Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rand-om thoughts 3

Rand-om thoughts 3

I am now at the start of Part 3 of Atlas Shrugged. It has been fairly hard going. I am not going to indulge myself with a literary review. The fact that the writing is slightly turgid should not detract from the ideas being presented.

I am also going to resist presenting a critique of the Libertine political system that many like to base on the Rand ideas and her Objectivism. Sorry, did I say “Libertine”? I meant Libertarian, of course!

There is a far clearer picture formed if the book (and remember here that I have not yet read “Fountainhead”) and the idea is read in the context of the times in which it was written, and Rand’s own personal story.

Quoted from Wikipedia
Rand was twelve at the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, and her family life was disrupted by the rise of the Bolshevik party. Her father's pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets, and the family fled to Crimea to recover financially. When Crimea fell to the Bolsheviks in 1921, Rand burned her diary, which contained vitriolic anti-Soviet writings.[5]

And from -
In 1946, Rand began work on her most ambitious novel, Atlas Shrugged. At the time she was working part-time as a screenwriter for producer Hal Wallis. In 1951 she and her husband moved to New York City, where she began to work full-time on Atlas. Published by Random House in 1957, Atlas Shrugged is her most complete expression of her literary and philosophical vision. Dramatized in the form of a mystery story about a man who stopped the motor of the world, the plot and characters embody the political and ethical themes first developed in We the Living and The Fountainhead, and integrates them into a comprehensive philosophy including metaphysics, epistemology, economics, and the psychology of love and sex.

I am not at all surprised at Rand’s intense hatred of the Communist system. That that should lead to her campaign against the Socialist tendencies of the Democrat party and more left leaning of the Republicans even is clear.

What I did not appreciate, until I started reading her books, was Rand’s insistence upon a purity of thought which would do a nun proud. There is no question that Capitalism (with capital “C”) is the Rand religion. It is the moral system, the God and the sole reason for existence. The ideas of individual and wealth are all built together in a way that makes refutation difficult. Difficult but not impossible.

I pointed out some while back (in a treatise on propaganda) that what is often more important is what is left unsaid rather than the actual content. I am not trying here to accuse Rand of writing propaganda. She is not writing (directly) for a political cause. That political offshoot has come as a result rather than as Rand’s intent.

So, when I read the first two parts of Atlas Shrugged I was struck by two central ideas that were not fully developed.

First of these is the idea of credibility. Rand’s philosophy of individual ownership centres on “Rearden Metal”, a new “metal” in the galaxy of the Periodic Table. Oh, a new alloy? Well, I can live with that despite the fact that it goes direct from mine to furnace to use – but let’s suspend credibility on that point so as to not interrupt the flow. What makes this premise even “stranger” is that this new metal is readily accessible, but only from one source as it seems. As I say, somewhat strange all round.

It also connects directly with my primary objection to the foundation of Rand’s ideas, one of the fundamentals of the CAPITALIST religion that she propounds. In reading around on the ‘net it is also an objection that has been raised more often than most. “Rearden Metal” was discovered in part because the resource that provides steel was being misused, abused and was becoming scarce. It is the Rand fundamental that in these circumstances capitalism produces new alternative and replacement products. Leave out all of the other objections – it is a matter of faith that “Rearden Metal” exists and was not previously “discovered”. I am not going to take the iron ore / coal arguments any further either simply because it is apparent that others with far better brain and argument have already been there.

I want to tackle Rand on a related but different front.

The first part of Atlas Shrugged tells of the development of Colorado as a manufacturing powerhouse, and the importance of Taggart Intercontinental in fostering that development. Taggart’s contribution was the construction of (let us say) 450 miles of railway from point A outside Colorado to point B inside Colorado primarily to service the output from one copper mine and a shale oil field. OK, let’s not go there either because it will not serve any purpose. It is a matter of faith.

The “mistake” that Rand has made is very simple. A railway requires land. It stretches credulity just a little too far that one can draw a line on a map (as is described in the story) and then go out and start laying track along that line. Surely there would be geographical features (other than the one canyon requiring a bridge) that would need to be overcome. Oh there is mention of grand sweeping curves that trains can negotiate at a speed of 100 mph compared with the existing maximum of 60mph but that mention is more to promote the advances made through the discovery of “Rearden Metal” than any improvement in rail technology.

There is one feature that is never mentioned. Who owned the land before the rail went over it? How was the right to use that land obtained? Or do Taggart’s have some strange technology that creates land just where they want to put their railway?

One of the features of Rand’s writings, one which for the moment defeats me completely because it is such a fundamental flaw in the foundations of her ideas and writing, is that of existing ownerships and rights. The fact of private and individual ownership is the whole basis of her Capitalism. There is no limitation upon the accumulation of wealth. It is laissez faire in its absolute and purest sense.

