You can’t eat gold, but . . .

This is a column I wrote for Forbes.com in 2013

In Praise of Gold

Keynes sneered at it. Preachers damn it. Bitcoin dreams of transcending it. But free men inevitably choose it. Gold.

Whenever men have had a free, uncoerced choice of the medium of exchange, gold has won the competition, along with its sister element, silver.

Why? Only in recent times has gold had any utilitarian value. The Ancient Egyptians couldn’t use it in computers, but they prized it nonetheless, as did the faraway Aztecs and the Chinese. Men in every place and time have valued gold.

Why? Of what use is gold? You can’t eat it.

No, and you can’t eat a Rembrandt, either. A Chopin Ballade is not something you can eat, drink, or ride in.

It may surprise the spiritualists who damn gold to hear this, but gold, like music and painting, is a spiritual value. Gold is a value because it is radiantly beautiful. It is the esthetic pleasure gold brings that makes men esteem it.

Other of gold’s inherent attributes fit it to be the money commodity, but let’s pause to answer the great unanswered question: what is beauty?

Beauty is intelligibility—a sensory-level version of intellectual intelligibility. What looks beautiful or sounds beautiful is what features an intelligible pattern formed out of pure, simple elements.

Why the pleasure in pattern-recognition? Men’s lives depend upon their minds. The essential mental work that is required is integration: finding the one in the many, the theme behind the variations, the principle behind the concretes. But transforming a bewildering plurality into a clearly understood unity often means going through a difficult, doubt-ridden process. So, there is a definite delight in the easy, doubt-free microcosm provided by sensory pattern-recognition.

I’m generalizing here from what Ayn Rand wrote about why music moves us emotionally:

“Music offers man the singular opportunity to reenact, on the adult level, the primary process of his method of cognition: the automatic integration of sense data into an intelligible, meaningful entity. To a conceptual consciousness, it is a unique form of rest and reward.”

Beauty has been called “unity in variety.” The beautiful is that which features clear elements made into a clear, consistent whole.

The clear elements can be pure musical tones, or it can be shining pieces of gold. The pattern is supplied by fashioning musical tones into a melody or pieces of gold into jewelry, or into gold leaf to make the pattern it coats glisten. Gold nuggets are only the means; the end is a lustrous, intelligible esthetic object.

The other aspect of gold is its unique purity—purity both in its color and in its incorruptibility. In a world that features decay along with growth, degeneration along with too-rare improvement, gold’s imperishable, radiant luster offers the experience of purity, of unfailing reliability, and of stainless consistency. Gold remains gold; it does not tarnish or rust.

Thus, gold is not “a barbarous relic” (Keynes) or “filthy lucre” (preachers) but an objective esthetic value, a value rooted in the nature of how our minds work and in the need for incorruptible moral integrity. Why are wedding bands made of gold? Because gold is the symbol of remaining pure and true.

Gold jewelry is just as objective a value as utilitarian goods, such as bread or automobiles. But those goods provide value by being consumed—by being used up. You eat bread and it is gone. You drive a car and it wears out. Gold is almost unique in being an Unconsummable Consumable. Like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, gold provides value without being itself affected.

The oft-heard sneer, “You can’t eat gold” expresses a cynical materialism. Both artistic beauty and sensory beauty have their source in the nature of man as a conceptual being, a being who must use concepts and reasoning to survive and prosper. Animals cannot respond to artworks, or to the beauty of a brilliant sunset, or to the radiant, patterned purity of gold jewelry.

The objection “You can’t eat gold” confesses a mind-body dichotomy. In fact, material value requires spiritual value, and vice-versa. For man, “value” always involves a spiritual component. Even to value food, a man has to want to live—which takes an inner resolve to fight for his own happiness.

Gold is the ultimate expression of mind-body integration. It is denigrated as “crassly material” because it is beautiful—i.e., because gold is a spiritual value.

“You can’t eat gold” turns things upside down: gold is extra valuable because you can’t use it up. Gold as an Unconsummable Consumable does not have to be replenished. The gold jewelry of Ancient Egypt retains its value, bringing renewed pleasure to museum visitors daily. Because gold is, like a Rembrandt painting, an object of contemplation, it is used without being used up.

All this is why gold has monetary value. Because gold is of imperishable, objective value, it can serve as a store of value. And given that base (which bitcoin lacks), gold’s other inherent properties make it uniquely suited to serve as a medium of exchange. Unlike salt, gold has a high unit value. Unlike iron, gold does not rust. Unlike diamonds, gold can be easily divided into very small pieces without losing value. Unlike a computer chip, gold is homogeneous. And because it is ductile and malleable, gold can easily be fashioned into jewelry and gold leaf.

Salt and cigarettes have served as money, but their value rests upon their ultimately being consumed, which destroys them in the process. Gold can be used as money without ever being used up, without needing to be re-produced.

You don’t have to eat gold to get objective value from it. Beauty, though not material, is a rational, objective value, because its sensory beauty provides a spiritual pleasure.

Gold has esthetic value and—as men’s free choices demonstrate—monetary value. That is the power and the glory of gold.

16 years of wrong Gore

It was in January of 2006 that Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, was released. The film predicted looming climate disaster. What happened? Nothing.

This is what I don’t understand about the “common man.” He knows, or should know, that he has been told for either his whole life or the biggest part of it that monstrous, cataclysmic planetary disaster was looming. The drumbeat started in about 1969. Back then it was pollution and overpopulation, with a little climate hysteria on the side.

The cover of Newsweek, of January 26, 1970, featured a picture of Earth from space with arrows of destruction attacking it from all sides. The cover text was “The Ravaged Environment.” It contained a warning about climate change—both warming and a new ice age.

What happened? Well, some claim that the catastrophe has been pushed back a little by the measures we took. What measures? Well, recycling. And the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the EPA, they say.

But that doesn’t hold up at all. It’s impossible to believe that these trivial things in the United States change the monumental forces that were supposedly going to end life on this planet.

And how do people deal with the fact that, aside from the interminable back and forth in the scientific debate, everybody knows that nothing significant has happened to climate in the past 100 years?

I mean, who doesn’t know the following? Paris in 1922 had weather indistinguishable from Paris 2022. Same for Sydney, Buenos Aires, Miami, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Vienna, Oslo, Calgary, Bombay, Honolulu, Wellington, Juneau, Moscow, Santiago, Helsinki . . . you name it.

But, but, but . . . they sputter . . . what about the melting of the ice caps? What about rising sea levels?

I’m not going to cite scientific facts (though I’m sorely tempted to) but just ask: is there anywhere on any coastal city where sea-level rise over the last 100 years has been a problem? Have the low-lying streets of San Francisco, New York, Miami, etc., been flooded?

How about changes that affect anybody since Al Gore’s thundering “sky is falling” film? Nope. There must have been some changes somewhere that at least came to the attention of local residents. Someone on HBL said the growing season in his area has lengthened a bit. But where is the apocalypse?

If there had been a looming disaster 16 years ago (or 52 years ago), shouldn’t it be at least noticeable by now? Since it has not been noticeable, wouldn’t the rational thing to be now exhibiting increasing skepticism about climate disaster? Yet that’s not what we see.

Words speak louder than actions

Ayn Rand wrote,

There is nothing so naïve as cynicism. A cynic is one who believes that men are innately depraved, that irrationality and cowardice are their basic characteristics, that fear is the most potent of human incentives—and, therefore, that the most practical method of dealing with men is to count on their stupidity, appeal to their knavery, and keep them in constant terror.

The corollary is: there is nothing so practical and realistic as moral integrity. There is nothing so powerful as principled, uncompromising moral judgment.

That’s why the world’s unusually forceful condemnation of Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine may lead to his downfall. And why rather than emboldening Xi, the morally righteous damnation of the invasion seems already to be throwing Xi into retreat-mode.

The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Putin’s invasion. More important were the condemnations from private American firms like Apple, Shell Oil, Boeing, ExxonMobil, and Netflix, to name a few.

Words speak louder than actions. This reversal of the traditional saying follows from the understanding that men’s actions are dictated by the ideas they hold. The traditional order—actions speak louder than words—is valid, but its application is to judging what ideas actually drive an individual. If he says, “We should do X” but secretly does Y instead, we know his actual belief is that Y is more important than X.

But on a national scale, what counts is not the judgment of any given person’s honesty and sincerity, but the evaluation of the actions and the identification of its premises.

No dictator can stay in power once he loses a moral sanction. If a man like Putin comes to be viewed as evil by the people he is trying to rule, he is lucky to elude the guillotine.

Monetary sanctions mean little. Moral sanction means everything. And I’m referring to moral judgment that is clear, rational, and convincing. That isn’t hard in the present case of a bloody, murdering, ex-KGB man who runs a giant slave pen.

Delegated rights are not surrendered

Recently there’s been some discussion about the delegation of rights to the government, and some have expressed concern about the need to retain rights (especially the right to self-defense) rather than delegate them.

But that is a wrong notion of “delegation.” The meaning of “delegation” is the authorization of someone to act as your agent. Think of delegating a task to an employee. I’ve delegated the task of proofreading the posts, especially mine, to Stephanie Bond. In no way does that mean I have lost the right to proofread!

Likewise, when I delegate to the government my right of self-defense, I don’t lose that right.

Objection: But don’t you lose the right to apprehend and punish those who initiate force against you?

Answer: No, because I never had that right. In “the state of nature,” the state before government, it was moral, given certain circumstances, for a man to forcibly punish another, but it was never a right. You have no right to threaten another individual, but that’s what acting as your own judge, jury, and executor would be doing.

All that “delegating your rights to the government” means is: authorizing a third party (the government) to protect your rights more powerfully than you could and, crucially, to do so in a way that will not be threatening to others, because they will not have to guess at the motivation and reliability of some exponent of “frontier justice.”

You retain the rights that you delegate to the state.

A humble moment of pride

As I said in another post, I recommend using New Year’s Eve as a time to review and write down your accomplishments over the year. When I did that, I realized that I wanted to take public note of the fact that in my OCON 2021 talk, I made a sizeable contribution to the cause of freedom.

My talk identified, defended, and applied what I believe to be a new point in political philosophy: all government regulation is wrong. The title of the talk was “All Regulation Is Over-Regulation”—playing off the lame conservative desire to “cut the red tape” and pare back “unnecessary regulations.”

You may object: “Wait, lots of people for a long time have said that government shouldn’t intervene in the economy.” Yes, but my talk was much wider than that. It didn’t cover just economic interventionism, and it defined the whole issue in terms of what is force, what is the threat of force, and what makes for an objective threat. Consequently, I see the same principle in far-flung issues: gun control, immigration control, building codes, food and drug regulations.

I stressed that evidence of potential harm has to be about specific individuals, drawing upon this passage in OPAR:

information about the capacities of a species is not evidence supporting a hypothesis about one of its members. From “Man is capable of murder” one cannot infer “Maybe Mr. X is the killer we are seeking.”

However, it was the following statement of hers that inspired me, and it was in my notes to quote in the talk, but somehow I overlooked it.I don’t think you can find anything in Ayn Rand dealing with all regulation, regulation per se, rather than just economic controls.

the legal hallmark of a dictatorship [is] preventive law–the concept that a man is guilty until he is proved innocent by the permissive rubber stamp of a commissar or a Gauleiter.

 

“Who Will Protect Us from our Protectors?” The Objectivist Newsletter, May 1962

Looking at issues from the standpoint of whether or not they constitute preventive law is immensely clarifying.

I will check on whether ARI is selling the recording of “All Regulation Is Over-Regulation.”

Biden talks with the dictator

Is there any non-Objectivist commentator who is not a Peter Keating? Keating’s psychology is the only thing that can explain the insane view that cozying up to homicidal maniacs, such as the Chinese dictator, is going to “improve relations.”

I’ve been politically aware for over half a century, and throughout that time I’ve seen nothing but praise for “talks” and “summits” and “relaxing tensions” with the evil.

Actually, I can think of one man who understands the real situation. It is one of the Soviet dissidents, I think Natan Sharansky, but maybe it was Gary Kasparov, who tried to explain to American audiences that the policy decisions of Soviet leaders were motivated by a single need: to keep the populace from overthrowing them. He explained how the leaders live in constant fear of an uprising from the people whom they are victimizing.

But that is from a different universe than the one our Keating officials and Keating commentators inhabit. In their cosmos, smiles and frowns are the means of inducing others to produce the desired behavior.

Once President Xi comes to understand us and see that we have the same underlying concerns as . . . wait, he does understand us and that’s why he hates us.

The philosophical input to this understanding-means-peace approach and the (always refuted) belief that “quiet diplomacy” can work is Kant. He is the philosopher who “taught” us that formal structure and process are all that matter, that we deal only with appearances, never with what an entity is. His philosophy leads to ignoring the nature of the entities that act, so we don’t have to hold in mind that our co-summiteer is a murderous villain.

Values as threats

I posted the fascinating email exchange that a member had with a union organizer. One of the organizer’s claims commits a form of the equivocation between the dollar and the gun—i.e., between economic power and political power.

It has helped me to a deeper understanding of the equation of the dollar with the gun: it is the fallacy of regarding the values achieved by others as a threat to oneself.

When named that way, it sounds bizarre—except psychologically, where we do understand it. Psychologically, the envy-ridden loser fears and hates the achievements of others because those achieved values confront him with his own self-made failures.

Values as threats is the meaning of the union organizer’s claim that workers need collective bargaining to gain “bargaining power.” Otherwise the employer has all the bargaining power.

This kind of stuff works by cartoon thinking:

bargaining-power.jpg

You can’t see there the face of the supplicating “little guy.” But we all know the image of “the downtrodden” from the movie of “Grapes of Wrath”:

grapes-of-wrath.jpg

The employer’s “power” is the power of the dollar, not the power of the gun. It is the power to offer payment. It’s the power to offer some of one’s achieved values in trade. It’s the power to pay you.

