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Some Hume-ility for the Austrian Economists

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by David

David Hume

Back when I was studying Liberal Arts at Dawson College, I learned about a Scotsman who proved that you couldn’t prove anything. His name was David Hume, he lived in the 1700s, and he argued that all knowledge is inductive and empirical, that is to say, we only know anything from experience: if we see a hundred zebras with stripes, we can only make an educated guess that the next one we see will have stripes too. I remember reading Bertrand Russell’s 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy, where he said that nobody has ever disproved Hume’s epistemology, and I’m pretty sure that assessment has held up.

I didn’t really know it until recently, but I am a Humean. And apparently, I’m in good company. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has listed Hume’s An Enquiry into Human Understanding  as one of his major inspirations, which he read in college:

Then I read Hume’s Enquiry, this wonderful, humane book saying that nobody has all the answers. What we know is what we have evidence for. We do the best we can, but anybody who claims to be able to deduce or have revelation about The Truth – with both Ts capitalised – is wrong. It doesn’t work that way. The only reasonable way to approach life is with an attitude of humane scepticism. I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I read that book…. You look at people who are very certain, and have these beliefs of one form or another and you think, “Maybe they really know something!” And what Hume says is, “Actually, no. They don’t.”

Krugman argues forcefully for various economic policies in his columns, but I think that he would admit that his knowledge is provisional, and based on experience, rather than immutable truths. In this way, he’s like the man who inspired him, John Maynard Keynes. As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote of Keynes:

At the heart of his vision, however, there is an elusive combination of boldness and humility. It calls not merely for the management of risk but for something politically and intellectually far more demanding: the acknowledgment of uncertainty. 

And where did Keynes find his inspiration? Not from Karl Marx: Keynes (correctly) called Marxism “complicated hocus pocus.” No, Keynes built on the economic thought of another British empiricist, Adam Smith. And from where did Smith derive his empiricism? From his good friend and fellow Scotsman David Hume.

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Written by David Weinfeld

July 9, 2012 at 18:01

Posted in economics, philosophy

Quitting Goldman Sachs and the Logic of Capitalism

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by David

The internets is all abuzz about a fellow named Greg Smith, a former executive director of Goldman Sachs who publicly announced his resignation for the firm on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Smith argues that while the firm used to be a place with a “culture” that “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients,” it has become a place dedicated solely to making more and more money. “Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.” He writes of attending “meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them.”

While most readers, I think, have rightly praised Smith for his decision, others have been somewhat critical, pointing to the fact that he quit only after receiving his latest bonus, or that his op-ed reads like a cover letter for his next job application, particularly this paragraph:

My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.

The mention of the Maccabiah Games is especially amusing. Still, though I also applaud Smith, this Star Wars parody of the op-ed expresses my sentiments well.

Seriously, was Goldman Sachs ever really a place with that culture of honesty, “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients”? Does anyone think “humility” and associate that with Goldman, or any investment banking firm, or really any high-level finance job on Wall Street? I think the first word most of us think of is “douchebag.” I’m sure that even when Goldman and Sachs were 19th century German-Jewish immigrant peddlers schlepping their dry goods around America, their business motto was always about the bottom-line.

Smith should know this. He is a clearly a smart, accomplished individual. But he got a full ride to Stanford. Presumably that means no loans, no debts. Why did he go work for Goldman in the first place? Did he honestly believe that even 12 years ago, the job was about anything other than helping rich people get richer, and getting rich in the process? Or was he sucked into the elite school culture that said that I-banking and consulting are the only way to go? A culture that said that the job was prestigious, a place for the smart and talented to excel, never mind what they were actually doing.

Also, we should not single out Goldman Sachs. I’m sure Smith would have worked at a different bank if Goldman had rejected him, and that bank would have the exact same “culture,” or lack thereof.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 14, 2012 at 22:21

Tolstoy and American Abolitionists

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By Wiz

Excuse my lackluster posting. I suppose I can blame some combination of a surprisingly labor-intensive TA assignment and distractions created by the warm weather in Prospect Park. Also, sucking up my spare time has been a re-reading of War and Peace, this time the fancy new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Sidenote: is the translation all that its cracked up to be? I’m not sure. I can’t say it’s affected me any more than when I read the Maude translation, but I’m a translation skeptic myself. To me, fancy new translations of classic books are like organic vegetables, I can’t really tell if they’re any better, but I can definitely tell that its an excuse to charge me more.)

But, re-reading this reminded me of a topic that I wanted to write about: the influence that American abolitionists had on Leo Tolstoy. This always make me a bit happy, as it combines my academic interests with the more personal. I’ve come to think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalists/Abolitionists whom he appreciates were disturbed by the the new importance of role-playing in the modern market economy, and sought ways to restore people to some sort of unitary moral vision.

The backstory, as Tolstoy himself writes, in The Kingdom of God is Within You, is that a copy of his Confession, got in the hands of one of William Lloyd Garrison’s sons, who sent Tolstoy some of Garrison’s old writings. Tolstoy found them a “powerful and eloquent … expression of a confession of faith.” Intrigued he looked around and found Adin Ballou, an old Garrisonian and Non-Resistant, who was still alive and faithful to the original Christian anarchist strand of Garrison’s thought, and began a correspondence. Unfortunately, as Lewis Perry writes, by the end of his life, Ballou was “bitter and argumentative,” and Tolstoy didn’t learn much. But his reading of Garrison profoundly influenced Tolstoy, who also wrote to Vladimir Tchertkoff of the “spiritual joy” that he found in Garrison’s writing.