The picture that Rand has painted over with her leading characters is one of total, global poverty. Exclude her occasional glimpses at the Soviet Republic of Europe, or Soviet Republic of South America. I am concentrating only on the US as she portrays it through the story. There is no recognition of any ownership by anyone other than the main characters, including the State, at the beginning of the story. There is description of the appropriation of private property, at some length, through the first two parts. But, it seems, this (mis)appropriation affects only the major players. No one else has anything that is capable of or worth State confiscation. There is no ownership of land, there is no ownership of income from private business, there are only the proles who comprise the disadvantaged masses created by the Socialists. The occasional mention of – as an example – a taxi driver does not make it clear whether he is working for his own account, for someone else’s business, or as a “State employee”. There is no interaction between the taxi hirer and the driver other than the mention of a $100 tip (I just read that bit...  ) or the difficulty of getting anywhere in all of the traffic.

This leads on to the whole discussion – so popular over the last little while in the blogiverse – of private domain. As sure as eggs if I owned a farm somewheres along that arbitrary line on the map I would have something to say about the railway that passes through the middle of the house. Even if all the trains are on time.

But, as I said before, let’s not spoil a good story by getting too practical about it.

Finally, and while I talk of taxis, that is one of the better laughs in the story thus far.

Following a long discussion, some 18 pages, of privations, problems and causes of the oil and fuel shortage to set the scene for the shale oil business in Colorado one of the main characters (Dagny as I recall) walks out of the building and immediately hails a taxi that then drives off into the deserted streets... But hey, let’s not have the occasional wardrobe slip spoil a good yarn.

Let me be very clear. My politic has no room for communism despite my very brief contacts with the outside of the movement in my (somewhat naive) teen years. I was raised in a nation that has a proud history of socialism founded upon the responsibility of the State for the individual. Much of that State “cradle to grave” mentality has been removed during my lifetime. That was not unexpected. It is a series of events that I had expected in my youth; not in terms of the specific detail but rather in terms of the process becoming increasingly unsupportable. It might interest those who support Rand to know that Prime Minister Savage, leader of the first Labour Government, was a Socialist and devout Christian. He described the new “WelfareState” as “Christianity in Action”. For Rand herself – being an atheist – such a description would be as much an anathema as communism.

Can I put it this way. The success of a good story is a matter of credibility. One could look to Brave New World or 1984 as examples in the same category where that credibility has been achieved. Yes, both of those examples have “holes” of their own but they are not central to the theme. Regrettably, Rand’s attempt at the same has failed somewhat. The defects in her foundation do affect (my) appreciation of her theme.

I have not yet reached the end of Atlas Shrugged. I am pressing onward toward the end, and at the same time making the effort to understand the principles that Rand espouses. I am sure that I will have considerably less success in that understanding than the very many scholars who have analysed her writing in fine detail. I am doing my utmost to keep an open mind to the end.


Dave said...

I don't understand your criticism of 'Reardan Metal.' Obviously it isn't an element, just like steel or bronze or kevlar, it is a material formed other existing elements. It isn't valuable because of the intrinsic value of its inputs, it is valuable because the processing of those elements. Think of it as the difference between sand and a computer chip. It was only availible from Rearden because he was the one that figured out how to make it, and he didn't tell anyone else, regarding that as his property.

I am not a fan of Atlas Shrugged, it has been a couple decades since I slogged through it myself, and I think Objectivism (Ayn Rand's philosophy which is related but not identical to Libertarianism) has some definate weaknesses. It is though I think a useful alternative way of viewing things at times.

I think your mistake with Rearden metal is symbolic of a fallacy that a lot of left-leaning people share. The idea that wealth is finite and it can only be moved around, never created. Rand's example of a person creating wealth, not only for himself but for everyone who was now able to purchase a superior material for a cheaper price. Beyond that, the new technologies that this material would generate would allow even more wealth to be created. This sort of thing happens all the time, since the first caveman realized that if he spent some time and aquired some knowledge he could make sharp rocks that would cut better then the ones he simply found. Wealth is created.

As for the notion that just because Rand doesn't detail out the ownership of every bit of scenery in her book, she doesn't really believe in private property, that is farsical. I don't remember the specific bit about the railroad, but it is reasonable to conclude based upon everything else that the land for it was purchased.

I think that there are many grounds for criticising Atlas Shrugged as a literary effort (most notably incredibly flat and unbelievable characters, followed only slightly by tedious prose) and also for Objectivism as a philosophy (in particular an inability to value anything that can't be measured) but your criticisms here are wide of the mark.

The probligo said...

Re Rearden Metal -

Its value comes not from the inputs, or the processing.

The value of the metal comes from its properties - its uses, its strengths. That is one of the points that Rand clearly makes - the use of Rearden for things such as toys and paper-weights representing a total waste of the resource. That is why I did not criticise her treatment of that side of the story.

Your excellent example of the difference between sand and computer chip is valid.

The idea that wealth is finite and it can only be moved around, never created. Rand's example of a person creating wealth, not only for himself but for everyone who was now able to purchase a superior material for a cheaper price.

I don't believe that I have raised that as a criticism at all, have I? What I did say was that all of the major characters other than the communists, two possible exceptions, enter the story as wealthy people.

I have yet to consider the point that you make on the creation of "new wealth". This is a central theme I know, it is not something that I have missed. I want to consider the idea in the light of the principles of "value" (because wealth and value are mirror images of each other) Rand propounds in her utopian vision of Part 3. My very first reaction is that the nexus between the two is actually a "gold standard". Remember the description of the coins Dagny "earns" during her brief initial stay? Remember the distinctions made between value of those coins inside and outside the utopia?

