Monday, 9 May 2011

Objective: Objectivism - Freedom and Oppression

Time for me to start saying things that might get me in trouble...

I blogged here about the basic premises of Ayn Rand's objectivism and why I agree with them. It's now time to start talking about why I disagree with Rand and, indeed, with small-government economic conservatism in general. I have a whole bunch of problems with this family of ideologies, but I'm going to start with the biggest one today and then work towards the more detailed and technical problems later on.

I ended my last Objective: Objectivism post by saying that the basic point of objectivism is that we should be left as free as possible to pursue rational activity. So far so good. Where I disagree with Rand - and with libertarianism in general, as far as I can tell - is in defining what counts as 'free' and what we're supposed to be free from.

Rand conceives freedom in purely human terms - freedom from tyranny, or more technically freedom from threat-backed coercion by other human beings. John Galt and his colleagues go on and on about not working at the point of a gun. For Rand, 'freedom' means never suffering someone pointing a gun - actual, as in a robbery, or merely implicit, as with government taxes - at you and making you give up stuff.

Sidebar: this has led to a rhetoric on the part of some right-wing writers which I find really toxic, where every government levy of any kind is referred to as 'tyranny' and everyone on the big-government side of the debate is therefore by extension pro-tyranny. This is NOT HELPFUL and tends to cause debates on the subject to quickly devolve into screaming rows from which no-one profits.

Now, I'm not saying I think Rand's conception of freedom is wrong - it is important that we are free from coercion by others - but I do think it's far too narrow. I think there are other things which infringe human freedom to be rational, and which we cannot necessarily deal with alone (I do think there is a small problem when you take Rand's definition of freedom to its furthest logical extent, but that's a debate for another time). This is where I'm at odds with pretty much the entire small-government movement, I think.

What am I talking about? I have three things in mind;

1. Ill or poor health. I recognise government-sponsored healthcare is still a bit of a hot-button topic at the moment, but bear with me. At the most basic level, there are a number of serious mental health issues which interfere with rationality, affecting thousands or even millions of people every year.

Now, my understanding of objectivism is that it says it is both right and rational to promote greater (rational) freedom to all. This is in part because the more rational people there are in the world, the 'better' it is to be rational (I probably owe a blog post explaining why I think this way - again, bear with me), and in part because freedom and rationality are good in themselves.

So, if it is possible to have one's rational freedom restricted by a mental health condition - and unless you're going to say that mental health patients are less than human, you have to agree - then we should be trying to free people from this kind of restriction.

It gets worse, though; Rand's conception of rationality - quite rightly, I think - is a practical one; rationality involves not just thinking, but productive activity. It is rational to work for your living; irrational to try to avoid doing so. And this means that a whole range of non-mental problems also have a freedom-limiting effect; can you do your job with a broken arm or leg? How about if you're paralysed from the neck down, or if you have cancer?

I think Rand's argument at this point would be that it's up to you to provide for yourself in case of health disasters, but this simply isn't possible in all cases; very few people, even in the rich, developed part of the world, make enough money to cover these sorts of situations without help. Rand and her ilk might say that if you can't make enough money to take care of yourself, you don't deserve to live, but (I'll get to this in more detail in a moment) this is a ridiculous and reprehensible position.

Rand thinks governments are justified when they act to promote freedom and prevent oppression (specifically, as I understand it, through police services and military action against aggressive foreign powers); I say that by Rand's own rules, the same applies to health issues. If you are prevented from a rational activity by a genuine health issue, the situation falls into the same category as being mugged.

2. Poverty. This is where we get really problematic. It's an archetypal right-wing position that the only cause of poverty is personal laziness; you are poor because you don't work hard enough. Unfortunately for the people who feel this way, the evidence is against it. It may well be the case that for people born to middle-class or higher backgrounds in rich nations, the only way to end up poor is through laziness (or carelessness, which is more or less the same thing). It certainly isn't true anywhere else in the world.

Many people world-wide are born in poverty traps like Ethiopia and Somalia. No matter how hard they work, there is no way they can ever hope to escape, because the system which would allow them to do so is 'broken' at a higher level. It is impossible for them to make enough to live on, and they can't move somewhere more profitable because that would require saving a resource surplus and they have no surplus to save.

Totally failed economies make a powerful and simple example, but it happens in the developed world too, in America and Britain and so on. There are different pressures involved, but it's still possible to end up in a poverty trap.

There are plenty of people living below the breadline in the developed world, particularly with the economy in its current state. People's jobs evaporate, so they lose their homes; without a home address, they can't get new jobs. They get stigmatised for being homeless. If they do find housing, they have an x-month or even x-year gap in their employment record to explain to potential recruiters.

There are other poverty traps, too; the single mother, for example, who has to balance two kids and two minimum-wage jobs totalling over twelve hours a day - which will barely pay for two kids. Where is she going to find time to improve her situation? There is a basic physical limit to human endurance in terms of how much sleep and food one needs; finding a job takes time which this woman simply cannot spare.

The argument from the right always seems to be 'you deserve what you get and you get what you deserve', but what people 'deserve' is a matter of justice. Whatever justice is, it involves making sure people get what they deserve, both in terms of receiving what you've earned and in terms of making sure you don't get what you haven't earned (for example, by stealing).

