Sunday, December 28, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 13

Objectivism and Austrian Economics: Salsman as “hyper-inflationist.” Stefan Karlsson over at complained a few years ago that many ARI-affiliated economists have “abandoned Mises” in favor of “supply-siders”:
[I]f you look at their articles on economics [over at], you will ... find the pro-inflationist supply-side economics advocated there.… This is particularly true if you look at older articles from 1999 or 2000. There you'll find many articles strongly attacking Ayn Rand's former associate Alan Greenspan—but not because he has abandoned his former hard money stance. No quite to the contrary, in true supply-sider fashion he was attacked for not being inflationist enough. Of course, in true supply-sider fashion they profess to be anti-inflation only to go on to attack the Fed for not lowering interest rates and increasing the money supply.

Karlsson has discovered a glaring contradiction at the heart of those Objectivists who, like Salsman, reject Austrian economics: they are all inflationists! It is this sort of thing that causes those of us at ARCHNBlog to be so very unimpressed whenever we hear Objectivists making virtuous noise about “reason” and logic and “rationality.” In practice, those who talk a great deal about “reason” are almost always found to be mere rationalizers of their own personal interests and private shibbeloths. Salsman, for example, is an investment analyst for his own company, InterMarket Financing, which “quantifies market price indicators to guide the asset allocation decisions and trading strategies of institutional investors. [InterMarket Financing helps] pension plans, asset managers, financial institutions and hedge funds use disciplined methods to outperform benchmarks.”

Given how embedded such financial advising firms have been in the speculative excesses of the last quarter century, it is not surprising that Salsman would favor an economic ideology that supported the economic conditions that feathered his own nest. The difficulty for Salsman was trying to harmonize his supply side ideology with orthodox Objectivism’s traditional allegience with Austrian economics. It turned out to be easier than many of us might have expected. There already existed points of difference between Rand and the Austrians (e.g., Mises’ neo-Kantian epistemology and “radical subjectivism”), and Salsman merely exaggerated these differences and added several more of his own, nearly all based on absurd economic heresies He has even had the gall to excuse for Rand for her advocacy of Austrian economics: “By the way, I do not fault Ayn Rand for having promoted the Austrian School in the 1960s,” he writes. “I suspect she was merely trying to suggest the best economics books then available, realizing they weren't perfect.”

What is puzzling about all this is that no one over at ARI should raise a word in protest. Since economics is considered a non-philosophical subject-matter, differences of opinion in that discipline are allowed. While that is entirely understandable, shouldn’t there be at least some limits? After all, would ARI wish to be affiliated with an individual who denied that the earth is a globe? Wouldn’t they, at the very least, wish to be on record as not advocating so obvious a detour into blatant evasion of reality? Well, as it happens, Salsman’s view are nearly on the same plane as those of the flat-earthers. He scorns what he calls the “myth of scarcity” and holds that the Stock Market of early 2000 was not overvalued!

Incidentally, George Riesman, who represents the traditional view among orthodox Randians that seeks to integrate Objectivism with Austrian economics, had a reply of sorts to Salsman’s criticism of Austrians for favoring interest-rate hikes by the Fed:
Austrian economists ... actually do advocate this and it’s perfectly correct for them to do so [Riesman wrote]. This is because we would all be better off if the Federal Reserve refused to lend except at an interest rate that was too high for anyone being willing to borrow at. In that case the Federal Reserve would be unable to affect the market in any way and might as well not exist. The Federal Reserve exists in order to make interest rates lower than they would otherwise be. It tries to achieve this by creating new and additional money and lending it out. The new and additional money appears on the market as an increase in the supply of loanable funds and in this way brings interest rates down. However, once the new and additional money gets out into circulation and is spent and respent, sales revenues and profits tend to rise throughout the economic system, which serves to increase the demand for loanable funds. If the Fed does not raise interest rates but simply provides more new and additional money to meet the additional demand for funds, the problem grows worse and worse. A rise in interest rates is essential to choke off the flow of new and additional money—to prevent a continuous acceleration in the creation of new and additional money. In objecting to this rise in interest rates, Salsman is in the position of advocating hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is profoundly destructive of wealth and rests on the total obliteration of any kind of objective standards in the economic system.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 12

Objectivism and Austrian Economics: entrepreneurship. Richard Salsman is on record for criticizing von Mises’ “(absurd) theory of the essentially-passive, arbitrage-chiseling entrepreneur (and ‘the consumer is king’).” Now this issue has been a bone of contention between Austrain economists and Objectivists for several years. Nearly eight years ago, Mark Skousen, a prominent exponent of free market ideology and Austrian economics, penned a mildly critical attack of Rand’s view of entrepreneurship and what he describes as Rand’s “strange, distorted view of the money-making process.”

