Russ Roberts

Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand and the Goddess of the Market

EconTalk Episode with Jennifer Burns
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Goddess%20Market.jpg Jennifer Burns of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her biography of Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market. They discuss Rand's philosophy, her influence, her relationship with the conservative movement, and the intersection of her personal life with her philosophical principles.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: October 2, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Jennifer Burns's... first book, which is the topic of today's conversation, is Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.... So, on the surface, a biography of Ayn Rand seems like an unusual topic for an historian. What drew you to her? And, why is she important in history?

Jennifer Burns: That's a great question. And, I started graduate school in the year 2000, and I was interested in intellectual history. I was interested in religious history. I was sort of exploring. And it just so happened that I kept coming across Ayn Rand. It was like this weird thing where, you know, I might get on the bus and see someone buried in Atlas Shrugged. Or, I might go to a friend's house who never, ever reads; and there she's got Atlas Shrugged by her bedside. And I started thinking, 'What's up with Ayn Rand? She's a historical figure. She existed in history.' Like, 'I should learn about her.' And so, I went to the library and I looked at the shelf of books on Rand. And I noticed a couple of things. First of all, it was a much smaller shelf than you may find for any other author as widely read as her. And, secondly, I could divide that shelf in half. Basically, into books that said, 'Ayn Rand is a terrible person who ruined my life and whose philosophy is the root of all evil,' to, 'Ayn Rand is the most brilliant thinker since Aristotle.' And, it sort of occurred to me there had to be a middle story between these two poles. And, at the same time, I was in graduate school in American History, and historians, you know, working in the academy, were starting to think about conservatism more seriously. Starting to write about it, starting to wonder about it. And so, these two things sort of came together--this sort of growing interest I had in this curious figure I just wanted to learn more about. And then this realization she'd actually been quite influential in the conservative movement. And that was this growing area of scholarship. And maybe I could put these together and come up with a suitable topic for a dissertation.

Russ Roberts: Had you read much, or any, of her work at that point?

Jennifer Burns: You know, I had. I'd read The Fountainhead in college. It was given to me by a family member who said, 'You're at a point in life where you should read The Fountainhead.' And, you know, it took a little bit, in sort of a curious way. I read the whole book. I didn't love it. I felt like I didn't get it, though. And so I think that part of that stuck with me: like, she's making references, she's making allusions, she's doing something here that I'm not quite getting. And so, I actually felt a little resentful that this book had gone over my head. [?] it was so long; I made myself read it. So I think that's part of why I came back to it. And I had, you know, dipped a little bit into the virtue of selfishness, which, you know, talked a lot about this revolutionary new morality, kind of seemed intriguing to me as a college student; but, again, I didn't--I didn't click or gel with it that way. And so, you know, I think, for me as a historian, someone who is always interested in the broader context or the longer story, I found a way to approach Rand for me is by looking at her life and how it kind of interweaves with the lives of other people that she met and she encountered. And that's what I ended up writing about in the book.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; it's a really--it's a fascinating book that I learnt a lot from. And, I should put my historical cards on the table. I read--I think I probably read Atlas Shrugged, or my first Rand, when I was in high school. Again, like you, a family friend gave me this book and said, 'You're going to find this interesting.' And I certainly did. And somewhere--you know, through my college years, I read--most of her books. Maybe close to all of them. And I remember my--that culminated, in some sense of culmination, with Anarchy, State, and Utopiaby Robert Nozick when I was a senior in college I read that. And those books had a huge impact on me. Along with Milton Friedman. Nozick, Friedman, and Rand had a huge impact on me. And I've mentioned Ayn Rand's name--I would say 10, maybe 10 times on this program, for this almost 600 episodes we've done. We've never done an episode on her work, so I'm excited to talk about that with you. But, at some point in my life, I got disenchanted with Rand's--with the virtue of selfishness. And it strikes me that I may have been unfair to her. You are scrupulously fair, it seems to me, to her in your book. And we'll talk about that whole--the question of what selfishness means, and also the way that you treat her.

5:32

Russ Roberts: But, I want to start with a little, with her personality. I did not know until I read your book how extraordinarily charismatic that she was. I didn't realize that, with the help of an inner circle of friends and acolytes that she created a slightly-frightening--well, I would say 'frightening'; I'm not going to say 'slightly'--a cult of personality around her philosophy and her writing. So, talk about her personality and the devotion and passion of her followers, and how that played out in 1960s, politically and culturally.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. It's interesting. So, she did have a very powerful charisma. And she also had a very powerful negative charisma--which, I think goes back to that bookshelf. Some people just hate Ayn Rand. They cannot stand her. They have a very visceral, negative reaction. And others, especially those who met her at the right moment, just sort of fell under her spell. And I think some of that goes to her very unusual personality where--she was what she wrote about, in terms of being a true individualist, very solitary. Doesn't mean she didn't care about other people or have strong emotions or want the high regard of other people. She absolutely did want that. But, she was free from a lot of the sort of striving for status in power and positioning, so she could have a very unique[?] perspective on someone when she met them; and she could have, for all her difficulty reading other people's emotions, she sometimes would get a very sort of deep and pure insight into your core. And she could give that to a person, and just win their unending loyalty. Now, then might become a sort of dominant relationship where, she was so overwhelming, she was so quick, she had thought so much about what she stood on every issue that it was very hard to disagree with her. And she would sort of use this logical web of: 'If you agree in rationality, here are my first premises; you agree with my first premise, now, here we go. You can't break free because I've already got you to agree on the basics, and you're going to follow me wherever I go.' And, it started going in very strange directions in terms of the type of music you could listen to, the types of movies that these premises would lead you to. And so--I mean, you called it frightening, this sort of cult of personality. I'd add a couple of things to that. So, as I describe in my book, when she moved to New York in the mid-1950s, she had a whole series of encounters with conservatives, some of whom began to follow her philosophy; many of whom did for a short while and then sort of broke away, or, like yourself, found certain things missing or inadequate. And then, she pulled to her a group of college students, or actually recent college graduates, centered around a young couple, Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden. And they became sort of the core set of her social life and her intellectual life and her world. And they pulled in others--among them, Alan Greenspan is kind of the most famous member of this group--that called themselves 'The Collective.' And, a couple of things, I would say--we'll get to the, I assume we'll get to the relationship with the Brandens--it's sort of its own set of discussions. But, when I really came to see is the 1950s and the 1960s, for intellectuals and cultural figures, were kind of the Age of the Entourage. Like, you weren't anybody until you had an entourage. Like, think about Frank Lloyd Wright--he had Taliesin; he had all these people designing like him. It was sort of a mark of status and accomplishment if you had this entourage. And also, for Rand, who was outside of any kind of institution. She wouldn't have graduate students. She wouldn't have, you know, necessarily, proteges in the typical way she would hire or in that way they would simply become part of her social world. Now, you called it 'scary.' And it is true that there's a lot of first-person, eye-witness testimony that, to be in this tight inner circle, very close to Rand, could be very psychologically damaging for people and, sort of stifling; and that to stay there long term, you had to--and this is this giant, grand paradox--suppress your own individuality in order to support Rand's specific idea of what individualism was. And so, in that inner core, it was like--I mean, Murray Rothbard has this incredible letter. I don't know if your listeners will be familiar with Rothbard, anarcho-capitalist--you know, very libertarian. And he met Rand, and he kind of went hot and cold on her. And eventually he sent her this letter that was like, 'When I met you, you were like the sun, and I thought you would burn me up if I got too close.' You know? And, so if you knew Rand in New York in the 1950s, that could be a dangerous spot. Now, if you were a couple of degrees out, and you read her book at the right time and the right place, it might change your life. And it might change your life for the better. And I, regularly meet--and this is actually an interesting angle of her, and her relationship with women and gender--I all the time meet women who read her at a certain moment in their lives, and said, 'Things are different for me, since I read that book.' I just met a woman who said, 'When I first read Ayn Rand, I thought I was going to be a nurse. And after I finished Ayn Rand, I was like: No. I'm going to be a doctor.' And she became a doctor. And so, that aspect of Rand, I think is also really important. And people can get over-focused on this cult in New York, because it's so interesting and fascinating and kind of weird. But, I really think the true impact of Rand is several--if you think of concentric circles of influence or readership around her, it's not that tight-knit group. It's a view out, is where you really have people being impacted by her philosophy in ways personal and ways political.

11:34

Russ Roberts: Well, as you point out, it's a little bit of a paradox. These people--she demanded total loyalty. Which is ironic, given her stress on individualism and reason. But her view was: I'm right; everything else is wrong; and therefore if you don't follow me and agree with everything I say, obviously there is something wrong with your powers of reason. But, it has a--first, it has a religious feel to it. And she's an anti-religious person. It has a cult-feel to it--and she's an individualist. And the group call themselves "The Collective." Which is weird. Because she's not--she's an opponent of collectivism.

Jennifer Burns: Well, it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Right? Like, ha-ha. And, eventually it's like, 'Well, the joke's on you.' It did become very collectivistic. I mean, you know, we can sort of go back and forth on this. I think one issue--the individualism piece--is an element there. But a lot of it was this idea of rationality and this idea that she was going to create a new ethical system based on rational thought. And cults of reason have happened before. And they'll happen again. And, it was that reason, which she then joined to this, you know, idea of individualism. But, you could imagine another idea of individualism that would be sort of expressive individualism. Or, 'Go with the flow.' Or, 'Go with your gut.' Or, you know, 'Follow your intuition': more of a Rousseau-ian romantic individualism. And that was not her. She was very clear that rationality was the defining feature of humankind. That was what separated us from animals. That was what made us unique. And that was what we needed to cultivate. And she became very suspicious of emotional life, feelings, things that couldn't be controlled. And so she really set reason and emotion against each other, and insisted that reason must win. And then, the final irony is that the whole theme[?] kind of blew up in this cataclysm of emotion.

13:35

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We should really talk about that. And, I'll mention, to parents listening with young children: You may want to listen to this next part before you continue listening with your kids. If you are on your way to school. But, she--um, she had--she was married, through her entire life, until the death of her husband. But, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, who were also married--they ended up getting divorced. And presume, partly, if not totally, because Nathaniel and Ayn Rand had a long-standing "secret affair." But, not secret to the people and their spouses. That's what's bizarre about it. And, when Branden goes off to find a different woman, later on in his life, Ayn Rand totally--and we have to make it clear--Ayn Rand originally dedicates Atlas Shrugged to Nathaniel Branden and to her husband. And when Nathaniel leaves for another woman--leaves romantically--Ayn Rand--well, explain what happens. It's kind of extraordinary. And why it was so hard for her, intellectually, to deal with his defection, romantically.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Well, let me go back a little bit to kind of set the stage for the relationship. One thing I uncovered in my research that was sort of interesting, is, as she became famous--so, she became famous for The Fountainhead. She then spent some time in Hollywood where she was working on the screen adaptation. And, she would have fans writing her letters all the time. And she would often meet them. And it looks like there were a couple of young men with whom she got close to maybe having a romantic relationship. Never quite happened, but looking back, they said, maybe this was in the cards somewhere.

Russ Roberts: She was married at the time.

Jennifer Burns: And she was married at the time. She was married to her opposite--a lovely, soft, kind, yielding--

Russ Roberts: passive? almost?--

Jennifer Burns: Passive, artistic man, who, you know, basically he was the wife in the relationship, according to the gender standards of the day. You know, he didn't work. He minded the home. He supported her. He was very good at--

Russ Roberts: But not financially. She supported him financially.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Sorry. Exactly. She was the breadwinner. But he was the one who would, you know, help her through her tough times with her writing. Help her socially. Support her socially. They'd go to a party; he'd be at her side, introducing people; just kind of making things flow well. And so, at any rate, you know, but it apparently lacked the passion that she wanted. She was very drawn to Nathaniel Branden.

Russ Roberts: Who was much younger than she was.

Jennifer Burns: Much younger, 25 years younger. They first met; he sent her a letter. He actually sent her two letters. He was at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. He came to visit her. They stayed up all night talking. He came back; he brought Barbara Branden; they stayed up all night talking; they sort of embarked on this very intense intellectual relationship where she saw him as the person who would carry forward her ideas, learn her ideas. And moved to New York--in large part, the Brandens moved to New York to continue their education, and Rand essentially followed. She came out very shortly after. And, it was within a year or so, the relationship became romantic between her and Nathaniel Branden. Now, at this point, they sought the consent of Barbara Branden and her husband, Frank O'Connor. And originally they sought the consent for--they said they had fallen in love and they just wanted some time together. Eventually, they came back a couple of months later, and said, 'This is now going to be romantic time together, and we want to agree.' And they said, 'Sure. Okay. We agree. This makes sense. You guys are both sort of geniuses; you should be together.'

Russ Roberts: We're all adults.

Jennifer Burns: We're all adults. We can all agree.

Russ Roberts: We're not going to let emotion get in the way of these intellectual relationships.

Jennifer Burns: Right. 'We rationally understand this makes emotional sense,' if you--

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Jennifer Burns: Well. And then--but then, the secret stuff there: So, Rand could be there, unconventional, but she did not want this secret to get out. So, it became this sort of, pretty toxic, not-secret secret. Right? The players right immediately involve it. Apparently nobody else knew. And looking back, once it came out, people were like, 'Oh, how could we have missed this? The dedication to the book?' Right? 'And you readers out there, you should grab your copy to Atlas Shrugged, if you've got one with a double dedication.' Like, hang onto it. That's worth something. Imagine. And it's an historical curio. So, this progresses. And then, the book Atlas Shrugged comes out. It's her masterpiece. She's worked so hard on it. And it was just universally panned. Critiques really hated it. It didn't get like a single good book review. Now, it sold like hotcakes. People loved it. She had an incredible fan base. But, you know, to the extent that the book review crowd was more liberal, more elitist, they just didn't like this novel at all. They weren't going to give it the time of day. And the publisher was actually pretty stunned that the book sold so many copies, despite being so widely panned. So, she was depressed, though. She wanted to be greeted as a major thinker on the scene--and sent to--she was basically made fun of by anybody who was anybody. So, Branden said, 'You know what? You've got a fan base. People want to learn about your stuff. I'm going to start a school dedicated to your philosophy.' He called it the Nathaniel Branden Institute, or NBI, it was how it abbreviated. And he started--he put an ad in the New York Times, you know, Lectures by Ayn Rand. Lectures about Ayn Rand's Philosophy. And it said something like, you know, 'At the conclusion of the lecture series, Miss Rand will consent to appear and answer questions.' And they started. And it was successful. It was popular. It grew. They franchised it. They recorded the lectures. And then you could be a representative in Los Angeles or Chicago, get together a bunch of people, collect a fee, and play the tape recording.

Russ Roberts: And they had a newsletter, with 20,000 subscribers. Which is a lot.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah! It's a newsletter that rivals those little magazines we spend so much time writing about. They had other people doing affiliated lectures. I think Greenspan gave a lecture on, like, business. People doing all kinds of stuff. It grew and grew and grew into this real intellectual community. And it had ties to the growing conservative movement. It was never conservative, per se, because she staked you, you know, positions that would be anathema to religious conservatives. But, it was an important part of that 1960s' conservative moment. And, as it went on, Branden became, you know, we had became, we made good money and we aren't exactly wealthy but fairly--you know, this was his living. He became well known. He became, um, sort of a celebrity within this world. His whole world was built around Ayn Rand. Yet, at the same time, he was losing interest in a romantic relationship. And he didn't know what to do. And he basically decided he couldn't tell Rand. And so, he sort of dissembled and fabricated. At the same time as he began becoming involved with another woman. And so--

20:59

Russ Roberts: Let's cut to the punchline. When she finds out, she totally destroys his empire of affiliated material. Threatens him legally. And, that whole movement--the whole cult of personality is jarred, tremendously, by this. And for me, as a--as someone who has become more skeptical of the power of reason, as I've gotten older, it's a--it's an incredibly fitting end to this story. It's a tragic end. But, it's incredibly fitting, these people who thought the only thing that mattered was reason, were torn apart by an emotional response to their relationship.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I mean, it just blew sky high. The whole movement. And there was a giant schism. And, nobody was told the reason. It was like, unspecified. It was like dishonesty and corruption. And so, nobody knew. People were having wild speculations--did he[?] steal money? did he do this? did he do that? And you basically came, did you take the Branden side or you took Ayn Rand's side. I mean, families have split; there are people who never spoke to each other again for the rest of their lives. And then, a lot of people are just watching from the outside looking in, were like, 'This whole thing is looney toones crazy.' It cost Rand a great deal of credibility. It basically brought her career to a screeching halt. Branden took off to California and started doing New Age stuff. You know. Objectivism would kind of roll on as itself. But, you are right: That was kind of the cataclysmic moment. And, it came out of this environment where you had to be reasonable. And that meant, in this, you know, culture, pushing all of your emotions aside. And then, boy, did they come rushing back.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's just a--in a way, her personal life was a test case, or at least a part of her, a lab experiment, for part of her philosophy.

