Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Two Champions Of Liberty

Frederic Bastiat, the most brilliant Economic journalist of all times passed away last week 160 years back.

I personally feel grateful to have come across Bastiat’s petition of the candle makers early in my life. He was the first proper Economist I had read. He held views strikingly similar to that of my favorite novelist-philosopher, Ayn Rand. Both made no theoretical original contribution to their respective fields, but arguably have advanced the cause of liberty more than almost everyone else. They spoke obvious truths which were habitually ignored. Few were as good at reductio ad absurdum as Rand and Bastiat. Both are looked down upon by the academia for lacking theoretical depth, writing intelligently, and characteristics which amounted to “lack of scholarly virtues” and “incompetence” in the eyes of the establishment. Despite the truckloads of avoidable mistakes both have made, they have shown us how much is possible without compromising intellectual rigor or pandering to men’s innate predispositions which are so inimical to the spirit of liberty. It is hard not to see the exceptional talent which roars through their works.

Bastiat, like Rand clearly saw the error of anti-capitalists who abhorred doctrines, systems and principles and ridiculed their “practice without theory and without principle.” They were united against the absurd claim that theory and practice stood opposed to each other. Both rejected pragmatism and understood where irrational skepticism and moral relativism will lead us to. Everything is “a point of view”, they knew, is a notion in which only fools and liars believe in, as it is a rationalization of the unjustifiable attitude that anything goes as long as one can get away with it! Men, both held, can’t survive by adopting a strategy of living on the range of the moment. Bastiat knew that economic science in itself can’t pronounce value judgments, but didn’t hesitate in seeing robbery for what it is, unlike later economists like Mises who were tied down by their rejection of moral absolutism. They found agreement in the conclusion that if morality was pitted against the self interest of a person, he will be forced to give up his moral sense. Bastiat went beyond to say that man will lose his moral sense or respect for law if one stood against the other. Rightful interests of men, they knew, won’t ever clash. The absurdity in imposing morality through force was something Rand and Bastiat stated in strikingly similar words. Rand, like Bastiat, scorned Government officials as exacting parasites. “Naked greed and misconceived philanthropy”, it is true, is the root of all social evils. When Bastiat asked “If mankind is not competent to judge for itself, why do they talk so much about universal suffrage?”, Rand thundered, according to the tribal notion, “You’re incompetent to run your own life, but competent to run the lives of others”. They had the same answer to the welfare state: “At whose expense?”

Their views on self interest were ridden with inconsistencies, but what they got right is far less appreciated by free market thinkers even today. Bastiat, unlike Rand held the largely indefensible position that one can work in social sciences without any reference to self interest. There is much merit in his position, though, in the sense that one would be compelled to support Capitalism even if one believed in the moral code of altruism, a point which Rand didn’t concede. However Bastiat missed the larger truth that people vote altruistically (as recent studies on voter behavior tells us), and as long as they remain in the state of colossal economic ignorance they are bound to support policies which harm the very larger good they have in mind. If voters rejected the morality of altruism, at least the ones who get a raw deal in the end will oppose a disastrous policy. If they considered altruism a virtue or common good a worthy end to pursue, the ones who oppose such a policy would be statistically insignificant.

3 comments:

  1. What makes you say that Ayn Rand's work was full of inconsistencies?

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  2. Venkatachalam,

    I didn't say that her works are full of inconsistencies. I said that her position on Selfishness can't be defended. She has a retrospectively obvious point that selflessness is not a virtue. It is also true that Selfish actions are almost always right. However one can think of "N" number of cases in which one can take advantage of others and profit. Now don't tell me that such acts are not selfish. You should give an independent reason why it is not so. The argument that such a person evades reality, context, responsibility and effort doesn't prove much, if it proves anything at all. Seems like an obvious point Rand, or any sensible person for that matter, shouldn't have missed, doesn't it? It is the simplicity of this argument which prevents many Objectivists from giving it much serious attention!

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  3. I missed to comment on this post. Such acts are selfish without doubt for the same reason that Attila the Hun murdered and plundered several thousands. By the same token, the acts of the political class when they swindle money is also selfish as it can be argued that they are making money for their family. But one has to define what is selfish by a morality proper for man. Man is a rational being and has to be selfish by necessity. He has to use his rationality and live on the basis of selfish principles like reason, purpose, self esteem, independence, integrity, justice. Looting others or getting undeserved rewards does not absolve one of acting against reality. His selfishness does not mean that he has to act on the range of the moment like a thug or animal. For further understanding can I refer you to Peter Schwartz's lectures in the Ayn Rand website?

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