[Rand’s hero from her novel The Fountainhead, Howard] Roark denies a basic tenet of sound economics--the principle of consumer sovereignty... [T]he goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them! Discovering and fulfilling the needs of customers is the essence of market capitalism... In short, Howard Roark's [view of the customer] is irrational and contradicts a basic premise of Rand's Objectivist philosophy. For Roark, A is not A. He wants A to be B--his B, not his customer's A. Thus, Ayn Rand's ideal man misconceives the very nature and logic of capitalism--to fulfill the needs of customers and thereby advance the general welfare. As Ludwig von Mises writes in his book, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, "The profit system makes those men prosper who have succeeded in filling the wants of the people in the best possible and cheapest way. Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers." (1972:2) Apparently Howard Roark doesn't believe in consumer sovereignty. As he states in his final court defense, "An architect needs clients, but he does not subordinate his work to their wishes." (1994:714) Really?

So who is right about this issue? Is Salsman and Rand right that the entrepreneur should never "subordinate" his work to the wishes of his clients? Or is Skousen and Mises correct in their emphasis on consumer sovereignty?

Although Rand and Salsman are clearly guilty of exaggerating and over-stating the case, their view comes a tad closer to the truth than the Skousen-Mises position which over-emphasizes consumer sovereignty. Although few if any entrepreneurs would succeed if they were as inflexible and uncompromising as Howard Roark, it is entrepreneurial leadership and not consumer sovereignty that is critical in advancing a capitalist economy. As economist Joseph Schumpeter explained in his classic The Theory of Economic Development:
[Although] we must always start from the satisfaction of wants, since they are the end of all production, and the given economic situation at any time must be understood from this aspect, yet innovations in the economic system do not as a rule take place in such a way that first new wants arise spontaneously in consumers and then the productive apparatus swings round through their pressure. We do not deny the presence of this nexus. It is, however, the producer [i.e., the entrepreneur] who as a rule initiates economic change, and consumers are educated by him if necessary; they are, as it were, taught to want new things, or things which differ in some respect or other from those which they have been in the habit of using.

Of course, in educating consumers, the entrepreneur does not have unlimited scope. It would be virtually impossible for any entrepreneur to educate consumers to prefer candles to light bulbs or black bread to meat. Consumer “wants” (rather than “sovereignty,” which overstates the case) remain critical. And so Skousen is right on target when he writes:
[The Fountainhead's] thesis is entirely unrealistic in the everyday world of commercial building. Occasionally a client values more the notoriety of living in a home built by a signature designer than getting what he really wants, but not many. Almost all of Rand's scenarios are extreme and idealistic, a strategy that works to sell novels, but does violence to all sense of reality. Normally architects work closely with the client and make numerous changes in order to fit the client's needs.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 11

Objectivism and Austrian Economics: Salsman’s Revisionism. In the recommended bibliography of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, one finds more than a dozen books from economists associated with the so-called Austrian school, included eight works by Ludwig von Mises, whom Rand regarded as a “great economist” and whose works she recommended for dispelling the myth that ‘“laissez-faire’ capitalism is the cause of depressions.” Despite Rand’s endorsement of von Mises, Objectivism, under the influence of M. Northrup Buechner and Richard Salsman, has begun to distance itself from Austrian economics. Salsman has, in particular, focused his animus upon Austrian business cycle theory.
Another common claim about stock-price gains in the 1920s is that they were made possible by Federal Reserve “inflation.” This view is held by many supposed free-market economists—monetarists and Austrians—and is certainly a tempting thesis for those who oppose central banking. But was Alan Greenspan correct when he wrote [in the Rand approved CUI], in the mid-1960s, that the late-1920s represented a “fantastic speculative boom” that was triggered by “excess credit” pumped out by the Fed—credit which then allegedly “spilled over into the stock market”? This view of the late-1920s stock-price rise could not be more wrong.

Why is Greenspan and the Austrians wrong? Salsman explains:
In the Austrian theory of business cycles, it is easy to detect a lack of appreciation for the intelligence, wisdom and foresight of entrepreneurs, businessmen and investors. Austrian economists presume producers are easily fooled by government manipulations of money, credit, and the economy—especially by the alleged phenomenon of “artificially” low interest rates. They claim producers are conned into undertaking projects that later will turn out badly and require liquidation. In fact, producers are not fooled; they know, even if implicitly, which government policies are conducive to wealth creation and which are destructive. That is, they know when it’s worth producing and when it’s only worth shrugging. And when they shrug and production grinds to a halt, it does not grind to a halt because they had previously produced.