22:56

Russ Roberts: But let's move to the economics part of it. One of the--not that there aren't related--but one of the things that I found striking about reading your book was being reminded of her moral defense of capitalism, and how jarring it is to a modern ear. Which is relentlessly utilitarian and efficient and practical. And, she would have none of that. She--of course, I remember it now, was, when I think back on it: She only cared about the morality. She didn't care about the utilitarian part of it.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. She really--it's true. I actually just am writing up this episode now where she gets in a big fight with Milton Friedman, who was kind of talking about the efficiency of markets. And she just thought, 'This is like a horrible way to go'--that you had to talk about the ethics of it. And I think that comes, you know, more than anything, from her experience in Russia. So, she was born, you know, sort of bourgeois Russian family, Russian Jewish family. And they were, she was about 12, when the Russian Revolution unfolded around her. And her family's livelihood was basically taken by the state. Confiscated. And she just thought that was the sort of ethical corruption and rot at the core of the modern world. That, you could say, 'Somebody needs this more than you; I'm going to take it.' Or, 'You don't really own this; this isn't really yours; I'm going to take it.' And it was--to her, she kind of drilled down to thought was going on. And it was, to her, a group of people, The Collective, being placed against one person, the individual. And so, that was the essence of it. And the reason that capitalism--was, she called it the best moral and social system--was that it was it was built on the rights of the individual. And it allowed the individual to flourish. And so, any discussion of the ways capitalism was bad, or it was immoderated, came back to her, as potentially threatening that sovereign individual. So, for her--capitalism--she claimed it in its pure form had never been known. In its pure form, it would be very close to anarchy, with a very minimal state. And it would allow individuals to sort out for themselves what they wanted out of life, and to compete freely--you know, in a market economy and on a contractual basis. You know, peer to peer, equal to equal.

Russ Roberts: So, I'm very sympathetic to that view. As you just stated it. The part that I would add--and I'd love to get your reaction as to how she'd react to this--the part that I would add is that, commercial dealing is what we do voluntarily with each other. We choose to contract with each other; we choose to buy[?] yourself from each other; that competition is very powerful in protecting people and in creating excellence. At the same time, I would be a champion of people who voluntarily get together to help other people. So, to form charities, foundations, philanthropy, and so on. To me, that's the other aspect of, you know, what's often called civil society. It's the things that we do together but not through force, not through the ballot box, not through taxation, but through our individual choices of what we are passionate about and what we think helps make the world a better place. Would you say she would be opposed to those activities, when she talks about the virtue of selfishness, say? Or does she just not want people to feel compelled to do that?

Jennifer Burns: No, it's more the latter. But, it's a little bit tricky. So, she would say, 'Of course, you are perfectly free to act in altruistic manner or to support other people on your own time, as long as it's free and voluntary choice. But, that's not the essence of morality. And so, people who consider themselves teachers of ethics and morality should not be emphasizing that behavior, and should not be holding that up as a standard of behavior. We have far too much of that. What we should hold up as a standard of behavior, instead, is people, like the people in my books: Howard Roark, John Galt--paragons of individualism. And we need to recognize that that is an ethical life.' And, so, she really--she didn't want you to emphasize that other stuff. She would subsume it, and put it way down under free choice--like, 'Yadda, yadda, sure, you could do this with your free choice. But, the important thing is the free choice, not that your free choices are to help other people.' And, you know, that was what, I think, really disliked about her: is that she downplayed all that and she didn't think there was a role for that type of moral encouragement. Now, I think that she was deliberate about that. Part of it was having grown up in Russia and having been subject to propaganda. She felt there were ways that political leaders could use propaganda and persuasion, and those were inappropriate; and the state certainly shouldn't be doing that, and political leaders shouldn't be doing that. She also came to believe that Christian morals were, as she put it, the 'Kindergarten of Communism.' That it was Christianity that taught people it's right to care about others, to be your brother's keeper; and that once people believed those sets of actions were moral, they could be the victim of a political leader or a statist system that said, 'I'm doing this for other people. It's the right thing to do.' And, if you'd already agreed that was true, you didn't have any ground to stand on to object. So, she would put the things you are describing--voluntary charity--she put them way at the bottom of her list of things people should talk about. Now, that then goes to her sort of theory of human nature, which in some ways was fairly optimistic, in that you didn't need leaders to encourage social norms and proper behavior, because people would sort of rationally follow their own interests. And she didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the bad sides of self-interest. That wasn't her task. Her self-appointed task was, 'I'm going to talk about what's good about self-interest.' And if she was given any example of how self-interest might be bad, usually she would say, 'Well, that's not really true. Self-interest--to get a fortune through a crime is not really true self-interest because it shows a lack of regard for the integrity of your self.' And eventually you're like, 'Okay, yeah. Whatever.' But some people want to lie, rob, cheat, and steal. And that's a form of selfishness. I think what made a lot of this system tick and hold together is that she really elaborated and expressed it in fiction, in which she had a great deal of control over her characters and she didn't have to grapple with observed human behavior. She could just idealize and make it up.

29:50

Russ Roberts: Now, I just want to emphasize one of the themes that comes through in the book that I mentioned earlier, but--it's hard to understate how powerful it was. If you asked a question or showed doubt in one of these seminars or in her salon on Saturday nights, it wasn't like, 'Oh, that's interesting. Let's see where that goes.' It was like--the way you describe it, you were just cut off.

Jennifer Burns: Mmmhmm. And it got really bad after Atlas Shrugged. And there's a lot of different relationships I sort of trace. Earlier in her life she was more open. She was sort of, saw herself as an up-and-coming thinker who could take the time to recruit people to the cause and to sort of rectify error and change minds. When she was done with Atlas Shrugged, she was like, 'I'm done. Here's the book. Read it. There's nothing wrong with it.' And, 'If you think there's something wrong with it, I'm going to talk to this other person over here.'

Russ Roberts: Check your premises.

Jennifer Burns: Check your premises. And I think that the other theme that I talk about in the book, is: she was a lifelong user of amphetamines. And, this again, was fairly common in the literary culture of the day. She got prescribed this, like, Benzedrine was the name of it back then: it's basically low-level speed. She got prescribed it for weight loss, I think. You know. And she kept taking it. And she just took a lot of it. And, over time, that can definitely change your personality. Can exacerbate the need for control, rigidity, anger, your ability--all of that. So, some of what we're seeing is, I think, her natural intellectual development, her natural aging process. But, I think you've really got to factor the lifelong abuse of this drug in there as well.

31:40

Russ Roberts: I want to come back to the remark you made that 'Christian morality is the Kindergarten of Communism.' First, I want to get there in a roundabout way. She was not a fan of Milton Friedman. You mention a book, a study that Friedman wrote with Stigler that I remember reading long ago on rent control, that she--that was published by the Foundation for Economic Education [FEE], which is a free-market institution in upstate New York. And she despised that study, even though it was critical of rent control. And she despised it because they were, Stigler and Friedman, were against it, "for the wrong reason." And she also despised F. A. Hayek, who she called, 'poison,'--and something else. The word 'pernicious' in there. Because he wasn't pure enough. So, talk about that. And then I want to come back to the kindergarten economy as a remark. Talk about why she hated Friedman and Hayek.

Jennifer Burns: So, you know, like many ideologues, she really trained her fire not on the other side but on this sort of false flag that people who she felt were semi-on-her side but not enough. So, the problem with Hayek--you know, if you read The Road to Serfdom and other works--he is talking about, 'How can we do national health insurance? How can we do unemployment? How can we do all this stuff while preserving the free market system?' And she just thought that was like the opening wedge of, you know, taking his phrase, of the road to serfdom. Right? If you said you needed these things in addition to capitalism, that was, for her, really problematic. Friedman, in particular pamphlet--they use the word 'rationing.' They talk a lot about the word 'rationing.' And they were using it both in the context of the war, in which there was actual rationing of goods during WWII. And then they were also using it in the economic sense in which a market can be said to ration goods by price, because you need x amount of dollars to get the good--

Russ Roberts: There's not enough to go around of everything.

Jennifer Burns: Right. And so, she actually thought they were Communists, and that this was a Communist plot to like make a fake argument about free market economics, because, in addition to using this rationing language, this was a moment in time when Friedman and Stigler were still talking about social equality and how that was important to them. Later, that theme really disappears in their work. But, it was pretty strong at this immediate post-War moment. So, she saw that; she saw the word 'rationing'; and she thought, 'These guys are pinks; they are plants; they are trying to subvert the development of the honest-to-God, true, free-enterprise movement,' which, to be true-blue would talk about how evil collectivism is and how the individual is the only ethical standard; and how free market capitalism is the only system that upholds the individual and is ethical. So, she couldn't stand either the value-free efficiency argument or the social-justice/equality argument, or the compromise argument. Though, she basically settled on Ludwig von Mises as the only economist whose views she could endorse. And she steered her readers to Mises. And I think she did a lot to sort of keep his work circulating in these lean years in the United States, and it eventually grew into its own independent Austrian movement, that she was a very important ally for him.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; but ironically, Rothbard, who is Mises's--also, with Hayek, Mises's protégé, she didn't get along with him, ultimately, as we discussed earlier. But it's interesting--even today, among libertarians, there is a schism between people like me, who think I have a lot to learn from Hayek and Friedman, even if I might not agree with everything they say; that's okay. And, a more dramatic example of Friedman's imperfection would be his encouragement of, let's say--what would be a good example?--the negative income tax: 'Instead of eliminating the welfare state, we'll just do it more efficiently.' Or, another example might be--I can't think of another example. It doesn't matter. So, he's persona non grata, because he's willing to imagine a possible role for the government and helping poor people. And Hayek, similarly, because he wrote a sentence, or a paragraph or a page in The Road to Serfdom that said that the national, that health insurance might be an appropriate role for the state; therefore, he's out. So, among people who listen to EconTalk, I'm sure there's some out there, I'm suspect because I like Hayek and Friedman and don't worship Mises. I don't know Mises's work as well as I know Hayek's. I don't know Mises's work at all, hardly. I've read a little Mises. I didn't learn so much from him. He doesn't grab me the way Hayek and Friedman do. So, I'm not an acolyte of any of them. None of them are saints; none of them brought down their works from Mt. Sinai; they are not holy. They have things I learn from, things I don't; things I agree with, things I don't. But, in the movement I think of free market folks and libertarians, there is this schism still between Friedman/Hayek on the one side and Mises-and-Rothbard on the other. They are okay--Mises and Rothbard are--because they are uncompromising; and the other guys are not okay.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. It's interesting. I think most of it was a character-driven and philosophically-driven outcome, you know, [?] stance. You could also think of it as having some strategic value in terms of, 'I'm going to stake out the furthest possible edge as that's how we get there, and compromise is not how we get there.' And some people are inclined to compromise, and some not. But, it connected existentially to this very black-and-white view of the world where she said: There are two sides to every issue, right and wrong; and the worst is gray, in the middle. There's no such thing. So, it pervaded her thinking, her relationships, her fiction. That was just who she was. So, yeah: she aligned herself up with Mises. They did know each other. They spent time together. And then she funneled readers of this, you know, pretty big newsletter--she would funnel them to Mises. She's say, 'Go to Mises.' She'd sell his books through her book service. All of that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't see--my view is, it's okay to be--well, I don't even that's okay. I was going to say--gray is fine for me. I just want to make a case for gray. Because, again, for me, the question is who I learn from. And if I can learn from somebody, I'm okay with it. I'm a big follower of the dictum of the Talmud that says, asks the question, 'Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone.' Rather than the one who follows such-and-such a creed or whatever. But, it's just interesting to me how that intellectual, that ideological purity test remains important to folks 50, 60 years later, and will probably continue to do so.

38:55

Russ Roberts: But, I want to come back to your point about the Kindergarten of Communism, because I think it's a really interesting tie-in to Hayek, even though she didn't like Hayek. Or thought he was flawed. Which is: So, Rand was an atheist. She hated religion, viewed it as a form of anti-reason, I assume--was one reason she hated it, not more than reasons, but she also didn't like this moral imperative of some religions to help other people. And, it's interesting that she saw Christian morality as the Kindergarten of Communism. It says in the Old Testament: Love your neighbor as yourself. That's not a very Randian thought. And what Hayek argues in The Fatal Conceit is that we have this natural tendency to take the ethics of our family and extend them out into the larger extended order of society at large. And I think that's what he saw--I think correctly--as the root attraction of socialism, and of Communism. That, the family is a pretty great thing. And certainly, in our family, we care for each other and we take care of each other. And therefore we need to do that more widely. And he said, 'That's the road to tyranny. And if you try to take the extended order of the marketplace of bringing it to the family, you are going to destroy the family.' And so, we need to live in two worlds at once: A world of small group ethics, which is the family or close friends; and the larger order of strangers who we trade with and exchange with and interact with through the marketplace. And I think that's an incredibly deep insight into why modern life is challenging. Politics--political economy--is challenging. And it's interesting to me that he would have been very sympathetic to that remark that the morality of--she called it Christian morality, but it's also the morality of the family--that, to love one's neighbor as oneself, to love one's family members as one's self, to care about others--is the natural impulse toward collectivism.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Um, it's a really interesting way to think about it. For me, with Rand, one interesting kind of thought experiment is like, 'What if Rand and Frank O'Connor had a child?' You know? Like, would that have fed into her philosophical system--or how would it have? Now, she did help some of her family members. But she tended to be--there is this whole series of letters, her Ayn Rand letters, where she is basically offering support to one of her nieces and nephews, and putting, like, conditions on it. Like, 'I want you to go to school. I want you to do this.' And, 'Please stop asking me for dresses,' again and again and again. So, it's true, she had an unusual family situation in that she left Russia and she stayed in touch with her family but then she lost contact with them over the war. She had--you know, she had a husband. She had a quasi-family--people who believed in her philosophy. And, one episode that happened later in her life, which I cover a bit in the book, is that she actually discovered her sister, Nora, who she thought had died in the war--there was like a traveling; her photograph appeared in Russia as part of some type of intercultural exchange. And she was recognized. And her sister recognized her. And she actually brought her sister and husband to this country, and expected--this could have been her favorite sister, this great reunion. And they didn't get along. And they argued. And her sister defended Communism. And, it's just terrible. The relationship fell apart; and they went back to Russia, and they never spoke again. And so, you know, she had that moment, later in her life, that chance to re-connect. And it was very clear that her ideology was more important than her family ties. It couldn't have been clearer. And it was just a missed moment. So, I think that's also why, you know, the rap on Rand is, like, 'Teenagers love her.' And I always say, 'Teenagers of all ages love her.' Right? But, you know, there is a very common pattern, and people feel really strongly about Rand at a certain point in their life; and then, later, when they've had more relationships, more experiences in their life, they look back and they say it's not really capturing what I now know to be true. And I think part of comes out of her own biography and her really unusual personality. It takes an unusual personality to sort of make history and to stay alive as an intellectual force--you know, 50 years, 100 years in time. But it really means you are not an ordinary person. You have trouble speaking to that experience.

43:25

Russ Roberts: It reminded me a lot of Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson's biography paints him, I think, in a very mixed way. Which is, that he's a very difficult person to get along with, and yet people want to be around him all the time. And I felt the same response here, to Rand. Before we leave religion, I just want to add, ask you to talk about one more thing I didn't know anything about, which is: She was very much an antagonist of William F. Buckley's, in both directions. And I didn't know about that. So, talk about the role that religion played, especially how Buckley and the National Review in the 1950s were revitalizing conservatism, but saw libertarianism--which is sometimes thought of as on the conservative spectrum, and of course it is to some extent--was dangerous. And similarly Ayn Rand viewed Buckley and the conservative rise in the 1950s and 1960s and National Review as a bad thing as well.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I mean, it was sort of a turf war. It was a battle over who gets to control this movement, and what do we call it, and what's important to it. And Rand had been kind of involved during the early war years--the late 1930s, early 1940s. And she saw Buckley and his ilk coming along. And, you know, there's this famous moment where she meets Buckley and she says, the first words out of her mouth, are, 'How can someone so intelligent still believe in God?' And, you know, it just rubs Buckley the wrong way. You know, she's kind of a high-end modernist: Bohemian, anti-religious, pro-rationality. And he's trying to bring back, you know, Catholic conservatism and religious conservatism. So, I think Buckley's perspective is: Free markets are great, but we need then to be married with more traditional ideas about virtue and restraint, because if left to themselves, you know, markets may encourage all kinds of self-destructive or selfish behavior. So we need to kind of modify that. And guilt is good. And having people worry about social norms is good. And Rand is the total opposite. You know: We need to free markets from these atavistic ideas about morality. We need to free all of ourselves from guilt. We need to move forward and pursue our own interests and fulfill our own personalities and lead the ethical life that way. And we need to create a new morality that supports that. So, they couldn't have been more opposite. And, you know, Buckley kind of took some joy in needling her. Like, he sent her these postcards; and we'd find these postcards in her archives, and he would be like, 'Hey, I saw you getting into a taxi and I waved, and you didn't wave back.' And meanwhile, she's like, 'I hate you.' Because, then he did sort of the ultimate, he had her book to review, Atlas Shrugged, and he gave it to Whittaker Chambers.