But what about “bargaining power”? Presumably, that’s a greater ability to dictate the terms of an exchange.

Logically, all trades are win-win.

Morally, there’s no principle concerned with comparing the wins of each party. The outcome of buyer gaining ten times what the seller gains is just as moral as the reverse. And rarely acknowledged is that everyone is both buyer and seller.

Economically, negotiations for business expenses such as wages and salaries are not governed by emotions (greed or pity), but by the facts (the worker’s contribution to production). But in the sticky spider web of Leftist economics behind the “bargaining power” conception, let me set the metaphysics right-side up.

If “bargaining power” means the ability to fine-tune the terms of the deal in one’s favor, then the poorer you are, the greater your bargaining power.

No, that’s not a typo. If we’re talking about an individual deal made between a rich person and a poor one, then dollar for dollar the poor man has greater power.

Why? It has to do with the proportionality of the value of a dollar.

To a billionaire, $1000 is essentially nothing. It’s one one-millionth of his wealth. That’s below his threshold of even thinking about (see my post on thresholds).

To a person of middle income, $1000 is a figure to be reckoned with. It is maybe a week’s income.

To a penniless immigrant, $1000 is everything.

So you want to trade with people much, much richer than you. The poorer person has an advantage: amounts of money that are big to him are small to the wealthy—and the wealthier they are, the smaller that amount of money is to them.

Everyone knows this on some level. If you want to sell your services as a chauffer, are you more likely to be hired by someone as poor as you or someone wealthy? And if you are hired, is it more in your financial interest to work for the comfortably wealthy or for the super-rich?

The less wealth you have compared to your potential trading partner, the more bargaining power you have.

The values possessed by others are what they have to pay you with. The more they have, the better for you. Out of sheer, naked greed, you should wish everyone to get rich. You should want them to have so many cars, yachts, homes, computers, and rockets to space that they wouldn’t at all mind giving one or two to you.

Remember the old expression, “He’d give you the shirt off his back”? That was from a time when you couldn’t just call an Uber to take you to a nearby Walmart to buy a replacement shirt for $15. What made the difference? We’ve got more stuff—and more ability to make still more stuff. All of us have a whole lot more wealth.

The fact that others have earned a lot of values is immensely valuable to you.

Back to the union organizer on a different aspect: the issue of individual, one-to-one hiring vs. collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining decreases your bargaining power.

If you are negotiating one-to-one with someone hiring you, you can ask for more than the average. If your ability is above average, you’ll probably get it. But if the employer has to deal with all of his employees as a block, you can’t get more than the average.

This supplies the answer to a question that puzzled me about this passage in Atlas:

“We all have the same problems, the same interests, the same enemies. We waste our energy fighting one another, instead of presenting a common front to the world. We can all grow and prosper together, if we pool our efforts.” “Against whom is this Alliance being organized?” a skeptic had asked. The answer had been: “Why, it’s not ‘aga inst’ anybody. But if you want to put it that way, why, it’s against shippers or supply manufacturers or anyone who might try to take advantage of us. Against whom is any union organized?”

“That’s what I wonder about,” the skeptic had said.

For many decades I couldn’t figure out against whom unions are organized. Now I see the answer: collective bargaining is aimed at those with higher-than-average ability. If the aim is to force the employer to pay one wage rate for everyone having the same “seniority,” then the employer can’t discriminate on the basis of productiveness.

This means the more productive are forced to subsidize the less productive.

Of course, some unions don’t operate that way. And all unions do some things, however sporadic and meager, to provide real benefits to all that are not a part of the aforementioned “leveling.” Those things don’t change the fact that collective bargaining reduces the rewards for those with greater productive ability.

Not only is that disgustingly unjust, it holds back the rise in living standards across the economy.

So you see that underneath the simple claim that workers need to organize in order to pose a counterforce to the huge bargaining power of the fat cats, there is an entire, inverted, irrational philosophy.

Thresholds

My work on the philosophy of mathematics has sparked a recognition of a new epistemological-ethical principle: establishing thresholds is essential to success in thought and action.

A “threshold” is a lower bound of significance–a degree below which something has too little cognitive or existential impact to be entertained.

For instance, your chance of buying a winning lottery ticket or of getting hit by falling space debris is sub-threshold, so you should take no action based on that and give it no thought (beyond the judgment that these events are sub-threshold).

This supplements the Objectivist understanding of the arbitrary. The arbitrary has no evidence and is asserted on the premise of “evidence—who needs it?!” Entertaining the arbitrary is treating imagination as if it were cognition.

But the sub-threshold is different. “You have a 1 in 12 million chance of winning this lottery” is put forward on the basis of mathematics, not emotion. One could argue that by implication acting on this mathematics is emotionalist, but that presupposes the point about thresholds that I’m going to make: to grant significance to things with too little evidence or too little value is to engage in context dropping.

What context is dropped? The context of all the other things that have, in the mathematical sense, a 1 in 12 million chance of happening. There’s a a much better chance (1 in 2.6 million) chance of being dealt a royal straight flush in poker, so before one buys that lottery ticket one would have to consider betting the limit, sight unseen, on the next poker hand. There’s no doubt at least a 1 in 12 million chance that while you are in the store to buy the lottery ticket, an armed robber will enter and you will get shot. There’s a 1 in 12 million chance that you will receive a fortune in the near future in some other way. There’s a 1 in 12 million chance you will be struck by lightning, that building you are in will collapse, that a talent scout will decide you are have just the right look for a certain role in the next blockbuster movie. Etc.

There are far too many things to think about and do if all sub-threshold chances are to be taken as significant. And in practice what happens is that whatever fantastically unlikely scenario is talked up becomes the one that is treated as if it were the only one.

Many people are impressed, for instance, with the thousands of cases of, alleged or real, bad reactions to the Covid vaccines. But they have forget that one thousand bad outcomes out of one billion vaccinations is one in a million. And they drop the context of the greater than one in a million chance of experiencing severe medical problems from being unvaccinated and contracting Covid.

Thresholds are contextual. A very slight chance of getting a cold is, for most people, negligible. The same chance of dying is quite significant. At the end of We the Living, we see Kira taking a high degree of risk trying to escape Soviet Russia, because the alternative was unthinkable.

It is important, therefore, to determine whether a given degree of evidence (and when to count statistics as evidence) or a given degree of value or disvalue is entitled to one’s attention.

In mathematics, I promote the concept of “nil,” which is a magnitude that isn’t zero but is too small to detect or too small to matter—to matter in application.

For instance, in measuring rugs for your home, the threshold length may be a half foot, it may be an inch, it could even be an eighth of an inch. But it cannot be a millionth of an inch. But in measuring the size of molecules that can cross a given cell membrane, a millionth of an inch may make all the difference.

There’s the flip side of “too small too matter”: so big that increases don’t matter. This is the rational meaning of “infinity” in one sense of that term. Something is infinitely big if additions to it make no difference. (In effect, for any n, ∞+n — ∞ = nil.)

It is good to apply thresholds to establish what’s “enough.” Perfectionism is precisely the error of dropping the context and thinking any improvement, no matter how small, is significant. For the perfectionist, infinity is never reached; his work is never good enough, because there’s always more polishing of it that can be done. (As an advocate of contextual perfection, I must add that the charge of “perfectionism” is often hurled at those who simply demand more of themselves and others than the accuser wishes they did.)

Perfectionism is the same issue as thinking one “just might” win the lottery: it’s failing to consider what the operative threshold of significance implies as to other things. Yes, by spending more time editing this post, I could add some to its value; but what are the other things I could be using that time for? Yes, by working an extra hour longer a billionaire probably can make an extra $1,000 dollars. But what else could he be expending that hour on? Are the selfish rewards of increasing his wealth from $1,000,000,000 to $1,000,001,000 greater than the selfish rewards of dinner with friends? Improving his tennis game? Thinking about a philosophic topic, such as the need to set thresholds?

The point is not what answer one gives to those judgments; the point is the need to face these issues consciously and deal with them rationally.

Note that overconcern with the threshold being “exactly” right is itself a violation of the threshold principle. In the region of the threshold, small differences are way sub-threshold. Suppose our billionaire is trying to set a monetary threshold for what amount of money begins to matter to him. Suppose his estimate is: $1,000. Anything below that is, to him, what less than a penny is to us. But then he wonders: “Maybe my threshold should be $1200 per hour. But $200 has to be nil to him. The difference for him between a threshold of $1,000 and $1200 isn’t, for him, worth worrying about. It would be like, for us, worrying about the difference between a penny and 1.2 pennies.

So, thresholds are normally approximate, because differences close to the threshold make no difference.

Between “nothing’s there” and “something’s there, what do I do about it?” there is a third condition: “something is there, but it’s too little to devote any of my scarcest resource—time—to thinking about or dealing with.”

Vaccine skepticism is arbitrary

Belief in something without evidence is invalid. It leads to total skepticism, which in turn opens the door to mysticism (if nothing can be known for certain, you are “free” to indulge in whatever nonsense you like).

Doubt of something for which there is conclusive evidence is also arbitrary. “I have no counterevidence, but just maybe . . .” is fully as wrong as “I have no evidence, but just maybe . . .”

Let’s apply this to Covid vaccines. I will limit it to the mRNA vaccines of Moderna and Pfizer because I know most about them and they are the most commonly used ones (at least in my survey of HBLers).

The safety and efficacy of the mRNA Covid vaccines are established beyond any reasonable doubt. Remaining doubts are either uninformed or unreasonable. Here are some of the facts that make up the conclusive evidence.

1. The mRNA vaccines are known to be safe, from our understanding of how they work biochemically, how they performed in the clinical tests on 50,000 people, and what has happened to the more than 100 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated with them, which means 200 million shots administered.

What have been the bad results? [Sound of crickets.]

If you inject anything, even a saline solution, into 100 million people, there will be a few subsequent (not necessarily consequent) bad experiences. How many have there been to the mRNA vaccines? I don’t know, but it can’t be many or it would be all over Fox News.

Let’s say that there have been 1000 non-transitory bad results, which we could say are possibly caused by the vaccine. That means a random person in the U.S. has a 1 in 100,000 chance of a bad result. Can there be a rational worry about facing those odds? No.

2. Your doctor, I bet, wants you to get the vaccine. Dr. Amesh Adalja, the Objectivist infectious disease specialist, is strongly pro-vaccine.

3. 637,000 Americans have died from Covid, so if we do the same kind of individual-blind statistics I did in step (1), we get your chance of dying from Covid as 1 in 1900 (vs. not death but some kind of serious trouble with the vaccine for 1 in 100,000). Yes, you can say this kind of raw division of numbers doesn’t take account of individual differences, but that doesn’t help: healthy, vigorous, young people will do better with the shots just as they will do better in not dying from Covid.

4. Are there long-term effects of mRNA that will show up years later? No, it does not get inside the cell nucleus and it degrades quickly.

Facts about COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines

They cannot give someone COVID-19.

–mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19.

They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.

–mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.

–The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html

Now that is from the CDC, but it’s not contested or controversial.

5. The CEOs of both Pfizer and Moderna got shots of their own vaccines. This by itself is strong evidence of safety. It’s impossible to think that a layman following internet chatter knows as much about these vaccines as the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer.

Here are a couple more facts to consider from the University of Alabama website, beginning with a statement by the director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

“Many people worry that these vaccines were ‘rushed’ into use and still do not have full FDA approval — they are currently being distributed under Emergency Use Authorizations,” Goepfert said. “But because we have had so many people vaccinated, we actually have far more safety data than we have had for any other vaccine, and these COVID vaccines have an incredible safety track record. There should be confidence in that.”

Unlike many medications, which are taken daily, vaccines are generally one-and-done. Medicines you take every day can cause side effects that reveal themselves over time, including long-term problems as levels of the drug build up in the body over months and years.

“Vaccines are just designed to deliver a payload and then are quickly eliminated by the body,” Goepfert said. “This is particularly true of the mRNA vaccines. mRNA degrades incredibly rapidly. You wouldn’t expect any of these vaccines to have any long-term side effects. And in fact, this has never occurred with any vaccine.”

https://www.uab.edu/news/health/item/12143-three-things-to-know-about-the-long-term-side-effects-of-covid-vaccines

This adds up to a case as strong as the case against OJ Simpson. Maintaining, in the face of that evidence, that the vaccines are unsafe is like maintaining there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Simpson.

Should you be non-confrontational in arguing for Objectivist ideas?

Is it a good strategy to be avoid confrontation in arguing for Objectivist ideas, so as not to set off your discussant’s defenses?

You can’t answer that question as stated. First, make this crucial distinction: ideas vs. people.

In criticizing ideas, such as altruism, you need to be forceful and call a spade a spade. This includes being clear and objective: defining altruism in terms of self-sacrifice, duty, etc., and giving reasons for your conclusion.

In other words, you would not in conversation or to an audience or in writing say something like, “Altruism’s not my cup of tea.” No, you would make such points that altruism means the surrender of your values for the benefit of anyone who is non-you, that altruism has been the justification for every modern dictatorship, that full sacrifice of your values means your death. You would point out that there has been no argument ever given as to why we should sacrifice.

That’s being “confrontational” in regard to the idea of altruism. But it would be wrong to attack the person you are talking to: “You are an altruist and therefore are on the death premise.”

If you regard the person or people that you are talking to as evaders, as seriously immoral, then you should not be talking to them.

Conversely, if you are talking to them, it has to be on the premise that they respect rational arguments and that you share some starting point with them.

It’s neither practical nor morally proper to discuss ideas with those who reject reason.

So, it’s a mistake to think you have to be “non-confrontational” in discussing your ideas. That’s coming at it from the wrong perspective. You should give reasons for true, positive ideas and condemn and invalidate the wrong ideas. But your discussant or your audience has to be taken as open to reason and sharing with you some rational values if you are going to have or continue a discussion of ideas with them.