When the Austrian view of the business cycle is coupled with a malevolent-universe premise—with the view that in the economy or stock market “what goes up must come down,” that “all good things must come to an end,” that no long ride of unbroken prosperity can ever persist without taking on irrationally exuberant hitchhikers—the combination can be catastrophic. For it can bring even purported champions of capitalism to openly endorse destructive policies such as Federal Reserve interest-rate hikes, curbs on the stock exchange, and more burdensome government regulations.

I will discuss Salsman’s theory of the entrepreneur in my next economics post. I merely here wish to note the obvious ideological origins of Salsman’s ideas. Elsewhere on the web, Salsman has given 12 reasons why he disagrees with “contemporary” Austrian economics. I won’t list all the twelve reasons, since all but two of his reasons are either based on a malicious interpretation of Austrian doctrines or an inability to understand even the most basic economic concepts. But the last reason he lists is the most glaring and fatuous of all and gives the whole game away. Salsman complains of the “animosity (and/or indifference) towards Ayn Rand and Objectivism” manifested by Austrian economists. In other words, Salsman resents the failure of Austrian economists to bend the knee at the altar of Rand. But is that any reason to disagree with someone—that they don’t worship your own private idols? Does Salsman refuse to get medical attention from any doctor who is indifferent (or who entertains animosity) towards Rand? Does he disagree with any specialist who, even though Rand herself recommended him, is not an enthusiastic admirer of Objectivist (or approved of by ARI)? Here we see, quite plainly, the poisonous fruits of ideology—that is, of making subservience to a system of ideas more important than any other consideration, including every consideration of truth, justice, fact and science.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 10

The Fed. According to Jerome Tuccille, Alan Greenspan once testified in front of congressional committee that if it were up to him (i.e., Greenspan), the Fed would be abolished. But Greenspan quickly assured the committee that none of his colleagues agreed with him and nothing along those lines would ever be done. In taking this position, Greenspan was merely echoing a view that had long become gospel among his former associates in the Objectivist movement. “ [W]e need to end the government's ability to set interest rates and create inflationary booms—and their inevitable busts—by phasing out the Federal Reserve and allowing the United States to return to a gold standard,” writes the current President of ARI along with coauthor Don Watkins.

Now the real objection that Yaron Brook and other Objectivists have to the Fed is that it is associated with the government at all. It is the federal government’s bank run by the government’s appointees. The complaints about the government setting interest rates and creating inflationary booms and busts is merely an additional rationalization thrown in to strengthen their case. As such, it betrays a poor grasp of the relevant economic and political realities.

In denouncing the Fed, Objectivists tend to be ruled, not by intelligence, but by mere ideological pretension. Their identification of the Fed with “the government” constitutes their first error. It is important in such circumstance to look beyond words and other mere appearances and get at the actual realities. When Objectivists equate the Fed with the federal government, what can they possibly mean? What part of the government is the Fed beholden to? To the executive? To the legislature? To the judiciary? The answer is: the Fed is not beholden to any single authority in the Federal government. The Fed is an independent, quasi-private institution. The original legislation for the Fed intended for that institution to be entirely private. But this aroused fierce political opposition and so a compromised was arranged. Thus the Fed became a quasi-private institution that enjoys real independence from the federal government. The executive branch nominates those who control the Fed, but the nominations are spaced out in such a way that no single administration could ever gain control of the Fed by nominating their own people. As a matter of fact, the whole culture of the nomination process tends to favor choices approved of by Wall Street. Indeed, the Fed is far more likely to be pressured or influenced by Wall Street than by the federal government.

So if the Fed is not the creature of the federal government that it’s painted to be, what, then, is the objection to it? Objectivists might complain about the legal privileges enjoyed by the Fed. But it is not clear that getting rid of these privileges would get rid of the underlying problem. Even if the government had no official de jure bank, it would inevitably have a de facto bank that would enjoy many of the same privileges of a central bank.

Abolishing the Fed would not abolish the government’s need for banking. The government would merely have to do business with a private bank. Yet whichever bank the government decided to do business with would effectively become a central bank in all but name. It would, of course, have no legal privileges; but then again, it wouldn’t need them. The fact of doing the government's banking business would endow it with de facto privileges.