Russ Roberts: This is 1957.

Jennifer Burns: This is 1957. And, Chambers wrote this just incredible review. It's well worth re-reading today. And he basically said--so, Chambers had discovered religion and was working hand-in-hand with Buckley to bring back sort of Christian conservatism and make it a part of the fight against Russian Communism and part of the fight against domestic liberalism. And he was speaking as a veteran of these wars, as a former communist spy. All of that. And so, he takes one look at Rand, and he said, 'This is false freedom. This is false individualism. This is a totalitarianism of the right; it's a totalitarianism of reason and individualism.' And he said, basically the last line of the review is something like, 'To a gas chamber go.' Like, the message of this book is going to culminate in Fascism. I mean, it couldn't have been harsher. Rand was just outraged.

Russ Roberts: She's also Jewish by birth, so it's--it's not very tasteful, either. It's pretty horrific.

Jennifer Burns: Very tasteless review. Very tasteless review. It's interesting though that Rothbard, who had this kind of checkered relationship with Rand, when it came out he, like, peppered Chambers with these letters, saying, 'How could you write this horrible thing? You're a horrible person.' And then, like 5 years later, he's writing to Chambers again and he's like, 'Oh, my God, you were right. How did you know? How could you tell? You just read that book and you knew exactly. I went through it all; that's exactly what happened to me.' And so, you know, Chambers put his finger on something important about Rand; it also was a really intense review, very negative. And I think there's a bit of, you know, discrimination going on for Rand for kind of daring to play in these circles, as a woman wasn't particularly certified or educated or didn't have a, you know, connections in the United States--it's sort of like, 'Who are you?' Like, you know, 'You're not part of our movement. Get away.' And so, then, the kind of irony of that story is that Rand would never go away. I mean, National Review had a [?] publishing articles about her--like, every couple of years they'd have to publish an article about Ayn Rand because their readers loved her so much. So, what I was sort of showing as an historian was there's this conflict and it's never really resolved. It's just attention that's always there, and it's always being kind of worked through in different ways. And it's still around today.

48:49

Russ Roberts: It's shocking--telling that story, I was just reminded, reading in your book, that she was on The Tonight Show, I think--how many times?

Jennifer Burns: It was probably a couple of times. I don't know.

Russ Roberts: But, more than once. And, just to imagine that--it's just hard to imagine that. It reminds me--I've mentioned this before about when I've gone back to read Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech--at least I think this is the one I'm thinking of, in the 1964 Convention--and you compare it to a modern acceptance speech of a politician accepting the Presidential nomination--how much the world has changed in those 50 years is just--it's just so striking, in terms of the intellectual level and the content and the sophistication. The idea that Ayn Rand would be on The Tonight Show debating whatever she was debating, whatever she was talking about, is just--it's--there's something surreal about it now.

Jennifer Burns: She really was an intellectual celebrity. She was on the TV shows, and she was quoted in the New York Times and other places. She did college tours regularly, to overflow crowds. She was a very popular speaker on campus: She was sort of bringing that provocative viewpoint. She had speaking invitation after speaking invitation. She turned down most of them. She only did a few. And, she really was a kind of touchstone in that moment. And she still is, today. There's references to Ayn Rand on "The Simpsons," and movies--"Madman--television show. Like, this is constant. She's a constant touchstone and a certain type of--a certain personality type, a certain set of ideas, a certain moment in people's lives. A certain piece of American political culture.

50:30

Russ Roberts: I mentioned, when we started this conversation, that I had gotten less--I was enamored of her when I was a teenager intellectually, enamored of her, and then got turned off by the lack of recognition of the role that caring for others has in our lives and community and other things. But--and this 'but' is important; and I mentioned earlier her moral defense of capitalism--I think it's really important: You're an historian; I'm just speaking from my own personal perspective here--I think it's incredibly important that somebody defends the morality of freedom, and the morality of capitalism. And we've gotten so far away from that, that reading those quotes from her, it's a breath of fresh air. It reminds me of--I read a biography of Maggie Thatcher recently. And, when you read what Thatcher said about liberty, it's just so jarring because it's so out-of-step with--a politician couldn't say those things any more. And so I think it's incredibly important. And I even have sympathy for Rand's romanticization of business. But I do also think that was dangerous. I think that's unfortunate that she romanticized business, because I think she helped people become confused about capitalism and business. So, I'm pro-capitalist, but I'm not pro-business. And I think she was pro-both. And I was, I was kind of shocked by how, and I didn't know about this: when Atlas Shrugged came out, how many business people were excited about it, because it was, 'Yeah! I'm an okay guy. I'm okay! I'm a good person. It's okay to just care about profit.' And although, you know, part of me rebels a little bit about that, at the same time, I understand that, if you never defend that--if no one is out there defending that, freedom is going to have a tough time flourishing.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I mean, it's a--I do mean that there's something, this kind of core moral insight about the worth and the sort of intrinsic value and intrinsic irreplaceability of each individual person. That's really valuable. It's timeless. And it's not just in Rand, obviously. It's in, you know, most religious systems. It's in our founding documents of our country. And it's an idea more often observed in the breach. But someone does have to say: It's an ideal. And sort of stand up for it. I think, looking at Rand's oeuvre as a whole, looking at her writing and her fiction, that message can get muddied in her very fiction. You know, for all that discussion of the individual--you know, a lot of her, um--there is a lot of emphasis particularly in Atlas Shrugged, on aristocracy.

Russ Roberts: Yeah--

Jennifer Burns: Yeah, and not--and yeah, not natural aristocracy. You know, like this wonderfully talented person, although you could say John Galt is sort of an example of that. But she'll go on and on about this, you know, heir to this and that copper king them, and the long family that runs the, you know, central railroad. And these people as sort of blood aristocrats in some way. And I can understand why people read that and see it, and find it very uncomfortable. And find an uncomfortable set of messages in that. And find messages that are invariants with this sort of stated content with, you know, the individual qua-individual is only what matters.

53:39

Russ Roberts: Now, you point out that Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman, was written shortly after Atlas Shrugged, and has some, much, in common with it intellectually. I don't think Friedman particularly drew on it. But, they--let's say it this way: They mined similar themes. And, in particular, they both disliked greatly the John F. Kennedy quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country." And, you write the following : You say,

Friedman's association with the U. of Chicago and his technical work in economics insulated him against the type of attacks Rand endured. [close quote]
I'm kind of skeptical of that claim. I think Friedman was often mocked and treated with disdain, for a long, long time. Would you change that sentence now that you are working on a Friedman biography?

Jennifer Burns: Um, interesting. I think what I was getting at in that is a sort of this sort of figure of ridicule, public figure of ridicule. And I do know that there is a little more granular in Friedman [?]. There was, you know, probably a decade or so in his professional life when he was seen to have sort of turned away from the more interesting work in economics and really gone backwards. And then eventually I think he'll kind of re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with that people have to deal with even if they are still dislike his politics. So, um, I guess I'm going to put an asterisks by that right now. I still think that when Friedman sort of appeared on TV and the media, you know, he was treated as serious economist with serious ideas. And some of the coverage of Rand is just very ad hominem, attacks, how she looks, what she says, her accent--the people around her, 'We're [?], this whole thing is a joke. Oh my God, how did we get here?' Like, I don't think you see, or I haven't seen in the media that coverage of Friedman, yet. I've seen him presented, even when he's presented negatively, it's sort of a dangerous foe we have to watch out for. Not a ridiculous person that it's unbelievable people take seriously. And that's a lot of the tone of coverage of Rand in the '1960s, is really noticeable for that.

Russ Roberts: That's interesting. I think it's mainly a difference between the public, the media, and then academia. So, I think the public and the media have been respectful of Friedman, more or less, partly because of that credential he has: the fact that he was a U. of Chicago professor; eventually he has the Nobel Prize. But, among fellow academics, there was--a lot of people thought he was a kook, thought he was crazy, thought he was dangerous, and hated him for his policy positions. I'm curious how--let me rephrase this. Your views on Ayn Rand's philosophy do not come through in the book. Which is a tribute to your scholarship and your even-handedness and your role as a historian. I think you can read this book and have no idea what Jennifer Burns thinks of Ayn Rand. And, I'm not going to ask you now--you can talk about it if you want--but I'm more curious about the social aspect of it. Which is: I'm curious how your friends and family reacted to the fact that your book is pretty even-handed. Because, I suspect, like you said: there are plenty of people out there, you know and love who--a few of them don't like Ayn Rand; I bet a lot of them don't like her. And--what was their reaction to the book? And, what was the reaction academically and among historians?

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I think--well, I will take that as a compliment because, yeah--

Russ Roberts: and I meant one--

Jennifer Burns: I wanted Rand to be the center stage and not me and what I happen to think. I feel like that's less interesting. But, I think, by and large that the reception has been positive. Especially within the academic community, I would say. A lot of people were curious about Rand, and were sort of like, 'We're curious but we don't want to sit down and read all those books.' So, like, 'Whew! We can read your book, instead.' And, 'Your book is really interesting,' and like, 'Now, I feel more informed.' So, I think there was sort of that gratitude. It's very much, then, part of the convention of the field to try to understand the person and the people you are writing about. So, you know, that's the considered the mark of good history rather than to sort of pull rank on these people who were born earlier than you were and point out all the things they got wrong and all the things that, you know, we're now more enlightened about. Like, that's--you know, people critique and point out flaws and errors but try not to be too heavy-handed, so that was very much my approach. I mean, I don't think I necessarily let Rand off easy because I think I show how it worked and didn't work for her. And, she had--she sort of tested out her ideas in her life and they led her to certain places. And the object lesson to me is kind of in the events as they happened.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough. But you don't--in terms of the public policy issues, your feelings about capitalism, your feelings about government regulation, your feelings about wealth redistribution, the welfare state--I have no idea where Jennifer Burns stands after reading that book; and I think that--I take that as a compliment. Other people might view that as a negative. I don't. I think that's very--the book comes across as a very dispassionate portrait. And some of the vehemence that I felt from it is my interpretation, by the way. Not yours.

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's also--I wanted to create a space, because I had seen that bookshelf where I wanted both people to read the book; and to kind of create this like, kind of dispersive [?discursive?] space where you could be in it and not feel like you weren't allowed in the book because you already had some set of opinions that the author was going to be judging. You know? So that was very deliberate. I think--

Russ Roberts: I hope you know [?] Milton Friedman, by the way, because he's [?].

Jennifer Burns: This worked because it was a university press. And, at the same time I looked at more of a trade press; one editor told me very bluntly, 'In publishing, we're singing to the choir. You've got to figure out which choir you want to sing to and sing to that one.' And I was like, that's really not what I want to do, because I like I could write that book about Ayn Rand with my eyes closed. That's not interesting; that's not challenging; that's not hard to do. Anybody can do that. That's not what I want to do. And so, in terms of my friends and family, they were just delighted that so many people wanted to read this book, and talk about it. They thought it was really interesting. I talked to a lot of them about it. Some of them were mad because they had to read Ayn Rand--they felt obligated to read Ayn Rand while I was writing this book, so I did get a few people who were like, 'Oh my God, I read Ayn Rand because of you.' Who really didn't like that experience. But, I would say--and I also wrote the book to last. I didn't want you to pick up the book and be like, 'Oh my God, this is so 2009.' With, like, an epilogue that talks about whatever; pet policy idea everyone was obsessed with for 6 months and now is completely forgotten about. I think a good book of history should have a lot of staying power. And so that was another goal of mine.

1:00:44

Russ Roberts: One of the questions I mention about Ayn Rand that's come up a few times on this program, one of the questions I've raised at some point in the past is how it is that a book like Atlas Shrugged can continue to sell, in huge numbers--how it is that supposedly, according to Reader's Digest--which is not in your book, I noticed, at least if it is, I missed it--according to a Reader's Digest poll, it's the Number Two most influential book in people's lives after the Bible. Ironic. And yet, we don't live in a very Randian world. And one of the answers to that, one of my answers has always been: Well, people didn't--some people liked the capitalist part and the celebration of free markets and the economic freedom. But what people really liked, what really spoke to them and the reason it has this staying power is the emphasis on, I would call it, the will to happiness. The will to control your life. The idea that you can be strong and step out of the crowd--stand on two feet at the top of the mountain; ideally controlling fire at your fingertips while you're smoking your cigarette--

Jennifer Burns: Right--

Russ Roberts: and a lot of her set pieces have this romanticization of smoking. Which is weird. But, at any rate, putting that little part to the side, this idea that somehow you can control your destiny. And I think that's what--my idea has always been that that's what spoke deepest to people. What do you think is the reason that it's been so successful and yet not had that big an impact, I would say, on policy?

Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I think everything you say is true. You have to kind of--I focused a lot on the political aspects of it just because I thought that hadn't[?] really been looked at--there's an apolitical piece that speaks to all those themes about self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-recognition, self-cultivation, and that's really powerful. If the policy hasn't changed, the politics at least have: that, there's a fairly robust multi-layered, multi-strain conservative movement out there, most of which is critical of what they say is liberalism or statism. And, Rand has funneled people into that, for decades. I think she's maybe less now--I'm not sure; kind of the jury is still out; I wrote something for the Washington Post about that called "Ayn Rand Is Dead," like wondering what she's doing in the current political environment. I think that's a little unclear. But, you know, she's set people's minds in a certain way. She's opened their reading list to people who might not consider; and if the policy hasn't changed yet, at least we're in an environment where people talk about it. And that conversation has been going on for quite some time. I don't know if it takes--I don't know what it takes to move the policy more in those anti-government directions; and it may also be--the other thing is--the bigger the government gets or the more people object to it, the more popular it is to read about criticisms of the government, because the more evident it is in people's lives. And it's like it's more of a target. Right? So, they could also be related: the failure of the policies she promotes and the popularity of reading about it, how great it will be when they succeed--those could be related.



COMMENTS (79 to date)
Nonlin_org writes:

Interesting and unbiased discussion, thanks.

Amazing how bad ideas get perpetuated ad infinitum:

1. Reason. Reason is not objective like Logic which is just part of Reason along with the much more subjective Framing (Fact Selection, Assumptions and Results Interpretation). There is no “Reason” but billions of Reasons each belonging to one particular human – two or more persons reasoning about the same Observable, usually reach different conclusions. Individual Reasons are built from individual Observations and Beliefs. More... Mouthpiece of libertarians is also called "Reason" and that goes a long way to explain why libertarians are irrelevant overall. Also note the Reason bloodfest also known as the French Revolution (why the French celebrate what they should be ashamed of is beyond understanding).

2. Atheism. Note theism-atheism. Does it ring an etymological bell? Can you recognize that both belong in the same family? Either religions or philosophies.

3. Selfishness. We got way too many examples that selfishness is bad. Did Rand not learned any of those? Or is this a characteristic of the young and not too bright?

4. 'Kindergarten of Communism'. Christianity is about giving, while communism about taking. How hard can this be?

Texas Red writes:

At about 39 minutes, Roberts mentioned that Hayek thought that it was a mistake to extend the ethics of the family (Love your neighbor as yourself.) to the extended order. It leads to socialism. But isn't Hayek mistaken about this?

The family is a voluntary association, and it works well as long as the members continue to extend that voluntary, selfless care toward others. I see no problem in extending this morality to the larger order. It leads to a voluntary system of charity. The slippery slope toward socialism begins with the idea of *coercing* others to contribute toward charity, but I don't see how this is an aspect of the ethics of the family.

Perhaps I have misunderstood the reference to Hayek's work.

Russ Roberts writes:

Texas Red,

I sympathize with your basic point--the potential for voluntary organizations to help others and I think Hayek would certainly favor those efforts.

I think what Hayek was worried about was the challenge of treating strangers who we know little about as we do our family members. Here is Hayek's quote from his book, The Fatal Conceit:

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within the different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.
jc writes:

RE: Nonlin_org

“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

Acts 2:44-45

I don’t know where she got the idea that Christianity was a playground for communism ;-)

She believed a person had a right to their own life. Does your life belong to you, God or the State? Christian theology suggests that your possessions are not your own. Everything you have belongs to God and is given by God. Naturally a philosophy focused on individualism is going to be opposed to anything that makes the individual subject to some other power.


Interesting that Russ talked to the blogger formally known as Jane Galt last week and a biographer of Rand this week.

Dr Golabki writes:

Interesting podcast.

First I'll disclose that I've read a bunch of Ayn Rand's fiction and enjoyed it. And I've read a little of Ayn Rand's philosophy and found it to be not very enjoyable and not really worth reading in a universe where I could be reading Robert Nozick instead.

Towards the end Russ raised the issue of people liking these books really for their theme of finding power within yourself to change your world, as opposed to a deep belief in rationale egoism. I think this is totally right.

It strikes me that this is also a central theme in Star Wars, The Hunger Games and basically all dystopian teen literature. So it's probably not surprising that, as Jennifer pointed out, teenagers love Ayn Rand. Like in all these stories Rand's universe is bleak, her main characters are "special" (but don't know the full extent of that specialness at the beginning), and her readers get to pour themselves into these "special" characters and experience their growing realization of their own pour.

