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Atlas Shrugged: The Philosophy and Energy Implications (Part III: Objectivism)

[Editor note: MasterResource's Atlas Shrugged week began with an overview (Part I–Monday) and has continued with a look at the book (Part II–yesterday) and the philosophy behind the book (Part III–today). The moral obligation of capitalists according to Rand (Part IV-Thursday) will be followed by Atlas shrugging in the energy market (Part V-Monday).]

“Facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.”

 - Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism” in Rand, The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: New American Library, 1988), p. 3.

“Clean energy” and “green jobs” are catch phrases at odds with the affordable, reliable energy required for a modern, expanding industrial society. So-called clean, green energy is politically correct but not very clean or green on close inspection. Yet electricity from industrial wind parks and solar farms–rejected by consumers because of high price and unreliability–are sold to the voters (qua taxpayers) by a political class and special interests (including rent-seeking corporations) as in the common good.

The sell is a shared narrative, a form-over-substance play, of huge proportions. Obama, in fact, seems to be basing part of his reelection prospects in 2012 on “clean” energy. The windpower president, anyone?

The intellectual misdirection of ‘green’ and ‘clean’ energy goes far beyond build-it-and-they-will-come. Entrepreneurs have been trying to commercialize wind turbines and solar farms for many decades. Special interests and politicians have been promising competitiveness for decades too. Why the perenial failure? Basic energy physics is involved with energy density placing oil, gas, and coal on a different plane than the dilute, intermittent energies flows.

One can even ask whether the anti-industrial lobby likes wind and solar precisely because these energies are expensive and unreliable as sources of on-grid (central station) electricity.

The chimera of wind and solar as industrial energy is postmodernism in action. Objectivism can identify and refute the emotional, whimsical nature of anti-energy energy on a philosophical level, complementing the economic verdict of the marketplace.

Objectivism Simplified

Ayn Rand’s novels conveyed a world of human relationships “as they might be and ought to be.” [1] Her stories turn complex personal and economic relationships into triumph and tragedy based on philosophical precepts. And the nature of a just political system is never far from view.

Rand’s passion for political justice stemmed from the totalitarianism she escaped [2] and the personal and economic freedom she relished. The naturalized citizen was a true American patriot. [3] Yet she would always be an outsider to America’s improvisational spirit and always be hypercritical of perceived imperfections.

Rand addressed three philosophical questions: what is reality, how do we know reality, and how should we act, given reality. [4] Her journey from “is” to “ought” resulted in an integrated philosophical system, which she christened Objectivism shortly after the release of Atlas Shrugged in 1957.

When asked by a Random House salesman to summarize the book’s philosophy “while standing on one foot,” she obliged by answering:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality

2. Epistemology: Reason

3. Ethics: Self-interest

4. Politics: Capitalism

Rand translated her response into simple language in her inaugural column for the Los Angeles Times in 1962:

1. Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed, or Wishing won’t make it so

2. You can’t eat your cake and have it too

3. Man is an end in himself

4. Give me liberty or give me death [5]

These four areas can be restated for a business or for a public policy agenda with the questions: What is business (energy) reality? How is this reality being approached? What is the motivation behind business action (public policy)? And what is the nature of the economic system in which business (government policy) operates? Before judgment can be passed, a philosophical framework is necessary for distinguishing virtue from vice.

Objectivism for Business, Public Policy

A is A—existence exists. Nothing could be simpler or more acknowledged—except by academic philosophers, who invoke traditions of thought denying that man’s mind can separate the real from the unreal.

The philosophy of Objectivism takes its name from objective reality, which gives rise to the law of causality—the necessary and identifiable connections that are always at work between entities and their effects, in nature and in human interaction. Man must discover, interpret, and account for reality to be successful in science, business, public policy, and personal life.

Failure to identify and respect the objective world with the most diligent reasoning courts disaster. In the no-nonsense world of “Mrs. Logic,” “good premises” always trumped “good luck.”[6]

Business entrepreneurship and public policy by government must respect an underlying order of causality that makes objectivity the North Star. Economist Joseph Schumpeter restated A=A when he observed, “Both business success and business failure are ideally precise. Neither can be talked away.”[7] Public policy too must respect the laws of human action, or what Ludwig von Mises called praxeology (the science of human action).