First of all, such a bank, holding, as it would, all the government’s wealth, could not be allowed to fail. No government would ever allow such a thing to occur. But once a bank find itself in a position where it won’t be allowed to fail, many of the other privileges of legally established central banks inevitably follow. Because it won’t be allowed to fail, the bank would become the lender of last resort. This would allow it to set a de facto equivalent of the discount rate, just as the Fed does today.

One privilege such a private bank would not enjoy is the ability to engage in Open Market Operations. While some laissez-faire ultras might regard this as positive benefit, it is actually nothing of the sort. The Fed’s ability to engage in Open Market Operations is its one redeeming characteristic. For even if no Fed existed, Open Market Operations would still take place; only, instead of being conducted by an independent body, they would be conducted by the Treasury, under direct supervision by the President himself. Anyone who believes that would constitute an improvement suffers from an egregious naivete. The one advantage that the Fed brings to the table is that it prevents the executive or the legislature from having direct control over Open Market Operations. How important is that? Very important. It is through Open Market Operations that monetary policy is conducted. Any control that the Fed has over real interest rates and inflation is almost entirely exercised by buying or selling government securities to banks. Now it is important to understand that Open Market Operations are not a consequence of the Federal Reserve. Any militarily powerful and solvent government would be able to conduct monetary policy, by virtue of the fact that is has ample revenues. All that money concentrated in one institution would give that institution an inordinate influence over the banking system, regardless of any “legal” prerogatives it may or may not enjoy. Objectivists are naive about this because they are more concerned with defending their ideological convictions than they are with understanding the sobering truths of government finance.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Compromising on her philosophy"?

Ayn Rand at Alan Greenspan's inauguration as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, 1974.

Currently the Ayn Rand Institute is enthusiastically issuing denunciations of Alan Greenspan to try to distance Ayn Rand's reputation from the current economic meltdown. However, it seems they doth protest too much. Here's Harry Binswanger from his recent ritual condemnation, Alan Greenspan vs Ayn Rand and Freedom:

"I can't say I knew Alan Greenspan, though, being an associate of Ayn Rand, I met him a few times in the 1960s. But by 1970--almost 40 years ago--I and a couple of other Objectivists in that circle already realized that Greenspan was compromising on her philosophy."

Funny that. The above photo is from 1974 - four years after Binswanger claims to have discovered Greenspan's "compromising" on Rand's philosophy - of Ayn Rand and Frank O'Connor at Alan Greenspan's official inauguration by President Ford as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers". Hardly the way Rand recommended dealing with "compromise." Clearly Rand, despite the "MRI-like" psychological acuity attributed to her by followers such James Valliant and the generally millenial mental capabilities attributed to her by Binswanger and the ARI, had been unable to detect such serious divergences from her principles, despite the fact that she was closely associated with Greenspan (the other woman in attendance there is Greenspan's mother) and Binswanger had only ever met him a few times. Binswanger is saying in effect that he is better able to spot philosophical errors than Rand herself. Either that, or Greenspan's evil is so profound it was able to fool even the greatest genius of the past two thousand years.

I suspect we'll increasingly be hearing the latter narrative. In other words, it's Nathaniel Branden all over again.

(Thanks to Neil Parille for the photograph)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hoisted from comments: Michael Prescott On Rand's Ethics

Former Objectivist and regular ARCHNblog commenter Michael Prescott replies to current Objectivist and regular ARCHNblog commenter John Donohue, Pasadena with a simple yet devastating summary of the problems with the Objectivist Ethics.

Prescott: John, I'm afraid you can't dismiss the is-ought issue merely by saying that Rand didn't regard it as a problem. It remains a huge stumbling block (in my opinion, a fatal one) for any naturalistic ethics, whether Rand chose to acknowledge it or not.

"The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do."

In a certain sense, this is true, but it is not helpful to Rand's ethics. Here are some of the questions Rand needed to ask:

1. Is self-preservation the primary imperative of living things, or is it procreation? (Many species risk or even lose their lives in the act of reproducing, so it would appear that reproduction is, or can be, a stronger biological imperative than self-preservation.)

2. Does the concept of values apply to living things that have no conceptual consciousness? If not, isn't it a category error to talk about the "values" of plants and insects?

3. If biological self-preservation is the standard of value, then are we talking about the preservation of the individual or the community/species? If the former, then can't the individual do whatever is necessary to survive, even if it means looting and killing? If the latter, then can't the individual be sacrificed to the collective?