But there's an extra rhetorical trick that Rand pulls that I think is the key reason why Rand is still so beloved by some. Because the "specialness" of her characters is tied to her political philosophy, the reader is led to believe that by liking her main characters and liking that, for example, John Gault has an invitation only club of special people... that is basically enough to make you part of the special group yourself. If you finish Atlas Shrugged and are totally bought in it kinda feels like you got John Gault's invitation.

I loved Star Wars as a child, but even as a child I knew that loving Luke Skywalker didn't mean I had "the force". Ayn Rand very very successfully blurs that line.

Michael Byrnes writes:

This was a great episode - the discussion touched on a number of Ayn Rand-related thoughts I have had over the years.

1. One of the big problems with Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness" is not her argument itself, but rather the corrupted version of her argument. To me, the corrupt version of Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness" is Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good".

Rand defined "selfishness" in a way that is different from how the term is typically used. To her, selfishness was "I want what it rightfully mine." But, in today's usage, selfishness is often used in a way that means "wanting what ISN'T rightfully yours". Not always - if Hank Rearden were alive today he would be called selfish as a pejorative - but often.

I think this leads to people talking past each other. I think Rand would have been very much against lots of behaviors that would be described as 'selfish' today (Gordon Gekko type stuff), while also being very much in favor of other behaviors that would also be called 'selfish' today (Hank Rearden type stuff). This leads to Rand acolytes and Rand opponents talking past each other.

2. The Rand vs Hayek, pro-business vs pro-market discussion was my favorite part of the podcast. It seems clear that her theory was that wealth derived from the great businessmen - Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Howard Rourke - bringing forward great inventions, and innovations. Rearden Metal was a product of Hank Rearden's brilliance. In her books, she does have some characters who are not her sympathetic but ordinary characters did not fare very well in the end (eg, Eddie Willers, James Taggart's wife, Hank Rearden's 'wet nurse'). In this sense, she seemed to have a very top-down view of wealth creation. Not top down in the sense of a central government, of course. But to her a free market system was necessary to allow the Hank Reardens and Dagny Taggarts to do their great works which would ultimately work to everyone's benefit.

The contrasting view would be a more bottom up, consumer-centric system. Free markets allow consumers to express their preferences and desires, thus providing valuable feedback to the creators and producers.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Michael Byrnes

On your point "1":
The rubber meets the road when you try to define "rightful". I think a lot of Goldman Sacs execs would say they "rightfully" earn their money and shouldn't be taxed nearly as much as they are. While Russ Roberts might say, they didn't "rightfully" earn nearly as much as they think because a lot of what they are doing is actually rent seeking. On the other hand, a liberal might argue that the government should "rightfully" pay for my healthcare because that's part of a basic quality of life, which is a human right. While Russ Roberts might say, that's not a right, that's illegitimate appropriation by the government. (Russ - sorry for using you as an example here, but you are the alpha and omega of this world. Hope I was fair).

On your point "2":
I agree that the "business hero" is a big problem, not just in Ayn Rand's writing, but in pretty much all business writing. In fiction there are an awful lot of CEOs that are searing geniuses who single handedly invent 50 different things that are all major breakthroughs, a century ahead of their time. Not a lot of those people in the real world. Even in non-fiction... the recipe for a Business Week feature is to take "hot" company. Find the "hottest" person at that company. Then attribute all success from luck and everyone at the company to the genius of that one person. It's not great.

jc writes:

One part of the episode I am not sure about. Did Rand love the aristocracy?

I thought the point of the character(s) that had inherited money like Fransisco is that they had to earn the company that under different circumstances they would have just inherited. It seemed like she took great pains to build them up as worthy.

It's been awhile since I read the book but is that a fair understanding?

Trent writes:

A very interesting podcast, especially because I recently finished Ayn Rand's book "We The Living" that's considered a tad autobiographical because the main character is a teenage girl and the setting is the post-revolution Soviet Union. She paints an excellent picture of the horrors of communism and the loss of individual freedom via her characters - and it seems very realistic (hence the autobiographical claims).

I enjoyed your discussion - about Rand's career, about her philosophy, and the specific discussions regarding Rand and Hayek, Rand and Friedman, etc. Maybe a future podcast focusing solely on one of her books - a pseudo book club on, say, "Atlas Shrugged?"

SaveyourSelf writes:

@ ~ 27:10 Jennifer Burns said, "you could do this with your free choice [charity]. But, the important thing is the free choice, not that your free choices are to help other people.' And, you know, that was what, I think, people really disliked about her: is that she downplayed all that and she didn't think there was a role for that type of moral encouragement. Now, I think that she was deliberate about that. Part of it was having grown up in Russia and having been subject to propaganda. She felt there were ways that political leaders could use propaganda and persuasion, and those were inappropriate; and the state certainly shouldn't be doing that, and political leaders shouldn't be doing that. She also came to believe that Christian morals were, as she put it, the 'kindergarten of Communism.'"

If this was, indeed, Rand's argument, I can see no flaw in it except that Christian morals are also the kindergarten of Capitalism.
@ 32:00 Jennifer Burns said, “she actually thought they were Communists, and that this was a Communist plot to like make a fake argument about free market economics, because, in addition to using this rationing language, this was a moment in time when Friedman and Stigler were still talking about social equality and how that was important to them. Later, that theme really disappears in their work. But, it was pretty strong in the post-War moment.”
Rand was right on this point as well. Everything I’ve read about Friedman and Hayek indicates they both knew of this weakness in their models and even that it was, in fact, a weakness, but they both kept some socialism in their agendas. Probably to make their radical ideas appeal to more moderates and probably, also, to satisfy their families and childhood “moral” upbringing.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Texas Red wrote, “The family is a voluntary association, and it works well as long as the members continue to extend that voluntary, selfless care toward others.”

Unless you’re a child in the family.
Michael Byrnes said, “Rand defined "selfishness" in a way that is different from how the term is typically used. To her, selfishness was "I want what it rightfully mine." But, in today's usage, selfishness is often used in a way that means "wanting what ISN'T rightfully yours"
Brilliant point. She’s not talking about greed. She’s talking about original property rights.
Michael Byrnes said, “It seems clear that her theory was that wealth derived from the great businessmen - Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Howard Rourke - bringing forward great inventions, and innovations.”
I think you've captured it beautifully. She’s arguing that ALL initial property rights belong to the creator--the person who shaped the property.

Michael Byrnes writes:

SaveYourSelf wrote:

I think you've captured it beautifully. She’s arguing that ALL initial property rights belong to the creator--the person who shaped the property.

This was not my point though. More that she (in relative terms) overstates the importance of the great inventor and (relatively) understates the importance of markets, local knowledge, consumer preferences.

Nonlin_org writes:

@jc
"“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

Acts 2:44-45"

If Rand got triggered against Christianity by this or similar passages, then her reading comprehension was abysmal - something beyond repair at this point.

It's sad that some don't understand the very simple difference between Religious sharing - an act of Love, and Socialist taking by force - an act of Hate. No wonder atheism is the Communist state religion.

Danan Sa writes:

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Eric writes:
Jennifer Burns: ... She also came to believe that Christian morals were, as she put it, the 'kindergarten of Communism.' That it was Christianity that taught people it's right to care about others, to be your brother's keeper; and that once people believed those sets of actions were moral, they could be the victim of a political leader or a statist system that said, 'I'm doing this for other people. It's the right thing to do.' And, if you'd already agreed that was true, you didn't have any ground to stand on to object.

Rand was incorrect. Quite the opposite is true.

When Christians or Jews acknowledge commandments to love, these are grounded upon the Creator's intention for how humans are meant to behave based on an individual's choices coming from their character -- a character intended to reflect the image and likeness of the Creator's inherent, non-contingent nature.

Any act coming out of coercion fails to fulfill that goal.
Any act done from else's choice or by some other system fails to fulfill that goal for an individual's life.

In the case of "a political leader or a statist system that said, 'I'm doing this for other people. It's the right thing to do.'", that doesn't achieve the goal or intention that each individual should make choices to voluntarily sacrifice for the sake of others out of their own love.

Replacing voluntary choice with coercion or some system would be like having a robot do your aerobics workout on your behalf. It completely misses the point and defeats the central purpose of the commands given to individuals to love God and love others.

In fact, the severe problem in this regard attaches to Rand's atheism. It is Rand who doesn't "have any ground to stand on to object".

By asserting atheism, she has lost any basis for claiming that any system of morality is objectively superior morally to any other system.

She wants system R, but "a political leader or a statist system" wants system S. She can say that S doesn't follow from her assumptions in her system R, but so what? Her system R doesn't follow from the assumptions of system S.

Except by arbitrarily assuming R is morally superior (i.e. begging the question) or entering some more round about circular argument, she has no basis at all for saying system R is morally superior to system S or T or U or any other system.

In an atheistic framework, any invented moral system is a contingent moral system. There is no objective/intrinsic/inherent moral framework by which to say any particular system is morally superior to any other at all.

This derives directly from the fact that in the atheistic framework where humanity is an accident rather than intentioned, it becomes nonsense to claim that there is any particular way humans are meant to behave. There would be no independent moral standard for how humans ought to behave. All actual humans behaviors and systems could make equivalent claims to moral standing, which is also to say that all such claims are empty.

Greg G writes:

I am no Ayn Rand fan so I am delighted to see so many people calling attention to the fact that she was very insistent on rejecting any and every follower who did not share her atheism.

But I am quite amused to see commenters horrified by the level of coercion inherent in modern constitutional democracies who see no coercion problems in Christianity.

What could possibly be more coercive than threatening believers with eternal damnation to the tortures of hell? That seems a whole lot more coercive to me than limited time in an earthly jail. That really is the ultimate in a coercive threat. How "voluntary" is my choice if I believe it to be made under threat of burning in hell if I make the wrong choice?

Religious systems do not in any way escape the circularity that Eric thinks they do in attempting to establish an "objective/intrinsic/inherent moral framework." Religious beliefs are grounded in faith not logical or scientific proofs. Simply asserting a tautology about "objective/intrinsic/inherent" moral grounding doesn't add anything but a demonstration of enthusiasm on your part.

Humans do not have direct access to "objective " knowledge. Our knowledge comes from perceptions and reasoning vulnerable to many errors. This is just how we would expect it to work if it was the result of natural selection making the most of the limited options it had to work with in an economical way with a lot of compromises between efficiency and cost. A perfect and all powerful creator could have made both our perceptions and our reasoning a lot more reliable. He wouldn't really have even had to be perfect to do that. Just a little more skillful.

An example of such logical fallacies is the idea that - in the absence of a personal God - all value systems must have equal value. That doesn't follow. It's a false dichotomy.

Just because I can't prove that my value system has some metaphysical grounding doesn't mean you can prove it doesn't. I believe that actions that reduce human suffering have more value than actions that increase human suffering even in the absence of a personal God. I can't prove that's objectively true and you can't prove it's objectively false. I don't really care whether or not you want to say it's "independent." It's not "independent"of humans and it wouldn't be the appropriate value system for humans if it was.

By the way, I thought both the book and the podcast were superb. I read the book soon after it came out but, as always, learned more thanks to Russ's interviewing skills.

Chris writes:

I really enjoyed this episode. I knew a lot about Rand already, but still found it very insightful. I hope you will have her back when her Milton Friedman book comes out. I know very little about him and would be interested in that topic. Thanks!

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric

I'm a bit confused by your claim. Are you saying that Rand's moral philosophy would be less "arbitrary" if she had said she was a prophet and God wanted us all to be rationale egoists?

SaveyourSelf writes:

Michael Byrnes wrote, “This was not my point though. More that she (in relative terms) overstates the importance of the great inventor and (relatively) understates the importance of markets, local knowledge, consumer preferences.”

Michael. The above statement is mistaken. It is not possible to overstate the importance of original property rights. The reason for its oversized importance was unknown to me until moments ago when I considered your assertion. Here’s my epiphany:

Consumer preferences communicated to producers in a market are a…lets called it, second or third order effect of a market. Communication of knowledge is a wonderful thing, no disagreement there, but the market has to be present first before prices and unrestrained communication can occur. What are the first order market principles? Answer: The foundation--rules--required for a market to exist. They are: 1) Justice:

“Justice...is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society, that fabric which to raise and support seems in this world, if I may say so, to have been the peculiar and darling care of Nature, must in a moment crumble into atoms.” [Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments: II.II.18]
2) Original Property Rights.
Why is this second? Because the definition of what constitutes Justice changes based on your understanding of individual property rights. For example. Hank Rearden invents a new metal. If he owns 100% of the original property rights for the invention, then anyone, including the government, who takes any of it in any way other than voluntary trade, has robbed him. They have committed injustice. They have, by definition, harmed him and all of society in the taking. If, on the other hand, he only owns sixty six percent of the invention and the other thirty four percent is the property of others—pick your favorite interest group: Old people, retired people, children, churches, sugar producers, corn producers, poor people, not working people, government employees…etc—then Justice is not violated when up to thirty four percent of his earnings from the invention are taken through means outside of voluntary exchange. Importantly, “taken through means outside of voluntary exchange” is not a market transaction.
In other words, the extent that a market can exist at all is limited by the accepted definition of original property rights. Thus Rand was not overstating the importance of the inventor over the importance of markets, local knowledge, and consumer preferences. She recognized, apparently, the primacy of Justice and original property rights in the establishment and maintenance of markets in the first place. No wonder she dismissed detractors out of hand. She was playing with trump cards. They were playing with a normal deck.

Ohad writes:

Great podcast, I enjoyed it very much!
Every time Hayek get's mentioned, I can be sure it's worth it to listen up to the end.
I was Right again.

thank you.

Szymon Moldenhawer writes:

Delightful banter. Very informative keep them coming Russ!

Right on the money and helped to me to understand better a group of my friends who belong to the “Little Ayn Rand Church “ here in Atlanta.
PS. I may print a little prayer card with her face and start present as a gift to the believers.

Dr Golabki writes:

@SaveyourSelf
While property rights are certainly necessarily to any functioning society, and I certainly agree markets cannot exist without property rights, property rights alone aren't sufficient. If I "own" a piece of gold, but I'm separated from the rest of society and can't access any markets... my property right doesn't do me much good.

On Rearden inventing a new metal -
Invention's are ideas, and as such they are a place where property rights get a bit fuzzy. In Rand's fiction this is simple. There are two types of people: brilliant hardworking genius that want to create, and stupid lazy leaches that want nothing but to take. So of course it's a horrible crime when Reardon's invention is appropriated. In the real world thought, the CEO of a large company would almost certainly have approximately nothing to do with actual innovation, and the invention itself would almost certainly be an incremental improvement on other peoples past ideas, and if those past ideas were still patented it could well block the new invention. Point is, it's possible to have too much property rights.

Put another way, we're all much richer because we can talk about Adam Smith's ideas without paying his estate.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Dr Golabki wrote:
“While property rights are certainly necessarily to any functioning society… property rights alone aren't sufficient.”

True. Justice is also required. Other foundation elements likely include: a constitution that specifies how the society will choose, who can enter and leave the society, and how decision rules can be changed. (Michael and Kevin Munger in “Choosing in Groups” page 29). There may be other foundational requirements. None of this contradicts my point.
”If I "own" a piece of gold, but I'm separated from the rest of society and can't access any markets... my property right doesn't do me much good.
Correct. If you are alone on a desert island, how to build an ideal society is irrelevant and meaningless. This, also, does not contradict my point.
“Invention's are ideas, and as such they are a place where property rights get a bit fuzzy.”
You’re thinking too small. Broaden the definition of invention to include words like “production” and “creation”. For example, Reardon sells a chunk of metal to Joe. Joe owns 100% of the property rights on that chunk of metal purchased through voluntary exchange. Next, Joe shapes the metal to a hood ornament. The hood ornament is a new creation. It did not exist before. It was a chunk of metal before. Who owns the original property rights on the new thing? Since the answer to that question is a foundational rule of the society, the way it is answered predicts the eventual form the society can and will take. And, so far as I can tell, any answer other than 100% ownership to the creator, sets a hard limit on how much the society can function as a market.
“In Rand's fiction this is simple. There are two types of people: brilliant hardworking genius that want to create, and stupid lazy leaches that want nothing but to take.”
I think this is a weakness in Rand’s work, that she made it so easy see the motives of the characters yet so easy to miss the different stand on property rights each represents.
“So of course it's a horrible crime when Reardon's invention is appropriated.”
Only if you think markets are a better rationing solution than anything else.
“In the real world thought, the CEO of a large company would almost certainly have approximately nothing to do with actual innovation, and the invention itself would almost certainly be an incremental improvement on other peoples past ideas.”
Again, incremental improvement is a new creation.
“Point is, it's possible to have too much property rights.”
This is a nonsense statement. It is not possible to have over 100% of a thing. Perhaps you meant, ‘some answers to the question of original property rights produce better outcomes than others.’