Eventually, he wrote to Edward Garnett, that “it came to me that, if I had to address the American people, I should like to thank them for the great help I have received from their writers who flourished about the [Eighteen] fifties. I would mention [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Theodore] Parker, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, [Adin] Ballou, and [Henry David] Thoreau, not as the greatest, but as those who, I think, specially influence me. Other names are [William Ellery?] Channing, [John Greenleaf] Whittier, [James Russell] Lowell, Walt Whitman—a bright constellation, such as is rarely to be found in the literatures of the world. And I should like to ask the American people why they do not pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.”

William Lloyd Garrison

So what explains the affinity? Obviously there is Christian Anarchism, the belief that Christianity specifically forbids the use of force, and as governments are premised on force and violence, no Christian can pledge alliance to a worldly government. Garrison had proclaimed this in the 1830s, and it became central to Tolstoy’s political philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Lewis Perry interpreted the relationship as being about a shared appreciation for religious anarchism.

But this hardly explains some of the Transcendentalists whom Tolstoy celebrates: Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, and Whitman were hardly good Christians.* And Parker, for instance, was one of the “Secret Six” which funded John Brown, whom Emerson and Thoreau also praised, hardly the actions of a good non-resistant. (One more side-note, one sincerely wishes that the misogynistic and sexually repressed Tolstoy of The Kruezter Sonata could have paid more attention to Walt Whitman).

Perhaps Tolstoy simply didn’t have access to enough of their writings or was reading what he wanted. And to be fair, Tolstoy was hardly an orthodox Christian either, so perhaps he was drawn to the rebellious religious vision of the abolitionists.

From my reading of these guys, though, I think there is another, perhaps more abstract level at which Tolstoy and the Transcendentalists/Abolitionists connect. Both, I think, were deeply concerned with the ways that modern life, and especially the social roles that we gravitate towards, tend to limit our vision, and make us forget about our ultimate moral duty. Consider the following . Here is Tolstoy’s description of Napoleon during the battle of Borodino:

A personal, human feeling for a brief moment got the better of the artificial phantasm of life he had served so long. He felt in his own person the sufferings and death he had witnessed on the battlefield. The heaviness of his head and chest reminded him of the possibility of suffering and death for himself. At that moment he did not desire Moscow, or victory, or glory (what need had he for any more glory?). The one thing he wished for was rest, tranquility, and freedom…. Even before he gave that order the thing he did not desire, and for which he gave the order only because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhuman role predestined for him.

Napoleon, as Tolstoy draws him, is not the all-powerful Emperor of Europe, but rather a man driven by forces he doesn’t comprehend, stuck performing tasks thrust upon him by circumstance and by his position as leader. Unable to rise above this, he sets him own fate by invading Russia and by fighting battles because this is what is expected of him, not because it serves any ulimate end worth fighting for. Tolstoy’s “Notes on Soldiers” has a similar theme: the contrast between the official duty of the soldier, which is to murder, rape, and steal; and the duty of the Christian which is to love and heal.

Now consider Emerson on the problem of social roles:

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

And Theodore Parker arguing for why Bostonians, even those who are policemen or judges, should disobey the Fugitive Slave Law and hinder its application:

“My official business as clergyman, fisherman, or statesman, is always beneath my personal duty as man. In case of any conflict between the two, the natural duty ought to prevail and carry the day before the official business; for the natural duty represents the permanent law of God, the absolute right, justice, the balance-point of all interests; while the official business represents only the transient conventions of men, some partial interest; and besides, the man who owes the personal duty is immortal, while the officer who performs the official business is but for a time.”

In this light, then, I think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalist/abolitionists were interested in responding to the rise of a market economy in which old and stable life roles were no longer guides for action. As the industrial revolution expanded the division of labor, and new managerial positions developed around the economy, the old republican ideal of the whole man declined. One no longer could look to traditions and parents for a sense of how they should act. “Nothing is solid,” Emerson wrote, “everything tilts and rocks.” People began playing at roles—a wheat merchant in the morning, a father in the evening, a Christian on Sunday, etc…. No longer were people stuck in a handful of relatively old and stable classes, but instead had the freedom to move in and out of life roles. We so train ourselves to act in these roles– as good soldiers, or good merchants, or good 19th century historians– that our own self and moral center seems to dissolve away, only intelligible in terms of the roles we fulfill.

Tolstoy, I think, and the American thinkers he liked, responded to this problem by celebrating a particularly strict set of ethical duties that should precede the more particular roles that individuals took on. They both constantly asked that we question whether the particular traits that make us a good soldier or a good textile manufacturer might prevent us from becoming a good and moral person.

Speaking personally, I still find this vision meaningful and important. I prefer the more secularized language of Thoreau rather than the overtly Christian language of Tolstoy.

