Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Controversy after OCON 2016

I got back from an awesome OCON filled with guitar-cello duets, talent-show selfies, an awesome fireworks show, and oh, right, some interesting talks about Objectivism as applied to art, childhood education, and foreign policy. It was my second time going (first was last year), and I had a great, but exhausting time.

Obvious disclaimer is obvious: I speak only for myself. My opinions are not necessarily those of ARI, OCON, my employer, people on Facebook who attended OCON, or crab people.

Today, I saw a blog post by an anarcho-capitalist ("ancap" for short) student flutter across my Facebook feed which was highly critical of multiple aspects of the conference. As a bit of background for non-Objectivists, libertarianism (of which anarcho-capitalism is a subset) and Objectivism have a complicated relationship. Objectivism is a single, complete philosophy which includes a theory of politics while libertarianism is a "big tent" of many different philosophies which are united only by a rough consensus on some matters of politics. To greatly oversimplify the situation, libertarians tend to say to Objectivists, "you like the free market, you're basically one of us," to which Objectivists say "our disagreements on the layers of philosophy below politics are too great for Objectivism to be considered a kind of libertarianism." As with all things true on the internet, the relationship can be summed up with a gif:
If you're interested in more, here's what Ayn Rand (the creator of Objectivism) had to say about libertarians.
Back on topic, many fellow conference-goers responded to the initial post with a great deal of condemnation, suggesting that the student obtained the grant under fraudulent pretenses, that his behavior was rotten, etc. Many people took issue with the beginning of the article's focus on the cost of nearby food (there were at least two grocery stores within two blocks) and technical issues with some of the presentations (which I did not notice, though I missed a number of the early-morning talks). There was not much explanation behind the more substantive criticisms of positions taken (Ted Cruz, Iran, Ron Paul), which people interpreted as further indication that the author had prejudged Objectivism and had gone to the conference only to gather material for an attack piece.

My take: since the article was posted to a site by Lew Rockwell, who is apparently an anarcho-capitalist, part of the reason for the lack of substance behind the criticisms is due to the article being written for a specific audience. When writing for an ancap audience, you can simply say "they criticized Ron Paul" and rely on your readers to know why that's bad and what it implies. This applies to any group of people; when you have a shared context, you don't have to spend time explaining the basics.

To my fellow Objectivists, I can appreciate the frustration over someone smearing something you like, but the vitriol doesn't help us achieve any values. At best, angry comments offer an outlet for frustration (I'll defer to the psychologists on the utility of that), and at worst, it paints us as bullies who can't handle even substance-free criticism. And seriously, be careful when throwing around accusations of "fraud." There are real consequences to watering down the definition of "fraud," and they are particularly bad for those who criticize the government. I don't know the details of ARI's application process for student grants, but assuming he didn't blatantly lie on whatever application he sent in, ARI knew to whom they were granting the scholarship.

In response to the reaction on Facebook, the author wrote a follow-up piece which went into much more depth about specific disagreements with Objectivism and people at ARI. With or without your permission, I'm going to spend the rest of this already-too-long blog post addressing those points. To save you, dear reader, the trouble, I've bulletized the main points of the piece and provided links to the Ayn Rand Lexicon (henceforth "ARL") which address each issue. I also have my own responses below.
  1. "I thought objectivism properly understood was easily reconciled with anarcho-capitalism": see ARL on anarchism. EDIT: Another, more detailed article on Anarchism vs Objectivism.
  2. Foreign policy, specifically Iran: See ARL on foreign policy. I'll have a little more to say below.
  3. Government ‘Enforcement’ of Rights: ARL on government.
  4. The Moral Status of Government: More below.
If you're really interested in the arguments about government's role and justification, Ayn Rand articulated the points with far more clarity than I will in The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. But if you've made it this far, I'm guessing you're interested in what I have to say, or are looking for solid proof that I'm some horrible person, in which case I'll save you the trouble by admitting that, for a brief part of my childhood, I preferred Return of the Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back.

0. Objectivism as compatible with anarcho-capitalism

This essentially boils down to the old "open vs closed" objectivism debate. For the precious few of you non-Objectivists who have waded through this much verbiage, the debate revolves around whether Objectivism is "the stuff Ayn Rand wrote or personally authorized," and is therefore closed to modification, or "a school of thought, with a range of disagreements about basic or high-level principles," in which case it is open to modification. Put another way, the debate is "given that Ayn Rand is dead, can Objectivism be modified?" Open Objectivism says yes; closed Objectivism says no. This relates to anarcho-capitalism because Ayn Rand was very explicit in rejecting anarchism, so if you accept closed Objectivism, then there isn't really much else to talk about.