Confront the ideas not your audience.

Identity and Motion

The following is reprinted from the “Q & A Department” of The Objectivist Forum, December 1981. It was inspired by a private discussion with Ayn Rand on this issue. Subsequently, she read this piece and expressed no disagreement with any of it.—Harry Binswanger

Q: Does the law of identity imply that at every instant in time a moving object must be located at a definite point in space?

A: No. The law of identity implies that there are no such things as “instants in time” or “points in space”—not in the sense assumed in the question.

Every unit of length, no matter how small, has some specific extension; every unit of time, no matter how small, has some specific duration. The idea of an infinitely small amount of length or temporal duration has validity only as a mathematical device useful for making certain calculations, not as a description of components of reality. Reality does not contain either points or instants (in the mathematical sense).

By analogy: the average family has 2.2 children, but no actual family has 2.2 children: the “average family” exists only as a mathematical device.

Now consider the manner in which the question ignores the context and meaning of the concepts of “location” and “identity.”

The concept of “location” arises in the context of entities which are at rest relative to each other. A thing’s location is the place where it is situated. But a moving object is not at any one place—it is in motion. One can locate a moving object only in the sense of specifying the location of the larger fixed region through which it is moving during a given period of time.

For instance: “Between 4:00 and 4:05 p.m., the car was moving through New York City.” One can narrow down the time period and, correspondingly, the region: but one cannot narrow down the time to nothing in the contradictory attempt to locate the moving car at a single, fixed position. If it is moving, it is not at a fixed position.

The law of identity does not attempt to freeze reality. Change exists: it is a fact of reality. When a thing is changing, that is what it is doing, that is its identity for that period. What is still is still. What is in process is in process. A is A.

Pandemic Post Mortem

Unless some of the mutant strains are able to elude many of the vaccines—which I doubt—the pandemic is over.

New cases have plunged to one third of their peak value. The 7-day moving average was as high as 255,000 new cases and is now (February 16th) about 82,000. This is not well reported, because “Things are returning to normal” is like “Dog bites man.”

So, now is a good time to look back and assess what happened.

This was a nature-made disaster. But its harm was so magnified by government that one has to view the bulk of the suffering and deaths as due to disastrous government policy.

Above all, responsibility for the destruction has to be assigned to the FDA.

There are five levels here.

Level 1. The FDA as such

Had there been no FDA for the last 50 or 100 years, it is beyond question that medicine would have been so radically advanced that no virus could have created a pandemic. One factor accelerating medical progress would, of course, be the elimination of the years or decade of time wasted waiting for bureaucrats to permit offering medications on the market.

But the much more potent accelerator would be the Big Data doctors and researchers would get if the public were permitted to ingest whatever they wanted to. A huge pool of mini-experiments like that gives rise to quantum leaps of progress.

If a government bureau, like the FDA, wants to issue recommendations, that’s one thing. But it’s something else entirely when they seek to gain control over your health decisions. By what right, and at what cost, does a government agency stop you by force from taking the medication you think best?

And it is force: government is the agency whose rulings are mandatory, being enforced by the police. Government is the social institution in charge of the use of physical force within its territory. Laws are not suggestions or recommendations.

No individual has the right to use force to stop you from taking a medication, and neither do 100 million individuals, and neither do the politicians who appoint the panel of experts. Your life is your own, your mind is your own, your body is your own.

Using the police power of the state to enforce even a distinguished panel’s conclusions about personal health is totally improper and destructive. Placing science under political control can only lead to the corruption of science and to popular distrust, as we have seen in regard to the vaccines.

Level 2. The FDA on efficacy

As of mid-February, 1000 times more Americans than were in the clinical trials have received both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Had Moderna and Pfizer been permitted to sell their vaccines while clinical trials were being conducted, the vaccination process that began in December would have begun in May. Those additional six months cost many thousands of lives. And scientists would have tens of millions of informal data points to consider.

Note: the Phase III trials were not for safety but for efficacy. The government was satisfied on the safety of Moderna’s vaccine (reference) after the Phase I trials of March through early May. (The company then looked at efficacy for its own information and found that every single one of the 45 subjects developed high levels of antibodies to the coronavirus by two weeks after getting their second dose.)

Your right to act on your own conclusions about your health was taken away by 1962 legislation expanding the FDA’s role to cover not just the safety but also the effectiveness of medicines and medical treatments. That was an immoral and deadly enlargement of state power over the individual. The premise was paternalism: “We experts won’t permit people to waste their time and money on things that, even if safe, don’t work.” It doesn’t matter whether the experts do know better or are an ossified establishment: decisions regarding your health are yours to make.

Back near the beginning of this nightmare, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed pleading for the FDA, in this emergency, to drop the efficacy requirement and revert to the pre-1962 standard: safety. Tragically, the plea was completely ignored.

Level 3. The panic over hospital overcrowding

The public and politicians alike over-reacted to the possibility that hospitals could be temporarily unequipped to deal with a surge in Covid cases. In the ensuing hysteria, the country was locked down for month after month, businesses were bankrupted, jobs were lost, people’s lives were shaken, and there was a massive loss of wealth—all to prevent hospitals from being unable to handle all the Covid cases.

Why is shutting down the whole country preferable to hospitals not having enough staff or beds for all the Covid sufferers? The answer is: the tragedy at the hospitals is visualizable in contrast to the less easily visualized but even-greater tragedies resulting from extended shutdowns of the economy.

Plus, the ethics of altruist self-abnegation made intolerable the prospect of doctors having to decide whom to treat and whom to crowd out. “We can’t have some doctor or his staff deciding who will live and who will die.” (Why not? No answer.)

The absolute was: hospitals must not be overloaded. That would have made sense if mass vaccination had been just a week or two away. Then you could have argued that the government would accomplish something in its desire to “Flatten the curve” But the FDA made sure that the vaccines would not be released until “adequate testing” had been conducted, written up, forms filled out, and ruled upon by faceless bureaucrats. So the effect of all the lockdowns and general havoc the government wreaked was merely to add a slight delay to what was inevitable: the spread of the virus through the unvaccinated population.

Level 4. Capitalism non, socialism sí

Right from the beginning, the responsibility for everything having to do with the pandemic was taken away from individuals and made into a collective—i.e. governmental—responsibility. Even the military was involved in what should have been business activity on a free market. Never considered was the free-market solution: profit. The selfish search for profits would have resulted in many resources being pressed into service, and their owners highly rewarded, which is what justice demands.

We needn’t have strangled everyone with “flatten the curve” lockdowns. We needn’t have let the bureaucracy go power-mad. Instead, the same quest for profit that fills the supermarkets and clothing stores could have turned that hospital capacity line sharply upward, instead of destroying the economy for the sake of spreading out the same number of cases over a longer time frame.

As I wrote back then, why not pay physicians and health staff ten times the normal rate to attract out-of-state and out-of-country physicians, nurses, and hospital personnel? During the February crisis in New York City, it would have been much cheaper to offer out-of-state doctors $1 million per week to come to NYC to help with the crush.

Regarding distribution of the vaccines, the free market would have speedily and efficiently gotten the vaccines from the lab into production and into people’s arms. Businesses pursuing high profits do not exhibit the incredible bungling we’ve witnessed from government taking over distribution and injection of the vaccines.

Level 5. The FDA and testing

All that I have said about how government coercion prevents us from getting vaccines applies just as much to government coercion preventing fast and accurate testing from being made available. Often during the last year, we heard about newly developed fast, easy, at-home testing. But it never seemed to materialize. The cause: government paternalism, prohibitions, and the government’s disastrous tort law system, which make it almost impossible to sell any medical product. Just this morning, the WSJ’s story was headlined: “Rapid Covid-19 Tests Go Unused”:

The U.S. government distributed millions of fast-acting tests for diagnosing coronavirus infections at the end of last year to help tamp down outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons and allow schools to reopen.

But some states haven’t used many of the tests, due to logistical hurdles [that for-profit companies seem always to surmount] and accuracy concerns, squandering a valuable tool for managing the pandemic. The first batches, shipped to states in September are approaching their six-month expiration dates.

Bear in mind that the Moderna vaccine was created in a couple of days back in February 2020. There is no scientific problem in devising a vaccine effective against the coronavirus. The problems are political, which means ideological, which means philosophical. For two centuries the philosophy of self-abnegation and coerced submission to the collective has been replacing the original American philosophy of reason, self-interest, and individualism. The predictable calamity was in fact predicted by Ayn Rand through the hero of Atlas Shrugged, who says, in a different situation:

It was man’s mind that all their schemes and systems were intended to despoil and destroy. Now choose to perish or to learn that the anti-mind is the anti-life.

Nature produced the virus. The philosophers and intellectuals preached the collectivism that barred free individuals—patients, doctors, researchers, pharma companies—from taking rational action to defeat it.

Slavery did not benefit “whites”

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. —  Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, Ch. 17.

The notion of “white privilege” is collectivist. It’s Marxism seen through a racial lens.

You don’t need Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy to know that crimes are not racially shared, that there is no collective guilt. The fact that a group of people with white skin enslaved a group of people with dark skin does not mean that everyone with a white skin bears guilt for the crime. The same applies to the “Jim Crow” laws that used to exist in the Southern states: guilt for this rights violation does not attach to skin color.

But it seems that you do need Rand’s Objectivism, or at least quite an advanced understanding of capitalism, to realize the error and the insult to blacks in the idea that whites gained financially from slavery, as the term “white privilege” implies.

The truth is that, aside from the plantation owners (a tiny minority), the white population of the South was hurt by slavery—kept poor by it—rather than enriched.

Only racists, who believe that African-Americans are sub-human, could imagine that treating them like beasts of burden would be the path to riches. If you recognize that the enslaved people were human beings, with the rational faculty, you understand that slavery and discrimination were not only viciously evil but also socially and economically destructive. The forcible suppression of blacks was deliberately directed toward thwarting and paralyzing their minds—their deepest essence and most economically valuable asset.

In the words of Spinoza, “Nothing is more valuable to man than [another] man who lives by reason.”

Not just basic human decency, not just the understanding of individual rights, but also the profit-motive demands that you treat every member of every race as the rational beings they are.

Slavery sets the slave’s mind against you. Respecting a man’s individual rights and paying him for his services puts a free man’s mind on your side.

Or do the pushers of the slogan “white privilege” secretly believe that only whites can think rationally?!

The same anti-black, racist premise is behind the idea that capitalism is consistent with racial bigotry. The vile insult to those suffering from the bigotry is the ugly assumption that the members of the victimized race could not, in fact, perform as well as the members of the “privileged” race.

In concrete terms, the charge of “white privilege” assumes that it made economic sense for Southern businesses to give preference to whites over blacks. This assumes the inferiority of the black race! Otherwise, not hiring blacks and not selling to them would spell economic suicide.

On a free, capitalist market, the price of a man’s labor (his wages), like the price of any other factors of production, is set by the man’s contribution to production, not by non-economic considerations like his shoe size, the number of syllables in his first name, or his skin color.

Sure, in backward areas, like the 19th century Deep South, there would initially have been, from rednecks, resistance to doing business with blacks and general resistance to dropping racial prejudice. The Archie Bunkers have always looked with horror at competition from members of other groups (Jews, Irish, Italians, women, etc.). But as individual members of a group perform well, as they advance in wealth and form friendships, and marriages, with the more reasonable individuals of other groups, the old collectivist prejudices become less and less tenable—because they are false.

Capitalism sets the profit motive against irrationality. And racism is the height—or lowest depth—of irrationality.

To see why racism is anti-capitalist, consider the analogy to a Luddite prejudice against machinery. What would happen, under capitalism, to business owners who discriminated against machinery? Suppose the vast majority of businessmen thought machines were instruments of the devil; suppose they would not buy machines at all. How would these superstitious businessmen compete against a lone rational businessman who was not prejudiced against machines and gladly used them to save time and money? They couldn’t compete. The price of prejudice against machines would be: inability to cut costs, thus cut prices, thus maintain sales, thus stay in business. The same is true for prejudice against men.

It’s simple. Irrationality doesn’t pay. Racism is grossly irrational. Therefore, racism doesn’t pay.

Do the chanters of “white privilege,” then, think that it is rational for to view blacks as inferior?

COVID: New interview with Dr. Adalja

    Amesh Adalja

Dr. Adalja, a recognized expert on infectious diseases and a longtime Objectivist, provides an update (on May 3rd) to supplement his earlier interviews on MOTM. In these very popular, informative “Meeting of the Minds” sessions, Dr. Adalja gives crisp, black-and-white answers to the questions that are on everyone’s mind but are rarely dealt with in the often politicized and generally inadequate reporting on the virus.

Audio by Beeld en Geluid [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

P.S. The weekly podcast “Meeting of the Minds” is normally open only to members of HBL. Free trial membership.

The cracked economics of government “help”

Trump has pretty much endorsed socialism. Yes, socialism. He said he looked favorably on the idea of government buying “equity stakes” in companies (the companies the government has injured). So the plan is: we shut you down, you lose revenue, we steal from others to get cash to buy shares of your stock, thus partially nationalizing your business. (It typically takes only 10% stock ownership to have de facto control over business policy.)

I expected statist economics from Trump but not from supposedly right-wing TV commentators, like those on CNBC. (Is talk radio any better?)

Everyone seems to believe that the government has its own wealth and thus can “fix things” by supplying some of that wealth to those who most need it.

They’re going to send a trillion dollars in checks out to people. Where is the physical production that those checks draw upon? It’s not in lots of government warehouses stocked with the things you need to buy. It’s in Amazon’s warehouses, Walmart’s warehouses, the warehouses and shipping containers of all businesses and in the fields and storehouses of agribusiness.

Government can only transfer wealth. How, in a nationwide crisis, is it going to help to take the citizens’ goods, then give them back to them?