*Yes Parker was a Unitarian minister, but on the far left of the spectrum, such that its arguable whether he was a Christian, depending on how you define the term. He did not, for instance, believe in the special divinity of Christ, but, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that Christ only breathed of the same divinity that was open to all of us, if only we were ready for it.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 17, 2011 at 22:42

Anarchism and Barbarism

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by Weiner

I’ve long associated anarchism with modernity. I think of figures like Emma Goldman (left) or Mikhail Bakunin (right) at the vanguard of a movement associated with the industrial revolution, Marxism, feminism, technology, and radicalism of all kinds, moving society forward; swiftly, violently, but always forward.

Mikhail BakuninIn retrospect, I was being a bit silly.

At a recent American history workshop at NYU, I got to hear University of Washington historian Moon-ho Jung present a terrific paper, a work in progress from his upcoming book The Unruly Pacific: Race and the Politics of Empire and Revolution, 1898-1941. Without giving away anything significant from that project, one thing I did realize was that, in the rhetoric surrounding the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, commentators linked anarchism with barbarism, with savagery, with a pre-modern lack of civilization.

In a way, this makes perfect sense. Thomas Hobbes‘ (below) major book, Leviathan, a staunch defense of conservative government, contrasts the stability of a regime governed by an absolute sovereign with barbaric, pre-modern “state of nature” where life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Despite it’s conservatism, Hobbes’ government is progress.

If we return to the Old Testament (or as I like to call it, The Bible), there’s a sense in which the pre-historic past, in the Garden on Eden, is one that is prior to government. The introduction of the law is what leads to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. Again, government is progress (though there is a strong anti-authoritarian strain in the Hebrew Bible as well).

The ancient Greeks too seemed to distinguish between their own culture, epitomized by democratic Athens, as the height of civilization, as distinguished from the non-Greek barbarians they encountered in warfare. Rome, as a republic or an empire, shone above the barbarian hordes waiting at the gates to destroy it, bringing about the “Dark Ages.”

Of course, the links between anarchism and pre-modernity need not be entirely pernicious. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (right) posited the existence of a pre-modern, non-European state of equality to be envied, if not necessarily emulated.

So despite my association of anarchism with modernity, one can just as easily link anti-government thought to the pre-modern, even the pre-historic, either to celebrate that state of nature for its lack of oppression or to condemn it for its violence and chaos.

Again, all this is somewhat intuitive if you just stop to think about it. I guess I just never did.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 11, 2011 at 20:09

Act Like a Scholar? Thinking the Cronon Affair through a Bunch of German Scholars

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Bill Cronon

by Luce

There’s a good round-up of commentary at Cliopatria on the Bill Cronon affair, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a packet of his emails a few days ago, exempting a broad range of materials and declaring Cronon’s conduct above reproach. Hopefully this will take the blowhardiness out of the Republicans’ sails. But it was distressing to learn a few days ago that a conservative group had issued a public records request for the emails from professors at three Michigan state university labor studies departments, looking for political involvement in the Wisconsin labor toil. The material these scholars study alone made them targets, raising the question of whether conservatives have decided on a new method to attack academic freedom.

In his post on Cronon, Wiz wrote that this is “a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue,” and I agree. Cronon began his blog Scholar as Citizen to reflect on “the public practice of history and the ways in which academic scholarship in his chosen fields of history, geography, and environmental studies can offer useful perspectives on contemporary political debates.”

Obviously not all scholars are held to the same regulations as Cronon is as a professor at a state university, but I think think this episode presents an opportunity to consider the think about what connotes proper conduct on the part of the scholar in relation to his or her society. Should s/he be a social critic? Should s/he advocate some sort of social good? It might be useful consider how a few well-known German scholars thought about the role of the academic in society, particularly as German universities have historically been state institutions and German professors civil servants. This selection obviously has nothing to do with the fact that I will be examined  on these guys in three weeks time.

Kant‘s “What is Enlightenment?” is a good place to start.

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Written by Kristen Loveland

April 3, 2011 at 20:55

Ayn Rand vs Karl Marx: Nobody Wins

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by Weiner

I tried to read The Fountainhead. I really did. But after ten or fifteen pages, I gave up. The text was so poorly written, so comically absurd yet mind-numbingly dull at the same time that I had to put it down. In my snobbery, when I see  a smart friend’s profile on Facebook which lists one of Ayn Rand’s books as their favourites, I feel a sense of tremendous disappointment, the way I used to feel when I saw similarly smart people list The Da Vinci Code. Except The Da Vinci Code, however stupid, is a quick, entertaining read, and doesn’t turn its readers into sensational assholes (also, Dan Brown may be a bad writer, but he never really hurt anyone except the Catholic Church, and they had it coming). I could get through The Da Vinci Code. I doubt I’ll ever be able to stomach Atlas Shrugged.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you about how bad Ayn Rand’s books are, or how stupid her philosophy of Objectivism is, or how much harm its adherents (converts?) have done to the American economy. I’ve addressed that a little bit here, and so has Wiz  here, and so did GQ‘s Andrew Corsello in a hilarious hit piece titled “The Bitch is Back.” Corsello compares reading Rand (pictured left) at age 19 to “devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting. During: irresistible, bracing, the thing at hand imparting vitality, fertility, potency. After: bleccchh.” I never got to the irresistible part, but the urge to vomit came soon enough.

I think Rand’s work can best be summarized with an old intellectual putdown my father taught me: “Ayn Rand’s writing is both interesting and original. Unfortunately, what is interesting is not original, and what is original is not interesting.” I’d add that it’s also inaccurate and harmful and even downright pernicious, but that’s enough for now.