4. Isn't it begging the question to say that man's standard of value is the life "proper" to man, when determining what is "proper" requires a standard of value in the first place?

5. Using the vague concepts of "life" and "what is proper to man," couldn't we rationalize and justify almost any course of action? (In fact, this is the is-ought problem in a nutshell; the ethical naturalist always makes an unwarranted move from facts to values, blurring the distinction with rhetoric or equivocation. The values in question are never necessitated by the facts, but rather are values that the ethicist happens to prefer - in Rand's case, honesty, integrity, productiveness, pride, etc.)

6. Is it really the case that man cannot survive unless he practices the Objectivist ethics? Do people who are dishonest, who lack integrity, who are nonproductive, who have self-esteem issues ... really die? Or do they somehow usually muddle through? Isn't it the case that some dishonest people make out very well in life? Is material success inextricably tied to personal virtue, so that millionaires are inevitably more virtuous than people who are less well off?

7. If life is the standard, then what exactly do we mean by life? Are we talking about simple longevity, or about quality of life? If the former, aren't there are many evil and destructive people who live to a ripe old age? If the latter, how do we use "quality of life" as a standard of value, when we need a standard by which to judge "quality"? And how can we objectively judge "quality of life" anyway?

8. Rand says that people who don't live up to her standards are subhuman. Isn't this is a backhanded way of admitting that it is possible to live a long, comfortable life without practicing her virtues, but then waving off this fact by asserting that such people "don't count" because they're not "really" human? In other words, isn't it just a rhetorical device used to disguise the fact that non-Objectivists often survive and even flourish - a fact that, if openly acknowledged, would prove fatal to her argument?

9. If man cannot survive without an explicit code of values, then how did human beings survive for all the centuries before philosophy came along to enlighten them?

There are other questions, but I think that's enough to show that Rand's argument doesn't amount to much. It is good rhetoric, though. She was a first-rate polemicist, just not a first- or even second-rate philosopher.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

For reasons unknown, the sidebar disappears unless I insert a post above the "Ethics Of Emergencies" post. So here it is.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Slow read with commentary:"The Ethics of Emergencies" (3)

Continuing our para by para examination of Rand's "The Ethics of Emergencies" (Earlier Parts here). Paragraph 9:

Most men do not accept or practice either side of altruism's viciously false dichotomy, but its result is a total intellectual chaos on the issue of proper human relationships and on such questions as the nature, purpose, or extent of the help one may give to others. Today, a great many well-meaning, reasonable men do not know how to identify or conceptualize the moral principles that motivate their love, affection or good will, and can find no guidance in the field of ethics, which is dominated by the stale platitudes of altruism.
Comment:The classic Randian bamboozling continues. Having argued, bizarrely, in the previous paras that altruism is simultaneously the cause of both complete self-sacrifice to others and sociopathic disregard of others, Rand then tells us that despite the "vicious" nature of this false dichotomy, most men do not actually accept either side of it. Well now, if that was the case one would think that harmless might be a better description than "vicious" - but we are not allowed to pause to notice such details as the outraged flood sweeps us on down to the sea of "total intellectual chaos" typical of human relationships over the unfortunate millennia prior to Rand's arrival. Things are in such a state that even well-meaning and reasonable people, minus Objectivism, simply are not able to "identify or conceptualize" the rational principles behind their emotions such as love, affection, or good will, and thus don't even know what "proper human relationships" are.

On the question of why man is not a sacrificial animal and why help to others is not his moral duty, I refer you to Atlas Shrugged. This present discussion is concerned with the principles by which one identifies and evaluates the instances involving a man's nonsacrificial help to others.
Comment: Two or three generic Randian tics are nicely evident over the past couple of paras. The first is the "false dichotomy". She manages to find one of these just about everywhere she looks for them, which I fear only engenders confidence in her when it should engender the opposite (one day it might be worth adding all of them up). The second is that no-one had Clue No.1 about anything - not even human relationships! - until she showed up. The third is the inevitable referral to the works of her favourite philosopher, herself. With these now out of the way we move to the fourth and most dominant Randian rhetorical move, and that is verbalism : the manipulation of the meanings of words.
"Sacrifice" is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.
Comment: Here, wittingly or not - English was not her native language, and Rand had consistently misunderstood other English words before - Rand performs a verbal switcheroo, and replaces the usual meaning of "sacrifice"- the surrender of a lesser value for a greater value - for its opposite meaning. This complete switcheroo (discussed a little more in our ever-popular "Understanding Objectivist Jargon" series) passes unremarked, and of course immediately begins confounding the argument.
Thus, altruism gauges a man's virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces, or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less "selfish," than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.
Comment: Obviously if you switch the meanings of words to their opposite, then start arguing against them, you are going to descend into nonsense. To start with, it's not necessarily the case that helping strangers is considered more virtuous than helping loved ones; for example the expression "charity begins at home." Further, people would normally consider a sacrifice virtuous when someone gives up something important to them - say their high paying job - for something more important to them - say to care for their children, or study a particular passion, or to help people if they so desire. In none of these cases are they "surrendering, renouncing, or betraying their values". Thus Rand's proposed "rational principle of conduct" is merely what people do already.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Top Ten Philosophy Books