Personally, I accept the closed Objectivism argument. If you want to disagree with her on philosophical issues, that's fine, but don't call the result "Objectivism." Take a bit of pride in your work and name it after yourself. If I created a philosophical system that was pretty similar to Objectivism but had four metaphysical axioms instead of three and talked about "Parrot Epistemology" instead of "Crow Epistemology," (that's a little Objectivism humor for you right there) I'd call it "Danism" and say it was inspired by or based on Objectivism. It would be wrong call it Objectivism because if it doesn't have three axioms and a crow, it isn't Objectivism.

To psychologize for a moment, I suspect this tendency comes from wanting to call oneself "an Objectivist" but then disagreeing about specific issues. The (false) dilemma then arises: do I give up the label "Objectivist" or change what Objectivist means? My strategy is not to take the label "Objectivist" too strictly or seriously. If I find that I disagree with Ayn Rand on something, I'll let her make her case, and come to my own conclusion or decide that I don't know enough about the subject to have a firm opinion. If I reach a conclusion different from hers, that's fine because I don't put much stock in being "an Objectivist." There is a major difference between "I agree with the philosophical principles Ayn Rand identified because and to the extent that they are true" and "I must, as a matter of duty, agree with every single word ever uttered or written by Ayn Rand."

Ayn Rand had an essay condemning people who try to use the prestige of a term or movement to promote incompatible ideas, but for the life of me, I can't remember what it was called. The person is metaphorically committing intellectual trademark infringement. They use the prestige of the name to promote something different or incompatible.

Oh jeez, this is getting long. I'm going to grab a glass of wine and forge ahead.

Ahh Francis Ford Coppola. I may not know what you did to become famous, but I appreciate your winery giving me a free bottle to perform a swing dance.

1. Foreign policy

This section will (hopefully) be shorter than the previous one, since I don't know enough about foreign policy to have strong opinions. I can identify some places where the article gets some things wrong, though. For general Objectivist principles of foreign policy, see the lexicon and for current thinking on what to do about Islamic totalitarianism, see Winning the Unwinnable War, which I've bought but have yet to read.

So let's dive into some quotations!
The notion that the political leaders of Iran, ostenisbly [sic] with the consent of their population (after all, governments are formed by the consent of the governed in the objectivist view), must “alter their constitution, “denounce terrorism” (which I’m sure is to be defined by morally just US officials), and “acknowledge the state of Israel” before any negotiations begin is a recipe for war.
The first mistake here is in "after all, governments are formed by the consent of the governed in the objectivist view." This parenthetical confuses an "is" with an "ought." Objectivism holds that for a government to be legitimate, its power must derive from the consent of the governed, but it definitely does not deny the existence of governments which rule by the fear of the governed. Now, Objectivism is not a social contract philosophy, and does not hold that actual written consent is required for a government to be legitimate. There's no "implicit social contract" floating around somewhere that we all have somehow agreed to. There is no problem in punishing someone for murder if that person did not consent to the principle that murder is bad.
It does not follow [original emphasis] that since crimes occur between state and non-state individuals in another country, that a third, otherwise unassociated party has the moral authority to call for the “total destruction” of the way of life (Islam) of the conflicting parties.
Quite correct, but that is not the argument being made. This is where my lack of knowledge of foreign policy rears its head. The argument is not "the Iranian government hangs gay people from construction cranes, so we need to destroy them," it is "the Iranian government provides direct material and financial support to groups which have attacked and killed Americans." Destroying the government of Iran, therefore, is a matter of self-defense against someone who has already attacked us. Elan Journo's argument, as I understand it, is that we are already at war with Iran, since they have repeatedly attacked us, so fighting back would not be starting a war, it would be finishing a war that someone else started. Yes, yes, the Shah was bad and we supported him. Again, I don't know enough to have a first-handed opinion, so the most you'll get out of me is "I didn't know that. I'll have to think more about it."
Because of the tremedous [sic] destruction wrought in war, the provocation for which you adovcate [sic], this foreign policy is an anti-human policy. As such, it is not [original emphasis] an element of a philosophy “for living on earth” (as we were reminded objectivism is, at least five different times by five different speakers). Rather, it is a policy for “death on earth,” and a philosophy which accepts it part and parcel is a philosophy for precisely the same.
Again, the argument is that they have already attacked us and continue to do so, therefore our options are to stand by and let them kill us or stop them. Force in this instance is justified in the same way as force against a serial killer is justified: to live on earth, you must stop people from killing you.