As for the notion that just because Rand doesn't detail out the ownership of every bit of scenery in her book, she doesn't really believe in private property, that is farsical.

Again, not quite what I was intending. It does not require the details, but acknowledgement that building a railway in three months - remember that was Dagny's challenge? - would have had to include acquiring the land. My point is that the process of purchase is never ever mentioned or acknowledged.

I agree with your last para and that is why a literary critique is essentially a waste of time.

Dave said...

Rearden Metal has certain properties BECAUSE it of how it is made. Just as Steel has better properties then a pile of iron and a pile of coal, due to how they are combined together, Rearden Metal has better properties then it's inputs because of the process.

Think of 'Rearden Metal' as an aluminium alloy (whether made from aluminium or something else is immaterial.) Thinking of it that way, how much sense does the phrase: "the use of Aluminium Alloys for things such as toys and paper-weights representing a total waste of the resource" make? If Steel could be used for toys and papers weights (it was and is), and Rearden was cheaper, as I am pretty sure Rand explicitly stated, why would it not be appropriate for these uses?

As far as the creation of wealth, I didn't say that you had raised that criticism, I thought I made it clear that I regarded your failure to understand that Rearden metal was a created, rather then found, resource was indicitive of a larger phenomenon of fallacious thinking that I had observed and then I went on to explain that fallacy and why it is a fallacy.

In point of fact, I don't remember much of the details of the book at all. The love of the 'Gold Standard' is I think an economic mistake that many libertarians and objectivists share. It results from a profound lack of understanding of banking and monetary policy. That however is a much longer subject.

As for the buying of the land for the railroad, I would guess that Rand believed that that would be a trivial challenge compared to the other challenges of finishing the railroad in 3 months. Especially with sufficient ready capital (as they had) to facilitate those purchases. I think you are reading way to much into that. I expect that Rand also didn't mention that they would have to choose what brand of toilets were installed in the stations and what color of uniforms the employees were to wear. While these would be necessary to get a railroad running in three months, they don't represent the majority of the problem. And of course it is obvious that Rand had a love of big engineering projects and the engineering, rather then other challenges were what captured her imagination.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Prob, you've read enough of Atlas Shrugged to understand the political theory that Rand forcefully pounds into the narrative. Skip ahead to the last part, after Taggart flies to Colorado to meet Galt.

The JerseyNut said...

The whole point of "Reardan Metal" that you're missing is the also the central question of Rand's book: Who owns the end result of the individual's creative process? Can the state force a man to turn over, for the alleged "sake of the public good", the product of his own mind?
Reardan spends ten years trying to invent (not discover!) a new alloy that is superior to common steel - mocked by his peers and the media, once he proves Reardan Metal's worth, the same gaggle of fools then tries to force him to give up his right to enjoy the sole profit of his decade of labor. Rand's question: What right does the mob have to Reardan's mind? And what responsibilty does Rerardan have to the new alloy he created?

Rand feels that the individual is responsible for the use that one's production is put to - if you have created, say, a horrible weapon while working in the employ of a supervillan, it is just as if you had pulled its trigger (OK, shaky analogy, but I don't want to spoil...) yourself. If Reardan loses control of his metal, he becomes a party to what it is used for....

Coming from a lefty, I can see your confusion. The non-productive cannot understand basic values such as "property rights"; you only see an opportunity to seize, and benefit from, something you could not create yourself. The rights of the producer, in your eyes, are meaningless in the face of the need of the non-productive, and if he does not feel the desire to "donate" the proceeds of his mind and his work, why, the government is right to force him to.

Kind of like taxes - soak the productive class and pay the non-productive to be...non-productive. Is it any wonder that most nations that espouse these types of values have permanent, and enlarging, dependant underclasses and withering economies? Just look at France (I can't)...

And on a different note, the "land" argument is pretty flat...Rand tends to speechify a bit (well, a heck of a lot) - do you really need another 50 pages in a 1200 page book discussing land-deal details to convince yourself of Rand's integrity?

Besides, Dagny Taggart is described as a women who would get the job done, regardless. If her right of way was blocked by stubborn landowners, she would just have built the track around them.

The probligo said...

Welcome aboard, Jerseynut.

"Coming from a lefty, I can see your confusion. The non-productive cannot understand basic values such as "property rights"; you only see an opportunity to seize, and benefit from, something you could not create yourself."

Quite frankly, that is total bullshit.

If you read NZ's recent economic record - OECD is a good place to start - you will find that there is very little left of the socialist structures of the past. The "principles" that you attribute to "lefties" (yes I am left handed, known as a leftie) have been replaced with private and usually overseas ownership of strategic NZ assets and infrastructure. In the past two weeks, DAS has made a play for Auckland International Airport at some USD2.2billion. You can, if you wish, buy NZ Telecom shares on the NYSE.

For myself, and I do not think it was any different in the past given the two eulogies I am about to post, NZ's socialism has been a lot more Capitalist than much of the US over the past 75 years.