“Oh, we’ll take them from the rich and give them to the needy,” some people say. Really? What do you think the goods of the rich are? They are investments. They are capital. They are factories, machinery, land, and payments of wages and salaries. That’s where over 90% of the wealth of the rich is. How is turning that over to the needy going to help make up for lost production?

The plan advocated is something even worse than “tax the rich.” The plan is to create new (phony) money.

So people will be able to buy their food and pay their rent with government-created new money and credit. Which means people don’t actually pay anything for that part of the goods they get. How, then, is production supposed to continue? There is no money—no real money—to spend on replacing capital and equipment. How is Amazon going to survive giving away products for free? How are investors going to fund the new businesses to replace the normal percent of business failures (let alone crisis-level of failures) when investors’ real wealth has been looted by the inflation?

The cleaner solution (being used in some places) is to impose a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. Coupling that with an increase in food stamps is slightly less bad than distorting the price system, which is what inflation does.

Inflation is government counterfeiting of the money supply. That perpetrates a fraud on the entire economy. Fraud is an indirect form of force. Inflation is thus equivalent to the direct force of taxation. Because it disrupts the price system’s coordination of all economic activity, inflation is the worst kind of taxation.

It’s evil to have the government rob Peter to pay Paul. But it’s evil and crazy to have the government rob Peter and Paul to pay Peter and Paul.

Corona virus interview: Dr. Amesh Adalja

    Amesh Adalja

A must-hear interview with a recognized expert on infectious diseases, and a longtime Objectivist. In one of the best “Meeting of the Minds” sessions ever, Dr. Adalja gives crisp, black-and-white answers to the questions that are on everyone’s mind but are rarely dealt with in the shockingly inept reporting on the virus. Includes discussion of the harm wreaked by authoritarian governments in their heavy-handed response to the virus.

Audio by Beeld en Geluid [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

P.S. The weekly podcast “Meeting of the Minds” is normally open only to members of HBL. Free trial membership.

Objectivist Workshop Participants Identified

Ayn Rand once remarked to me that an event doesn’t become part of history until 50 years have passed.

It’s now been 50 years since the Workshops on Objectivist Epistemology were held. The Workshop comprised five meetings from 1969 through 1970 during which professionals in philosophy and related fields had the extraordinary opportunity to question Ayn Rand in great detail on her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

The tape recordings of those sessions, which were hosted by the Foundation for the New Intellectual (now terminated in favor of the Ayn Rand Institute), supplied the basis for the 200 page Appendix I edited for the 2nd edition of ITOE. The full recordings are in the Archives of the Ayn Rand Institute.

None of the participants asked for anonymity regarding the Appendix, but neither did I contact all of them to secure their permissions to be named and quoted, so I thought it best to use the identifiers “Prof. A,” “Prof. B,” etc. Some questions were asked by attendees who were classed as “auditors,” though they were given a few opportunities to ask a question or two.

There were only five full participants, if I recall correctly: Leonard Peikoff, George Walsh, John O. Nelson, Allan Gotthelf, and me. The rest were “auditors” or “guests.”

“Auditor” is not quite the right term, because they were each given the opportunity to ask a question late in the sessions, but I can’t think of a better term. The people I list below as auditors were those who asked a question that I included in the Appendix; there were probably a few others, but either they didn’t ask a question or I didn’t include any of their questions in the Appendix.

Of the full participants, three held the academic rank of “Professor,” two of “Instructor.” The auditors, I think, were all graduate students. So, “Prof.” was a device I used, rather than a description of their academic titles.

Also attending as guests were: a lawyer who was a Foundation trustee and his wife, George Reisman, and Frank O’ Connor. The group met in a hotel conference room, and we sat around a big, oval conference table, the guests sitting against the side walls.

The first session lasted 12 hours! Subsequent sessions were shorter, but still the total time was 21 hours. A full transcript would have run about 600 book pages.

Not everyone attended every session. Sessions 4 and 5 were quite different. They were not about ITOE or epistemology; one was on metaphysics and one on ethics/politics. These two final sessions were much smaller events, held in Ayn Rand’s apartment, and there were only three questioners: Leonard Peikoff, George Walsh, and Allan Gotthelf. I was not invited.

The assignment of letters for the names had no special significance: I used “Prof. A” for the first person quoted in the Appendix, “Prof. B” for the second, and so on.

As noted in my editor’s preface to the Appendix, I did some re-arranging of questions: they are presented in logical order, not the chronological order in which they were asked.

For the first three sessions, there was a different “main questioner,” who had the floor for an hour or two; then others took turns. Thus, my re-arrangement of questions did not interrupt any flow; each new questioner asked about whatever topic he was interested in, rather than continuing from where the previous questioner left off.

A happy result of putting the questions into a logical order was that my question on the nature of the whole theory was the one that needed to go first. So I am “Prof. A.”

Here is the complete list of the participants included in the Appendix.

Prof. A: Harry Binswanger. Then a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Columbia University and Part-Time Instructor in philosophy at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Prof. B: Allan Gotthelf. Doctoral candidate in philosophy at Columbia University and full-time Instructor in philosophy at Wesleyian University in Connecticut. Dr. Gotthelf went on to become, among many other accomplishments, a founder and longtime head of the Ayn Rand Society, a professional organization affiliated with the American Philosophical Association.

Prof. C: Nicholas Bykovetz. Graduate student in physics, who is now in the physics department of Temple University.

Prof. D: John Nelson. Nelson was then in his 50s, I believe, and was in the philosophy department of the University of Colorado, Boulder. His article “The ‘Freedom’ of the Hippie and the Yippie” was published in The Objectivist.

Prof. E: Leonard Peikoff, who needs no identification for this audience.

Prof. F: George Walsh. Then in his late 40s or early 50s, Prof. Walsh was in the philosophy department of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY.

Prof. G: Fred Weiss.  Graduate student in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Weiss went on to create and run The Paper Tiger, a niche publisher.

Prof. H: Mike Berliner. Doctoral candidate in philosophy at Boston University, where he also taught.  Dr. Berliner became the first Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute (1985 – 2000).

Prof. I: Gary Lachmund. Then a graduate student in mathematics, Mr. Lachmund later went into banking.

Prof. J: John Allen. Graduate student in philosophy.

Prof. K: Albert Jakira. Graduate student in philosophy. Mr. Jakira ran an Objectivist study group in New York City in the 1990s.

Prof. L: Tony Plasil. Graduate student in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Prof. M: Laurence Gould. Graduate student in physics, now in the physics department of the University of Hartford.

All trade deals are bad deals

All Trade Deals Are Bad Deals

Harry Binswanger

For over a year, markets have been whipsawed by alternating hopes and fears regarding trade deals between the U.S. and China, and between a post-Brexit U.K. and the European Union.

The fears are justified; the hopes are not. All inter-governmental dictation of the terms of trade are improper. The terms of trade are matters for negotiation between private parties, not governments.

An actual deal is a voluntary trade between private individuals or private businesses, who decide what to do with their own property. The premise of inter-governmental trade “deals” is that private property is irrelevant, that governments are to decide who is permitted to buy or sell what to whom and at what price.

If your money is yours, not the government’s, if Apple’s products are the property of Apple and not the government, then government officials have no right even to venture an opinion about the terms of private deals and contracts. If Ford wants to outsource part of its production to a factory in China, that’s up to Ford and to the owners of the factory. True, China’s government does not permit real property rights to the factory’s owners. But that’s an immorality on its part, one that is not ameliorated by our government acting with the same dictatorial mentality.

There’s a name for the premise of government dictation of trade. When the government preserves the surface appearance of private ownership but actually takes control of how that property is used and disposed of, the resulting system is called “fascism.”

Under fascism, the owners retain nominal title to their property, the businesses remain nominally private, but the government dictates what individuals and business must do with that property. Prices and the terms of trade are set coercively by the state. And that’s just what trade “deals” seek to do with international trade.

An analogy will expose the fascist nature of all trade “deals.”

Imagine that countries negotiated music deals. Suppose that in the mid-1960s American politicians had decided that the “British invasion” was not good for American music.

“We have enough Beatles and Rolling Stones,” they might have declared. “But we’re willing to make a deal with Her Majesty’s Government to establish a level playing field. We will allow in one British rock album for every Lawrence Welk album that they buy from us.”

Then the Brits try to negotiate a change from Lawrence Welk to the Beach Boys.

In order to get the best possible deal, the U.S. government starts banning the sale of Beatles albums here. “We can play hardball,” the President says. He adds, “We stand ready to prevent our people from listening to as many British rockers as is necessary to achieve musical parity.”

You take it from there.

That analogy evokes a chuckle–because it is too silly to occur. But there’s no difference in principle between obstruction of imported music and obstruction of imported electronics. In both cases, the government is strangling its own citizens for an irrational goal: musical parity or a “favorable” balance of trade.

(The “balance of trade” is an accounting artifact: when our imports exceed exports, it’s solely because of foreign investment here. Imports are always paid for–and in U.S. dollars. Dollars that foreign sellers leave in the U.S., rather than spending on U.S. products, create a “deficit” in the “balance of payments.” This isn’t disputed. But foreign capital invested here is a boon not a threat. The U.S. had a “trade deficit” practically every year of the 19th Century–the period of our fastest economic growth.)

If you want to buy a car made in Michigan, you would be outraged if the governor of your state began negotiating with the governor of Michigan to set the terms of a “deal” to be imposed on you because it’s “in the public interest.” You should be just as outraged when it’s a car made in Germany or Korea.

Free-traders have characterized America’s imposition of tariffs as Uncle Sam shooting himself in the foot. But it’s way worse than that: it’s Uncle Sam shooting American citizens in the foot. When governments “negotiate” to get a “deal,” the people are held hostage; their lives and well-being are the “bargaining chips” in the negotiations. The tariff threats governments make are directed against their own citizens.

It has been claimed that we need trade deals in order to stop the theft of our intellectual property. This is a mistake. If such theft can be shown in a court proceeding, then the individual businesses guilty of it, not the world at large, should be punished for the crime. As a first step the guilty firm should not be allowed to sell their goods in this country. Further legal redress should be pursued . . . against the individual firms that have engaged in the theft.

But today’s approach is the unjust practice of punishing a whole group for the misbehavior of one party. Imagine that Qualcomm were found to be stealing intellectual property from Apple. Would that justify slapping a tax on every American business in order to “play hardball” with Qualcomm? It’s even more outrageous to tax all Americans in order to “play hardball” with Huawei. Punish the offending party, not the population at large.

If governments are not to make “deals,” what should they do to improve foreign trade? Simple: stop interfering with trade. Drop all the controls over trade. Do it unilaterally.

The American government should immediately end all its tariffs, quotas, and other forms of interference with trade. Then we could broadcast to the world: “We are no longer going to rob our own citizens by interfering with their right to trade their property as they see fit. To foreigners, we say: why not demand of your government that it respect your rights?”

The same applies to the U.K. It should exit the European Union without a “trade deal.” The so-called “hard Brexit” is the morally right Brexit. There should be no British politicians tasked with “handling” trade issues. The courts of law are the proper venue for trying individual cases, based on individual evidence and individual rights.

All the uncertainty, paralysis, and escalating “trade wars” would vanish overnight if America and the U.K. dropped their controls and announced: “What our citizens buy from and sell to the citizens of other countries is not something any government may obstruct. The right of free trade is a corollary of the right to private property. No benefit, only mutual destruction, can result from violating those rights.”

Someone wrote me privately to object. He said that when country A puts a tariff on goods from country B, it’s a tax on country B’s businesses. E.g., the Trump tariffs on imports from China are a tax on Chinese businesses. Then he argued that imposing tariffs in the way we have is valid because the message to China is: “If you lower your tariffs, we’ll lower ours.” He saw merit in the claim that in the long term, this will lead to lower tariffs worldwide and bring us closer to free trade.

My answer was:

But our government has no right to initiate force against us in order to (supposedly) induce another government to stop taxing their own citizens! The tariffs that China puts on are not taxes on our businesses: they are taxes on the Chinese who want to buy from our businesses.

It is true that if you beat up potential buyers, that means less in sales for our would-be sellers. But that doesn’t make it a tax on our businesses. The Chinese, no doubt, impose income taxes on their citizens; that reduces their spendable funds, so they buy less from American firms. But the tax is on the Chinese, not on us. We fail to get trade we could have and should have gotten. But the same is true in regard to our taxes and controls: they hurt the Chinese (and the citizens of every nation). But our income tax and our environmental regulations and our antitrust laws are not taxes on the Chinese.

Take it more extreme. Suppose the Chinese murder half their population. Is that to be thought of as a violation of the rights of American businessmen who would have sold to the victims?

And would the answer to that genocide be: “Oh yeah? Well, we’re going to kill half of the Americans–see how your exporters like that!”

Reading over the above, it now occurs to me that arguments like “tariffs will work in the end” are nakedly pragmatist. Once you understand that the government exists to protect rights, not violate them, that ends the discussion about slapping on tariffs. It’s a (further) violation of our property rights, so it’s not permitted. Full stop.

I have said that our government should announce: “We are immediately dropping all tariffs, quotas, and import controls. Americans do not permit their government to rob them; we’re sorry if your government continues to rob you, and you have the absolute right to overthrow that tyranny. The regime has no power to stop a popular rebellion, as the fall of the Soviet empire proved. We hope that you throw out the thugs and join the free world. In the meantime, send us your goods.”

That would be 100 times more powerful than any economic pain inflicted (mutually). Didn’t we learn “The lesson of Vietnam”? That lesson was that the most militarily powerful country in the world will be defeated by one of the most backward and impoverished countries in the world when the stronger country loses its moral self-confidence.

Marx was wrong. Ideology is not determined by economics. The Chinese regime will not be brought down by slowed economic growth. Under Mao, the regime flourished while the people literally starved to death. In the 1930s, the Soviets deliberately starved to death tens of millions of “kulaks.” People will knuckle under to anything, as long as they believe the alternative is evil.