Perhaps the best short takedown of Rand can be found in The Nation, by Corey Robin. But if you’re looking for something a little longer, but don’t have the stomach for Rand herself, try this superb intellectual biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns.

In Burns’ book, we learn about the crazy cult of Objectivism, which Rand ran like an authoritarian tyrant. To call it quasi-religious might be a bit mild. As Burns writes on page 203:

Although Objectivism appeared a way to escape religion, it was more often a substitute, offering a similar regimentation and moralism without the sense of conformity. Rand’s ideas allowed students to reject traditional religion without feeling lost in a nihilistic, meaningless universe.

And yet three pages earlier, Burns compared the adoption of Objectivism to a similar religious experience.

In many ways the overwhelming impact of Rand’s ideas mimicked Marxism’s influence. Arthur Koestler’s memory of conversion to Communism echoes the sentiments expressed by Rand’s readers: “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a  jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question; doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past.” Only a small portion of Rand’s readers became as feverishly devoted to her ideas as Koestler did to Marxism, but the basic dynamic was similar. A twenty-four-year-old woman told Rand, “you have combined all my stray thoughts into an orderly, workable pattern–this alone is worth many years of my life.” Rand’s perspective could bring refreshing clarity to the unfocused, replacing doubt and uncertainty with passion and conviction.

It’s no accident that Burns used the word “conversion” to describe Koestler’s Marxist turn, nor that Koestler the himself used religious, even miraculous language to recount how he saw the “light” of scientific socialism. Objectivism, like Marxism, and most religious doctrines, are absolutist and all-encompassing philosophies.

When I first seriously studied Marx (pictured right) in the Dawson College Liberal Arts program (with Nemo among my classmates), our wonderful professor David Mulhall frequently used the term “millenarian” to describe Marxist thought. To Mulhall, and of course he was not the first to say this, Marxism was a fundamentally messianic faith, with its belief in the withering away of the state and an eventual Communist utopia, despite the mask of materialism. That description stuck with me.

When I studied Marxism as an undergraduate, I did so in the context of European intellectual history, with the brilliant Peter Gordon. With Gordon’s guidance, I came to understand Marx primarily as a “Left Hegelian,” someone who did not merely stand “Hegel on his head,” as Marx’s own cliche would have you, but in fact simply adapted Hegel to a more practical, materialist framework. Hegel’s messianic “world spirit” became Marx’s messianic working class, both operating in dialectical fashion.

When I finally studied Marx as a graduate student, in a History of the Left class (along with Wiz) taught by the excellent professors Molly Nolan and Linda Gordon (no relation to Peter, as far as I know), I had had enough. As a moderate social democrat and strong supporter of the welfare state, I was the class fascist, by far the most conservative, and probably the most vocal participant. This was certainly a strange scenario as a Canadian among mostly American students. I won’t lie: I relished the role. More important, I learned a great deal in these class discussions.

Of course, the stakes were pretty low. As my free market friend Josh once quipped: “the only place you’ll find real Marxists is in the humanities departments of universities, which is a good thing, because they can’t hurt anyone there.” This remark isn’t all that different from an observation made by the late Irving Kristol in his 1979 essay “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals.” Kristol wrote, “if you want to meet active socialists intellectuals, you can go to Oxford or Berkeley or Paris or Rome. There is no point in going to Moscow or Peking or Belgrade or Bucharest or Havana.” Much as I loathe Kristol, he, and Josh (who I quite like) may be on to something. As the semester went on, much as I enjoyed it, I became exasperated.

You see, I felt that the class, like much of academia, venerated (and venerates) Marx in a way that is totally inappropriate, and frankly ahistorical. This will offend some readers (and possibly writers) of this blog, but when I hear obviously Marxist academics make obviously Marxist arguments, my eyes secretly glaze over (or perhaps not so secretly, if my subtlety is wearing thin) much in the same way they would if I had to listen to a Creationist defend the Biblical account on the universe’s origins, or an Intelligent Design advocate attempt to mesh Darwin with God’s divine plan. It’s like that feeling you get when you meet very smart and devoutly religious people and you think to yourself “how do intelligent people believe this nonsense?”

And yet many smart people did and do in fact, “believe this nonsense.” As the late Tony Judt wrote of the Trotsykite Marxist Isaac Deutscher (pictured below):

I remember being spellbound by the fantasy history of the Soviet Union woven in his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge by the elderly Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher (published in 1967 under the title The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967). The form so elegantly transcended the content that we accepted the latter on trust: detoxification took a while. Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.

This is not to say that Marx is entirely devoid of “originality and depth of content.” I don’t really think Marx is nonsense. The funny thing is, I love Marx. I really do. I think his writing was and is sensationally inspirational. Politically, I think his vision is impractical but nonetheless alluring, his goals noble and moral. I even think that his observations about working class life in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution reaching full steam, was incredibly astute.

But there’s the rub. As a historian, I can’t help think we’d be better off looking at Marx in his context. Yes, his description of worker alienation, and commodity fetishization can still ring true, in certain very specific circumstances, like in the developing world today. But on the whole, one cannot escape the fact, and yes it is a fact, that Marx got a whole lot wrong. He thought nationalism was a weak force, but in fact it was (and is) a very strong one. More important, he never recognized the power of a middle way, of strong welfare states offering a restraint on, rather than the destruction of, the market economy . He never imagined the compelling appeal of unions, like those of Samuel Gompers (pictured right) that offered “bread and butter” benefits to dignify workers within a capitalist framework (minus Gompers’ racism and sexism).

