Friday, 28 September 2012

"How Ayn Rand is wrecking football" from Salon.com


Introducing a new feature wherein Friday's posts will be, not the answer to a question on a given issue, but a somewhat more analytical and reactive look at how Ayn Rand is being described in the media.

Twitter was buzzing Wednesday morning with references to one of the most absurd articles attacking Ayn Rand I've read in a while, and that - to use a stronger tone than usual - is saying something. The NFL's usual referees had been on strike through the first 2 - 3 weeks of the season and Salon.com writer Paul F. Campos accused Ayn Rand's ideas of being responsible. The story was re-Tweeted by a few celebrity accounts, such as that of movie critic Roger Ebert and MSNBC personality Melissa Harris-Perry, and Rand's detractor's were very enthusiastic about the relatively novel way of demonizing her.

Campos's explanation is this: Ayn Rand believed that rich people are all great and non-rich people are all horrible; Ayn Rand advocated being principled and uncompromising; the NFL owners are rich; the NFL owners are refusing to compromise with people who aren't rich. Therefore, they must be not giving the refs what they want because Ayn Rand told them not to.

Putting aside how plain bizarre that method of deduction is, both of his premises regarding Ayn Rand's ideas are greatly inaccurate. The first (about the rich) is plain false, and the second (about principle) is badly twisted and misrepresented. Further, the article as a whole has such a high density of dishonest smears that it serves as a useful model of the nature and frequency of those spread about her today.

The article quotes a New Republic writer who says that "In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite." As I thoroughly explained in a previous post, Ayn Rand advocated no such thing, and consistently made it overwhelmingly clear that she didn't. Rand, characteristic of her refusal to simply take the opposite side of the same coin as those she opposed, rejected entirely Marx's class-centric division of people and their moral and political status.

That's why unscrupulous businessmen are among the villains of her novels, and a sculptor, a composer, an electrician, a judge, and two philosophy professors are among the protagonists. That is why she wrote, as quoted in my aforementioned post, that "A nation’s productive—and moral, and intellectual—top is the middle class. It is a broad reservoir of energy, it is a country’s motor and lifeblood, which feeds the rest." That "The middle class is the heart, the lifeblood, the energy source of a free, industrial economy, i.e., of capitalism; it did not and cannot exist under any other system; it is the product of upward mobility, incompatible with frozen social castes." That "[A] man of limited ability who rises by his own purposeful effort from unskilled laborer to shop-foreman, is a career-man in the proper, ethical meaning of the word [...] It is not the degree of a man’s ability that is ethically relevant in this issue, but the full, purposeful use of his ability." Etc.

The article also misrepresents Ayn Rand's conception of acting on principle. It states there is a "higher principle to be vindicated here" for the owners, that "the lesser orders had better not forget" businessmen are responsible for "everything good in America," which is allegedly why they had been holding out despite the relatively modest pay increase demanded by the refs. While Ayn Rand did advocate acting on principle and refusing to compromise on certain things, refusing to compromise for no reason other than to show the other party how much better you are than them is the furthest behavior from the kind she advocated. Haggling over the exact amount to pay someone in exchange for a value is, in fact, the example she gave of legitimate compromise in the opening paragraphs of her essay on the subject.
A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. [...] It is only in regard to concretes or particulars, implementing a mutually accepted basic principle, that one may compromise. For instance, one may bargain with a buyer over the price one wants to receive for one's product, and agree to a sum somewhere between one's demand and his offer. The mutually accepted basic principle, in such case, is the principle of trade, namely: that the buyer must pay the seller for his product.
Indeed, I suspect that the NFL referee strike is precisely the kind Ayn Rand would have supported. It was not, to my knowledge, aided by any kind of corruption or act of government. The referees' leverage originated from their own ability to create value, which they stopped doing because they believed it was not being appreciated. When they took it away, the value of their work was made obvious from the horrible consequences that resulted, from the failure of others to match their ability. While acting on a dramatically smaller scale, in my judgement the referees in that situation were if anything analogous to the heroes of "Atlas Shrugged." I congratulate them for winning their well-earned pay raise.

Various other matter-of-fact statements about her ideas strewn throughout the article are false as well. The statement quoted from a New Republic writer expresses a falsehood at a rate of about once per sentence, possibly more.

It starts "She believed that the principle of trade governed all human relationships..." In the context it was used, this implies that the "trader principle" Ayn Rand referred to was merely economic. It wasn't. It meant that all human relationships should be mutually beneficial; the benefit conferred to another does not have to be material.

It then says "...that in a free market one earned money only by creating value for others." But Ayn Rand never argued that free markets are able to categorically guarantee against some members of society being willing to purchase values she considered illegitimate, or occasional uncaught fraud and theft, etc.

This is followed with "Hence, one’s value to society could be measured by his income." While I've already indicated Ayn Rand didn't give income the status this implies, it's also using "value to society" as the standard, which Ayn Rand wouldn't have. Ayn Rand didn't consider that a legitimate, or even a truly coherent, standard by which to judge people. See: here and here.

Later, the article refers to "mere laborers who [...] have failed to climb to the top of our ruthlessly meritocratic social pyramid." In addition to repeating the problem with the aforementioned "in a free market" quote, this ignores the fact that every nation today, including the United States, is far from laissez-faire. Ayn Rand certainly understood that the mixed economies of the modern world are not "ruthlessly" merit-based, and that the wealthy are as likely as anyone to exploit the government to their undeserved benefit, as I showed. Further, Objectivism doesn't treat equality of opportunity as a prerequisite for a just society, and Ayn Rand had serious issues with the word "meitocracy" and its implications. This statement so grossly misrepresents Ayn Rand's overall philosophy and way of thinking that the list of her views that plainly contradict it is too long for me to list them all.


The article refers to the "the Rand-worshiping Ryan," despite the fact that far from worshiping her, his beliefs differ from hers considerably.

I could find more ways in which the article is dishonest, but I think the point is clear enough, that popular writers are apt to write about Ayn Rand with absolutely no regard for truthfulness. The next time you read one of Ayn Rand's critics saying something unfavorable about her and writing her off for you, remember this example of how low a standard of understanding and honesty her critics are willing to hold themselves to - and consider discovering her ideas for yourself, instead.