Eric writes:
Dr Golabki: "Are you saying that Rand's moral philosophy would be less "arbitrary" if she had said she was a prophet and God wanted us all to be rationale egoists?"

Thanks for the question. No, that would not be correct.

The first and most superficial problem is that saying that something is so is only a claim. It doesn't make it so.

Suppose we changed the scenario to be, "Zeus, in fact, commanded that everyone should be rational egoists (with or without help from Rand)." That still doesn't work. It only exposes some of the deeper problems.

Zeus is an example of a contingent deity -- a "god" with a beginning. Since he comes into existence, he is contingent, not necessary. Other similarly contingent "gods" could be different from Zeus and could issue different commands. None of those "gods" or commands escape the contingency problem.

Suppose we changed the scenario in any way, but left the existence and nature of humanity to be an unintended accident. This too fails to escape the contingency problem. There would be no essential or inherent way that humans are meant to behave as distinct from however they actually happen to behave. Any actual pattern of behavior could make an equivalent claim to being "good" or "moral", which is also to say that all systems of moral claims would be equivalently empty of real meaning.

The only scenario that escapes this problem is one that combines certain elements.

1. There is a personal uncreated Creator with an essential (i.e. necessary, not contingent, not arbitrary) existence and nature.

2. Humans are intentionally created, which gives objective meaning to the concept that there is a way that humans are meant to behave (which can exist independently of how humans actually behave).

3. The intended behavior for humans is based on reflecting certain aspects of the essential nature of the uncreated Creator.

That combination means that true right and wrong for humans is real and not an arbitrary invention. Because of that, some moral systems can be morally superior to others as they come closer to expressing the true nature of right and wrong for humans.

Without that, there would be no "up" or "down" when comparing moral systems. Rand has no "ground to stand on to object" to anyone else's moral system.

John Smith writes:

Russ,

Like many commentators, I read Rand's two big novels as a teenager and the rest of her work in my twenties. I never liked her writing style or her message but could sense the underlying themes of self-reliance and concomitant dangers of benign appropriation were important components of a young man's ethical makeup.

Even then, it struck me as passingly hypocritical that Ayn demanded near anarchic autonomy while hectoring her readers (and characters) on the "right" way to live, act, feel, love, live, work...even rebel. Roark had the right to build the buildings he wanted, but the "poor saps" did not have the right to reject them for the reasons they chose (dreaded social conformity).

One note, Ayn was not "raised under communism". Until the age of 12, she was a wealthy society girl with the best the Russian bourgeoisie had to offer. Her terrific life was stripped by the communists and Ms. Rand had every reason to resent the political system that laid her family low...but she was not raised by or under Bolsheviks.

Ms. Burns talks about the difference between Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand's reception, implying there are wider social forces (sexism) at work. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Friedman was a Nobel prize winning scholar, and profoundly talented academic economist while Rand, for all her intellect, was essentially a glorified (and self glorifying) script-writer. A heavy handed, deliberately provocative, pontificating one at that. When you make broad assertions based on ZERO analysis or empirical study, expect to be treated less seriously then the peer-reviewed Ivy League academic.

Anyone growing up around speed freaks can easily see the depredations of its abuse in Ayn's later behavior. Feelings of increased alertness, excitement, restlessness, unrealistic sense of power, aggression, etc. Even her heavy cigarette usage can be traced to her drug dependence.

Eric writes:
Greg G: "An example of such logical fallacies is the idea that - in the absence of a personal God - all value systems must have equal value. That doesn't follow. It's a false dichotomy."

If you read my response to Dr Golabki, you will find that your description is missing some essential distinctions. Zeus could be considered a "personal god", but I explain why that still doesn't work.

Greg G: "Just because I can't prove that my value system has some metaphysical grounding doesn't mean you can prove it doesn't. I believe that actions that reduce human suffering have more value than actions that increase human suffering even in the absence of a personal God. I can't prove that's objectively true and you can't prove it's objectively false. I don't really care whether or not you want to say it's "independent." It's not "independent"of humans and it wouldn't be the appropriate value system for humans if it was."

You haven't yet come to the real problem.

It's isn't a matter of proving this moral system true or that one false. The problem wouldn't be that some are true while others are false.

The problem wouldn't be that some moral systems are right while other moral systems are wrong.

The problem wouldn't even be the problem of "how to know" which is right or wrong (i.e. the issue of epistemology). The problem of "knowing" true knowledge about something only applies if that something truly exists.

If no objective moral frame of reference exists, then it would be not possible for any moral system -- yours, mine, or anyone else's -- to be morally superior to any other moral system.

The problem would be that every moral system would be "not even wrong" (cf. search on that). All claims about moral superiority would be rendered empty.

Nor could you or anyone escape by appealing to science or to natural selection. Every behavior that exists has survived the influence of natural selection. Darwinian evolution never says that any expressed way of living is "wrong". In fact, it presupposes that even something that is rare at one time might later become common at another time. Furthermore, what exists now might become extinct at another time and yet might possibly appear again at another time.

Nothing in any of that gives us any basis for saying that any existing human behavior is morally "wrong". Various serious evolutionary thinkers (who are willing to be frank) have acknowledged this.

Every moral system would then devolve into competing, "I prefer this over that" claims.

Dr Golabki writes:

@SaveyourSelf

Reardon sells a chunk of metal to Joe. Joe owns 100% of the property rights on that chunk of metal purchased through voluntary exchange. Next, Joe shapes the metal to a hood ornament. The hood ornament is a new creation. It did not exist before. It was a chunk of metal before. Who owns the original property rights on the new thing? Since the answer to that question is a foundational rule of the society, the way it is answered predicts the eventual form the society can and will take. And, so far as I can tell, any answer other than 100% ownership to the creator, sets a hard limit on how much the society can function as a market.

What if instead of making a hood ornament, Joe reverse engineers the new metal Reardon invented, and starts making the metal himself to undercut Reardon? Is that just Joe exercising his "100%" property right?

SaveyourSelf writes:

Dr. Golabki wrote, "What if instead of making a hood ornament, Joe reverse engineers the new metal Reardon invented, and starts making the metal himself to undercut Reardon? Is that just Joe exercising his "100%" property right?"

  • A fair question, phrased well. The answer depends on the groups' answer to the question of original property rights, which may include--but does not have to include--an additional sub-category called, 'intellectual property.' Including intellectual property rights in the discussion does not change my position, it mearly makes it more complicated because we have to also ask, "when Joe purchased the chunk of metal through voluntary exchange, what was he actually buying and what was Reardon actually selling."
  • So far as I can tell, intellectual property rights is an enormous and complicated body of thought in which I claim no special understanding. For my purposes and for the purposes of your question, it is enough to say intellectual property rights are a sub category of original property rights.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric

While the will of a supreme, eternal creator is one objective standard that you could use to escape moral relativism and judge moral systems (assuming you knew something about that creators will), I don't think it's the only one.

Other's include:
Reason - this is what Ayn was trying to do
Societal evolution - the best moral system is the one that makes it most likely for a society to survive and grow
Biological - the best morality is the one that most aligns with human flourishing in accordance with what we know about human biology/phycology

Back to my original questions, it strikes me that there could be an Ayn Rand like person that's a monotheist (we'll call her ARMT). ARMT would share all Rand's beliefs about rationale egoism, but also would believe that these insights were the inspiration of a supreme creator (who meets 3 elements you site). It seems like you are saying that ARMT would be more credible than Rand in some way. That seems odd.

Dr Golabki writes:

@SaveyourSelf
I think we agree then. My point was only that determining what full property rights actually means is non-trivial, particularly for intellectual property.

I'd also say, once you've acknowledge that full property rights are actually not a simple, easily defined thing, but rather are complicated and dependent on a given cultures rules, it opens lots of doors. A liberal might defend the of government programs via property rights. The people making the most in a market system benefit massively from having a well functioning market and broader society, which requires the consent of the other people in society. Given that, shouldn't everyone get a small bit of the property rights of everything (taxes) for being a consenting member of a well functioning market society? In fact, without that small bit (arguably) you limit the market because people will be less willing to participate. Would you agree with that line of thinking?

Texas Red writes:

Russ Roberts, thank you for the helpful reply. I am a huge fan of your work!

SaveyourSelf, you are quite correct to point out that children do not voluntarily enter into families. I think this is a fascinating area of political philosophy, and it is not commonly discussed in libertarian circles. Protecting children from abusive parents is a necessary -- and necessarily intrusive -- function of the state. How can we adequately protect children while maintaining a certain level of privacy in the home? I'm still workin' on that one...

Eric writes:
Dr Golabki: "Back to my original questions, it strikes me that there could be an Ayn Rand like person that's a monotheist (we'll call her ARMT). ARMT would share all Rand's beliefs about rationale egoism, but also would believe that these insights were the inspiration of a supreme creator (who meets 3 elements you site). It seems like you are saying that ARMT would be more credible than Rand in some way. That seems odd."

That seems odd in part because it is not what I'm saying.

There is a common confusion that causes trouble for many, namely the mixing of
- questions about ontology (e.g. the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality), and
- questions of epistemology (i.e. how do we "know" about what is so).

Consider two very different kinds of problems.

PROBLEM #1: What is the distance between the north pole and the south pole?

There are challenges about that question that have to do with "how can you know the answer?" The answer exists, but how do we know?

At one time in history this would have been considerably more difficult. At least by the time of Columbus, people were estimating the circumference of the earth. (His estimate was too small.) Now we have ways to be more accurate.

You mentioned, "assuming you knew something about that creators will". That is a question of knowing. It's in the category of #1.

PROBLEM #2: What is the distance between the east pole and the west pole?

This isn't merely a problem of knowing. The very terms are confused and the question ultimately becomes meaningless and without a real answer because there is no such thing as "the east pole" or "the west pole". No true solution is possible because the distance between nonexistent objects is without meaning.

If reality were such that there was no objectively true way that humans are meant to behave, then trying to invent a system of morality is very much in the category of trying to define a distance between the east pole and the west pole. It becomes a vain and empty pursuit.

Dr Golabki: "I don't think it's the only one.

Other's include:
Reason - this is what Ayn was trying to do
Societal evolution - the best moral system is the one that makes it most likely for a society to survive and grow
Biological - the best morality is the one that most aligns with human flourishing in accordance with what we know about human biology/phycology"

First, with regard to "Reason", reason is useless on its own. It must have premises to work with. It cannot accomplish anything at all apart from that and if the assumptions are faulty, the conclusions of "Reason" can still be faulty.

Second, it is impossible to draw a moral conclusion from scientific facts alone. No conclusion of "ought" can be made from a list of merely "is" premises, no matter how long. To get "ought" in the conclusion, it must be in the premises as well. Science doesn't provide that.

Third, notice that such methods do not lead to a single answer. Rather they point in many potentially conflicting directions. I never said that people couldn't create moral systems. They can and have created a great many of them.

The question is whether any devised/invented moral system can legitimately claim to being morally superior to any other.

Try it with the set you provided. How would you justify saying one is more morally correct or true compared to another (without begging the question by circular reasoning)? How do you measure which one is "closer" to moral truth -- unless moral truth objectively exists against which it would be even possible to measure them?

Eric writes:

Open Ethical Challenge: Atheist Ayn Rand vs. the Atheist Communists

First, thanks to John Smith for reminding us about this part.

Jennifer Burns: ... And she just thought ... that you had to talk about the ethics of it. And I think that comes, you know, more than anything, from her experience in Russia. So, she was born, you know, sort of bourgeois Russian family, Russian Jewish family. And they were, she was about 12, when the Russian Revolution unfolded around her. And her family's livelihood was basically taken by the state. Confiscated. And she just thought that was the sort of ethical corruption and rot at the core of the modern world. That, you could say, 'Somebody needs this more than you; I'm going to take it.' Or, 'You don't really own this; this isn't really yours; I'm going to take it.' And it was--to her, she kind of drilled down to thought was going on. And it was, to her, a group of people, The Collective, being placed against one person, the individual. And so, that was the essence of it. And the reason that capitalism--was, she called it the best moral and social system--was that it was it was built on the rights of the individual.

Both Ayn Rand and the Communists were atheists. Neither assumed the existence of any god.

Each had their own system concerning what was right to do and what was wrong to do. Each system contained within itself its own justifications for its own conclusions. If you accept the assumptions of either system, one can reason to the conclusions of that system. Each system is the result of assumptions plus reason.

Yet the two systems arrive at clearly incompatible conclusions. At best, they cannot both be right. They could both be wrong. At worst, moral claims built on such systems could be "not even wrong".

The Challenge:

For the sake of discussion, start from within an atheistic framework.

Part One: Is it meaningful to claim that either system is "closer" to the moral truth about how humans ought to behave? Is that even a meaningful concept within that framework? Does such a moral truth even exist within that framework? (Or is it like talking about an "east pole" or a "west pole"?)

Part Two: Without begging the question (i.e. assuming the assumptions of one are right and therefore finding out that it is right) and without any circular reasoning, is there a way from within an atheistic framework to derive the conclusion that either system is in fact closer to the moral truth about how humans ought to behave?

Alternate Part Two: If the atheist framework makes it meaningless to talk of an objective moral truth about how humans ought to behave, then how does Ayn Rand "have any ground to stand on to object" when the Communists implement their system based on their reasoning from their assumptions? How is her "ground" in any way morally superior to their "ground"?

Greg G writes:

Eric,

You are working awfully hard to solve an imaginary problem with an imaginary solution.

I happily admit that I choose my values just as you choose your religion and the values that go with it. There is more than one religion that meets your requirements for "objective" grounding. Lots of them claim to be the one true religion worshiping the uncreated creator. You prefer the one you prefer over the competing religions. I prefer my value system over competing value systems.

I happen to believe that human suffering is real. Or "objectively" real if that is somehow different. ( I'm not sure I could tell you what the difference is between real and objectively real except the one is presented with more drama.) Would you have us believe that human suffering is not "objectively" real? It is possible to build a value system around that reality that makes non-arbitrary judgments about moral decisions based on the principle that increasing human suffering is bad and decreasing human suffering is good.

No doubt you may find this all morally unsatisfying. I see no evidence "objective" or otherwise that the universe is required to be satisfying to you or anyone else.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Dr Golabki wrote,
“My point was only that determining what full property rights actually means is non-trivial, particularly for intellectual property.”

It can be made complicated. It does not have to be complicated, at least in the main. That said, I recall Richard Epstein talking about grey areas at the margin in one of his books, which supports your position at least to some degree.
“I'd also say, once you've acknowledge that full property rights are actually not a simple, easily defined thing, but rather are complicated and dependent on a given cultures rules, it opens lots of doors.”
“cultures rules,” in this case, is the definition of original property rights determined by a group. Whether property rights are simple or complicated does not have any bearing on the argument at hand which is: "any original property rights not attributed to producers are rationed through non-market means, which produces a hard cap on the resources that can be effectively rationed through markets. Since markets are, by far, the most efficient (Pareto efficient) rationing tool known to man, any rationing outside of markets is less efficient, probably MUCH less efficient. Additionally, according to this podcast, non-market rationing may also be less moral than market rationing. Unfortunately, I am not well versed in the moral arguments so I cannot say for sure.
“The people making the most in a market system benefit massively from having a well functioning market and broader society, which requires the consent of the other people in society.”
You are setting up the scenario for rent seeking by reversing the order of causality.
“Given that, shouldn't everyone get a small bit of the property rights of everything (taxes) for being a consenting member of a well functioning market society?”
And in the very next sentence you propose the rent seeking. Congratulations. You’ve proven Rand's thesis.

Butler T. Reynolds writes:

Another great episode. While none of this information was new to me, it is good to hear Rand's ideas discussed thoughtfully.

Jennifer Burns: "And guilt is good. And having people worry about social norms is good. And Rand is the total opposite. You know: We need to free markets from these atavistic ideas about morality. We need to free all of ourselves from guilt."

Rand absolutely did not say that one should not experience guilt. What she did not accept was unearned guilt. This is an important distinction that I'm surprised Burns glossed over.

Original Sin is the oldest example. That one is automatically guilty for being wealthy or successful still plagues our culture. Should westerners feel guilty for using so much energy per capita while people are stuck in poverty in Africa? Should someone feel guilty about inheriting honestly earned wealth? Should you feel guilty about spending your money on a Disney vacation while Puerto Ricans go without power?

How about white privilege? Should people feel guilty about their race?

While atavistic ideas of morality may be valid, archaic social norms and traditions should certainly be evaluated rather than unthoughtfully accepted.

Greg G writes:

Eric,

You keep using the phrase "not even wrong" to dismiss non-theistic ethical systems. You advised me to search for the meaning of the phrase. I did not need to search it. I was very familiar with it. Familiar enough to know how deeply ironic it is for you to build your argument on it when it was intended to dismiss arguments like yours.

"Not even wrong" is a put down that comes out of the physics community. It is meant to identify ideas that purport to be scientific but are not at all scientific because they are not in any way scientifically testable.

