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The Opposite of Crazy

Reader D. Vision, responding to yesterday's piece about the need for a new Enlightenment, has some recommended reading for us:

Have you read Atlas Shrugged? It's a must. Rand put her finger directly on the problem: the parasites of collectivism.

In a strange nexus, it's all the same: anti-reason, anti-logic, anti-freedom, anti-life. It's about control and distribution, equality, and dependence rather than freedom, production, quality, and independence. All such delusions are necessary to float collectivism--to maintain feelings above reason.

In the next century there will be great potential for collectivism to harness if its delusions are not countered and disarmed. The creep of "need" threatens to swallow us all in a mutually dependent liability that cannot allow freedom.

I did, indeed, read Atlas Shrugged a number of years ago. My main reaction to the book at the time was annoyance at having been forced to plod through an awful lot of really long speeches to get to the few sex scenes, which weren't that great, anyway, seeing as I tended to picture Dagny Taggart as Ms. Rand herself...and that just sort of spoiled it. On an only slightly more serious note, I did write about Atlas Shrugged on this very blog a couple of years ago.

I tend to think that Rand diagnosed the problem along the way to coming up with a cure that is just as bad as -- if not in fact a restatement of -- the problem itself. D. Vision is absolutely right about the destructiveness of the anti-reason, anti-freedom delusions that manifested themselves in the 20th century (and remain with us today) via collectivist theories put into practice. But as Whittaker Chambers -- himself a former communist who had seen the light -- pointed out in his review of Atlas Shrugged some half a century ago, collectivism isn't the only error into which we can fall, and it isn't the only foundation on which massive delusions can be constructed:

One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cut-rate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). When she calls "productive achievement" man's noblest activity," she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections. But, in sum, that is just what she means. For that is what, in reality, it works out to. And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be). Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that the impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.

Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

If I take exception to Chambers' analysis, it's only because I always saw a real-world implementation of Rand's ideas as leading to a completely different kind of disaster. Near the end of Atlas Shrugs, we see a scene in which a retired judge is marking up a copy of the US constitution to make it a fit with the new world that's emerging. (I will remark in passing that, as an intellectual exercise, I see nothing wrong with doing this kind of thing.) He adds the following to the beginning of the constitution:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade.

Imagine courts applying this principle with the same zeal by which they now use the Interstate Commerce Clause to give the federal government final authority of every aspect of our lives. Under such a system, there could be no speed limit, nor health code, nor -- presumably -- requirement that an individual be properly certified before practicing medicine. The sale and distribution of any conceivable weapon, drug, or toxic substance would have to be legal. Child pornography would be legal. Maybe child prostitution as well.

Of course, such a system would not be tenable for any long period of time and would eventually break down into chaos or the dictatorship that Chambers describes. It's hard to imagine that codifying Rand's ideals of individual liberty into law would result in a dictatorship, unless we take the time to contrast the rhetoric of Marxism with the reality of its implementation. Abstract principles always work great on paper. In the real world, their success rate is a lot spottier.

One other thought: Chambers' observations about Rand's idolizing of "productive achievement" are interesting. If a Singularitarian religion were ever to emerge, the sacred nature of productive achievement -- or just flat-out technological development -- would likely be a core doctrine. The trends and movements and evolutionary leaps that we look at today are no less subject to delusional thinking than any that have come before. We must be ever vigilant.

UPDATE: Interesting related thoughts atOne Small Voice.

Comments

Hi Phil, thanks for taking the time to craft a detailed reply. To be honest I was afraid my comment would come off as half-baked and didn't bother to expand upon it to prove I'm not entirely nuts.

I wrote a review of Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead together on my blog a couple months back:

http://gainfield.blogspot.com/2005/12/notes-on-fountainhead-and-atlas.html

I also wrote a missive about how bad (and good) ideas nest together.

http://gainfield.blogspot.com/2005/12/how-bad-and-good-ideas-nest-together.html

Thanks for your post yesterday, it was thought-provoking.

D. --

Thanks for your comments and for stopping by. I read and enjoyed your combined review of Atlas Shrugged/The Fountainhead. I was struck by this observation:

The Fountainhead is remarkable but incomplete. Though Atlas Shrugged is needed to complete the story, in the Fountainhead, she does not fully address the question: what can be done against collectivists?

Interestingly, I think it is that omission that makes The Fountainhead by far a superior work to Atlas Shrugged. But again, I think Rand is better at identifying problems than she is with coming up with solutions. I also genuinely liked Howard Roark, which is more than I can say for any of the characters from Atlas Shrugged.

I also found this interesting:

Rand holds that the majesty of a reasoning mind belongs solely to an individual and that there is no such thing as a group mind.

I would have to disagree with that. For good or for ill, I think there is, indeed, such a thing as a group mind. We're only now beginning to see how technology and collective efforts entered into voluntarily -- e.g., the blogosphere, futures markets, wikis, etc. -- can do things that the mindless groupthink of a mob or the collectivism forced upon individuals by government authority (that is, brute force) never could.

Alas....Who will guard the Guardians?

The flaw in Rand's ideology is that she has embraced atheisim and materialism, and by consequence has concluded that the highest value of man is the efficiency of economic productivity/ technological advancment. This belief is shared by Marxists and Nazis as well.
Man is not merely a collection of atomic idividuals but is a part of a community. To fully understand what human flourishing is, in essence, one must come to grips with the whole of human activity as that activity pertains to the entire spectrum of human values as played out in the many facets of human social life. The most just society, and the most free society, is the society that can preserve the fullness of human-being and by implication establish human-flourishing.
Rand should have spent more time reading Aristotle and less time jabbering.

"Imagine courts applying this principle with the same zeal by which they now use the Interstate Commerce Clause to give the federal government final authority of every aspect of our lives. Under such a system, there could be no speed limit, nor health code, nor -- presumably -- requirement that an individual be properly certified before practicing medicine. The sale and distribution of any conceivable weapon, drug, or toxic substance would have to be legal."

You say that like those are bad things.

Walter,

Yeah, well call me a jack-booted looter with an unquenchable thirst for state power thinly disguised as collectivist altruism.

Or, you know, Phil.

As a violator of some of this country's drug laws, I have, more than most people, seen the effects of drug use. Altho I am generally of libertarian leaning, I believe that the sudden removal of all restriction and regulation would not be a good thing. Here's an example of why.

What does make sense is decriminalization of all plants (Louisiana recently outlawed morning glories), strategic changes in the so-called War on Drugs, and an education campaign aimed at creating a culture of moderation.

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