More important, Marx didn’t realize that most workers wanted to cease being workers, or at least, ensure that their children would not have to work like they did. Indeed, the story of eastern European Jews in America serves as a spectacular refutation of Marxism. Many came with dedication to socialism in hand, or more likely one that they learned on the job. They were active in left wing politics on New York’s Lower East Side and elsewhere. They worked in sweat shops, and lived in dilapidated tenement apartments. But eventually, they sent their kids to public school, and their kids became doctors and lawyers and entered the middle class. They mostly (though not all) remained on the left, but typically the mainstream left, of the Democratic Party. Their class consciousness was no more, if it ever really existed.

There’s no way Marx could have anticipated any of this, let alone i-phones and the Internet and a million other kinds of technological, scientific and philosophical and historical developments that have laid waste to his theory. Which is why, as I said earlier, we should understand Marx in context. And the same goes for Rand. Incidentally, that’s precisely what Burns does: her Rand responded to her upbringing as a middle-class Jew in Russia and then the Soviet Union, her disillusionment with the New Deal, and her distaste for the Judeo-Christian religiosity of mainstream conservatives, and role as a fierce Cold Warrior. But she too, like Marx, could not anticipate history.

As I’ve written here before, one of the biggest problems with Marxism, as the great philosopher Sir Karl Popper (pictured below) elucidated many years ago, was it’s utter imperviousness to “falsifiability.” As Popper wrote, “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiabilityor refutabilityor testability.” Marx’s socialism, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, could not be scientific, because they couldn’t really be proven or disproven. As I wrote then:

[Popper] criticized Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian economics on the ground that they were not falsifiable. Their advocates found evidence in every result, even ones that seemed to blatantly contradict these “theories.” The Marxist revolution never happened, so Marxists tweaked the theory, rather than abandon it. They forced a strange fit of theory and fact, rather than simply form a new theory. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, is a valid theory, because it is testable, the results came in, proving it right. If different results has come in, the theory would have been proven wrong.

I think the same of course, can be said about those who remain faithful to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, or who remain staunch believers in free market capitalism, even after the recent troubles of the American economy. Whatever the facts, they will find some way to make them fit the theory.

One of the biggest problems I have with Rand and Marx is this implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim to inevitability. I don’t think anything is inevitable. I know that many, perhaps most Marxists, abandoned inevitability by the 1930s, including, Sidney Hook, who attempted to meld Marxism with John Dewey’s pragmatism in his 1934 essay “Communism Without Dogmas.” I would argue that by abandoning inevitability, these “Marxists” had actually abandoned Marxism entirely, and tweaked it save the theory, as Popper’s critique noted.

Because, annoyingly for them, history got in the way. As I just said, I don’t think anything is inevitable, and I don’t think that Marx is to be blamed for the gulag. Nonetheless, with all the horrors of the 20th century, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China and many others in the name of some kind of scientific socialism, Marxists, if not Marx, have a lot to answer for.

So too do the Randians today, some of whom (Paul Ryan, Rand and Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and so on) simply ignore her militant atheism (as Burns recounts, she once told William F. Buckley that he was “too intelligent to believe in God”). More significantly, many of Rand’s adherents ignore her inability to deal with historical reality and economic facts.

But I think the basic similarity between Rand and Marx comes in their misjudgment of human nature. Rand, as a hyper-individualist, had absolutely no sense of the joys of human love and companionship (hence her unfulfilling marital life, substance abuse, and chronic depression), the warmth of community, and most famously, the dignity of altruism. Indeed, she despised fellow libertarians Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman because they argued that libertarianism was actually good from a utilitarian standpoint, that Adam Smith’s invisible hand would bring the greatest good to the greatest number. Rand didn’t care about that. She thought altruism was wrong, plain and simple. People should act selfishly and only selfishly, no matter what happened to anyone else. Not only did she think Christianity led to socialism, or at that it basically was socialism, she believed that self-sacrificial altruism, the very essence of Christianity (Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, but for yours), was immoral.

Rand seems to advocate the basic philosophical principle of psychological egoism, without any awareness of its simplicity and flaws. Psychological egoists say: “people are selfish because they always do what they want,” without taking into account that what people want differs greatly. Some people want to work in soup kitchens, others want to be investment bankers, still others want to be axe murderers. Each are doing what they want, but we can evaluate their desires as having different moral standings.

Marx went the other way. First, his community is too large: he has no use for ethno-cultural particularism, gender solidarity, or anything that moves beyond class. Second, his philosophy does not understand the thoroughly strongly individualistic aspect of human nature. Sure, Sidney Hook (pictured below) tried to argue against that proposition:

Communism is hostile to individualism, as a social theory, and not individuality, as a social value. It seeks to provide the material guarantee of security without which the free development of individuality or personality is an empty or impossible ideal. But the free development of personality remains its ideal; difference uniqueness, independence, and creative originality are intrinsic values to be fostered and strengthened; and indeed one of the strongest arguments against capitalism is that it prevents these values from flourishing for all but a few.