Jason Sieckmann has requested that one of us at ARCHN provide "a list of [his] top ten fave philosophy books." Since this seems like a good idea, particularly in this Christmas season that is fast upon us, I will provide mine. Others can give theirs, if they are so inclined.

In no particular order, my list would go as follows:

1. Scepitism and Animal Faith, by George Santayana
2. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume
3. Realism and the Aim of Science, by Karl Popper
4. Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche
5. The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl Popper
6. The Plato Cult, by David Stove
7. Three Philosophical Poets, by George Santayana
8. Realms of Being, by George Santayana
9. The Revolt Against Dualism, by Arthur Lovejoy
10. Personal Knowledge, by Michael Polanyi

Word of caution: the works by Santayana, Polanyi and Lovejoy make for rather difficult reading. But as Spinoza says, "All things excellent are as diffcult as they are as rare."

Objectivism & Religion: Three Common Fallacies

Guest commenter Neil Parille finds that some of the classic Objectivist talking points on religion are in fact simple misunderstandings:

Ayn Rand and her followers have a bee in their bonnet when it comes to religion. In particular, contemporary Objectivists often fret about the influence on the Religious Right on politics. It doesn’t appear, however, that they have spent much time studying the topic of religion because the same old chestnuts keep popping up again and again. Here I’ll discuss a couple quotes that appear frequently in Objectivist literature and an additional claim made by Leonard Peikoff.

“Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged”

This is from Matthew 7:1 and is part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It first entered the Objectivist lexicon with Rand herself:

“The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.”

It is mentioned most recently in Andrew Bernstein’s just published Objectivism in One Lesson.

The full quote (KJV) is:
“(1) Judge not, that ye be not judged. (2) For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
Objectivists, proud of Rand’s moralism, see in Christianity a precursor to the non-judgmentalism present in the post-modern world. (Objectivism must be one of the few philosophies in history which finds Christianity insufficiently judgmental.)

But does Jesus prohibit judging? This appears unlikely, if for no other reason than that Jesus was quite judgmental and judging is a part of life. A couple standard commentaries might help. According to Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 240-41):

“As noted above, the issue is not failure to discern, but hypocrisy in judging others for one’s own faults. Later rabbis declared that one should ‘remove [one’s] own blemish first,’ giving the example of a rabbi who deferred a case to correct his own behavior before he ruled that another must do the same. Greek and Roman sages offered similar wisdom: for example, one must solve one’s own problems, and only then in turn to criticize others accurately; we see others’ faults more quickly than our own. Likewise, ‘Practice nothing in your deeds for which you condemn other in your words’ which seems to have become part of the common moral wisdom.” (Citations omitted.)

Donald Hagner (Matthew 1-13, p. 169) agrees: “[T]he way one judges others will be the way one is judged by God . . . .”

Rand says that, in judging, one must “possess an unimpeachable character,” so perhaps Rand is saying something similar to Jesus and the ancients.

“I Believe It Because It is Absurd”

This is another chestnut appearing in, among other places, Leonard Peikoff’s Religion Versus America.

“What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian's famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God's self-sacrifice on the cross: ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (‘I believe it because it is absurd’).”

