Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mises, Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged: Braingasm and Buzzkill

After spending several hours being productive through doing freelance work online had given me a smug feeling sufficient enough to get me through the lonely night, I decided to reward myself through perusing the Journal of Libertarian Studies (Vol. 21, No. 4).  The gems through which I picked my way were letters from Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard to Ayn Rand complimenting her on writing Atlas Shrugged.  Each economist had different reasons for complimenting her, but both of their letters drew a hell of a reaction from me.

Ludwig von Mises
First reprinted was von Mises’ letter, dated January 1958.  He described the novel as “a cogent analysis of the evils that plague our society, a substantiated rejection of the ideology of our self-styled “intellectuals” and a pitiless unmasking of the insincerity of the policies adopted by governments and political parties.”  I have to complete agree with him.  After all, when approaching it from a historical context one can appreciate that the novel was completed and published in an era when the FDR administration’s Bismarckian-socialistic New Deal programs were seemingly cemented in modern economic history as the brilliant initiatives that “lifted” America out of the Great Depression.  Furthermore, the fact that FDR—an indisputably popular president—had died in office during a time of war gave his life and the legacy of his administration a decades-long immunity from heavy scrutiny or criticism.  To top it all off, the domestic economic boom of the late 1950s, due largely to the fact America was virtually the only country in the world whose full capability for mass-production wasn’t obliterated in World War II, gave the temporary illusion that the 90% marginal tax rate and subsequent government redistribution were actually working.

Ayn Rand was essentially painting a target on her own back on which the contemporary leftist intelligentsia were to initiate a free-for-all.  No great thinker in America has been so unpopular due to unfortunate timing since Ron Paul explained blowback in the 2007 Republican presidential debates.

The part of Mises’ one-page letter that drew the biggest reaction from me was his complimenting Rand for blatantly telling the masses what they’d never before been told: “you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”  Ouch!  Unfortunately, that’s true.  Nonetheless, I need some ice for that burn because—despite the dozens of pro-liberty articles I’ve written—I’m one of the masses.  My ideas on theory of political philosophy and political economy don’t amount to a grain of sand compared to the founders of McDonalds, the super chain which has fed billions of on-the-go persons worldwide at bottom-dollar prices.

While Mises’ bold and honest statement certainly is true, and it’s fine and dandy for conservative-libertarians like myself to read in a libertarian journal, it would greatly behoove the liberty movement if we found friendlier ways to communicate that basic economic concept to the statist masses.  Simply put—and many libertarians are guilty of this in the highest, as social media would attest—simply stating that bold economic concept in those bluntly harsh words makes us all look like heartless douche bags who have had one beer too many after a rough day at the office.  If we wanted to find a more eloquent and palatable (and generally less dick-ish) way to communicate that idea, I would recommend Rand’s talking points from John Galt’s radio address which Nathaniel Branden selected for “The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged,” comparing the medieval-era blacksmith to the industrialist Hank Rearden.

“If you worked as a Blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands and days of effort.  How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden?  Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles?  The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.”

There are many conservatives (neoconservatives) and liberals (leftists) who are willing to identify with bits and pieces of libertarian philosophy, which means our movement has a foot in the door of their mind for further conversion, provided we share our ideas with them in a civil and courteous manner rather than the shock/awe/insult tactic of which so many libertarians are guilty.

Murray Rothbard
Rothbard’s letter—lengthy and never straight to the point (very Rothbardesque indeed)—absolutely kisses up to Rand for two pages before moving on to another topic.  While I can generally agree with the spirit of his praises of Rand’s magna opus, I was slightly disappointed to read that Rothbard never particularly liked novels and saw them as “at best… a useful sugar-coated pill to carry on agit-prop work amongst the masses who can’t take ideas straight.”  While it’s certainly a good thing that Rand instilled in Rorhrbard a positive view of novels, I think he may have missed the point.

Most novels, like films, aren’t composed to communicate deep ideas but rather to entertain the masses.  Despite the entertainment factor, the novel has the potential to cleverly and deceptively communicate deep and inspiring ideas to those who would otherwise avoid such ideas in a nonfiction book, essay, or lecture.  Others who are content to stay within their own narrow worldview would avoid a book with a title implicit of opposing viewpoints, but would be very compelled to peruse the scandalous new novel all their friends are talking about.