(It is true that if the ideological preconditions are sufficiently established, an economic contraction can serve as a catalyst; but a more effective catalyst would be calls to overthrow the regime, per above. That was the catalyst Reagan supplied by his one good moment: the “evil empire” reference.)

What is national sovereignty?

We advocates of open immigration are often accused of seeking to undercut national sovereignty.

“A nation’s very existence depends upon its having borders,” we are informed. Then that obvious fact somehow gets transformed into “A nation that doesn’t enforce its borders has surrendered its sovereignty,” which then slides into: “We need the power to control immigration.”

But what is sovereignty?

“Sovereignty” refers to the government’s monopoly on force. The border defines the area within which the government has that monopoly—i.e., its area of jurisdiction, the area within which its police will enforce its law.

The border is not a kind of property line, dividing one government’s ownership of “its territory” from the next government’s ownership of theirs. The government does not own the country. Nor does any collective. Jurisdiction is not ownership.

“Enforcing our border” in the proper sense means using military force to preserve our government’s area of jurisdiction; it means repelling foreign governments or gangs who would raid us or try to take over areas of the country. “Enforcing our border” does not mean initiating physical force to obstruct or stop the free movement of individuals.

If the Mexican police or army were entering Texas, trying to block U.S. authorities or to rule it, that would violate U.S. sovereignty and would call for our government to enforce our border.

If the United States cedes to the U.N. authority to make law regarding carbon emissions, that would be partially surrendering our sovereignty. If soldiers operating as a U.N. “peace-keeping team” enter Lebanon and start imposing their decisions on the Lebanese people, that would be Lebanon’s loss of sovereignty.

France has compromised its sovereignty by allowing Sharia law inside Islamist areas of Paris which the police will not enter.

The point is that a nation’s sovereignty has to do with the reach of its law, not with its policy on immigration.

As John Patillo wrote on HBL a couple of years ago:

Sovereignty is established by the monopoly of force that allows . . . laws to be applied within a delimited territory: these laws (and no others) apply to this territory (and no other). Sovereignty does not per se endow the government with the right to control the movement of any human being on earth.

Immigration policy, whether rights-respecting or rights-violating, is not part of maintaining sovereignty. Immigration policy could only affect sovereignty if, like France, the host nation’s government does not have the moral certainty needed to assert its power. (In other words, there is no reason on earth that the French military and police have to genuflect to Islamist sentiment; they have the power to clean out those areas, and enforce French law 100%–the explanation of their abdication is the West’s loss of moral self-confidence, due to the onslaught of post-modernists and multiculturalists.)

Enforcing the border is a government-to-government issue. Immigration is a government to individual issue: can the state use force against a person trying to drive on a public road that runs across the border?

If Canada’s government were rolling tanks towards Buffalo, our military should use retaliatory force to stop them. But they would be doing it to protect Americans’ individual rights, not to protect the government’s sovereignty (“their turf”). The government’s retaliation against initiated force is always justified—whether the aggressors are invading Mexican soldiers or a criminal gang of locals in Topeka.

So much for the claim that we lose sovereignty if we permit open immigration. To enforce our borders is to enforce our government’s jurisdictional area.

Those talking about keeping our sovereignty, enforcing our borders, seem to mean that our government should use initiated force to obstruct or block the movement of people who seek to work here, do business here, and live in peace here.

The appeal to “sovereignty” as a justification for initiating force against peaceful individuals is illogical, and unjust. It reflects a wholly un-American attitude: the collectivist view that “we” or our government own the country, and get to decide who may come here and who may not. And the “us vs. them” approach represents the lowest form of collectivism: tribalism.

Nativist propaganda paints immigrants as uncivilized, disease-ridden, and harboring a high percentage of thugs and criminals. This is exactly what was said, by anti-immigrationists in the 1920s  about Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, and about “the scaly scrappings of the European Ghettos.” For a credible report on the actual statistics, listen to this 11-minute podcast from Cato:

https://www.cato.org/multimedia/cato-daily-podcast/puncturing-persistent-myths-about-immigrant-crime

According to the Cato scholar, immigrants have a lower proportion of criminals than do native Americans.

Philosophically, though, it doesn’t matter. Suppose the crime rate for immigrants were triple that of native Americans. Since justice is not collective, that fact would not justify any interference with the flow of immigrants across our borders. You think it does? Would you then advocate that the police go to a poor neighborhood, where the crime rate is triple the average, and eject or imprison everyone? Would you even advocate “extreme vetting” of the entire population of that crime-ridden neighborhood? I hope not.

In regard to the issue of crime, immigration policy is a distraction from the real issue: the need to end Prohibition II (aka “The War on Drugs”). Legalize every substance, and the crime rate will fall by a factor of . . . 4? 5? 8? Then bring back proper policing—an easier job once the police don’t have to deal with drug-based crime and judges no longer have to worry about overcrowded prisons when they jail real criminals.

Crime has been dropping for decades. To the extent it remains a problem, it is to be dealt with by getting rid of rights-violating laws (like the anti-drug laws) and better policing, not by violating individual rights by erecting barriers to immigration.

The FDA is the Federal Death Agency

Scott Gottlieb, the man President Trump has appointed to head the FDA, wants to loosen its regulation, to permit more innovation. This is a step in the right direction. But it’s one step in a journey of 100 miles. And no one dreams of making that journey.

The more consistent pro-capitalists recognize that the FDA greatly impedes medical innovation, because of its incredibly lengthy, expensive, and onerous requirements before any medical innovation can be released to the public. That’s the easy part.

The deeper issue is individual rights. And this issue is understood only by a small minority within the preceding small group. The individual has a right to put any substance into his body at any time for any reason. He has a right to buy any such substance from any willing seller under whatever terms they each consider advantageous to themselves.

The government has no legitimate role in medicine. None. Not in regard to what people take into their bodies, not in regard to who sells what for people to take into their bodies (absent proven fraud), not in regard to who calls himself a doctor, or a pharmacist, or a nurse, or an anesthesiologist, or a physical therapist, a psychiatrist, a dentist, a surgeon—anything.

(Re fraud: we must be constantly on guard against preventive law: government cannot demand that anyone prove that he is not engaged in fraud. The government cannot interfere with private activity unless there’s “probable cause” of a rights violation—which, in the case of fraud, means evidence of a specific fraud involving specific representations made in specific media on a specific date(s).  The government cannot treat doctors or medical firms as guilty until proven innocent.)

Many people understand that the government has no right to stop people from committing suicide. If that’s so, how can they have a right to stop them from knowingly doing something that some bureaucratic panel believes risks the individual’s death?

The right to suicide is an expression of the right to life. Just as the right to your property includes the right to discard or destroy that property when it is no longer valuable to you, so the right to your life includes the right to discard or destroy your life when it is no longer valuable to you.

Imagine that the government required the sellers of pencils to go before a panel and show studies to prove that their latest model won’t damage your papers, and that it makes marks “effectively.” And imagine the same principle applying to everything sold that affects your property—which means just about everything sold.

Couldn’t you, in that case, say to the government: “I want to buy and use this pencil, and I don’t care if it ‘harms’ my paper; it’s my paper; I can throw it in the trash or burn it in the fireplace if I want. I decide what’s good for my paper, not you”?

The same thing is true, but more so, in regard to your ownership of your body and your life.

(“Ownership” here is a metaphor: your life is the source of all your rights, including rights of ownership, so you can’t literally have property rights to the source of your property rights: your valuing of your own life.)

The premise of the FDA is: you are government property. That’s what would have to be true for the government to have legitimate authority over how you treat yourself.

The other pillar supporting the FDA is: altruism. The rational individuals, who would not swallow the snake-oil cure-all, have to be stopped to protect the irrational. That means: you cannot be allowed to buy drugs without a prescription because Looney Louie would harm himself if everyone were free of this prescription law.

Notice, what’s at stake here is rationality, not intelligence or knowledgeableness. A rational person knows his intellectual limitations and seeks the advice of the more intelligent and knowledgeable. (And private certification would be a crucial aid here.)

But the premise of the FDA is that the person needing to be protected from himself is the one who would not seek a doctor’s or scientist’s advice but would lurch into action irrationally.

And since “rational vs. irrational” is the same alternative as “moral vs. immoral,” what the FDA is set up to accomplish is nothing less than the sacrifice of virtue to vice. It stops the rational, conscientious, moral man from acting on his judgment—for the sake of protecting the irrational, out-of-focus, immoral man from the consequences of his chosen state.

Nothing could be more evil.

I opened this post by distinguishing between two levels of opposition by pro-capitalists who are against the FDA. The first level is that of people who will tell you that the FDA is a good and needed agency but there’s a problem with some of the Agency’s decisions. These people think that the FDA is just part of civilized existence.

I pointed out a deeper level: individual rights and how the FDA violates them.

Now I want to outline the third, deepest level of understanding: the integration of the moral and the practical.

The immorality of the FDA lies in its forbidding individual judgment. The FDA exists solely to arrest anyone who acts without permission. The FDA does not exist to provide expert opinion on medical substances and practices: private, non-governmental voluntary certification does that. What the FDA adds is the power to arrest and imprison those who dare to disagree with its medical opinions.

And that takes us to the deepest point. The necessary result of throttling private judgments is: mass death.

I don’t mean just the deaths of those millions of diseased individuals who cannot get the life-saving drugs. Much worse is the fact that outlawing private judgment means a drastically shorter life-span for every one of us.

Let me try to concretize the extent of this tragedy. If America had continued through the 20th century the nearly laissez-faire system of the 19th, it’s a good bet that Ayn Rand would be alive today at age 113, and would still be in good health.

It is quite likely that, had we continued with almost-full capitalism, then the Millennials would have a lifespan of 200 years, or longer. The reason that sounds like fantasy is that statism has hamstrung America for so long that we have unconsciously lowered our expectations of progress.

Let me make my vision more plausible to you. Assume—just for the sake of argument—that the nation survives in more or less its present political condition for another two centuries. Do you have much doubt that in 2218, medical progress will have reached the levels I describe?

Probably, the idea that people born in 2218 would have a 200-year lifespan seems plausible. If so, ask yourself whether, under capitalism, we could have gotten to that point already.

For comparison, consider what happened in the 125 years of capitalism we had from 1796 to 1921: the world was entirely transformed. The average American in that century went from a life hardly different from that of his ancestors going back two thousand years, to a world of trains, electricity, automobiles, movies, phonographs, airplanes, steamships, submarines. And, medically: X-rays, sanitary conditions in hospitals, anesthesia (and the consequent development of surgical techniques), vaccination (discovered by Jenner in 1796), and an extension of the American lifespan from between 30 and 40 to over 60 by 1921.

So why has U.S. life expectancy gone only to 78.7 in the 97 years since it hit 60? Why isn’t life expectancy now over 100? In fact, since knowledge builds on knowledge and wealth builds on wealth, the rate of increase should have been accelerating!

You might think that there’s some inherent limit on the span of a human life. I don’t think there is, and neither do lots of people better informed than I. Especially not when there is the ability to re-program our DNA.

But go ahead and assume that there is an effective upper limit of 100 or 110. Now consider the 20 to 30 years of extended life that even those born today are, on average, not going to see.

What took away that 1/3 of the individual’s life? Government. And more directly than any other arm of the government, the killer is the FDA.

The reason is “that which is not seen”—the progress that was not made is invisible to the public.

The first factor generating the non-improving lifespan is the regulatory hurdles that soak up time and funds. But there’s another, unrecognized factor that dwarfs that one: the absence of mass experimentation.

We should have had a century of thousands of self-chosen medical trials going on simultaneously, with the superior innovations being swiftly adoped.

There would have been and should have been ad hoc experiments on all fronts: people trying out new concoctions, new dosages of medicines, new surgical procedures, implanted devices, chemotherapies, immune-system boosting therapies, genetic repair and splicing in of new designs . . . and more.

There have been, of course, official “studies” done on each innovation in all those areas. But the shocking part is the realization that there could have been hundreds times more experiments—by the parties that decide on their own they want to try out the latest pill.

With the liberation of private self-medication, we would have had Big Data to go by. And we now recognize the immense value of Big Data.

Would it have been difficult to separate out legitimate results from placebo effects? No, not at all, because we’re interested not in mild tweaks (e.g., a slightly better throat lozenger), but in identifying unsuspected radical improvements.

Incremental improvements do have an important role, however. They point the way to more radical change. If you were trying to develop a cure for, say, rheumatoid arthritis, you would have been scouring the nation, or the world, for word on what treaments were working and to what extent. If you learned of a minor improvement associated with taking some drug, that could be the essential item of knowledge that could lead to your making a huge integration that led to a radical improvement.

The mass experimentation I’m talking about is just: a large number of independent, private decisions.  lt’s a Darwinian process: the more “mutations” are tried, the better the success rate overall.

When men are liberated to act on their own judgment, the experimentation produces data-rich results. Even the unwise or downright irrational would have accelerated technological progress: you learn things from failure, including about bad and good side-effects. (As to good side-effects: many drugs developed for treating one illness are being found significantly helpful in combatting entirely different maladies.)

In the 1980s when “personal computers” got started, we had that kind of competition in place, and the extinction of laggard firms was continual and widely noted. No Board could have predicted the quick disappearance or exiting from the “microcomputer” field of such hardware and software leaders as: Northstar, Tandy/Radio Shack, Digital Research (CP/M), Magic Pencil, Lotus 1-2-3, PageMaker, Atari, Osborne, Altair, Wordstar, CBasic, Commodore, KayPro, Sinclair, Xerox, and IBM. If a government committee had required a decade of testing of each new computer product, we would still be in the age of the adding machine.

The path to genetic cures and radical life extension begins with the abolition of that Servant of Death: the FDA.