Tertullian didn’t say “credo quia absurdum.” (Peikoff is not the most accurate of intellectual historians.) As one writer puts it:

“Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote. Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4). The difference between the imputed and actual words is striking and important. James Moffatt in a sadly neglected article of a half-century agodiscovered the clue to the interpretation of the words in observing that here Tertullian ‘follows in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle.’ In Rhetoric 2.23.22 Aristotle shows that an argument from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story: some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them. On this view, the words presuppose a tidy correlation between faith and reason, and a consideration of Tertullian's aims in the treatise in which they are found supports this interpretation.”
“Tertullian recognizes, however, that in spite of its distortions, pagan philosophy has often enjoyed glimpses of the truth. In recalling his quotable strictures against philosophy, we must not forget his equally quotable Seneca saepe noster (De anima 20.1). In the Ad nationes, an early work, Socrates becomes a forerunner of the Christian martyrs, because he suffered, as they suffer, on behalf of the truth at the hands of those ignorant of it (1.4.6-7). If there is a change of tone in the more artful Apologeticum, Tertullian still grants that Socrates aliquid de veritate sapiebat deos negans (46.5). “

Those Secular Greeks

Leonard Peikoff, again in Religion Versus America, makes the following claim:

“Ancient Greece was not a religious civilization, not on any of the counts I mentioned. The Gods of Mount Olympus were like a race of elder brothers to man, mischievous brothers with rather limited powers; they were closer to Steven Spielberg's extra-terrestrial visitor than to anything we would call ‘God.’ They did not create the universe or shape its laws or leave any message of revelations or demand a life of sacrifice. Nor were they taken very seriously by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for faith. Epistemologically, most were staunch individualists who expected each man to grasp the truth by his own powers of sensory observation and logical thought. For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative of the Greek spirit.”

Even though Peikoff qualifies his statement somewhat, it is still more than a little misleading. As a leading scholar of ancient Greek religion put it:

“The paradox is that, although Greek religion seems to lack so many of the things which characterize modern religions and which require degrees of personal commitment and faith from their followers, Greeks were involved with religion to a degree which is very hard nowadays to understand. . . . The Greek household had its shrine to Hestia or to Zeus Ktesios . . . . At a meal a libation or drink-offering to the gods was an automatic custom . . . . The great landmarks of human life – birth, coming of age, marriage and death – were all marked by rituals with religious significance. . . . it is against this background of a way of life interpenetrated by an enormous variety of religious ritual, practice and belief . . . that the questioning of religion was seen as a dangerous threat.” (J.V. Muir, “Religion and the New Education” in P.E. Easterling and J.V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, pp. 194-95.)

Even the supposedly enlightened Athenians consulted the oracle at the shrine dedicated to Apollo at Delphi and made military decisions based on what they were told.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Going John Galt

While we're on the subject of Objectivism and the economic crisis, it seems many Objectivists are reacting to that (and the election of the dreaded Obama) by threatening to "go John Galt" - withdrawing their skills from society and letting the damn thing fall to the ground. The comments are a must-read, and we note among them our very own John Donohue, Pasadena!

Only thing is, I'm not sure that many of these would-be Galts have recently invented a perpetual motion machine...

Atlas Updated

Jeremiah Tucker revisits "Atlas Shrugged" for financial apocalypse.

(hat tip to Jason at Catallaxy)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hoisted from Comments: Atlas Begs

It turns out there are no true Randian individualists  in foxholes. Sharp-eyed commenter Michael Prescott notes West Virginia's BB&T bank has recently put its hand out for $3.1 billion in Federal rescue money. What makes this ironic is that its CEO, John A. Allison IV, is a big time contributor to the ARI, and makes reading "Atlas Shrugged" compulsory for all his executives. This capitulation, accompanied by statements about how doing so is  "consistent with our values and philosophy" and supporting the Treasury's interventions to stabilise the economy,  has led to a minor flurry of hand-wringing ( here, here) at the ARI's Center For The Advancement of Capitalism, with conspiracy theories being mooted that Allison was "coerced" into making such statements.

Despite this apparently dire moral and philosophical lapse, I'm sure the ARI won't be turning down Allison's cheques any time soon.

Objectivism & Economics, Part 9

Role of deregulation in current crisis. David Horowitz, in his blog over at provides additional evidence of the role that deregulation has played in the current crisis. Horowitz writes:
The cause of this crisis is a change in the structure of financial markets which allowed hedge fund operators and other sharks to leverage bad loans geometrically. Republicans as well as Democrats supported this system and gave it legislative backing. You could look on the economic collapse as a convergence of socialist and free market (anti-regulatory) ideological manias. Phil Gramm's deregulatory prejudices are at least as responsible for this economic ruin as Barney Frank's ignorant redistributionist fantasies. No one's hands are clean.

Horowitz then quotes excerpts from an interview with Bill Janeway that provides evidence not merely for the role that dereguation played in the fiasco, but also mathematical economics:
It took two generations of the best and the brightest who were mathematically quick and decided to address themselves to the issues of capital markets. They made it possible to create the greatest mountain of leverage that the world has ever seen….It was a kind of religious movement, a willed suspension of disbelief. If we say that the assumptions necessary to produce the mathematical models hold in the real world, namely that markets are efficient and complete, that agents are rational, that agents have access to all of the available data, and that they all share the same model for transforming that data into actionable information, and finally that this entire model is true, then at the end of the day, leverage should be infinite.