Atlas Shrugged is by no means the first novel to communicate classical liberal (libertarian) ideas, change people’s worldviews, and inspire some type of action.  Hugo’s Les Misérables compelled French society to take a second look at the flawed and grievously unbalanced system of crime, punishment, and civil rights.  Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin convinced thousands that is was morally unacceptable for a human being to own another human being.  Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down spurred civilians in Axis-occupied countries to resist the occupiers.  Dickey’s Deliverance inspired grown men everywhere never to go camping again.  Finally, Atlas Shrugged made rugged individualists and free market advocates out of the staunchest socialists and middle-of-the-roaders.  Let everyone be reminded there’s a reason why the Mises Institute keeps novels in its catalogue...

The other bit from Rothbard’s letter that drew a surprised reaction from me—from the second half—I’d simply have to let you read in his own words.

…I owe you an explanation: an explanation of why I have avoided seeing you in person for the many years of our acquaintance. I want you to know that the fault is mine, that the reason is a defect in my own psyche and not a defect that I attribute to you. The fact is that most times when I saw you in person, particularly when we engaged in lengthy discussion or argument, that I found afterwards that I was greatly depressed for days thereafter.
…I can only think of one or both of the following explanations: (1) that my brain became completely exhausted under the intense strain of keeping up with a mind that I unhesitatingly say is the most brilliant of the twentieth century; or (2) that I felt that if I continued to see you, my personality and independence would become overwhelmed by the tremendous power of your own.

Of the two reasons Rothbard lists for his post-Ayn Rand depression, I could take #1 at face value.  This is most likely where Rand and Rothbard would have fallen in the classical trap many libertarians continue to fall in today: they’re already in perfect agreement on over 90% of the philosophy, but being stubborn intellectuals they’re often accustomed to approaching the libertarian ideal as “good” and every contradictory philosophy and system as “evil.”  Hence, their great minds would naturally approach intra-philosophical debates between different sub-topics within libertarianism as an extension of the ideological struggle between good and evil, and each party would argue and debate the merits of his trivial detail to the bitter end.  To witness how intense and exhausting such debates can be, one need only witness a round between a libertarian monarchist and anarcho-capitalist at the YAL National Convention or the ISFLC.

However, I feel that #2, “my personality and independence would be overwhelmed,” comes across to me as diplomatic speak for “you’re a controlling psycho.”  As much respect as I have for Rand as a brilliant novelist and philosopher, I’m fully aware of the personality shortcomings that made her notorious among libertarians of her day.  I’m reminded of the anecdotes offered by JoAnn Rothbard on her husband’s life which provide juicy glimpses into the world of Ayn and her cult.  Two examples I can think of right off the bat: 1) because she was a self-conscious chain smoker, Rand would make everyone who visited her apartment smoke.  No exceptions.  2) When asking her questions about her work, inquirers were only allowed to ask her to explain the meaning behind certain passages from a certain page.  They were never allowed to question her premises, her arguments, or her theories.  I’ll even add a third; in the words of Rothbard’s wife, “Ayn Rand was a very smart woman.  Anyone who could devise a philosophy, one of the main tenets of which she is the most sexually desirable person in the world, has got a lot on the ball.”  You all really ought to listen to JoAnn Rothbard’s reminiscences, since they’re very entertaining and the list of what Rand said and did to Murray (just one among many targets of her scorn) goes on and on.

The conclusion I draw from Rothbard’s letter to Ayn Rand is that Atlas Shrugged is an amazing novel that brings the reader to braingasm (intellectual orgasm), but Rand herself is a total buzzkill who ruins people’s day.  The legacies of General Patton, L. Ron Hubbard, and Alexander the Great all attest that people can be brilliant geniuses and total jerks at the same time.

My advice to libertarians is the following: take the unparalleled excellent work that Rand did to further spread the libertarian philosophy to fresh minds.  Just remember to be polite and respectful.  Not everyone can be blitzkrieged our of their statist/altruistic/socialistic worldviews.  These things take time.  After all, we’re talking about human beings and their very personal minds, not some computer hard-drive that can be programmed and reprogrammed in an hour.

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Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard photos courtesy of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and used via CC BY-SA 3.0 license.  Atlas statue photo by Michael Greene and used via CC BY 2.0 license.  The above 3 images were obtained from Wikimedia Commons.  Rothbard t-shirt art courtesy of Red Bubble; t-shirt by Liberty Maniacs. Buy the t-shirt here.

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