2. Government ‘Enforcement’ of Rights

At this rate, I'll be done with this post just in time for the next OCON.
One is not logically permitted to assert that individuals are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that therefore, ipso facto, we must form governments to protect these alleged rights.
This is not a primary claim, but one arrived at after a lot of build-up. Rights are first discussed in chapter 10 of 12 in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, a comprehensive description of her philosophy. Objectivism doesn't start with "individuals are entitled to certain rights," it starts with "open your eyes. Hey! There's stuff!" and then builds up slowly to reach high-level concepts of rights. Ayn Rand's essay The Objectivist Ethics walks up through this entire line of reasoning. The part about rights and governments comes up about 90% of the way through.
Before addressing the second part of the non sequitor, let’s focus on the first. What the hell is a right to the pursuit of happiness?
Got you covered. It is the right to take those actions necessary for a rational being to achieve values that are in fact life-enhancing. Want to know more? Read The Objectivist Ethics. It's in there.
Suppose it makes someone rather happy to use Dallas police as target practice, or for others to use minorities as punching bags and bullet pin-cushions. Hey, they’re pursuing their right to happiness aren’t they?
Objectivism is not subjectivism. Rand chose the name "Objectivism" to emphasize that distinction. It isn't enough just to do whatever you feel will make you happy, you have to figure out what will actually benefit your life in a long-term way. Doing drugs might feel good in the moment, but it is actually self-destructive. The right to the pursuit of happiness is based on the ethical standard of the pursuit of life-enhancing values.
See, what’s needed to denounce both [original emphasis] of these forms of behavior is a consistent theory of property — of just ownership over scarce resources (bodies included).
This is backwards. It isn't the right to property that justifies a right to life, it is the right to life which justifies the right to property. A right to life means the right to take those actions necessary to support one's life. Quoting Rand, "Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave."
I assert, as a substantive challenge to you, my dear objectivist friends, that you have no theory of property. The absence of such a theory, and the patchwork substitution for it with banal references to what is actually a secessionary document, creates an ideological vacuum. All sorts of conflicts are thereby justified (see Point One above).
Theory of property rights.

I'll add that given the limited time of the lectures at OCON (or any lecture given by anyone ever), a certain context of knowledge must be assumed. You can't begin every lecture by reading the entirety of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (henceforth "OPAR"). Different lectures assume a different baseline context of knowledge, and the ones that referenced the Declaration of Independence assumed a certain level of knowledge of the Objectivist defense of rights. This is a fine balancing act that such a conference has to play. People have different levels of knowledge of the philosophy, and the organizers and speakers have to try to put together a program that is accessible to first-time attendees as well as interesting to 14-year veterans. Sometimes this means taking the Objectivist theory of rights as a given.
But suppose we accept, arguendo, that one does have the rights so cited (this requries [sic] setting aside the objectivist admonition that rights are positive, rather than negative as is the libertarian position — but that is a discussion for another time).
 As Wikipedia defines them, Objectivism does not advocate for positive rights with the exception of police protection of person and property, if one considers that a positive right. As an aside, I find it strange to consider police protection a positive right. I mean, yes, it is "someone (the police) is obliged to do a thing for you (protect your life and property)," but then it leaves negative rights without any enforcement capability. Considering police protection as a positive right seems to say "you have the right to property, but if someone violates that right, then eh, that's a bummer." I'd have to think about it more.
Private security firms and their employees, of which there are already three times as many as state (anti-)security agents, are perfectly capable of enforcing rights.
But they do so only within a context in which there is a single, ultimate arbiter. If security firm A and security firm B have a disagreement about some infraction, they can go to the government to have the dispute resolved. If A doesn't agree to the resolution and tries to force B to do things A's way, the government can resort to overwhelming force to enforce the decision of the court. This is why having a fair court system is so crucially important.