As a significant first step, an enormous amount of good could be achieved by slapping back the huge power grab the Death Agency made in 1962. It was then, under President Kennedy, that the agency vastly expanded its reach by, for the first time, setting itself up as the dictator over not just the safety of drugs but their “efficacy.”

Proving efficacy is much harder, more expensive, and more time-consuming than proving safety. Consider some twists and turns introduced by the efficacy standard. Suppose you offer an alternative to an existing drug that has the same effectiveness—should you be “permitted” to sell it? Suppose it is a little less effective on average, but much more effective with a certain sub-sector of the population? And how much does its purported efficacy depend on the placebo effect—an issue that doesn’t come up in proving safety.

The justification offered for including “efficacy” in the agency’s (death-dealing) mission is that an ineffective drug can divert a person from the drugs and medical treatment that he should be getting. So, if Mindless Marvin is permitted to buy and take an ineffective drug to treat his cancer, he will only later, if ever, turn to legitimate medical treatment—and by then it may be too late.

Yes, that’s true about Marvin, but so what? The horrible assumption is that the rest of us have to die early so that the nation’s contingent of flakes and evaders can escape the consequences of their own choices.

For relief, let’s turn to Galt’s speech.

The political system we will build is contained in a single moral premise: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force. Every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment. If he fails to use it and falls, he will be his only victim. If he fears that his judgment is inadequate, he will not be given a gun to improve it. If he chooses to correct his errors in time, he will have the unobstructed example of his betters, for guidance in learning to think; but an end will be put to the infamy of paying with one life for the errors of another.

[My emphasis]

A “conservative” calls for a pope and a king

Niall Ferguson published an alarming opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal of January 6th. I analyzed the real meaning of his call for “hierarchy,” during our Sunday “Meeting of the Minds” teleconference.

I now have excerpted, and lightly edited, that portion–13 minutes–of the teleconference:

https://www.hbletter.com/analysis_of_Ferguson_article.mp3

 

John Hospers’ Betrayal of Ayn Rand–An Eyewitness Report

John Hospers’ Betrayal of Ayn Rand

An eyewitness report

by Harry Binswanger

The November-December 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine had a story on Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns, the author of one of the two (bad) biographies on Ayn Rand published in 2009.

The article’s topic is Ayn Rand’s appearance in October of 1962 at Harvard, where she gave “Art as Sense of Life” to the American Society for Aesthetics. The commentator for her talk was John Hospers, who at that time Ayn Rand was friendly with. Here is Burns’ presentation in the article, which I will correct afterwards.

“What happened next [after she delivered her talk] is a matter of some dispute. As the designated commentator, Hospers rose and delivered some remarks on Rand’s presentation. At least one of her entourage remembered his words as surprisingly sarcastic and harsh. Hospers himself thought his comments, while critical, were entirely typical. ‘I could not simply say how great her remarks were and then sit down,’ he recalled.

“But there was no mistaking Rand’s reaction. She lashed out at him immediately from the dais, raising eyebrows in the crowd.”

Well, as it happens, I was present at that talk. I was 18 years old, had only been introduced to Objectivism 7 months earlier, and was entirely unfamiliar with ideas about decorum and moral sanction. Nonetheless, I was stunned by the hostile manner of Hospers’ comments. I remember, verbatim how he began one of his “comments”: “Surely,” he said in a really sneering way, “Miss Rand doesn’t expect us to believe that a painting of a landscape can [here I’m unsure of the exact wording] convey a view about man’s relation to existence.”

Hospers concluded his attack, then stepped down from the dais, and, as is the academic fashion, Ayn Rand went up to give her response.

As you know, Ayn Rand could get intensely angry and fry a questioner with both her moral intensity and her logic. But, completely contrary to Burns’ report, she was on this occasion more than calm–she was gentle and earnest. She answered Hospers’ attack, including the landscape example, so gently and earnestly that I was a little uncomfortable, feeling: “Doesn’t she know what he just did to her?” I knew from The Objectivist Newsletter that Hospers was supposed to be very friendly to Objectivism–I think he even gave part of a lecture once in the NBI series “Basic Principles of Objectivism.”

Another thing struck me. During her response, Ayn Rand was looking straight at where Hospers was seated (in the front row on her far left). But I could see Hospers, and the whole time he was turned in his seat away from Ayn Rand, facing toward the wall, in an awkward pose that seemed to say, “I’m not interested in whatever you have to say.” He wouldn’t look at her; he stared at the wall. I’m not a great believer in “body language,” but in this case, his was loud and clear.

I left the event surprised and bothered by Hospers’ behavior. I concluded, immediately and without difficulty, that he had just sold her out in order to maintain “face” with his academic buddies.

Apparently, Ayn Rand got the message, too, because she broke with Hospers afterwards, and I’m pretty sure it was over this betrayal.


© 2010 TOF Publications, Inc.

John Henry, a steel drivin’ man–and a Luddite

[Reprinted from Harry Binswanger’s Forbes Online column of November 20, 2013.]

Symbols matter. Symbols are powerful. Psychologically, they activate “the vision thing,” which George H. W. Bush had trouble with, as do so many on the Right.

Consider the legend of John Henry and his race against the newly invented steam hammer, a competition in driving steel to build a railroad line. For the Left, Henry symbolizes the working-class hero. He evokes the entire Marxist apparatus of downtrodden labor, exploited by the fat-cat capitalist bosses.

The legend of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel appears to have some basis in historical fact. But it has no basis in moral or economic fact. Morally, John Henry exhibits a contemptible small-mindedness; economically, John Henry’s opposition to mechanization is the kind of short-range non-thinking that economists should warn against.

But the Left has tender feelings for this brawny proletarian. In the folknik era of the sixties, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and Odetta sang his mournful ballad. This version of the lyrics of “John Henry” captures it all:

The captain said to John Henry
“Gonna bring that steam drill ’round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down, down, down.
Whop that steel on down.”

John Henry told his captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord.
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.” . . .

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine.
But John Henry made fifteen feet –
The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.
He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord.
He laid down his hammer and he died.

Now let’s throw the warm light of reason on the story. One website gives this account of the Chesapeake and Ohio’s construction of the Big Bend Tunnel.

The C&O’s new line was moving along quickly, until Big Bend Mountain emerged to block its path. The mile-and-a-quarter-thick mountain was too vast to build around. So the men were told they had to drive their drills through it, through its belly.

It took 1,000 men three years to finish. The work was treacherous. Visibility was negligible and the air inside the developing tunnel was thick with noxious black smoke and dust. Hundreds of men would lose their lives to Big Bend before it was over, their bodies piled into makeshift, sandy graves just steps outside the mountain. John Henry was one of them. As the story goes, John Henry was the strongest, fastest, most powerful man working on the rails. He used a 14-pound hammer to drill, some historians believe, 10 to 20 feet in a 12-hour day–the best of any man on the rails.

One day, a salesman came to camp, boasting that his steam-powered machine could outdrill any man. A race was set: man against machine. John Henry won, the legend says, driving 14 feet to the drill’s nine. He died shortly after, some say from exhaustion, some say from a stroke.

What then is the actual meaning of the story? John Henry died trying to defeat an invention that actually brought deliverance from the inhuman conditions of all steel-driving men, including him. He and hundreds of men died building the Big Bend tunnel. The steam hammer would have saved most of those lives. It would have allowed the laborers to do work, on the railroad or elsewhere, that was immensely easier and less dangerous. Is this something that John Henry and his Leftist admirers should oppose?

Steam power also greatly shortened the time required to lay track, lowering costs and therefore lowering the price of rail travel, raising everyone’s standard of living. The invention meant the substitution of steam power for costly, back-breaking, life-shortening, muscular labor.

“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man”–but what is a man? Is his essence the brute strength of his muscles, or the unlimited power of the intellect? The true meaning of the story is not: “a man ain’t nothing but a man,” but: a man is more than an animal.

Economically, the introduction of the steam hammer raised the productivity of labor and hence real wages. John Henry, an uneducated manual laborer, could not have been expected to understand this. But the contemporary commentators should understand it. Yet the website continues:

“John Henry’s life was about power–the individual, raw strength that no system [capitalism?] could take from a man–and about weakness–the societal position in which he was thrust.”

John Henry was “thrust” into a “societal position”? How? By whom? By the fact that man has to work in order to sustain his life? By the fact that a railroad requires rails? These facts are due to the law of causality, not to some evil human design or to society. John Henry was not a victim–except of his own Luddite opposition to progress.

John Henry’s life was about power? Power, in the real sense of the term, comes from knowledge–the knowledge of how to harness the forces of nature to serve human life. Like the force of steam, made to drive a hammer.

But according to Marxism, it is muscles, not mind, that moves the world. That is why Marxists cannot, or refuse to, see the huge contribution made by the minds of the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the risk-taking investors, the managerial organizers–and by every employee to the extent that he does his job in a way that an animal couldn’t. If muscles were the source of wealth, China would have been for centuries the richest nation on the face of the earth.

Animals survive by muscles; man survives by using his rational faculty to produce material values. (The social condition required for the mind to function is: freedom.)

The website author concludes:

“To the thousands of railroad hands, [John Henry] was an inspiration and an example, a man just like they who worked in a deplorable, unforgiving atmosphere but managed to make his mark.”

His mark was a tombstone.

His epitaph should be: Here lies a man, who, at the dawn of the industrial age, attempted to prove muscles superior to the mind, and paid with life.

Blindness to the power of ideas

Over at our Member Forum, we’ve been discussing the ideas of Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness. Szasz (wrongly) claims that psychological problems that aren’t neural are “behavioral.” There’s an interesting connection of this notion to the political issues we’ve also been discussing on HBL. Many of those involved in the wrong political movements (e.g., anarchism, populism, Marxism) are driven by the idea that ideas—especially philosophic ideas—are irrelevant to behavior . . . and to history.

Of the many, many examples of this in politics, let me take the case of libertarian anarchism. Decades ago, these anarchists argued that anarchism was necessary if we are to take seriously the prohibition of the initiation of physical force. The argument was that government’s monopoly on force initiates force against would-be competing “governments.”

But that is no longer the main argument the anarchists see—perhaps because of its refutation by Robert Nozick and by me. Or, perhaps it’s due to the dumbing down of the population over the years. But whatever the cause, today the main argument for anarchism seems to be: “Governments always go bad.”

Look at the history of the U.S., they say. It started out in a state very close to the libertarian ideal, but then it started to go down the drain. They then typically quote Lord Acton about how power corrupts.

They do not grasp, and seem incapable of grasping, that the decline of the U.S. was caused not by “corruption” but by philosophy. They are deaf to Ayn Rand’s statement, in For the New Intellectual:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her. From her start, America was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. [pp. 53-54]

My hypothesis is that what separates the committed Objectivist from the rest of the population is an understanding of the fundamental role played by ideas in people’s lives and in history. That point seems the hardest for people in general to grasp.

It also accounts for the widespread case of those who respond to Atlas Shrugged but fail to translate it into action–fail to pursue the philosophy (when they know it exists) or even to attempt to apply it to their own lives.

An example is the dermatologist who told me that he was reading Atlas for the second time and was very impressed by how AR foresaw the events of today. I asked him what he thought Atlas was all about. He replied, “Some people game the system.” Another story is of the accountant who told a friend of mine that Atlas was about “A man who owns his own valley.”

And people accuse AR of beating the reader over the head with her philosophy!

I suspect that what’s going on in such cases–which are the rule, not the exception–is that they see the ideas of the heroes and the ideas of the villains as merely words they use to justify themselves. They don’t see that the heroes and villains live by and act in accordance with the ideas they espouse. And that can only be because they are unaware of the power of their own ideas on their own lives and actions.

There’s a relatively innocent explanation: they don’t recognize that they have premises. To them, their philosophical premises are not conclusions–they are just self-evidencies. As I’ve said before, it’s like the common attitude, which even I shared in my youth, that an “accent” was the way other people talk, when it sounded different. “I don’t have an accent—I just talk straight.”

Similarly, journalists who are immersed in a sea of like-minded colleagues and friends, don’t think they are slanting the news. They are not “ideologues”–that’s what their opponents are. They just report plain fact, “telling it like it is.” It’s just self-evident that it’s a crisis if not everyone has health insurance. It’s self-evident that when a hurricane strikes, the government must provide funds for relief.

Philosophically, this attitude represents intrinsicism–the belief that even highly abstract conclusions are facts of reality open to direct perception. When someone else doesn’t agree with the “self-evidency,” that merely shows that he’s a fool or a degenerate. If he’d only drop his prejudice, he could just see the patent truth of . . . [insert wrong idea here].

Colloquially, this attitude is parochialism. What do these people think about people’s beliefs in the Dark Ages or in Ancient Egypt or in Ancient Greece? The fact that virtually the entire population of other cultures hold different basic outlooks on life—different philosophic premises—is totally unreal to this type of person.

But you can see the different philosophies given expression—see it concretized—in art. Art is the expression of the artist’s philosophy of life, and because the vast majority of artists share the philosophy of their culture, the art of different cultures expresses, in concrete form, the different philosophies. Just think of the dramatic difference between the death-centered sculpture of Ancient Egypt and the life-affirming sculpture of Ancient Greece.

On a personal note, the thing that really cemented my adherence to Objectivism was attending, on a trip to New York City, the lecture by Mary Ann Sures on the history of art. (This is roughly the lecture that is reprinted as “Metaphysics in Marble” in the February and March 1969 issues of The Objectivist, which I highly recommend; read it here.) The lecture was accompanied by slides showing the different artworks of different cultures.

I thought, “Jesus! This is not just theory. It’s really true that philosophy rules history. These ideas matter. Objectivism is really, powerfully true.”

Thank you, Mary Ann.

Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Achievement

A few months after Ayn Rand’s death, in 1982, I wrote this article for my publication The Objectivist Forum. What I’ve put up is a PDF file scanned from that journal.