I’m not sure this distinction is true in theory, as Marx has no use for individual expression that derived from national or ethno-cultural traditions. In practice, it has meant even less. Experiments in socialism have often bred uniformity, with Mao’s cultural revolution perhaps the most egregious example, and the limits placed on Soviet art a close second. I think one can argue that strong welfare states in a capitalist context allow for a good amount of “material security” along with the “free development of personality.”

Furthermore, Marx and Marxists discount the importance of individualism, not just individuality, to human beings, who often do place their first loyalties to themselves and to their families, well above class and community. Indeed, this little ditty my father taught me may provide more insight into class relations and human nature than anything Marx or Engels or other Marxists theorists ever wrote:

The working class, can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

Again, I do think much of Marx is valuable, and inspirational, orders of magnitude more than Rand. But like Rand, historically it doesn’t hold up, and politically it seems to contradict human nature as I understand it. Which is why, much as I think pragmatism is a silly philosophy with which to pursue scholarship (I believe in objectivity, but not Objectivism), I think it’s useful, or dare I say, pragmatic, when it comes to politics. It allows for the flexibility to change your opinion, to make compromises, to account for new evidence and realities. Of course, not all compromises are good, and principles are important too, which is why I support a progressive, principled pragmatism.

I think one can do this and remain on the left. One can remain committed to left-wing policies and politics without adhering to any sort of Marxism. Tony Judt will be remembered as a leading advocate of social democracy. Yet some on the left often forget that he cut his teeth as a STAUNCHLY ANTI-MARXIST thinker, criticizing French Communists who ignored, downplayed, or apologized for Stalin’s crimes.

My point here is not to venerate pragmatism or Tony Judt’s political views, both of which have their flaws. My point is simply to say that one can uphold progressive politics and fight the legacy of Ayn Rand without succumbing to the philosophy of her much smarter, much more moral but similarly dogmatic and messianic alter ego, Karl Marx.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 6, 2011 at 15:02

Conservatism, Skulls, and Hegel

with 6 comments

By Wiz

Over at Pandagon, I found Amanda Marcotte’s excellent dissection of the latest scientific findings that claim to demonstrate that political beliefs are correlated to particular physical qualities in brains. “Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.”

Amanda is having none of it. “This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves. While it gives us a temporary thrill to think of conservatives as just being kind of broken, the implication of this is that they can’t help themselves. And I strongly disagree. “

I think Amanda is correct. And so, it seems would Hegel, who in the Phenomenology of Spirit argued that “it must be regarded as a thoroughgoing denial of reason to treat a skull bone as the actuality of conscious life.”

Hegel was arguing against the new fad of phrenology—the belief that the shapes and contours of the skull demonstrated inner dispositions of character and intellect. The skull supposedly developed in particular ways because the brain was pushing against it. I’m not going to try to summarize his argument, partly because I’m never very confident that I fully understand Hegel. But, at least according to Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay on the topic “Hegel on Faces and Skulls,” it partly has to do with history. “A particular historical situation cannot on Hegel’s view be dissolved into a set of properties.” Thus, the skull cannot explain actual activity in its historical circumstance, which involves too many complicated outer phenomena. In the context of Amanda’s post, that would mean that we cannot understand why the particular brain types we are looking at under the microscope correlate to conservatism without understanding the particular economic, social, and political forces that are operating on the individual.

Phrenology, the nineteenth century study of skulls, became a massive fad in America in the 1830s and later. Many of the original phrenologists were actually quite progressive—Walt Whitman was a big fan, for instance. As David Reynolds has pointed out, Leaves of Grass abounds in Phrenological terms. And Melville has a (tongue in check?) chapter in Moby Dick on the skull of the Sperm Whale.

But the study of brains and skulls also, of course, became completely wrapped up in a racist project of defending polygenism—the idea that there had been multiple creations and thus that Indians and African-Americans were inherently different species than white people. Thus a patriotic racist could still believe that “All men were created equal” since African-Americans, Indians, and others were simply not defined as “men.” The most influential of these “scientists” was Samuel Morton, of course, author of Crania Americana (analyzing the brains of Native Americans) and Crania Aegyptiaca (intending to prove that ancient Egyptians had different brain structures than modern Africans, and thus that Africans had never demonstrated the ability for civilization.) Morton’s crude experiments involved filing the skulls of various peoples with small ball bearings and counting the size of the cavities that way. The late Steven Jay Gould went back, by the way, and redid the experiments, demonstrating that, even on his own terms, Morton had done bad science, that there was no real difference in skull size between various races.

But the broader point is that there seems to be some sort of strong cultural desire, perhaps tied to the rise of nineteenth century celebration of science, combined with the desire to categorize, survey, and thus control the population, which has long sought to demonstrate clear links between the biological qualities of the brain and skull and some sort of outer truth about their immutable essence. As humanists we should reject this reduction of ourselves into our mere biological form, and as universalists we should be wary of the ways such categorization will inevitably be used to demean certain people. Even in this latest finding, the suggestion seems to be that conservatives have some sort of biological failing, are less human, in a sense, than others. I’m no fan of conservatism, but replace conservative with the word women, or black people, or whatever, and you can see where this logic can go, and why it should be rejected.