Your religious ideas are not in any way scientifically testable. Their logic is circular and based on assumptions and assertions you cannot prove. Which is fine for theology. Your theology is not any more scientifically testable than anyone else's. Your assumptions are not any more scientifically testable than anyone else's. It is clear that you like the sound of the phrase "not even wrong" but it's not clear you know the history of it.

I would suggest that a more historically appropriate three word dismissal of one of the sides in this debate would be Jeremy Bentham's "nonsense on stilts" which really was used to describe ideas like yours in this debate.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric

It seems like you've defined moral judgement very narrowly. I certainly agree that a moral judgement on the basis of the will of a supreme creator is different from the kinds of judgement I mentioned, so we can use your definition if you like.

But I'd say it makes questions of "moral judgement" pretty uninteresting because it is either (A) unknowable, or (B) if it is knowable it would be through things like reason, biology, sociology/history (which we've agreed we aren't counting as moral judgement).

So I'm perfectly happy to grant your definition of moral judgement... but I think by your definition make it a largely irrelevant issue. So, you tell me what word I should use to talk about the interesting bits.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Saveyourself wrote:

Michael. The above statement is mistaken. It is not possible to overstate the importance of original property rights. The reason for its oversized importance was unknown to me until moments ago when I considered your assertion.

Original property rights is not really what I am talking about, though, and doesn't really capture where I think Rand goes wrong.

I was going in a completely different direction with my original comment - I will take another stab at it here.

I think Rand was, essentially, a rather extreme adherent of the "great man" theory of history. A relative few brilliant individuals drive the vast majority of all human progress. Her philosophy, in a nutshell, is based on the idea that progress results from getting out of the way of those few John Galts, Hank Reardens, Howard Roarks.

Of course, Rand is not the same as other "great man" proponents, but, philosophical differences aside, she's clearly a believer in it. The best example of this from her books is how poorly those few characters who are sympathetic but not brillent fare. From Atlas Shrugged, those would be Eddie Willers, Jim Taggert's wife, the kid named "the wet nurse" by Rearden who is sent into his factory to inform on him but grows to understand what type of man Rearden really is. Rand portrays these characters as pretty much helpless without the great men, despite their values.

Consumer preferences communicated to producers in a market are a…lets called it, second or third order effect of a market. Communication of knowledge is a wonderful thing, no disagreement there, but the market has to be present first before prices and unrestrained communication can occur.

Markets are, in many ways, analogous to evolving biological systems.
There was no genius photo-primate who decided that, since opposable thumbs would be really great for his descendants, he should try that out. Rather, such "innovations" arrived via messy trial and error and slow iterative improvement.

Markets are different, in the sense that there is obviously more intentionality among market participants than among biological ancestors in evolution. But I think Rand, by going to far in the "great man" direction, undersells the role of messy trial and error and iterative improvement in human flourishing. They are far greater than a second or third order effect.

Now. This isn't a binary choice between "all wealth ultimately derives from the brilliance of great men" and "great men are unimportant". I just think that Rand's view seems to be way too far towards the "great men" side of the spectrum. And not just her! Americans in general, and perhaps people in general, take on this view. I think this is part of the story of where the "pro-business" (as opposed to "pro-market") view comes from - leading to policies that favor established market actors over upstate competitors.

My impression is that, contra-Rand, economists such as Smith and Hayek were more focused on the power of markets than on the power of the actors within them. I find that to be a humbler and more correct perspective.

Last point: this ("great men vs markets") is a totally different axis than "communism vs capitalism". Lenin and Stalin were great men (in an impact sense, certainly not in a moral one), whereas the mid-level Party bureaucrat was not. Just as Steve Jobs is a great man but Adam Smith's pin factory worker wasn't. Two different issues that are sometimes conflated.


Robert Romero writes:

Interesting podcast, but it makes the false claim that Atlas Shrugged defends the notion of aristocracy. This is nonsense. It is obviously untrue in the case of the chief protagonist, since Galt is a self made man, perhaps the most self made man in all of literature. Hank Rearden is also self made, working his way up the ranks of the steel industry. The only character who remotely fits this claim is Francisco, but nowhere does Rand say "he's good because of his last name". No, he's good because of who he is, as an individual. The most powerful rebuke to the "aristocracy" claim is the character of James Taggart. He is the male heir to the Taggart railroad fortune, but Rand portrays him as anything BUT a person of merit. He is portrayed as the polar opposite of the heroes in the book, ie as an indecisive, incompetent, dishonest person on the side of the "moochers". He is, in fact, the chief villain of the book. Dagny is the real heart of the railroad, not because of her last name, but because of who she is.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@Michael Byrnes

“I think Rand was, essentially, a rather extreme adherent of the "great man" theory of history. A relative few brilliant individuals drive the vast majority of all human progress. Her philosophy, in a nutshell, is based on the idea that progress results from getting out of the way of those few John Galts, Hank Reardens, Howard Roarks.”

  • Strong argument. Fits both my own memory of her fiction and the reports provided by Jennifer Burns in this podcast.

“But I think Rand, by going to far in the "great man" direction, undersells the role of messy trial and error and iterative improvement in human flourishing.”
  • Yeah. We really were talking about different things. To your point, though, I recall her taking great pains in her books to demonstrate her main characters performing trial and error. The architect--Howard Roark-- built a home wrong, realized his error late, then spent his own money fixing the problem. He submitted his designs to a senior architect who found flaws in all of them. Reardon spent oodles of time trying different combinations of metal until one finally worked. I think Galt's early engines didn't work. I remember liking that aspect of her fiction--that she bothered to take the time to demonstrate, sometimes prospectively and other times retrospectively, her characters using trial and error.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Saveyourself

"Any original property rights not attributed to producers are rationed through non-market means, which produces a hard cap on the resources that can be effectively rationed through markets."
Agreed


"Since markets are, by far, the most efficient (Pareto efficient) rationing tool known to man, any rationing outside of markets is less efficient, probably MUCH less efficient."

I think this is broadly true, but not necessarily true in every case. If this is essentially a practical claim (what's is in fact most efficient) there is at least a possible that certain non-market allocations are more efficient (externalities). Obvious example is pollution, and while you could deal with that in the property rights framework by saying your pollution inhibits my ability to enjoy my own property right, it's hard to see how you have a purely market drive solution to that. On the opposite side, it's at least possible that market forces would systematically underinvest in things with positive externalities like basic research, core infrastructure, property right enforcement.


“The people making the most in a market system benefit massively from having a well functioning market and broader society, which requires the consent of the other people in society.”
You are setting up the scenario for rent seeking by reversing the order of causality.
“Given that, shouldn't everyone get a small bit of the property rights of everything (taxes) for being a consenting member of a well functioning market society?”
And in the very next sentence you propose the rent seeking. Congratulations. You’ve proven Rand's thesis.

I'm not sure what you mean by "causality" here. If I create something that has value, that's dependent on my actions (obviously), but also dependent on the existence of a well functioning market/society. Both are nessesary.

Michael McEvoy writes:

I do not believe anyone above commented on two points in the interview .

1. the W Chambers review ; somehow his stirring phrase has remained with me despite not having read it for decades. I was taken back to my twenties as soon as I saw it written ( I am 60) Chambers awoke me from my blind adherence to the Randian ideal . Thank you Whittaker.

2. Ms Rands' kerfuffles with WFB. WFB has his foibles , but boy he got that one right. If I had been present at his meeting her, I would have gladly cheered Bill on. (Even though I am not a believer )

Ms Rand does have a remarkable cultural longevity. But I believe it is best to see her work as an example of an ethic we want to avoid . I see Atlas as some sort of remarkable long cautionary tale AGAINSt becoming some sort of John Galt (sp?)

Eric writes:
Dr Golabki: "I certainly agree that a moral judgement on the basis of the will of a supreme creator is different from the kinds of judgement I mentioned, so we can use your definition if you like.

"But I'd say it makes questions of "moral judgement" pretty uninteresting because it is either (A) unknowable, or (B) if it is knowable it would be through things like reason, biology, sociology/history (which we've agreed we aren't counting as moral judgement)."

Recall the distinction between questions of ontology (the nature of reality, etc.) and questions of epistemology (how we can know).

My point has been this. Atheists have an unsolvable ontological problem. They hold to a framework in which "the way humans are meant to behave" simply does not exist as an objective fact. There is nothing in "reason, biology, sociology/history" or anything else that can solve this problem for them. The unavoidable consequence is that it is futile to try to claim any moral system is morally superior to any other system. There would be no true moral reality to measure the various systems by.

That problem is like trying to claim, "I'm closer to the east (or west) pole than you are." All such claims become meaningless because they deny the existence of any objectively real moral framework that systems could be truly closer to or more distant from.

But what happens if atheism is wrong and there really does exist a true moral aspect to reality? What if there is a true answer to "how humans are meant to behave", whatever we might think or say?

1. The ontological issue is no longer a problem. We would not be in the situation of saying, "How far is it to the east (or west) pole?" Instead we would then be asking, "Which of us is closer to the north (or south) pole?" The difference is that there is a real point of reference.

2. The question that remains is epistemological. How can we know what is closer to the truth? For that question, of course we would use sources including historical information and reason. That is perfectly acceptable because it is addressing a question of knowing about something that is real (not a futile attempt to pretend that something that doesn't exist is real).

In particular, to know the Creator's intention for humanity and human behavior, that would depend on the Creator making that known through various means. We would look for and examine ways that this has been revealed in history. The means (e.g. historical facts and reason) are not to invent something, but to discover and know about something that does already exist.

Eric writes:
Greg G: "You prefer the one you prefer over the competing religions. I prefer my value system over competing value systems.

"I happen to believe that human suffering is real. Or "objectively" real if that is somehow different."

I don't merely seek a preference. I want to know what is true. I claim that moral truth is both real and discoverable.

You point out "that human suffering is real", which is true. But that is just a bare fact and not yet a moral statement about what ought or ought not to be done. How would you claim that increasing human suffering is ever truly and objectively wrong (not merely as a preference of yours)? What would make that so?

Greg G: "It is possible to build a value system around that reality that makes non-arbitrary judgments about moral decisions based on the principle that increasing human suffering is bad and decreasing human suffering is good."

And it is equally possible to build other value systems around other principles that reach different conclusions. How is the choice between them not arbitrary preference, if none of them correspond to any true moral reality?

You have a preference regarding minimizing human suffering. Meanwhile the atheist communists who deliberately caused millions to starve to death in Ukraine had a different system and a different preference, e.g. the need to "break some eggs" in order to make "omelettes".

Do you have any meaningful basis upon which to say your preference is morally superior to their preference? Your preference is more consistent with your preference, but that is circular reasoning. Their preference is more consistent with their preference. How is either morally superior?

Or if you prefer, try your hand at the "Open Ethical Challenge" I offered above earlier.

As far as I can tell, you only have preference. You don't have any objective "up" or "down" by which some principles and some preferences are morally more true than others. What moral reality stands outside the alternatives against which some are closer than others? If there is none, then saying any of them is "closer" becomes meaningless.

SD writes:

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Greg G writes:

Eric,

>---"How would you claim that increasing human suffering is ever truly and objectively wrong (not merely as a preference of yours)?

I don't claim personal objectivity and I happily admit that I do prefer to regard increasing human suffering as wrong. The existence human suffering in people other than me is one possible source of an objective reference point even if it is not what you mean by objectivity.

You "seek" an "objective" moral truth about how humans should behave. You claim that everything other than a morality ordained by an uncreated creator must be simply a personal preference no better than any other. That doesn't follow for any other reason than that that's how you insist on defining the "true moral reality " that you seek. But it's entirely possible to seek things that don't exist.

Your logical system doesn't end with a conclusion. It starts with one.

It is reverse engineered to add in any and all supernatural interventions needed to get the result you start out "seeking."

To "explain" the creation of the universe by positing an uncreated creator is simply handwaving. It merely substitutes two things we can't explain for one.

And even if you do get away with positing an uncreated creator, there is no reason to assume He is all powerful or all good, or very interested in humans (who occupy an absurdly small part of His creation). There is also no guarantee he is the only uncreated creator. Except that you "seek" for it to be that way. There is nothing objective about this seeking.

We seem to be doing a lot of talking past each other. If you could answer a few questions they would help to clarify your views for me.

Is there any difference between truth and reality and objective truth and objective reality? If so what is the difference? If not, why the emphasis on the objectivity?

If an all powerful creator decided to reverse good and evil human behavior could He do that?

Why did this creator do such a bad job of making his will known to most humans?

SaveyourSelf writes:

Dr Golabki wrote:

“there is at least a possibility that certain non-market allocations are more efficient.”

  • Over the years I think Econtalk has settled on an acceptance that hierarchical rationing systems are fairly efficient in small groups like families and small businesses, especially when entry and exit from those groups is easy and voluntary. But, without question, hierarchical systems are the definition of inefficient when expanded over large groups of people, ESPECIALLY when entry and exit from the group is difficult and involuntary. So when we are talking about all of society, which we are, markets are the only rationing system with the possibility of approaching Pareto efficient outcomes reliably.
“it's hard to see how you have a purely market drive solution to that [pollution].”
  • Justice and freedom are the necessary conditions for market transactions. Justice is roughly, ‘Do no harm; Remedy harm done.” If pollution is harming market participants, those participants have a right to remedy, either as individuals or as a group using a class action law suit framework. Importantly, the force behind such law suits is not the government. It is the underlying market foundation elements, particularly Justice and Property Rights.
  • As a side note, it occurred to me this morning that, ‘individual property rights,’ is a synonym or substitute for, ‘freedom.’ So when we talk about, ‘free markets,’ we are necessarily talking about markets where a large percentage of individual property rights are awarded to the creators.
“it's at least possible that market forces would systematically underinvest in things with positive externalities like basic research, core infrastructure, property right enforcement.”
  • I see no support for this claim anywhere in society. Additionally, underinvest presupposes some sort of godlike understanding of optimal levels. If anyone had such understanding, hierarchical rationing systems and macroeconomics would makes sense. They don’t.
"I'm not sure what you mean by 'causality' here."
  • In order to create something you must first have the freedom to create. This produces a definite and unequivocal direction to the causal chain of production. Freedom and Justice first, creation second. You made the following statement: “The people making the most in a market system benefit massively from having a well functioning market and broader society, which requires the consent of the other people in society.” But you have the causality backwards. The market benefits come from the individual to the market, not from the market to the individual. Additionally, you used the words, ‘well functioning market,’ which implies, by definition, a circumstance where the individual participants are free. The greater their freedom, the better the market functions. Furthermore, the market does not require the, ‘consent of the other people,’ to function well. It requires their withholding any violent actions that restrict freedom in others. Again, Justice and Individual property rights: Peace and Freedom. Those come first, the market and all its benefits come second. Do you see now? You were reasoning backwards.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric; @Greg G

Eric says ontologically valid "moral judgment" requires the will of a supreme creator. I would say that (1) it's a quite narrow definition, and (2) it's not obvious to me why it's a better definition than others. But it's certainly true that Eric has described 1 type of moral judgement. It's also certainly true that they are other ways to think about moral systems that don't involve the will of supreme beings.

I'm happy to grant Eric's definition for purposes of a discussion, but that discussion is so narrow that I'm not sure it's very interesting. If we define "moral judgement" to mean only the "judgment of moral systems in the context of the will of a supreme creator"... then clearly "moral judgement" requires the existence of a supreme creator.

Greg G writes:

Eric,

OK let's talk about your proposed "Open Ethical Challenge."

You ask this:

" Without begging the question (i.e. assuming the assumptions of one are right and therefore finding out that it is right) and without any circular reasoning, is there a way from within an atheistic framework to derive the conclusion that either system is in fact closer to the moral truth about how humans ought to behave?"

All systems of reasoning are built on their assumptions and none can or should avoid "assuming the assumptions" they are built on.

Circularity is avoided not by avoiding "assuming the assumptions" but by having the logic lead somewhere different from where it started. In this case, the place you want it to lead is to be able to tell us why Soviet communism was built on a violation of good ethics. The assumptions should make no reference to Soviet Communism but they should enable us to make moral judgments about it that refer to something other than the perceptions and opinions of any Soviet communist. Here are my assumptions:

1) It is unwise and unnecessary to invent supernatural explanations for things we can explain without them.

2) Human suffering has a reality or if you like, an "objective" reality (which I take to be exactly the same thing rather than some kind of unreal reality). That reality of human suffering exists independently of the perceptions and opinions of any given moral actor.

3) Actions that increase human suffering will consistently tend to reduce human flourishing and happiness and are therefore bad actions for ethical humans. Actions that decrease human suffering will consistently tend to be good choices for ethical humans because they will tend to increase human flourishing and happiness.


Applying these assumptions to Soviet communism it is easy to see that Soviet communism caused an immense increase in human suffering and an immense decrease in human flourishing and was therefore unethical. If it had had the opposite effect this logic would have led to the opposite conclusion. Circularity is avoided.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Greg G wrote, “Actions that increase human suffering will consistently tend to reduce human flourishing and happiness and are therefore bad actions for ethical humans. Actions that decrease human suffering will consistently tend to be good choices for ethical humans because they will tend to increase human flourishing and happiness."