Subjectivism

The philosophical morass that Objectivism sought to escape was Subjectivism, defined by Rand as

the belief that reality is not a firm absolute but a fluid, plastic, indeterminate realm which can be altered, in whole or in part, by the consciousness of the perceiver—i.e., by his feelings, wishes or whims. It is the doctrine which holds that man—an entity of a specific nature, dealing with a universe of a specific nature—can, somehow, live, act, and achieve his goals apart from and/or in contradiction to the facts of reality, i.e., apart from and/or in contradiction to his own nature and the nature of the universe. [8]

The escape from reality sanctified by Subjectivism—a philosophy whose modern incarnation can be traced back to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and whose contemporary manifestation is broadly known as postmodernism [9]—can be played out on a grand scale by government planners, on a large scale by business tycoons, or in the microcosm of personal relationships.

Postmodernism is a multi-disciplinary movement whose “primary goal has been to challenge convictions about the objectivity of knowledge and the stability of language.” [10] Facts, truth, reality, communication, and open inquiry are more than questioned, as they are in the time-honored practice of “prove it”; they are trivialized as subjective and unknowable.

Postmodernism is a reaction to the outlook of modernism, “the notion of the freely acting, freely knowing individual whose experiments can penetrate the secrets of nature and whose work with other individuals can make a new and better world.”[11] To modernists, reality and truth are knowable and discoverable, language is understandable, and improvement is achievable by comprehending, communicating, and implementing the wisdom of social and natural science. Human progress is the goal and vindication of modernism.

What is the argument of postmodernism, variously described as complete skepticism, contemporary relativism, cynicism, deconstructionism, nihilism, obscurantism, perspectivism, romanticism, and mysticism?

Postmodernists maintain that the biases of society, and particularly the predilections of those who wield power, make the disinterested search for truth a charade. “Objectivity,” it is held, is “a disguise for power or authority in the academy.” [12] Perception is reality since reality is nothing more than “suspect dichotomies on the flux of events.”[13]Reality is dismissed as a fleeting, impermanent subjective state. Natural science is viewed with suspicion; social science wholly rejected. Predictably, postmodernists are especially opposed to “the modern, industrial, and urban way of life,”[14] because they sense what underlies it—reason, science, and freedom. Capitalism is despised as an arbitrary political economy with a class-based politics of truth.

Tensions and contradictions abound within postmodernism. It is a profoundly anti-intellectual intellectual movement. Postmodernists discredit themselves as seekers, communicators, and knowers of truth by questioning reality, language, and veracity. Somehow, they know that knowledge is unknowable.

Postmodernists are “deeply disillusioned intellectuals”[15] who want to change the world but cannot accept any end-states from capitalism to communism to anarchy. What began in literature and the arts as “a playful acceptance of surfaces and superficial style, self-conscious quotation and parody … and a celebration of the ironic, the transient, and the glitzy”[16] turned into a nonsensical creed against human thought and progress.

Postmodernism, denying “the individual as knower and doer,” becomes an ethos of “anything goes” and “never having to say you’re sorry.”[17] Such is the ethos of apologists for anti-energy energy such as the American Wind Energy Association.

From Objectivism to Capitalism

The primacy of objective reality and reason led Rand to endorse capitalism, “a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.”[18] Rand was impressed by the efficiency and social beneficence of the free market, but her case “was not Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek or Milton Friedman’s [utilitarian] defense of capitalism,” as two libertarian philosophers noted. Her argument rested on the moral legitimacy of self-interest pursued through voluntary relations and the moral illegitimacy of any value-seeking pursued by initiating coercion.[19]

Rand’s case for the morality of capitalism had three steps. Life for man requires the use of reason, not instinct as for the lower animals. Force is the antithesis of reason. Ergo, human relationships should be voluntary. Force can be used only in response to the criminal act of initiating force or fraud, a dictum akin to Adam Smith’s laws of justice. The sovereign state is to have a monopoly on the use of force—to be used for retaliation only.