The one change I made for re-publishing it here is changing, at the bottom of Part I, “(To be concluded in our next issue)” to “(To be continued in our next issue).” I did not know, after the first part was written, that it would become a four-part article.

(For best viewing, use the + or – buttons, in the lower right of the page that comes up, to zoom in or out.)

Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Achievement

“Who Needs the Fed?”–John Tamny’s new book

John Tamny, of Forbes Online and Real Clear Markets, has penned an original and stimulating look at the economics of money and banking: Who Needs the Fed?. I sang the praises of his remarkable Popular Economics when that came out, and now his new book, Who Needs the Fed? has me singing them again, in a new key.

Let me note upfront that there are substantial parts of this book with which I, so far at least, disagree. I have exchanged some emails with Mr. Tamny on these issues and nothing has been resolved. This is not A Bad Thing: it can be actually helpful to follow a rational person’s thinking when you disagree with the conclusion he reaches.

In this case, the disagreement is about inflation. Mr. Tamny thinks the Austrian theory of what inflation is, and how it works, is flawed (I don’t). Surprisingly, he argues that expanding the fiat money supply does not affect things much. It mainly leads people to use a different money (e.g., foreign currency).

The German hyperinflation? He holds that in actual commercial transactions, the hyperinflated Marks were scarce, because no one accepted them. An interesting idea, but I’m not sold on the whole idea of “money-as-yardstick.”

But, as a whole, the book’s viewpoint is right and penetrates to the fundamentals. Here’s a non-exhaustive list, with quotes to illustrate.

The primacy of production (my term) over consumption:

Growth economics is all about reducing the barriers to production.

Amen. And he carries this idea, which should be the axiom of economics, throughout the book.

Credit is real resources–labor, materials, factories, etc.–not money:

Remember, it’s not dollars that are borrowed but the real resources that dollars are exchangeable for.

. . . credit is not money. If it were, the “easy credit” that many-who-should-know-better clamor for would . . . be as simple as printing lots of money. In fact, credit is always and everywhere the actual resources–tractors, cars, computers, buildings, labor, and individual credibility–created in the real economy.

The pursuit of credit is actually the pursuit of the resources . . . necessary for entrepreneurs and businesses to turn concepts into reality.

The interest rate is a price set not by whim or greed or Fed decree, but by the objective factors governing supply and demand:

. . . the rate of interest [is] a price meant to bring savers together with borrowers. If this rate is distorted by governmental decree, the odds of exchange decrease. For credit to be “easy,” the price of credit must reflect both the needs of those who seek to access it and the needs of those who have it. Put more plainly, the price of credit should be set in free markets.

Banking should be totally free:

Free markets should apply to banking just as they do to any other industry sector.

John Tamny is one of the few men who, when they say “free markets,” mean free markets.

All government spending, not just deficits, comes at the expense of the private sector:

. . . government spending is the opposite of stimulation. It is a tax on real resource creation.

All government spending should be viewed as deficit spending (even that which is constitutional) simply because governments are consuming from the private sector first. . . . [G]overnment spending is what we suffer in the here and now.

The longer term effects of spending, Tamny notes, are the never-to-be, Bastiat’s “that which is not seen”:

Government consumes credit that would otherwise flow to cancer cures, transportation innovations like private jets, and technological innovations that would make the Internet seem quaint.

Government intervention in the economy is immoral:

The wealth they [the Clintons and other politicos] enjoy is the result of the federal government confiscating it from its actual creators. The Clintons are posh and supercilious, but their grand lifestyle is directly attributable to the ability of the political class to plunder America’s truly productive.

When politicians talk up ‘stimulus’ spending,’ it is realistically code for a redistribution of the economy’s resources by a political leviathan that is being enriched on the backs of the American people.

There is much in this book that will make you question conventional wisdom, even if you are already a staunch advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. For example, did you know that banks supply only 15% of the credit extended in this country?! I didn’t.

Really eye-opening, in this regard, is his attack on the idea of “the money-multiplier.” That’s the belief, held by nearly everyone, that banks lend out a high multiple of the money they take in–not because of the leverage of fractional reserve on the original loan, but because the loan funds go back into the banking system, where they are re-loaned and re-loaned.

He argues that the idea that this multiplies credit confuses money with real wealth. The same tractor, for instance, can’t be used by many individuals at once. So, while the re-loaning may expand nominal bank balances, it does not and cannot expand actual credit. Credit is the resources. The amount of resources available is what it is and cannot be expanded by acts of the banking system. What can be expanded is the use of these resources, by sharing that use among different borrowers, each having the resources available when they need them, which is not all of them all the time. Here, he gives the example of NetJet, a company that “sells fractional ownership of the jets in its fleet of seven hundred planes.”

He uses the NetJet example to demolish the opponents of fractional reserve banking, notably the anarchist Murray Rothbard:

As the late Murray Rothbard, a true-blue Austrian, long ago put it, “Fractional reserve banks . . . create money out of thin air. Essentially they do it in the same way as counterfeiters.” Underlying Rothbard’s assertion is a fanciful belief that the alleged “money multiplier” is a fact. It’s fiction.

The essential here:

Someone can borrow only if someone else is willing to cease using money in the near term. . . . For someone to lend, that someone or business must give up, at least in the near term, the resource access that those dollars represent.

I would add that it is from the part of the funds that are not being used at the moment–the part of the loan that is sitting in the bank as the borrower’s balance–that the bank makes its re-loan. So, what is re-loaned is what is not being spent, and what is being spent is not being re-loaned.

Those who are opposed to fractional-reserve banking must be able to answer the argument of his chapter “Banks Don’t Multiply Money and Credit.”

Equally controversial are Tamny’s arguments that a) the Fed isn’t that influential in the economy, and b) the housing crisis was not caused by credit expansion. I lean against his views here, but I have to admit his arguments give me pause.

In short, this is a book that is on the right economic and moral premises and that will make you think. Even if you end up disagreeing with the “heretical” positions he takes, his first-handed challenge to familiar ideas, his new facts, and his new perspective will provide you with inestimable value.

In praise of gold: you can’t eat it, but it fulfills a spiritual need

[This is a lightly edited version of a column that appeared in Forbes Online, November 30, 2013.]

Keynes sneered at it. Preachers damn it. Bitcoin dreams of transcending it. But free men inevitably choose it. Gold.

Whenever men have had a free, uncoerced choice of the medium of exchange, gold has won the competition, along with its sister element, silver.

Why? Only in recent times has gold had any utilitarian value. The Ancient Egyptians couldn’t use it in computers, but they prized it nonetheless, as did the faraway Aztecs and the Chinese. Men in every place and time have valued gold.

Why? Of what use is gold? You can’t eat it.

No, and you can’t eat a Rembrandt, either. A Chopin Ballade is not something you can eat, drink, or ride in.

It may surprise the spiritualists who damn gold to hear this, but gold, like music and painting, is a spiritual value. Gold is a value because it is radiantly beautiful. It is the esthetic pleasure gold brings that makes men esteem it.

Other of gold’s inherent attributes fit it to be the money commodity, but let’s pause to answer the great unanswered question: what is beauty?

Beauty is intelligibility–a sensory-level version of intellectual intelligibility. What looks beautiful or sounds beautiful is what features an intelligible pattern formed out of pure, simple elements.

Why the pleasure in pattern-recognition? Men’s lives depend upon their minds. The essential mental work that is required is integration: finding the one in the many, the theme behind the variations, the principle behind the concretes. But transforming a bewildering plurality into a clearly understood unity often means going through a difficult, doubt-ridden process. So, there is a definite delight in the easy, doubt-free microcosm provided by sensory pattern-recognition.

I’m generalizing here from what Ayn Rand wrote about why music moves us emotionally:

“Music offers man the singular opportunity to reenact, on the adult level, the primary process of his method of cognition: the automatic integration of sense data into an intelligible, meaningful entity. To a conceptual consciousness, it is a unique form of rest and reward.”

Beauty has been called “unity in variety.” The beautiful is that which features clear elements made into a clear, consistent whole.

The clear elements can be pure musical tones, or it can be shining pieces of gold. The pattern is supplied by fashioning musical tones into a melody or pieces of gold into jewelry, or into gold leaf to make the pattern it coats glisten. Gold nuggets are only the means; the end is a lustrous, intelligible esthetic object.

The other aspect of gold is its unique purity–purity both in its color and in its incorruptibility. In a world that features decay along with growth, degeneration along with too-rare improvement, gold’s imperishable, radiant luster offers the experience of purity, of unfailing reliability, and of stainless consistency. Gold remains gold; it does not tarnish or rust.

Thus, gold is not “a barbarous relic” (Keynes) or “filthy lucre” (preachers) but an objective esthetic value, a value rooted in the nature of how our minds work and in the need for incorruptible moral integrity. Why are wedding bands made of gold? Because gold is the symbol of remaining pure and true.

Gold jewelry is just as objective a value as utilitarian goods, such as bread or automobiles. But those goods provide value by being consumed–by being used up. You eat bread and it is gone. You drive a car and it wears out. Gold is almost unique in being an Unconsummable Consumable. Like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, gold provides value without being itself affected.

The oft-heard sneer, “You can’t eat gold” expresses a cynical materialism. Both artistic beauty and sensory beauty have their source in the nature of man as a conceptual being, a being who must use concepts and reasoning to survive and prosper. Animals cannot respond to artworks, or to the beauty of a brilliant sunset, or to the radiant, patterned purity of gold jewelry.

The objection “You can’t eat gold” confesses a mind-body dichotomy. In fact, material value requires spiritual value, and vice-versa. For man, “value” always involves a spiritual component. Even to value food, a man has to want to live–which takes an inner resolve to fight for his own happiness.

Gold is the ultimate expression of mind-body integration. It is denigrated as “crassly material” because it is beautiful–i.e., because gold is a spiritual value.

“You can’t eat gold” turns things upside down: gold is extra valuable because you can’t use it up. Gold as an Unconsummable Consumable does not have to be replenished. The gold jewelry of Ancient Egypt retains its value, bringing renewed pleasure to museum visitors daily. Because gold is, like a Rembrandt painting, an object of contemplation, it is used without being used up.

All this is why gold has monetary value. Because gold is of imperishable, objective value, it can serve as a store of value. And given that base (which bitcoin lacks), gold’s other inherent properties make it uniquely suited to serve as a medium of exchange. Unlike salt, gold has a high unit value. Unlike iron, gold does not rust. Unlike diamonds, gold can be easily divided into very small pieces without losing value. Unlike a computer chip, gold is homogeneous. And because it is ductile and malleable, gold can easily be fashioned into jewelry and gold leaf.

Salt and cigarettes have served as money, but their value rests upon their ultimately being consumed, which destroys them in the process. Gold can be used as money without ever being used up, without needing to be re-produced.

You don’t have to eat gold to get objective value from it. Beauty, though not material, is a rational, objective value, because its sensory beauty provides a spiritual pleasure.

Gold has esthetic value and–as men’s free choices demonstrate–monetary value. That is the power and the glory of gold.

Contra Trump

Here’s a guest post by John Gillis, followed by a brief additional comment by me.

— HB

 


 

Knowing and Not Knowing What a President Would Do

by John Gillis

Knowledge is the key to any electoral judgment: one decides how to vote by means of applying one’s political philosophy to specific items of knowledge about the candidates. But in the case of Trump, most people don’t understand yet that it is impossible to gain knowledge of any sort about what he would do if elected.

One can roughly gauge what an Obama will do, or what a Clinton (female version), or George Bush, or Romney, etc. will do, because each of them has presented the thrust of their view of life in their speeches, their past actions, etc. They are conservative, or liberal, or Marxist, or pragmatist-liberals, or religious conservatives, and so on. So, while one can’t ever predict the detailed outcomes of a given future presidency, it is not shocking if an Obama or a Clinton tries for universal socialist health care or for forcing people to act against their religious beliefs (funding contraception/abortion if you are nuns), or for trying to jail businessmen for committing acts of economics. It is not shocking that a Bush II would advocate and sign a major pharmaceutical welfare entitlement, or that Bush I would advocate and sign the draconian ADA law, or that he might cave on major new taxes wanted by the Dems; or that Reagan would try to reduce government (but fail); or that any Republican would try to jail businessmen for committing acts of economics.

Trump is unusual in the history of American candidates in that he is an epistemological blank: you cannot predict what he will do or say by referring to his previous ideas or behavior. Anyone who casually looks over the past many months of Trump’s candidacy will see that Trump holds no firm views on anything. He has flip-flopped on so many issues, even in the same week, day, hour or sentence. Clearly, he has no core principles on virtually any topic. Other candidates flip-flop occasionally, and that is important; but Trump represents a difference in kind, not degree.

What he would do as President is completely unknown.

E.g., If Putin disses him, will that lead to a U.S. war in the Ukraine or Syria, because President Trump now regards Putin’s statements as an affront to his majesty-or will it not lead to a war? Who knows?

Will Trump try to stop Apple from making phones in China or Thailand, and force them to make them in Nevada? Or will he force Apple to pay a “fee” for continuing to make phones in Asia instead of Nevada? Who knows?

Will he shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue to see if he can really get away with it, as he has claimed he could? Who knows?

Will Trump issue an executive order setting a minimum wage at $15 or $5? Who knows?

Will he “enhance” our proto-KGB, also known as the IRS, to deal with his enemies, such as those Republican donors who rejected him? Who knows?

Will he choose terrible or good Supreme Court Justices? Who knows?

Never mind the legality of any of the President’s actions in these examples; already, during the past 7 years, we’ve had a substantial number of illegal presidential actions. Those precedents will take a long time to reverse, if our country ever has the will to do so.

Trump as President would be a Nixon on steroids. If Nixon, a so-called “conservative,” could impose wage and price controls, by fiat, then we can count on Trump to do things many times worse. Remember that it was Nixon who created the malignant EPA and destroyed the last vestige of fixed-ness of our currency, by abandoning even the watered-down gold connection. Because there is no way to rationally predict what Trump might do on any political or economic topic, Trump, as president would likely take actions even more outrageous.