Imagine instead you have A and B, but no government. They disagree, even after having their dispute mediated by C, an impartial arbiter. Now the only thing stopping them from resorting to violence is the fear of mutual destruction. We have models of this behavior, they are gangs. They are characterized by periods of relative peace punctuated by all-out violence when mutual threats break down or one gang becomes much weaker than another.
Thus, for my critics: I challenge you to the following: prove that a right to the pursuit of happiness does not breed conflict, and prove that the state is necessary to enforce rights.
This gets into the nature of human beings and what counts as a rational pursuit of happiness. A core conclusion of Objectivism is that the interests and rights of rational men do not conflict. If I go out into the world and pursue my values, trading with people who are doing the same, then we can all be better off and nobody is threatened. When I go to CVS to buy some gum, I am pursuing my happiness by getting some yummy gum and the CVS workers are pursuing their happiness by working to earn a living. It is only by robbing the store, which entails treating other people not as rational equals but as victims to be plundered, that I could breed conflict. But this is not the pursuit of happiness of a rational individual; it is an attempt to circumvent rationality by gaining a value (the gum) while attacking what is required to create it (voluntary exchange). On this point, I highly recommend The Objectivist Ethics.

Proving the state is necessary to enforce rights is a big topic, but the outline is that in order to banish force from social affairs (which itself is necessary to allow people to act on their judgment), there needs to be a single, final arbiter of what constitutes a violation of rights, and it needs to have a monopoly on the initiation of physical force. Otherwise, you end up in the bad outcome with A and B I described above.

Okay, now it's really late, so I'm going to speed through the rest. Right after I get another glass of wine.

Shut up, sunk cost fallacy! You have no power over me!

3. The Moral Status of Government

So this is about taxation, and here, I think you disagree less with Objectivists than you think you do.
I was told by [O]nkar Ghate that Rand would have preferred that taxation be voluntary. Well, to him and to others who hold this view, I invite you to examine reality. You might notice that taxation is defined by the element of coercion. A consentual [sic] transfer of funds from one party to another is not “voluntary taxation.”
First off, Ayn Rand advocated voluntary funding of government. She wrote an essay called "Government Financing in a Free Society," in The Virtue of Selfishness about this very issue. Yes, taxation implies coercion, so "voluntary taxation" is a contradiction. However, it is shorter than "voluntary funding of government services," and within the context of an Objectivist conference, the meaning is understood.
Conversely, when funds are involuntarily transferred from one party to another, it is called taxation, also known as theft.
Total agreement here.

It should be noted that, in the transition to a free society, coercive taxation would be one of the last things to go, not the first. The legitimate functions of government still need to be funded, and pulling out the rug by outlawing taxation would be throwing the good out with the bad. There are plenty of things that can be eliminated tomorrow without any disruptions to legitimate government business such as minimum wage laws, most regulations, restrictions on free speech, and many more. There are other things which should be eliminated eventually, but not overnight. For example, the public schools should all be privatized, but it would be worse to shut down all public schools tomorrow because schooling is not a legitimate function of government. Even if the entire population was on board with privatizing all education, changes in management and funding structure take time to do well.

It is also important to realize that we are nowhere near the point where we can eliminate taxation based purely on political consensus. We are so far away from having even a whole percentage point of the population interested in eliminating coercive taxation that it just isn't worth spending a lot of time thinking about exactly how that transition will take place. It is worth having a high-level answer to someone who says "okay, I'm on board with this whole government protecting rights business, but how do you pay for it?", but our efforts are better spent convincing people that we should move towards voluntary government financing before coming up with detailed plans on how much money would actually be raised.

Final Thoughts

I'm so close to being done that I can see the whites of its eyes!
Other possible challenges abound. Why praise the neo-con, war-monger, anti-lifer Ted Cruz
The Objective Standard outlines the argument well. Basically, the case was that he is surprisingly good on some things, really bad on others, but his ability to act on his bad policies is relatively limited.
I couldn’t let myself forget the ARI/objectivist defense of intellectual property. This is a major error.
Oh god I want to go to sleep and intellectual property is so complicated but I have to add a response or else something bad will happen wait why do I care about someone being wrong on the internet?


I'll just link the patents and copyrights page of ARL and pretend that suffices.

I'm done

This took way more time than I should have spent on it, but there you go. I'm sorry you didn't have a good time at OCON; in addition to the profound and good ideas, there are a lot of cool people there from all walks of life. In what seems like the unlikely event that you decide to come back again next year, come and find me. I'd be more than happy to discuss the ideas raised to the best of my knowledge and ability.