Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going Gandalf

I read an interesting article today Times. Apparently, there's so muttering of the wealthy and rich planning to go on strike (yes, yes. Bear with me. It is every bit as ridiculous and stupid as it sounds). In certain communities, it's called "Going Galt," after the designated hero in Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. Now, I have my own opinions on Rand's work - being a socialist and all - that put me on the diametric opposite end of the scale. I've even taken a look at Rand's work before and dissected it, taking it apart, figuring out what made it tick (nothing) and then putting it back together again in a way that made much more sense.

So naturally, I felt the need to comment on this article as well.

At the heart of Rand's philosophy is the idea of what I've taken to calling "enlightened self-interest" (Rand calls it "Rational Egoism," but the concept is almost the same, in the way that one of the rods of the umbrella is the same as the umbrella itself). At it's heart, enlightened self-interest can be summed up with "do well by doing good" - that is, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, or the more good you do, the more you project the image of a responsible individual and thus, people will respect you more (not everyone, no, but more than if you just wen around acting like a selfish asshole).

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute is self-sacrifice–which means self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial self-destruction–which means the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good. Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. This is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: No. Altruism says: Yes. 
This is Ayn Rand's summing up both ethical egotism and rational egotism, and the place they occupy within her particular philosophy. To tie a bow on Rand's argument, she's basically saying that you owe nothing to nobody, not a dime to any beggar, and you are not any more inclined to give this beggar a dime than they are inclined to give you a dime if you were said beggar. Ethical egotism says that, by denying this beggar time (it doesn't say you have to, but it says that this is the moral approach), you are not ethically responsible should this guy die. Or, in other words, you bear no ethical responsibility of someone comes up to you and tells you that they're suicidally depressed, and you do nothing and they kill themselves. You have no ethical responsibility to help anyone other than yourself.

I think "ethical" is getting stretched well beyond it's means here, but that's just me. Again, this is different from rational self-interest, which says that "do good by being good." Rational self-interest is the sort of morality that child operates by: it's Pavlovian morality. If I do good, I get good things in return, therefore, I do more good things. Ethical Egotism is not Pavlovian morality. Ethical Egotism is the 'I' above all else. This is very clear in Rand's novel Anthem, where somehow, 'I' has become a forgotten word and it's a crime to use it. There's telling people collectivism is bad and then there's engraving it on an anvil and repeatedly dropping it on the head of the reader from 30 stories. The later is what Rand does best.

Rand's philosophy would be nice in a world where, you know, someone didn't have to fulfill the duties of every role in society. John Galt, and those like him, forget that they're riding on the backs of elephants - said elephants being the larger population. There are people supporting you. To callously disregard those people gets them kind of upset; especially when you're beating on them day in and day out. Rand's word is one that doesn't exist and one that couldn't exist. Not in any setting, except for the Straw-socialist worlds that she produces in her fiction, where one man stands up to the "leeches" who support him by doing everything he doesn't do and rebels against them - while still expecting them to do everything that they did before. It must be nice living in that hermetically sealed reality; if you see any Christianists in there, let them know I said 'hi.'

Nobody is a self-made person. Odds are, you don't drive to work on roads you paved. You don't grow your own food, pick your owe fruits, package your own cans and examine it all with your advanced knowledge of chemistry to make sure that the company that did isn't trying to cheat you and/or poison you. You live in a society that everyone pitched in to build. You are expected to pay your fair share. After all, everyone else is, because most people recognize the importance of public schools to educate, a military to defend them, and a police force to keep them safe of a night. A fire department that will help attempt to save their house should there be a short, or a bolt of lightning. These things benefit everyone.

Which leads to the paradox of ethical egotism. Hell, this is a paradox of egotism in general, but at least rational self-interest has this figured out. See, you don't owe that beggar a dime. You don't have to pay him - but in the name of your own self-interest, you'd be better off if you did. Why's that? You pay for roads because it's in your best interest to pay for them - after all, you use them to get around. You pay for sewage and plumbing because you use it. You pay for a police and fire because let's face it - someone's gotta be there to save your ass should something go wrong. You don't live alone in a society. You live with other people, and a society is greater living organism that is larger than the sum of its parts. Because you have all these services that you take advantage of, it's in your rational self interest to pay taxes for them (after all, they're cheaper if everyone pitches in, rather than just some people. Anyone with any knowledge in basic math will tell you that - you can pay for all of it or an increasingly small fraction the more people that dump into the whole; it's like the reverse of a pizza shared by a bunch of people). Because this poor beggar is a potential tax payer for the services that you make use of, it becomes in your best interest then to see this guy living up to his full potential - so that way, you're not paying so much for the services that you take advantage of; so why you don't have to, you have to if you want to live with the same quality of life you have now. You are depend on him - a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, society is a chain. The weaker you make that link, the weaker you make the chain that you're part of. When it breaks, you have nothing but a broken chain that nobody can take advantage of; all of those services are lost and you hurt yourself far more than if you'd just stopped to help him and others like him. Thus, egotism creates it's own paradox; you live for yourself and can still expect the services that you take for granted by relying on other people. If you don't expect those resources, then you're probably better off looking at such utopias like Somalia.

Will all this happen if you ignore one beggar? No. You're just one person; he's just one person, your collective impact on society is negligible at best. You can't help them all. That's why we have a vehicle through which society acts called the "government" to do it - it helps keep everyone up or at least makes sure that the weakest link isn't too weak (in theory, anyway). When you start ignoring that weakest link - the poorest segment of the population - you're pushing the country and all of the services that it offers towards oblivion.

What I find really funny is the fact that so many people who follow Rand's philosophy are the ones who have the most to lose should something like that happen. Her utopias are not worlds anyone one wants to live in, because as much as she loves to ignore it, someone has to clean the floors. Otherwise they won't get clean. Not everyone can be John Galt and make millions of dollars. Someone has to clean the bedpans, someone has to clean the windows, someone has to fix the cars, someone has to do the mundane, menial tasks, otherwise nothing would ever get done. John Galt does not move on his own. It's the elephant that he's riding on - the greater population - that moves him.

So, in the end, we have to stop and look carefully at the point that is made with these rich people "going Galt." They're basically going to on strike and take their collective genius somewhere else. The bankers and CEOs are going to take their brains and their materials and fly away, so society can't use them anymore. Because, you know, society used them to begin with.

Going Galt is little different from Going Gandalf, in that both are powerful fictional characters and both require a world that runs on magic to function.

1 comment:

  1. Here's the thing, Going Gandalf would be soooooo much better than Going Galt. Because Gandalf knew that you the greatest changes in the world could come from surprising places.