Perhaps all previous scientific attempts to do so have been ludicrous, and this one is the real thing. But count me as a skeptic.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 2, 2011 at 15:41

Michael Vick Should Not be Executed

with 6 comments

By Wiz

This is a bit off subject for this blog, but I just noticed asshole bowtie model conservative commentator Tucker Carlson calling for the execution of Michael Vick because of his dog fighting past. This isn’t much of an original point, but as a vegetarian can I point out the insane hypocrisy in our society when it comes to these issues.

To me it’s a perfectly coherent and reasonable position to believe that animals, by and large, do not deserve moral consideration. This is Descartes’ position, and he wasn’t a stupid guy. There are a lot of very smart theories of ethics that privilege the human subject for one reason or another (reason, social compacts, language, etc…) and, though I disagree with them, I have no problem with people who hold these positions.

And it’s also perfectly coherent to say that animals, by and large, deserve moral consideration. For a couple of reasons, this is my position. And thus I don’t think we should eat, for instance, pigs, which might not be as cute as dogs but are just as smart, and cuteness is not a good reason for valuing something’s life.

But its incoherent to say that causing pain and death to certain animals is a capital offense, while causing pain and death to other animals is perfectly ok.

(And before anyone says it, the nutritional value of eating animals is not a good response. The vast majority of us can lead perfectly healthy, in fact probably healthier, lives without eating meat. In 99% of situations we eat meat for the pleasure it gives us, just as Michael Vick fought dogs for the pleasure it gave him.)

I would suggest that our anger at Michael Vick is actually evidence of our own self-centeredness when it comes to moral issues. Peter Singer calls this, in what is surely the worst neologism ever, speciesism, a belief that species, in itself, is a good ground for granting or denying moral consideration. Ultimately, most Americans are distressed by dog fighting because we are used to dogs in our everyday life. They’re cute and pleasant and snuggle up with us. So when we think about dogs dying we get upset, because we imagine the dogs we know. Their moral worth, then, is not intrinsic, but tied to our feelings about them. Michael Vick’s real crime wasn’t killing animals but indirectly making us sad and upset, because we were forced to imagine the death of animals that we like. For whatever cultural and personal reasons, most of us don’t become upset when we think about pigs dying, even if factory farm regimes almost certainly subject them to greater suffering than Michael Vick’s dogs ever experienced.

Now it actually isn’t crazy to say that it should be illegal to do something that causes mental pain to people. Ancient art has no inherent moral value (a statue of Buddha or a Renaissance painting does not feel pain, has no hopes for its future, etc…) but we understand that destroying it would cause mental suffering to people who get emotional or artistic comfort from the art. But surely this is a lower crime than actually killing a person. After all, Darwin caused a lot of mental pain to some Christians. Surely biology should not therefore be illegal. And, if the indirect mental pain caused to humans was Vick’s real crime, than the true villains were those in the media who advertised what Vick did, since had people not known about Vick’s dog-fighting they never would have gotten upset about it.

Which is all to say, I suggest most people dial down the self-righteousness against Michael Vick, unless it forces them into an intellectual position they weren’t prepared for.

Oh… and Tucker Carlson is a moron. That’s the other point.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

December 29, 2010 at 12:43

The Intellectual Blame Game and Why It’s Silly

with 8 comments

by Weiner

On Nemo’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a terrific book, Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (more on this in a future post). This of course got me thinking about Rand, and how I need to include her in the syllabus for the American Intellectual History course I’m leading next semester. I lamented on Twitter, “Can anyone recommend an essay by Ayn Rand that offers a decent summary of her thought? It’s for my students. Sadly, Rand is important.” My free market friend Josh tweeted in response: “hey, at least she didn’t lead to the death of millions, like Karl Marx.”

I eventually responded that Marx’s ideas having led to the death of millions made him “more important, not less.” But my initial response, perhaps more instinctive, was to say, “or Jesus.” And that made me think about the intellectual blame game, and why it’s silly.

From a causal point of view, Josh is right. Even the most elementary student of history can’t deny that Karl Marx’s ideas, however distorted or misinterpreted, led to immense suffering, from Stalin’s purges and Soviet gulags to Mao’s reeducation camps and Polpot’s genocidal class warfare. Indeed, leftists of all stripes have argued as to whether Marxism inevitably leads to Stalinism, or something like it. Since I’m not a Marxist, I don’t believe anything is inevitable. Clearly, though, the path from scientific socialism to Stalinism is a possibility, maybe even a probability. But that’s another argument altogether.

The point, however, is this is no reason to dismiss Marx. Because lots of people had ideas that led to terrible things. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection led to social Darwinism, perverted by the Nazis into an ideology that instigated the Holocaust. But it’s still important that we read him. Nietzsche (pictured above) was misinterpreted by both Adolf Hitler and Ayn Rand, but his writing remains compelling to figures far less misanthropic. And we needn’t lay the evils of capitalism (and they are legion) at Ayn Rand’s feet: we can go back further, to Adam Smith himself, even if some of his better ideas, like the ones about “moral sentiments,” have been mostly ignored and are now being reclaimed by the left. Jean Jacques Rousseau can perhaps be blamed for inspiring Robespierre’s “reign of terror” after the French Revolution, yet his proclamation that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains” remains a reasonable rallying cry for progressives. Thomas Hobbes may provide justification for dictators, but no more than Plato, whose Republic is elitist to the core but also a brilliant piece of philosophy on a range of issues.