Rand’s capitalism was logically dependent upon her first principles. As she explained:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism.[20]

Rand saw her philosophical defense of capitalism as unique and essential. “Capitalism is the only system based implicitly on an objective theory of values—and the historic tragedy is that this has never been made explicit.”[21]

Rand’s capitalism, like that of Adam Smith and Samuel Smiles, has a soul. Alan Greenspan, circa 1963, defended capitalism in an Objectivist framework: “Capitalism is based on self-interest and self-esteem; it holds integrity and trustworthiness as cardinal virtues and makes them pay off in the market place, thus demanding that men survive by means of virtues, not of vices.”[22]

Of course, the objective virtues of capitalists can be used in business to satisfy many subjective preferences, such as aesthetic ones. Two Rand interpreters noted that her moral formulation “allows for a society that values primarily art and literature to be just as capitalistic as one that values automobiles and boats—so long as both respect individual rights.”[23]

Rand remarked: “The magnificent progress achieved by capitalism in a brief period of time—the spectacular improvement in the conditions of man’s existence on earth—is a matter of historical record.”[24] She recited the statistics of increasing life expectancy in the United States from the turn of the century through 1968, in contrast to the significantly lower average in non-capitalistic countries. If Rand had been alive at century’s end, she would have celebrated the stunning increase in life expectancy, wages, and leisure time recorded in the United States in the relatively capitalistic twentieth century.

Moral action, by liberating human potential, was the fountainhead of this material progress. Rand praised the prime movers of business for raising living standards, but ultimately it was the moral behavior of capitalists and not the material bounty capitalism produced that led Rand to endorse the capitalist system and reject all forms of economic collectivism.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Aristotle, paraphrased by Rand, “The Goal of My Writing” (1963)  in Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature.  New York: Signet, [1971] 1975, p. 170.

[2] Ayn Rand, born Alissa Rosenbaum, graduated at age 19 from Petrograd University with a degree in history and philosophy. Two years later, she escaped the growing terror of Bolshevik Russia, first by making her way through Western Europe and then finding her home in the United States.

[3] Rand’s love of her adopted country was apparent when, in the intellectual climate of post-Vietnam 1974, she told the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point: “I can say—not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic roots—that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.”

[4] Peikoff, Leonard. “Why Businessmen Need Philosophy,” in Why Businessmen Need Philosophy (ed.: Richard Ralston). Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Press, 1999, p. 21.

[5] Rand, Ayn. “Introducing Objectivism” (1962). In Rand, ed. The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought. New York: The New American Library, 1989,  p. 3.

[6] The tenacity of Rand was reflected in an entry in her private journal in 1945, two years after the publication of The Fountainhead and at the beginning of what would be the thirteen-year Atlas Shrugged project: “My greatest personal mistake is ever to allow a word or a moment that ‘doesn’t count,’ i.e., that I do not refer to my own basic principles. Every word, every action, every moment counts.”

[7] Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Row [1942, 3rd. ed. 1950] 1962, p. 74.

[8] Rand, Ayn. “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” In Rand et al., The Voice of Reason, p. 19.

[9]Also see my Internet appendix to chapter 3 of Capitalism at Work, “The Roots of Philosophical Subjectivism.”

[10] Appleby, Joyce, et al. Telling the Truth About History (New York: W. W. Dutton, 1994, p. 201.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 295.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 201.

[15] Ibid., p. 206.

[16] Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 294.

[17] Jacques Derrida, quoted in Bradley, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. Salem, MA: Scrivener Press, 2009, p. 70.

[18] quoted in Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rand, quoted in Ibid.

[21] Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” in Rand, et al., Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1967, p. 23.

[22] Greenspan, Alan. “The Assault on Integrity.” In Rand, et al., Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1967, p. 121.

[23] Den Uyl, Douglas, and Douglas Rasmussen. “Capitalism.” In The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, edited by Den Uyl and Rasmussen. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984, p. 173.

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