Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Looks Like It's Libertarian Season Again

In a transparent attempt to generate a lively comments thread and to get others to link to his blog, Ken Parish has posted a speculative think piece on libertarianism. Apparently this works; John Quiggin has taken up part of Ken's challenge - he doesn't appear to have done Ken's suggested reading, but nonetheless has weighed in with a reductio ad absurdum hatchet job on the philosophy of Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State & Utopia. Sam Ward at a Yobbo's View has flagged his intentions to respond to Ken's post later. And Brian at Crooked Timber notes that we seem to have declared Nozick bashing day Down Under.

I haven't done Ken's reccommended reading either, but this is the blogosphere, not academia, so I see no good reason not to weigh into this emerging debate myself. I actually have a copy of Anarchy, State & Utopia somewhere - it was passed on to me by a friend, who described it as a political philosophy based on the premise that the state evolved from the Mafia. I actually attempted to read it once - all I can remember of it is the section on "invisible hand laws", where Nozick takes Adam Smith's idea of the invisible hand of the market and extends on it to establish some basic point that I've long since forgotten.

As it's the only section of the book I can remember, I doubt that I got much further, although I do have vague memories of a state of nature theory which has social institutions arising out of "protective associations" formed by groups of like minded people who get together to defend themselves from the prevailing anarchy. From there I think they go on to sell protection to their neighbours and there you have it; the modern state begins with Doug and Dinsdale Piranha. But as I say, my memory of the book past the "invisible hand laws" is pretty vague; that's where I first started to lose patience with the book.

Nozick's thesis is that just as predictable behaviour emerges in economic markets through the operation on Smith's "invisible hand", there are other areas where systemic behaviour emerges through the same mechanism - the aggregation of individual choices. He cites several examples, starting (I think) with increased suicide rates around inner city high rise apartment blocks. The underlying mechanism is either that people looking for a way to top themselves are attracted to high rise buildings with easy access, or depressed tenants with poor impulse control might be more inclined to take a swan dive through the lounge window than their suburban cousins. Nozick works through some other examples, identifying plausible underlying mechanisms for interesting social phenomena.

The example that killed my interest in the book was Nozick's argument that over time you could expect Jews to become more intelligent than Roman Catholics. The reason for this, according to Nozick, is that in both religions, intelligent boys are encouraged to become religious leaders - either priests (in the case of Catholicism) or rabbis (in the case of Jews). As priests are mostly celibate, in Catholic communities this results in the most intelligent males being taken out of the gene pool, creating a selective pressure in favour of lower intelligence. Nozick may have mentioned cultural factors as well - because priests don't (officially) have children, fewer Catholic kids are exposed to the sort of lively theological discussion that you can expect to go on in priestly households, so the Catholic practice deprives Catholic boys of intelligent male role models.

I'm not a Roman Catholic, but I still found the example, and the argument used to support it, stupid. Possibly Nozick included it to add a bit of humour to his argument or to satirise anti-semitism; if so it's a good example of the general standard of philosophical humour and a poor example of satire. After reading it, I found it difficult to put aside the conviction that all the rest of the book had in store was more ridiculous elaborations of stupid ideas.

The other libertarian writer who gets a passing mention in Ken's post is Ayn Rand. Back in the early seventies, when I had my first job, I'd occasionally see people reading The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged on the red rattler on the way home from work. The typical Rand reader was usually male, middle-aged, and wore the sort of grey suit that was pretty much de rigeur for middle managers in banks and insurance corporations. I didn't read Rand myself until a university friend lent me a copy of Atlas Shrugged a couple of years later.

Looking back, there's a sad irony in the fact that Rand had so many readers in the managerial middle classes that Rand openly despised. Rand's contempt for these people is openly displayed in Atlas Shrugged. For those unfamiliar with the novel, the plot is very simple: the world's "intellectuals" go on strike, bringing on the collapse of civilisation as we know it and paving the way for Rand's vision of an objectivist Utopia. Along the way there are interludes of rough sex and a few touches of bizarre homoeroticism in industrial settings. On the latter, they would count as homoeroticism if written by a male writer; in Rand's hands perhaps it's more the equivalent of the sort of lesbian porn which is produced by men for male audiences.

The intellectuals who go on strike are of course, capitalist entrepreneurs, sick of being fettered and exploited by the "looter state". John Galt, the books hero, is the inventor of a truly miraculous electric motor which runs on static electricity drawn from the atmosphere. One of his friends is a South American playbay and pirate, who steals back money looted from the rich for the benefit of the undeserving poor and returns it to its rightful owners. Against them are ranged a host of corrupt bureaucrats, corrupt trade union officials and - middle level corporate managers. Not all of Rand's middle-level managers are depicted as evil - one is a loyal business associate of the novel's sado-masochistic heroine, Dagney Taggart.

Rand's view is made pretty clear - there are the creative people, who deserve to reap every possible reward from the fruits of their intellects and the rest of us, who are just there to provide the muscle or intellectual stoop labour needed to execute their ideas. If we're on the side of the looters, we're morally reprehensible; if not, we're just dispensible. That includes Dagney's friend and colleague who, when civilisation ultimately collapses, is left on an isolated section of railway track, desperately trying to restart a stalled railway locomotive. This, we must understand, is the proper fate of those who value loyalty to others above their own self-interest. In the end, this poor bugger was just another "second-hander": lacking the creative spark of sociopathy which enabled Rand's heroes and heroine to achieve much happier fates.

If Nozick and Rand were typical libertarians, I'd be forced to conclude that libertarians are generally silly people. Perhaps this is why I'm uncomfortable when friends describe me as a "left libertarian" - that and unpleasant memories of the amount of condescending venom that International Socialists can put into pronouncing the phrase.

Oops: Ayn Rand actually scores her mention in a comment from Oz Libertarian 24601. Sorry Ken, sorry 24601.

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