I stubbed my toe this morning. It hurt. By the above reasoning, because it hurt, stubbing my toe was unethical—decreased my flourishing and happiness. Furthermore, if someone else could remove my hurt, say with a drug or an injection or removal of my offending chair leg, they would be preforming an ethical act.

I’m sorry to rehash old arguments, but the hurt is undeniably a signal for a learning opportunity. That being the case, any reduction in the hurt—especially complete elimination of the hurt by someone else—reduces my opportunity for learning.

I can’t help but conclude, therefore, that an ethical system built around the desire to reduce suffering in others is a system designed to make those others, unintentionally but unavoidably, less smart.

Greg G writes:

SaveyourSelf,

I had assumed that we all agreed that ethical judgments only apply to intentional actions. Was I wrong about that?

Either way, I hope your toe is OK. I see no ethical problem with the administration of a medically appropriate painkiller if you want that. If you don't want that then the administration itself would cause you suffering. I don't really understand why anyone would want to remove a chair leg but if you want it removed and it's your chair I don't see an ethical problem with the chair leg removal. I am skeptical that any of these actions will reduce your intelligence.

Recall that Eric's objection wasn't about learning impairment. It was about the alleged lack of a way to tell whether or not increasing human suffering is objectively better or worse than any other choice in the absence of a deity.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@ Greg G

Sorry. I wasn’t aware of the limit of the discussion to intentional actions. That’s fine, except it renders my clever example meaningless.

Even so, I feel this line of argument is worth pursuing. With the corrections, you wrote, “[Intentional] actions that increase human suffering…are therefore bad actions for ethical humans. [Intentional] actions that decrease human suffering…tend to be good."

New [better] (made up) counter-example moral dilemmas: I spank my two year old every time she gets within 4 feet of the edge of the street—not hard enough to injure, but with enough vigor the child is clearly unhappy every time it happens. I ground my kid when he comes home with a B on his report card. I dress down a peer at work (in private) when he makes an error that could have resulted in a bad customer experience—even if it doesn’t.

In all these practical examples, I am clearly increasing human suffering, at least in the short term. Admittedly, one of my motivations is to decrease suffering in the long term. Am I moral or immoral under the ethical system you described? What if I’m wrong, and the short term suffering I cause does not, in actuality, reduce future suffering? Am I a villain for trying? Or is it only my intention to reduce suffering that matters, and not the actual suffering I produce.

I’m not trying to be overly flippant with these comments. I know suffering is a big deal for humans and society. I’m just not seeing how it can be made a centerpiece of an ethical system.

Eric writes:
Greg G: "Recall that Eric's objection wasn't about learning impairment. It was about the alleged lack of a way to tell whether or not increasing human suffering is objectively better or worse than any other choice in the absence of a deity."

Sorry, but that is not correct. For starters, see what I wrote about deities such as Zeus. This isn't merely about the presence or "absence of a deity." This is also not merely about "the absence of a personal God" (from an earlier statement you made). Zeus could be considered a personal god, but contingent personal gods don't help.

Also, the issue is not about whether pain is objectively painful. It is about the moral status of competing systems that have different conclusions regarding pain and other matters. Except for the "personal God" simplification, you were a bit closer with this:

Greg G: "An example of such logical fallacies is the idea that - in the absence of a personal God - all value systems must have equal value."

To put it more accurately, any atheist such as Ayn Rand doesn't "have any ground to stand on to object", for example, when the atheist communists used their superior might to impose their moral system instead of her moral system.

She prefers her moral system, of course. You prefer yours. The communists prefer theirs. (Notice that each system handles pain differently.)

Her assumptions lead to her system. Your assumptions lead to your system. The communists have assumptions that lead to their system.

Which system is morally superior to the others? More importantly, why?

Atheists cannot appeal to the claim that there is a true "way that humans are meant to behave", one that is real and true and exists apart from anyone's preferences. Their beliefs exclude that. Consequently, atheists cannot claim their own preferred system is "closer" to the moral truth. It would be like claiming, "I'm 'closer' to the east pole than you are." Since no such pole exists, all such claims would be empty.

So how do any atheists have any basis for concluding any invented moral system has moral superiority over any other invented moral system?

If anyone thinks there is such a basis (that does not rest upon merely assuming that their own moral preferences are best), then they can demonstrate this by taking up my "Open Ethical Challenge: Atheist Ayn Rand vs. the Atheist Communists". Or if someone prefers, they could show some other invented system is morally superior.

Eric writes:
Greg G: "OK let's talk about your proposed "Open Ethical Challenge." ... The assumptions should make no reference to Soviet Communism but they should enable us to make moral judgments about it that refer to something other than the perceptions and opinions of any Soviet communist. Here are my assumptions: 1) ... 2) ... 3) ...

Applying these assumptions to Soviet communism it is easy to see ..."

To expedite matters, let's say for the sake of discussion that if we accept assumptions you prefer, then by your assumptions the Soviet system is morally inferior.

Would you grant that by the assumptions that the atheist communists preferred, your system is morally inferior? Their assumptions lead to their conclusions, not yours.

Would you grant that by the assumptions that Ayn Rand prefers, other systems are morally inferior to her system? (That seemed clear enough from this episode.)

These results are all exactly as I expected. Each invented system has its assumptions. By its chosen assumptions, other systems are inferior. Certainly you can take your position, but every other advocate of every other set of assumptions and conclusions can do exactly the same with theirs.

Yet none of them, including yours, have a non-circular way of justifying the implicit claim that their own moral assumptions are the truly morally superior ones -- apart from just assuming them.

You can assume "3) Actions that increase human suffering will consistently tend to reduce human flourishing and happiness and are therefore bad actions for ethical humans. ...", but others can with equal ease assume that your assumption is too simplistic and is morally inferior because it neglects important competing considerations such as the value of sacrifices for the greater good.

In short, each system can be consistent with its own assumptions, but so what? If each of those is merely a different set of chosen assumptions. That gets us no closer to the idea that any of them is closest to the true answer. None has any inherent claim to moral superiority that doesn't come from preference about assumptions.

Eric writes:
Greg G: "Is there any difference between truth and reality and objective truth and objective reality? If so what is the difference? If not, why the emphasis on the objectivity?"

I making a distinction between opinion and fact. I'm asking, aside from whatever you or Ayn Rand or the communists or others might subjectively prefer, is there a true morality as an objective fact?

If there is a true morality, then some systems may be actually closer to that reality than others. It would be meaningful to ask which are closer to the truth.

Many atheists acknowledge that their position excludes the possibility of objective moral truth. If there is no morality as an objectively true fact (i.e. if all moral systems are merely chosen conventions), then asking which is closer to the true morality is meaningless and empty. No system could be more moral than any other, from an objective (i.e. independent) standpoint.

Greg G: "If an all powerful creator decided to reverse good and evil human behavior could He do that?"

If you are asking about a non-contingent uncreated Creator, the answer is "No".

A contingent personal deity such Zeus that comes into existence (or ceases to exist) could prefer many different things and might change his preferences. Other such deities could have different preferences, which also might change. The preferences of contingent beings are irrelevant, even if they are powerful, supernatural beings.

It's not a matter of "power". It's about what is inherently, unchangeably true.

If there exists a personal uncreated Creator who is a necessary being (not contingent like Zeus), and if humans are meant to reflect as an image or likeness certain attributes of that immutable, necessary character, then that cannot be arbitrarily changed to something radically different. It is an essential truth about the moral nature of reality. It can be discovered and understood better, but essential, immutable character cannot be invented or arbitrarily replaced.

Eric writes:
Dr Golabki: "Eric says ontologically valid "moral judgment" requires the will of a supreme creator."

That's not quite what I was saying, but see if my answers to Greg help clarify for you. In particular, it is not so much a matter of "will" as it is a matter of there being a objectively real moral aspect to reality that is grounded in the essential character of a necessary (not contingent) uncreated Creator.

Dr Golabki: "...(2) it's not obvious to me why it's a better definition than others. But it's certainly true that Eric has described 1 type of moral judgement. It's also certainly true that they are other ways to think about moral systems that don't involve the will of supreme beings."

It's not about a better definition. Any definition would be something we choose to create.

It is about whether or not true morality exists (which means some moral systems are superior to others) or doesn't exist (which means that no moral system can claim to be objectively morally superior to any other).

Greg G writes:

Eric,

First of all, communism failed by its own standards. Marx was advancing an explicitly materialistic economic philosophy that failed miserably when compared with capitalism. Marx predicted that capitalism, not communism, would fail. He didn't live to see the East/West Germany and North/South Korea comparisons but, if he had he would have recognized this failure just as most of the people living in formerly communist countries have recognized its failure.

In almost every formerly communist country former communists ultimately recognized that communism wasn't working and decided to abandon the communist system. So no, I don't grant that they think it worked.

Your system has its own set of assumptions that are much more "invented" than those that don't rely on distinctly supernatural assumptions.

As I have already pointed out (and you have conveniently ignored) there are many different religions that meet your required "elements" of believing in an uncreated creator who made humans as some reflection of elements of his own nature. These different religions offer a quite spectacular variety of contradictory advise on what behaviors are and aren't moral. You choose the one you prefer while failing to recognize you have simply exercised your preference in the matter as much as anyone else.

Greg G writes:

SaveyourSelf,

Yes, there are often trade offs between short term suffering and long term suffering. In an ethical system designed to minimize suffering, it's net suffering that would be decisive so I certainly agree you should discipline your daughter to keep her from getting hit by cars.

Some errors in judgment are not just possible but likely in this and any other ethical system.

Consequences matter as well as intentions. But when a well intentioned act results in disastrous consequences I tend to see that as a failure of competence not a failure of ethics. Dependent on the details, either one might produce a worse result. Not all bad results come from ethical violations.

It's worth noting that there is a subtle but important difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a physical sensation. Suffering is general misery caused by all sources including but not limited to physical pain.

With any rule making system clever people can almost always find specific cases where exceptions should be made. The only way to avoid this is with rues so vague as to offer little help. So then, we can all agree that innocent people should not be harmed but we will quickly disagree on who is innocent and what constitutes harm when we get to specific cases.

For this reason I think to much emphasis is usually given to specific ethical rules and too little to the fact that we do, and should, hold a number of values that sometimes conflict with each other in specific cases.

There is lots of good psychological research showing that all people make ethical decisions based on moral intuitions that are driven by heuristics not flawless logic. The decisions almost always come before the reasoning, not after.

The biggest problem with the ethical system I have described is the familiar problem with utilitarianism. It's not too hard to think of hypotheticals where an obvious injustice to one person might reduce net suffering in a lot of people. This is why I much prefer arguing over specific cases to arguing over general principles.

I did not advance the ethical system I did here because I think there are no problems with it. I did it to show that I can advance an ethical system based on an objective reality that is not dependent on my perceptions and preferences. Actually, the strict application of this system would - in very rare cases - produce a result that ran against my preferences.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric
It is an issue of definition. For one thing, the vast majority of philosophers who have ever written about this don't use the term the way you do. Which is fine, your definition may be more useful in this context. But if you pretend it's obvious you confuse people and hide all the interesting bits inside the definition.

As I said, alternatives to your view include (1) determining true moral systems on the basis of logic (like math, 2+2=4 is true regardless of whether or not there is a supreme creator); or (2) shared biology, there is an objective answer to the question what moral system is most in accord with human nature (I think utilitarianism is in this bucket).

On #1 I guess you just say... "that answer doesn't exist, it's not that kind of question." And I'd probably agree with you, but that answer COULD exist, we can't be sure it doesn't. In the same way a supreme creator COULD exist.

On #2, you could "so what" it death. "So what if a moral system is more in accord with flourishing in the context of our shared human nature, that doesn't mean I OUGHT to do anything."

Fine, but you can do that with anything, including supreme beings. "So what if the supreme creator created the universe in accordance with certain human behavior? That doesn't mean I OUGHT to do anything? Why should I care about the supreme creator?"

Eric writes:

Ayn Rand vs. the Communists* -- 3 Cases

(*FYI: This month is the 100 year anniversary of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia.)

Consider 3 imaginary but revealing disagreements.

Case #1: Ayn Rand and a communist disagree about how large one "billion" is. One of them says it is the number 10^9. The other says it is 10^12. Who is right? What is the true answer?

It turns out that there is no one true answer. The definition of "billion" is a matter of convention and there are two different conventions. The "short scale" says 10^9 and the "long scale" says 10^12. Within the perspective of each convention, the other answer is "wrong", but that merely means the conventions don't agree. Neither convention can claim to be the "true" convention.

Case #2: Ayn Rand and a communist disagree about what is the tallest mountain. One says "Mount Everest" and the other says "K2" (based on a famous 1986 measurement). This case is different from Case #1, which was a matter of competing invented conventions. Case #2 is about real mountains that actually exist. Even if it were hard to know the correct answer (epistemology), even that wouldn't change the fact that there is a correct answer. Each mountain has a real height no matter what people might think the height is.

Case #3: Ayn Rand and a communist disagree about morality and moral systems. She says her system based on her assumptions is morally superior. The communist says the communist system based on communist principles is morally superior.

Question:

Is Case #3 in the same category as Case #2? Is it also a disagreement about which there is a true answer because, no matter what each person might think, there is a reality to moral truth such that some systems could be genuinely closer to that truth than some other systems? Is there really and truly a "way that humans are meant to behave" distinct from opinions and distinct from actual behavior?

OR is Case #3 in the same category as Case #1, which was merely a disagreement about preferred invented conventions? A person could still certainly have a preference and might even give reasons for their preference. Yet it would be meaningless and empty to claim that any particular convention is the "true" answer (as can be done in Case #2 when discussing things that really exist).

Since they are both atheists, their belief system excludes the possibility that there could be an objectively real and true moral standard for how humans are meant to behave. That excludes them from the category of Case #2. However, the consequence of placing it with Case #1 is that neither of them have any ground to stand on when claiming their own morality is morally superior to the other's morality.

So are moral systems merely examples of competing invented human conventions (Case #1)?

Or is this about an endeavor to discover and understand something -- moral truth -- that exists as an aspect of reality regardless of any human's preferences and ideas (Case #2)?

Greg G writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Ben writes:

Thank you for a very interesting discussion. I just wanted to comment about the remarks you made towards the end of your discussion about how despite Ayn Rand’s work being the second most influential after the bible, its policy positions do not appear to have been taken up by the American Government. I will note that I am speaking hear as an Australian with a limited first hand experience of American culture never having visited the country.

However, speaking as an outside observer who has not read Ayn Rand’s work, it seems to me that it may be that Ayn Rand’s influence may have been to keep America far more towards the libertarian/laissez-faire end of the free market spectrum. I would put the Scandinavian countries at the other end, rather than communism which is no longer a realistic alternative. Further, I wonder whether the influence of Ayn Rand’s work is that it provides the intellectual support for the vehemence with which some Americans defend private health insurance and the right to own guns.

This vehemence is surprising to me as an Australian economist with a strong interest in evidence based policy. The experience of countries like Australia and the UK demonstrate that under a single payer health insurance system the quality of health care is higher overall and the price for consumers is lower. On gun rights it seems to be intuitively obvious that as the number of guns in circulation rises the number of gun related deaths will also rise. A rational argument might then focus on the rate gun deaths rise as the number of guns in circulation increases as opposed to the rate at which gun deaths might fall as guns in circulation decreases.

Eric writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

SaveyourSelf writes:

@Ben

First and most important, thank you for your thoughtful comment and outsider perspective.

“The experience of countries like Australia and the UK demonstrate that under a single payer health insurance system the quality of health care is higher overall and the price for consumers is lower.”

If you would be so kind as to cite your source for this conclusion, I will take the time to demonstrate how that source is highly biased and corrupt. Micro-Economic models predict the following when moving from competitive market distribution to monopoly market rationing: higher prices, lower quality, lower quantity, and absent or negative incentives for innovation. Based on those models and my own experience in healthcare, I predict Australian and UK single payer health systems will have lower quality and higher cost than a more competitive, market rationed healthcare system—the exact opposite of your claim. You say you are an Economist so I imagine you can easily follow this argument. Now, importantly, the healthcare system in the US is not a perfectly competitive, market. There are many, many sources of monopoly power in US healthcare, which is the only reason UK and Australian healthcare systems can hold a candle to the US system. Your proposed solution to US healthcare problems is to introduce even more monopoly power, making the system a “true” single payer rationed system. That’s fine, as an outsider, to consider, but as a person having to live in and fund the system, I’d like to politely disagree with your prescription.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric

First, I'd say it's not obvious what type of disagreements moral disagreements are. But I think moral judgements are like Case #2, essentially empirical. There just a MUCH MUCH harder empirical question than "what's the tallest mountain on earth?".

I'd also say that a lot of things we think of as "conventions" are things that actually can be judged. It's not a coincidence (for example) that million, billion, trillion, and quadrillion all have the same suffix and prefixes that indicate increasing magnitude. You could imagine a number system that uses a unique arbitrary symbol for every number... but that is an objectively worse than our system because because it would make it impossible for humans to any remotely complicated math.