My basic point is that for you to deserve to be in a situation, it has to be a situation of your own making. You have to have caused yourself to be in that situation. Now, assuming that you are a perfectly scrupulous and diligent worker, imagine that the company you work for goes bust tomorrow. The cause is nothing to do with you; maybe the owner was fiddling the numbers, or maybe a freak accident caused the company to lose its factory with no hope of insurance. You end up unemployed. In this job market, you can't find a job in time to stop your house being repossessed. It isn't long before you're facing the poverty trap I described above (let's assume your friends are all rigorous objectivists who give charity to no-one). Did you deserve that?

Perhaps Rand would argue you should have checked the company more carefully, but even if you did that, economics is not a precise science, nor one in which every phenomenon is understood. Sometimes companies just get caught out. Sometimes jobs just disappear. Skill-sets become redundant without warning ('editor-in-chief-of-a-big-publisher' maybe the next to go ;D).

What I'm getting at is that Rand is talking about matters of principle - should we help people out of their poverty traps? There are plenty of examples, for sure, of people who end up in poverty traps that are of their own making, and these tend to be the examples we're aware of because they tend to happen in the cities of the developed world, which is where I suspect most of us in this debate are living and working, but there are also people who did everything they could and still got caught. If our principle is that defence of freedom is a legitimate basis for government action - even a moral duty of human beings in general - then I say we're obliged to at least help those who did what they could and were just unlucky.

There's a legitimate question over what counts as 'doing what they could', which brings me to;

3. Ignorance. In a sense, ignorance (by which I mean not knowing how to do something as well as not knowing that it can be done or that it's worth doing) is obviously a restriction on your freedom; if you don't know that you are free, or even just that you are free to do some particular thing, you can't do it.

Equally, in another sense, ignorance is no excuse (as Rand would - rightly - point out). To take an example from 'The Fountainhead', look at Gail Wynand. Wynand is a self-made, self-taught newspaperman. Because he is self-taught, none of us can look at him and say 'Oh, I could have been Gail Wynand, if only I knew all his tricks'. He figured out those tricks himself; he earned his position by going out and learning how to reach it. We can't use our ignorance of those tricks as an excuse for failing to be as successful as Wynand.

However, that leads neatly into my main point here, which concerns Howard Roark (it actually applies to Wynand and everyone else who's ever learned a skill, too, but Roark makes a very clear example). Whatever the aesthetic merits of Roark's work (sidebar: Rand allegedly based Roark somewhat on Frank Lloyd Wright, whose architectural work I love), one thing the novel makes clear is that Roark is a very good architect from a technical point of view; that's why he was able to design Cortlandt to budget.

But Roark didn't learn the technical side of architecture - or draftsmanship - on his own the way Wynand learned his tricks. Roark studied at Stanton. He studied well and hard and did a lot of work, but he had to learn from another source; if he'd tried to work out the engineering principles underlying architecture by trial and error, he'd never have got to the point of building a building (and you might well not want to be the first to go upstairs in that building, either).

It's never made clear how Roark was able to afford Stanton. These days, it costs thousands and thousands of pounds or dollars to attend even the cheap universities and get this level of training. Very few people - maybe 10-15% of the population of the richest countries in the world - can afford this. If Howard Roark had been born in rural China or India, would he have been able to afford his training? And if not, I say he isn't free to be an architect, which is very clearly the right and proper form of his rationality (a very Aristotelian idea, it's worth noting).

I'm going to make myself even more unpopular that I already have and say that I believe education - all education - should be free. Before you jump down my throat, let me make three points in my favour; firstly, the internet revolution means that education can be free, because information is now post-scarce (infinitely copiable and redistributable essentially without cost). Secondly, it's in our interests to surround ourselves with well-educated people, because it increases the odds of finding the solution to any given problem to have more brains on the task, either in competition or collaboration.

My third argument that education should be free comes from Rand's own principles. Rationality, she says, is the highest virtue, and I agree wholeheartedly. But if rationality is the highest virtue, it comes with a duty (because all virtues involve duties) to promote rationality; a duty to teach rationality to the next generation, and to give them the freedom to be rational.

To summarise, then, my main disagreement with Rand is over the definition of 'freedom'. To Rand, you are free if no other human being is forcing you to (or to not) do something. I say in contrast that there are non-human phenomena which can legitimately be described as oppressing you (in the sense of restricting your freedom). I've identified three broad categories which these oppressors fall into; poor health, poverty and ignorance. If there is a moral duty to defend freedom and/or rationality - and I think Rand would agree that there is - then there is a moral duty to eliminate these phenomena.

I want to finish by making a clarification; I'm not saying that everyone who claims to be oppressed by their health, poverty or ignorance should just get what they ask for. I am not a looter, however much you might now be determined to treat me as one. I'd personally be deeply distrustful of anyone claiming to have been oppressed in this way; the people who really deserve helping are too busy trying to help themselves to do this sort of complaining (the most deserving are probably those proud enough to insist at first that the help should go elsewhere and to accept it only under protest).

All I'm really arguing is that people deserve a chance to be rational, and that there are things besides other human beings which can prevent that.

No comments:

Post a Comment