead to disaster, then they have an obligation to carefully consider that thinker’s ideas, to understand them, and to show how (in practice) they would result in catastrophe. When a philosopher fails to do that, they do a disservice not only to the thinker they criticize, but also to the truth, to their profession, and to themselves.

Academic philosophers often get Rand wrong. They often have only themselves to blame.

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