Eric writes:
Dr Golabki: "First, I'd say it's not obvious what type of disagreements moral disagreements are. But I think moral judgements are like Case #2, essentially empirical. There just a MUCH MUCH harder empirical question than "what's the tallest mountain on earth?"."

I do agree that moral issues are in the category of Case #2, but I am able to do so because reality has an inherent moral aspect that is as objectively real as mountains since it is anchored in the immutable nature of a necessary, uncreated Creator.

However, as an atheist, Ayn Rand rejects that foundation as not existing. When she wants to say her invented moral system is morally superior to other systems, what objectively existing moral standard can she appeal to instead?

BTW, anyone could make a case that capitalism is economically superior to communism, but as capitalism opponents point out, that is not the same as showing it is morally superior. Ayn Rand wanted to claim moral superiority. How can she?

Dr Golabki: "As I said, alternatives to your view include (1) determining true moral systems on the basis of logic (like math, 2+2=4 is true regardless of whether or not there is a supreme creator); or (2) shared biology, there is an objective answer to the question what moral system is most in accord with human nature (I think utilitarianism is in this bucket) ... I guess you just say..."

... the same points I made earlier on Oct. 24 in responding about the limitations of reason and scientific facts (see Problem #2 above).

Math might help measure the utility in how much you could save by killing off all those who consume more than they produce, but it cannot tell you whether that ought to be done. (Please see the movie, Life is Beautiful. Recommended!)

Science provides no moral axioms at all. Science could observe that one group is stronger than some other group, but it cannot tell you whether the stronger "ought" to help and serve the weaker or else "ought" to subjugate and benefit from oppressing the weaker.

Without moral axioms, reason cannot help either. It is not possible to derive any conclusion of what we "ought" to do from any list of premisses of mere fact.

Nor does it help to appeal to evolution. Every behavior that exists, both the "good" ones and the "bad" ones, can appeal to evolution, including racially antagonistic practices. Darwin's subtitle: "the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". Notice that when atheist evolutionists talk about distinguishing morally "good" and "bad" results, they are assuming some moral standard outside of evolution.

Thought Experiment: Read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and see if reason and science alone can conclude definitively that anything in the evolved cultures of the Morlocks and the Eloi is morally wrong and not as humans ought to behave.

Eric writes:

To SaveyourSelf and Ben:

Both of your thoughtful comments about healthcare systems raise important points. Here are a couple more to throw in the pile.

Another problem with the dysfunction in the current U.S. system is the prevalence of third party payer arrangements. We are careful when we spend our money. We are indulgent when we spend other money on ourselves. We are least careful when spending other money/resources on other people.

Another unrepresentative advantage with single-payer in other countries is that they are not closed systems. They still benefit tremendously from the market innovations in drugs, treatment and medical technology that comes out of U.S. companies. It is easy and cheap to copy or purchase. It is very costly to innovate. A drug company might have dozens of failures for every successful drug. Then the world benefits, but only from the companies that can profit and recoup their other losses.

Dr Golabki writes:

@Eric

Couple clarifications:

On math... I wasn't trying to say that you are going to get an answer to a moral question with arithmetic. I agree, that clearly wouldn't work. What I was saying is that it COULD be true that real moral judgement stems purely from logic, not from God or from empirical measurement. Kant thought this was the case, and I think Rand might also have been in this camp (not sure on Rand).

On Science... I wasn't trying to say a scientist is going to swish some test tubes around and poof, morality will pop out as a fine mist. I agree, that clearly won't happen. But science does provide a common ground (human biology) that crosses all cultures. You pointed out earlier that a Randian is morally wrong on communist grounds and a communist is morally wrong Randian grounds, so it's seems to be purely subjective. But Randian's and Communists are both people with probably actually pretty similar goals on an individual and near identical biology.

P A writes:

Seconded.

Robert Romero writes: Interesting podcast, but it makes the false claim that Atlas Shrugged defends the notion of aristocracy. This is nonsense. It is obviously untrue in the case of the chief protagonist, since Galt is a self made man, perhaps the most self made man in all of literature. Hank Rearden is also self made, working his way up the ranks of the steel industry. The only character who remotely fits this claim is Francisco, but nowhere does Rand say "he's good because of his last name". No, he's good because of who he is, as an individual. The most powerful rebuke to the "aristocracy" claim is the character of James Taggart. He is the male heir to the Taggart railroad fortune, but Rand portrays him as anything BUT a person of merit. He is portrayed as the polar opposite of the heroes in the book, ie as an indecisive, incompetent, dishonest person on the side of the "moochers". He is, in fact, the chief villain of the book. Dagny is the real heart of the railroad, not because of her last name, but because of who she is.
Robert Swan writes:

An interesting conversation, though to me Ayn Rand is just a name that Americans talk about -- she didn't figure in my mostly Australian upbringing.

Glad to hear that Jennifer Burns has kept her personal views out of this biography. I read Thomas Ricks's "biography" of Churchill and Orwell and ended up learning a small amount about the two great men, and rather too much about Ricks.

Have enjoyed the comment discussion, particularly the exchanges between Greg G and Eric. Greg G clinched it at the outset: religious moral codes are, just like secular ones, entirely circular. Nobody has solid ground to stand on. In the story of "doubting Thomas", Jesus is said to have chastised him for his doubts saying "blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed". You'd be surprised if a used-car salesman used those words, but the sentiment would be right at home.

Commenter Ben described the Australian and British health systems as superior to the American setup in both quality of care and in cost to the consumer. I hear it quite often, but it seems to be an article of faith (usually wheeled out when justifying something here of dodgy quality or excessive cost: "at least we're not as bad as America").

While the American system is not as centrally controlled as the British NHS, it's far from a free market, run as it is by a cabal of insurance companies, hospitals and governments all quite happy with things as they are.

My own experience as an uninsured person in a U.S. hospital was fine. I was looked after immediately. They were not greedy -- no demand for name and address, let alone a credit card imprint, before treatment, or even at discharge. I ended up chasing them for an invoice after I got back to Sydney.

And the Australian system isn't cheap either, despite having paid the extra tax levy, and private health insurance, I still have to hand over a surprising amount of money for a minor procedure.

It's popular to say how strapped for cash all these health systems are, but isn't it strange how nice the granite and marble foyers are in our hospitals, and aren't there a lot of cranes working in them too, putting up new buildings. Can't help thinking there just might be a better use for those funds.

In any case, if we're going to blame Ayn Rand and her ilk for the American system's failings, who do we blame for ours?

Josh Sher writes:

I have never spoken with Ayn Rand, and don’t truly know exactly what she thought. I do know what other people have claimed about her thought, so I want to tell a story.

Almost 30 years ago, I was challenged to a debate by the head of Wesleyan’s Objectivist club (I was a co-head of Wesleyan’s Democratic Socialists of America Chapter). We got together to go over what we wanted to debate, thinking we were going to be able to talk about political issues and human institutions. On every topic our discussion regressed to a discussion of certain epistemological claims dealing with what individuals do know with certainty, and what they are capable of knowing. More or less, I was a Humean sceptic, and my friend’s claims on behalf of Ayn Rand seemed to fit nowhere in philosophical history, nor did they acknowledge that these were issues that many great thinkers have grappled with for centuries, and have certainly been central to philosophy since Descartes. More or less, I think that her position should be either
a. A clear break at some point in the history of philosophy where there was a claim that someone particular got something wrong, and this is what it was, and here is the correct theory OR
b. The entire philosophical debate was useful, and various people have come up with good ideas, but they also made mistakes, but if you take the following combination of ideas then you have a correct theory and I wanted to know what those ideas were that she accepted and what did she reject

I was trying to understand her claims by comparing statements (positively or negatively) to claims from Descartes, Locke, Kant, etc to understand the real basis for Rand’s (in my mind hopelessly optimistic) claims that the human mind (or at least some human minds) can grasp the objective world (is there one?!) with certainty – that rationality can give you the meta-knowledge that this certainty is justified - and that from that basis the creative mind has almost unlimited potential in the truths about the world it can work out (with again absolute certainty) going forward. Perhaps, the break really was with Descartes, and she thought that these answers were so obvious that the shear fact that Descartes wanted to work out if there was a purely logical way of knowing his mind was not being deceived was itself the big mistake in philosophy (Descartes’s answer came down to faith that God would not deceive us). But, more or less, I got the impression that she had never read or studied the ideas of these philosophers so didn’t even know that people have been thinking about these questions for a long time…

Anyway, the debate never happened, since there was no common starting point that we were able to use to show why the other person was wrong...

Eric writes:

Dr Golabki, I thought you were actually already clear even before your recent clarifications, but I welcome them. There is much we agree on about what math and science cannot do.

Dr Golabki: "... But science does provide a common ground (human biology) that crosses all cultures. You pointed out earlier that a Randian is morally wrong on communist grounds and a communist is morally wrong Randian grounds, so it's seems to be purely subjective. But Randian's and Communists are both people with probably actually pretty similar goals on an individual and near identical biology."

Science does provide a common ground by describing the biology we share across cultures. For that very reason, it cannot go beyond those facts about what is to provide any clarification about what people ought to do.

Is anyone in any culture doing moral wrong? Yet they too have human biology as do other cultures that choose differently. The fact of their common ground of human biology doesn't help us distinguish which behaviors done by humans are wrong while other acts also done by humans are right. The common ground is no help at all to making that distinction. The same biology that can serve and help can also kill.

Dr Golabki: "What I was saying is that it COULD be true that real moral judgement stems purely from logic, not from God or from empirical measurement."

My point is that logic itself makes that utterly impossible. Logically, unless you have a source for moral premisses that you could reason from, you cannot arrive at any conclusions about what is moral. You cannot get moral axioms from mathematics, or logic itself, or science. All those fields are morally sterile on their own.

That is why I suggested the Thought Experiment, which makes that utter barrenness plain. Science + Logic cannot conclude that any of that is wrong.

So how can Ayn Rand or any other atheist claim there exists any objectively real moral foundation to stand on to claim system A is morally superior to system B?

Eric writes:
Robert Swan: "Greg G clinched it at the outset: religious moral codes are, just like secular ones, entirely circular. Nobody has solid ground to stand on."

Please correct me if I am mistaken, but I don't think Greg G has ever taken the position that all moral codes are entirely circular. On the contrary, he tries to find his solid ground to stand on in human suffering. It seems to me that he has held out that one can without religion arrive at something that is not circular.

Greg G: "Circularity is avoided not by avoiding "assuming the assumptions" but by having the logic lead somewhere different from where it started. ... Circularity is avoided." Posted October 27

Putting that to the side, let's suppose your point that all moral codes are entirely circular. (At least from an atheistic perspective, I consider that a logical conclusion.) Then that would include Ayn Rand's system as well. That removes Ayn Rand's ability to claim her system is objectively morally superior to any other. That was my point from my first post. Thanks for your clear statement. We agree about Rand's problem.

Robert Swan: "In the story of "doubting Thomas", Jesus is said to have chastised him for his doubts saying "blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed". You'd be surprised if a used-car salesman used those words, but the sentiment would be right at home."

Your point here is not clear. That story is about how Thomas would not accept the testimony of eye witnesses. Unless he could see Jesus himself directly by first hand observation, he refused to believe what eye witnesses had seen and reported.

I would guess that you don't insist on only believing what you have seen yourself first hand. Even science couldn't get very far with that approach and historical knowledge would be impossible. All of us mostly believe things based on what others have observed and reported.

Bob writes:

Russ: please read more about and from Mises. I, too, have benefited from and enjoyed Hayek and Friedman, but they're only a shadow of a shadow compared to the deeply penetrating insight of the rare genius of Mises himself. If that sounds like high praise, it's supposed to be. I don't agree with him on everything, of course, but he's an incredible mind everyone would benefit from reading carefully.

If you don't want to dig deeply into the philosophy or the science he contributed to (at least not to begin with), I hope you will consider reading about the man himself in Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism (also available for free elsewhere). He's incredibly underappreciated. It's an embarrassment to the academy that so few people have read Mises. Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Bob writes:

It's surprising how many people have vague or misguided concerns about Ayn Rand though have read only her fiction work or heard about it second hand. :)

I don't agree with Ayn Rand or anyone else on all issues. It's a mistake to deify her or anyone else. I'll just state that I have read a lot of philosophy and that includes all of Ayn Rand's non-fiction (and various critiques of it), and I won't get into the details except to say: don't believe the hype one way or another. Dig into it for yourself and don't assume she's an angel or a devil or an idiot or anything else. Recognize that she had a idiosyncratic way of using words that was very precise, but unique to her. If you only read a tiny bit of her work superficially and assume you know what she meant, you're falling into a trap. You have to read several of her non-fiction books more than once to even recognize the quirkiness of her word choices and how that relates to her thinking. In my opinion it's well worth the effort. While she's not right about everything, she's right about a lot more than you would expect going into it.

Robert Swan writes:

Eric,

My main reason for commenting was the part about health care, but I couldn't resist a note of appreciation of the debate between you and Greg G.

I said he had it clinched at the outset (i.e. when he said "Religious systems do not in any way escape the circularity that Eric thinks they do"). He should have held to that line, and/or quit while he was ahead. Don't ask me to defend the statement you quoted, but I do support his earlier statement.

Rand's "problem", as you put it, is no better or worse than Christianity's "problem". Implicit in the statement "X is superior to Y" is that you have somehow reduced X and Y to numbers and found that X > Y. When you are evaluating a complicated thing -- a car, a movie, a moral code -- everything depends on how you map all its complexity to a single number. Of course I don't think people really get out pencil and paper and do the figures, but the arithmetic has to happen before you can say better/worse.

I think you would probably accept that when it comes to evaluating cars or movies, but what you've said debating with Greg G and Dr Golabki suggests you don't think this would apply with moral codes -- that unlike movies and cars, your preferred moral code is "objectively" better. But perhaps I've misunderstood and you agree that the superiority of one moral code over another is simply a personal judgement.

On Doubting Thomas, you've turned it on its head. My understanding of that story is that Jesus was criticising Thomas for needing evidence saying that it is more blessed to simply accept. The scientific view is the other way: accept if you have to, but it is more blessed to see the evidence.

Hope that clears up my view. I didn't mean to re-ignite the debate and will leave it at that.

Eric writes:

Robert Swan, thanks for the clarifications. They are welcomed, as was your original.

Right, I wouldn't expect you to defend Greg G's position, since I realized it was different from your own. I simply thought it best to be fair to Greg G to note that (I believe) he has consistently taken a different path than you. (Though, I do think yours is the more defensible conclusion, if one is starting from atheistic assumptions.
More on Ayn Rand's problem in a moment.)

About Doubting Thomas, sorry, but you've missed a key point. Look again, including what happened before. Thomas had evidence (that he refused to accept) -- the eye witness testimony of 10 men he had traveled with for 3 years, men who as a group had examined and talked with the living Jesus. If you look at chapter 15 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (written within 25 years of the death of Jesus), you will find Paul reporting the shared position going back to the years immediately following the death of Jesus and can see that this was based upon many different eye witnesses, both as individuals and as groups. It was never at any time offered as something to believe for no reason or without any evidence. But for Thomas, eye witness testimony wasn't good enough. He set his bar at first hand observation only. Read his statement of disbelief. Jesus commended all those who would believe without having seen it themselves. But believe what? Believe what had been reported by the eye witnesses. To believe the report "We have seen..." (i.e. he had been seen alive), that implies one understands that there were eye witnesses who had seen him alive.

About "X is superior to Y", I do agree that for that to be meaningful, that would require comparison against some standard. It implies a distance function of some kind, such as closer to T, where T is the actual/real True standard. But if there is no independent standard, then it becomes meaningless.

You might be closer to the north pole than I am (or not), because the north pole is real and exists. But it would be nonsense to insist that either of is truly closer to the east or west pole, because no such thing exists.

Once that is observed, Ayn Rand's problem becomes clearer. It is that there are two key questions and atheists such as Rand cannot get past the first of the two.

#1. Ontological: Does there exist a real and true objective standard for how humans ought to behave? (If yes, then some moral systems might be closer to it than others. If no, then none can be truly morally superior to any other.)

#2. Epistemological: If yes to #1, then how might we come to know more about what the standard is concerning how humans ought to behave?

In atheism or any system in which humans are unintended accidents, I've never seen a successful attempt to avoid "No" to #1. (Notice no takers so far on my Thought Experiment.) Consequently, question #2 becomes moot, as if Rand insisted she is closer to the east pole than a communist.

The only position that I know of that can answer yes to #1 is the position that affirms an inherent moral nature for a necessary uncreated Creator. That is why these two types of positions are not symmetrical. They are not in the same boat.

Alan Forrester writes:

Burns' description of the relationship between Rand and Branden and how it ended seems to be based only on the Brandens' published accounts.

For a different and more accurate account of what happened I suggest reading "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" by James S. Valliant.

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