Nixon was an arch-pragmatist. While he had some tenuous hold on conservative ideas (mostly the bad kind), he was ideologically a loose cannon. Well, Trump can’t even be called a loose cannon, because that phrase is seriously inadequate to describe the truly chaotic character of his mind and his decisions. Even a loose cannon obeys the laws of physics, but a person with a chaotic mind can deliver a level of subjectivism that makes
one wish for the simplicity of cannons careening down a hill.

Trump is the Chaos Candidate. The only thing we can know about the nature of his future actions as president is that they would come from massive subjectivism and bring chaos.

On a political (not an epistemological) level, Hillary Clinton as president would at least face major opposition from what remains of the Republican Party. But with a Trump Presidency, most Republicans would be neutered, providing Trump with free rein to destroy the economy, our foreign policy, and our freedoms. (This does not imply in the slightest that I am advocating voting for Clinton.)

Choosing Trump, as the lesser of two evils, would be terribly mistaken.

Trump is in a different category. His nihilism and his utter mental chaos means that his future path is unknowable. For the sake of one’s moral conscience and mental hygiene, one should not vote for Trump.

 


 

Trump is a new level of bad

By Harry Binswanger

If it’s Trump vs. Hillary, I will either not vote, or vote for Hillary.

Yes, Hillary is bad in many ways, but is she worse than Obama? or than many previous presidents?

Trump is not just, like Hillary, a despicable candidate. Trump brings to the presidential race a new kind of bad: spiteful, adolescent bullying (“Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted”) combined with ignorant, demagogic hostility toward scapegoats. His modus operandi, and probably his actual belief, is that every social problem is due to the actions of “them”–Mexicans, Chinese, women, etc.

Trump is the proverbial “man on a white horse,” a Führer figure, who asks us to substitute for ideas, his claims to personal shrewdness, talent at conniving, and strength. Hillary wants to turn America into France. Trump wants to turn America into . . . what? Argentina under Peron?

Trump’s campaign slogan is: “Make America Great Again.” But Trump himself has no idea of what constitutes the “greatness” that he wants to restore. Yet, he’s seeking unlimited authority to achieve that unspecified end. He has no standard, no political ideology, no principles, no consistency–not even over the course of an hour. He brandishes a new level of pragmatism: not merely opposition to principles, but unawareness of there being such a thing as principles. Even Nixon, the pragmatist’s pragmatist, is caught on tape saying about one aspect of the Watergate coverup, “No–it is wrong that’s for sure.” (Presidential Transcripts, first meeting of 3/21/73). Trump doesn’t even know about such things as right and wrong.

Having no intellectual framework, no moral framework, no abstract understanding of alternative courses of action, Trump lurches about at random. Since random actions produce destruction not improvement, a Trump presidency could only wreak havoc on this country. John Gillis is right: Trump is The Chaos Candidate.

Trump as president could damage America much more than Hillary ever could. It’s not only the practical disasters he can visit upon us, a Trump victory would carry and amplify a lethal philosophic message: Don’t think, just trust in a strongman.

Adherents of a philosophy upholding rationality as the essence of moral virtue can do nothing but shudder at the prospect.

How Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Can Rescue Hayek’s Economics

This is an expanded version of opening remarks made at the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE) convention, April 12, 2016, for a panel titled: Hayek and Rand on the (Ab)Use of Reason.”

In discussing Hayek and Rand, we must begin by distinguishing philosophy from economics. In economics, Hayek makes great contributions, because he is a radical. “Radical” in the sense of getting to the root, the fundamental. In economics proper, Hayek rejects “conventional wisdom,” and grasps the fundamental role of production (not Keynesian “demand”) and that the task of production is, at root, intellectual–with primacy going not to Marxian “labor” but to “creative discovery” and economic calculation based on the information content of market prices.

But in philosophy, the story is different: Hayek is more conservative than radical. He doesn’t check the deepest premises of traditional philosophy and works within its limiting and ultimately self-defeating framework. Thus, he gets trapped in the set of false alternatives that has dominated philosophy over the centuries: Rationalism, as in Plato, vs. Empiricism, as in David Hume; mysticism vs. skepticism; contextless absolutes vs. arbitrary, subjective conventions; “instinct” vs. tradition.

For instance, Hayek writes:

The objective physical world is different from that perceived by the senses.1

That’s Plato’s metaphysics, via Kant. The entire Platonic-Kantian philosophy is based on the claim that the world we see, hear, touch, etc. is not objective–not “things as they are in themselves” (Kant), not “the really real reality” (Plato).

Similarly, Hayek writes:

In opposition to the naive rationalist which treats our present reason as absolute, we must continue the efforts which David Hume commenced when he ‘turned against the enlightenment its own weapons’ and undertook ‘to whittle down the claims of reason’ by the use of rational analysis.2

 

And: “The human brain can never fully explain its own operation.”3

In fact, confidence in reason’s ability to guide action is “The Fatal Conceit.”

Most knowledge . . . is obtained not from immediate experience or observation, but in the continuous process of sifting a learnt tradition, which requires individual recognition and following of moral traditions that are not justifiable in terms of the canons of traditional theories of rationality.4

Why does Hayek proclaim reason’s impotence? Because he’s operating under the assumption that reason has to mean Rationalism. He’s working within a Platonic framework, a Platonic view of logic and of abstractions. He does not know a solution to the problem of universals–the age-old problem of identifying what concepts refer to in reality. E.g., what does “man” refer to? The Ancient Greek Sophist Antisthenes said, “I’ve seen many men, but never have I seen man.”

In the whole history of philosophy, only two answers to Antisthenes’ challenge have been offered. 1. The Platonic answer: “You can’t see man with your physical eyes, but if you use your intellectual eye to apprehend the world of Forms, you can intuit the Form of Man. The Form of Man exists in another, non-perceivable dimension. 2. The Humean answer: “There is no such thing as man. There’s only men. They resemble each other, and we use their rough similarities as a basis for calling each individual “a man.” When we assume that what’s true of one man will be true of another, we are making a leap of faith, Humeans hold. There’s no rational basis for inductive generalizations, because there is no identical attribute running throughout the roughly resembling things that we use the same word for. There’s no logic to generalizations–only accidental associations that have become habitual.

So, traditionally, the epistemological alternative was: intuitions of an invisible world, or baseless social conventions. In ethics, that translated into: commandments from on high, or subjective whims. In Freud’s language, the alternative is the superego or the id.

This is the set of false alternatives Hayek accepts in philosophy. And it undercuts his economics, which rightly emphasizes the process of economic calculation, how prices convey information, and competition as a process of “creative discovery”–all of which involve confidence in the power of the intellect.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy offers a way out of the philosophic dilemma. Objectivism upholds a position that is neither Platonic nor Humean, neither Rationalist nor Empiricist, neither dogmatic nor skeptical, neither mystical nor subjective. This new alternative is: objectivity–objectivity understood in a new and deeper way. For Rand, objectivity means, as Leonard Peikoff formulates it, “volitional adherence to reality by the method of logic.”5

Platonists hold that knowledge requires neither method nor choice–we just open our minds to The Truth. Humeans, observing that one man’s “intuition” contradicts another, conclude that we’re doomed intellectually. Only an automatic knowledge would be reliable, they assume, but we have a choice of how to proceed, and there’s no rational standard to judge alternative ways of proceeding.

Both sides of the false alternative agree, in spirit, with Dostoyevsky’s line: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Mystics and skeptics agree that God or some mystical realm is required, if there is to be knowledge of truth and of value. (Skeptics conclude such knowledge is unobtainable.)

Rand rejects the premise. Knowledge does not have to be automatic to be valid and certain. A rational method of forming and using abstractions can be defined; that method is logic, “the art of non-contradictory identification.”6 But Objectivism expands Aristotelian logic to include an awareness of the requirements imposed by the nature of our cognitive equipment; logic is more than syllogistic reasoning (as even Aristotle knew)–it includes concept-formation, definition, and induction.

A rational theory of concept-formation is the root of all the rest. For Rand to develop her concept of objectivity, the crucial first step was grasping the relation of concepts to percepts–i.e., of abstractions to concretes–i.e., solving the problem of universals. Rand accomplished that singular feat by analyzing what underlies similarity. “Similarity,” she writes, “is the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree.”7 I won’t go into the technical part of Rand’s theory of “measurement-omission,” referring only to her clear exposition in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Chapter 2.

Consider now the application of reason to the issue of value-judgments. There, Hayek is also working with received notions, rather than questioning fundamental assumptions. Like most economists, Hayek (properly) rejects the notion of intrinsic value–the belief that the value of a good or service is inherent in it, independent of men’s ideas, values, and needs. It is an error to think there’s a “just price” against which one can judge the market price. But Hayek embraces the other side of the false alternative: if value is not intrinsic, it must be subjective. It exists only in the people’s minds.

Ayn Rand offers the third alternative: value is objective. Value is neither an intrinsic feature of an object, existing apart from man’s evaluations, nor something that exists only in our minds, independent of the facts. Rather, value is a relationship–a relationship between our minds and the facts, based upon applying a rational standard of value to the facts. This she calls the “objective theory” of value. We evaluate the worth to us of a good or service based on our ideas about a whole raft of facts–facts regarding the thing’s attributes, its causal properties, how difficult it is to produce, and much more economic data.

More widely:

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man—and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man.8


Rand bases her defense of the economic functioning of capitalism on its objectivity in regard to value. “The objective view of values permeates the entire structure of a capitalist society.”9


Hayek is famous for the idea of “spontaneous order.” Property rights, respect for the autonomy of persons, and all the capitalist institutions are not things that anyone planned from some political headquarters or some throne. They just evolved.

Why does Hayek hold this? What is the advantage of saying that the capitalist system wasn’t imposed from above but emerged from below? Why does it have to be “spontaneous”–the biggest theme in Hayekian meta-economics? The answer is: if there’s no rational way to decide how society ought to be organized, as Hayek believes, then he can at least argue: “Let’s leave the selection to what evolved naturally. Don’t tamper with nature. We got capitalism as a result of trial and error to find what works. So don’t come in with some Rationalistic, deductive system of ideas and mess with that.

Now this is a terrible argument. This is the same as environmentalism: don’t attempt to improve on what nature provided–who are we to play God? Likewise, Hayek’s argument is who are we to play God in setting up laws, rules, and institutions?

But he only takes this (hopeless) line of argument because he doesn’t understand that one can establish a rational ethics and a rational politics based on that ethics. That is very different from “central planning.” It is true that you cannot rationally impose your ideas on other people, forcing them to obey, in economics (or in any other sphere of life). But the evil of initiating physical force against others is not due to its being “unnatural”; as Rand identified, coercion is evil because “To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival.”10

Thus, contra Hayek, the issue is not the planner’s ignorance. Even if someone does know what another person should be doing, one cannot achieve that person’s well being by forcing him to do it.

A value which one is forced to accept at the price of surrendering one’s mind, is not a value to anyone; the forcibly mindless can neither judge nor choose nor value. An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.11


It is a person’s own mind that he has to rely on. Force is destructive because “the anti-mind is the anti-life.”12

The moral and political principles on which capitalism is based did not arise spontaneously. The principles underlying capitalism were consciously, carefully worked out by Enlightenment Era thinkers, such as John Locke. Locke, in turn, called on the metaphysical and epistemological principles established by Aristotle (transmitted to the modern world by Thomas Aquinas). Thinkers such as Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke developed the principle that made capitalism possible: individual rights.

Incidentally, vs. the idea of “spontaneously developed order”: the Constitution of the Carolinas was drafted by John Locke! The Declaration of Independence borrowed some of the very language of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. The American Founding Fathers got the idea of individual rights and set up our Constitution consciously, based upon their careful study of philosophy and history. Reading The Federalist Papers reveals how erudite they were, and how much they knew not only of Locke but of Cicero, Montesquieu, and other great thinkers in political theory.

Hayek, with some justification, talks about “cultural evolution,” but where do the variants for the selective process come from? In biological evolution, the variations come from random mutation and sexual recombination of genetic elements. Where do the ethical-political variations come from? They come from philosophers. And when the required philosophical basis for “what works” loses acceptance, the society retrogresses–as in the fall of Rome and the collapse into the Dark Ages. Hayek’s “cultural evolution” is entirely unable to explain how such a phenomenon as the Dark Ages could occur, if institutions rise or fall based on what works in practice.

Hayek’s philosophy is what stops him from recognizing the cultural impact of philosophy. Hayek’s skepticism about abstract reason is married to his skepticism about morality. Abstract reason is “The Fatal Conceit.” And the frontispiece quote of that work is this quote from the arch-skeptic, David Hume: “The rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.” Anyone who believes that is, of course, at a total loss when it comes to justifying individual rights, and its consequence: the rule of law and the free market. “Spontaneous order” is what Hayek seeks refuge in, given his belief that no rational, objective moral code can exist.

What Hayek needs is Ayn Rand’s explanation of how concepts can be objective, how reason, no matter how abstract, reflects strict adherence to logic, and how that can be applied to defining a rational, objective, scientific code of morality (see, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).

The overview is that Hayek’s immensely valuable economic points need the philosophic base that Ayn Rand has developed. And let me emphasize that this base is not a few slogans strung together (“Be logical,” “Man is an end in himself”), but a voluminous, rich, detailed corpus of systematic principles, precisely defined. (See Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, and my own How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation.)


 


References

1. The Sensory Order, 8.37.

2. The Constitution of Liberty

3. The Sensory Order, 8.69.

4. The Fatal Conceit, p. 75.

5. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 116.

6. Atlas Shrugged, p. 934.

7. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 13.

8. “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 22.

9. Ibid., p. 23.

10. Atlas Shrugged, p. 940.

11. What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 23.

12. Atlas Shrugged, p. 930.