Lots of thinkers have influenced lots of people to do terrible things. If we move from philosophy to religion, it gets even bloodier. Jesus preached peace and love, yet millions have died violent deaths at Christian hands, the Crusades being the best known example. The Hebrew Bible’s rigid and divisive particularism has led to great strife in the Middle East and elsewhere. Militant Islam is similarly guilty, as are many other faiths, if our standard is simply crude causal connection. Yet the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qu’ran all contain many worthwhile passages, despite all the crap they inspired.

My point is that Marx, and Nietzsche, and Smith, and Plato, and Jesus, are all important thinkers, worthy of study not only because of the deaths their ideas may have caused, but also because those ideas themselves had at least some merit. How people used or misused their ideas is not only worth studying, but is an important part of understanding how those ideas functioned in the world. But blaming them for the terrible things done in their name is silly and unfair. Blaming Marx for Stalin is like blaming Einstein for nuclear weaponry. Causally true, but not morally. So don’t blame Nietzsche for Hitler; blame Hitler.

The difference with Ayn Rand–who grossly misinterpreted Aristotle and Nietzsche–is that people did not really misinterpret her ideas at all (except her modern followers ignore her hatred of religion and particular hatred of Christianity). Her ideas are really stupid and harmful. But that’s another post for when I’m finished with Burns’ biography.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 15, 2010 at 21:34

Aristotle and Ayn Rand

with 8 comments

By Wiz

Via a friend I saw this excellent essay about Ayn Rand by Corey Robin in The Nation. Robin sees Rand less as a con-man, though she has many surface similarities to that great American type, and more a product of Hollywood: all phony pseudo-intellectualisms and self-satisfied (and she was very satisfied with herself) and self-serving superficiality. Robin also suggests her ethos tends towards fascism, not liberation, as she probably thought.

On one hand it always seems a bit too easy to bash Rand. We all know, by this point, the score. She’s a bad writer, philosophically ludicrous, and morally immature. Her fans tend to be socially inept, and have the truly repulsive combination of delusions of grandeur alongside persecution complexes. Of course, on the other hand, there are enough powerful people out there pushing Ayn Rand and her ideas at us, that its always worth reminding ourselves how ludicrous she is. (Here, for instance, is a report about how businessmen are trying to fund “Ayn Rand Studies” at universities).

Aristotle: Not an Apologist for Capitalism

One thing I learned from Robin was that Rand claimed to be influenced by Aristotle, basing her defense of the free market on Aristotle’s dictum that A is A, and declaring Aristotle to be the greatest Western philosopher (until her, of course). Robin is rightfully skeptical that Rand ever read much Aristotle beyond a shallow reading of his logics. Certainly not his ethics, it seems. Aristotle’s entire ethical theory, after all, is based on the idea of personal virtues: habits and skills that individuals build up over time in order to live good lives. Were Rand to seriously read Aristotle she might have noted that many of the virtues lauded by Aristotle—like temperance and justice—hardly fit into a capitalist and egoist ethos.

Moreover, she might have noticed something else jarring to her hyper-egoist worldview. For a book about ethics, Aristotle dedicated two chapters, 1/5 of the book (Chapters 8 and 9), to friendship. “Without friends no one would choose to live.” Friendships are crucial training grounds for virtuous behavior, places to enjoy the internal goods of yours and others’ virtue, and a small model of the just community. In other words, Aristotle’s ethics is crafted, from the beginning, as a social product, just as his political philosophy takes the household, rather than the individual, as its starting point. As Alasdair McIntrye points out, Aristotle’s ethics are fundamentally incompatible with Nietzschian relativism. Yet, of course, Rand’s vision tried to fuse a vulgar Aristotle with an extraordinarily vulgar Nietzsche.

And finally, one last point. In a burst of hideous meladramatic cliché, Rand has one of her heroes, Howard Roark declare:

“The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid.”

(One can just imagine all the CEO psychopaths out there, bravely firing their workers who try to unionize, evading environmental laws, and hiding their income in off-shore tax havens, all imagining themselves as heroic Galileo figures, couragously withstanding the persecution of the small-minded and jealous.)

Anyways…Aristotle was, of course, personal physician to Kings and tutor to Alexander the Great and Ptolemy. He spent his entire life among the most powerful in the Greek world. Hardly the resume of a persecuted and misunderstood man who suffered for his genius.

But then, one suspects that this doesn’t contradict Rand’s point. What Roark means is that the true heroes will be disliked by the democratic masses, so being friends with Kings is fine. The “men of unborrowed vision” are not worried about the rich and powerful, since in Rand’s world they always are the rich and powerful. They’re worried about the unwashed little people. And so, of course, we see the self-fulfilling prophecy to Rand’s message: anyone who acts like a self-centered greedy solipsistic psychopath, as Rand wants, will end up hated by the mass of the people, just as Rand predicts they will.

I’ll leave you with these words of Aristotle, much wiser than anything our modern libertarians ever have come up with:

For in every community there is thought to be some form of justice, and friendship too; at least men address as friends their fellow-voyagers and fellowsoldiers, and so too those associated with them in any other kind of community. And the extent of their association is the extent of their friendship, as it is the extent to which justice exists between them. And the proverb ‘what friends have is common property’ expresses the truth; for friendship depends on community.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 29, 2010 at 22:53


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