Here was the theory. But banking and financial regulations made it impossible to put it into practice. So what was done about it? Academic economists appealed to Washington to have the regulations removed:

Milton Friedman was prevailed upon to write a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady, Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury, as a result of which the Chicago Board was cleared to trade stock index futures, all cash settlement. There is another story in which Alan Blinder on the Democratic side played a similar role, by providing the academic legitimacy for the markets and for the integration into the fabric of finance of the derivatives that instrumented modern financial theory. That enabling role … created a tool through which you could price things that did not heretofore trade. Puts and calls did not trade.

In brief, what happened is that these new financial tools, brought into being through the obtuse cleverness of econometrics, enabled the free market to generate a nearly infinite supply of credit. The so-called “funny money” that free market ideologues wish to blame the Fed for was largely created by the free market! Government regulation had nothing to do with it. On the contrary, it was the absence of government regulation that allowed these non-banking financial institutions to go create a massive credit bubble in the nineties, thereby driving up the Stock Market to five times its value in twelves years.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 8

Greenspan’s primary error. Despite the howls of condemnation hurled against Greenspan by the Objectivist rabble, which hsa been fervently trying to convince us that the former Fed chairman is some kind of Atila-like, arch-collectivist who long ago abandoned the free market, the most famous ex-Objectivist in the world is no such anti-market ogre. His attempts to “advance free-market capitalism as an insider” did not fail because of his straying from the Objectivist straight and narrow. Indeed, the Objectivist influence on Greenspan, if anything, remained a stumbling block, because it prevented him from fully appreciating the organic view of markets advanced by thinkers like Burke and Hayek (more on this in later posts). But even the Objectivist influence is secondary in importance to another, more serious problem. I have in mind Greenspan’s strong attachment to mathematics and statistics. “My primary obsession was math,” Greenspan admits in his biography. In 1951, Greenspan signed up for a course in mathematical statistics, and was immediately hooked: 

Today this discipline is called econometrics, but then the field was just an assemblage of general concepts, too new to have a textbook or even a name…. I immediately saw the power of these new tools: if the economy could be accurately modeled using empirical facts and math, then large-scale forecasts could be derived methodically, without the quasi-scientific intuition employed by so many economic forecasters. I imagined how the could be put to work. Most important, at age twenty-five I’d found a growing field in which I could excel.

Although Greenspan would later discover the limitations of forecasts based on econometric models, he would use his mastery of economic statistics to develop a successful private business (i.e., providing useful economic statistics to businesses), and later to establish himself as the most important economist in the Republican Party (which is why Reagan appointed him as Fed Chairman in 1987). So mathematics and statistics were the making of Greenspan. In places where such tools are useful and necessary, Greenspan was a consummate master. The problem is, mathematical statistics is a mere tool for acquiring economic facts: it does not, in and of itself, provide any understanding of those facts. Indeed, it predisposes one against understanding them by placing too much emphasis on calculation and technique rather than on understanding and “quasi-scientific” intuition. It causes economists to unwittingly regard the economy as a mechanism instead of a complex outgrowth of cooperating and clashing human motivations. Regarding the economy in this manner predisposes free-market orientated economists to accepting the errors of monetarism, particularly two beliefs that have governed the Fed’s monetary policy during Greenspan’s reign: (1) that the role of the Fed is to maintain price stability in consumer goods; and (2) that any crisis in liquidity (i.e. deflation) can be solved by merely increasing the monetary supply.

Greenspan and his colleagues at the Fed, by holding fast to these principles, failed to understand what was happening in the nineties. Specifically, they failed to appreciate how the deregulation of the eighties, by encouraging dangerous experiments in high finance, particularly in derivatives and debt leverage, had resulted in a massive credit bubble that had swollen asset markets to a very dangerous extent. Greenspan appears to have had an inkling that something was wrong in 1997 when he made his famous “irrational exuberance” remark. But he was either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. He would later claim that bubbles were impossible to identify until they burst—an obvious testimony to the poverty of Greenspan’s economic understanding.

What could Greenspan have done differently? What was his major policy error? His major error was not to have recognized the credit bubble in the nineties, when it could have been safely deflated. To be sure, he may not have been able to do anything about it: after all, the Fed chairman is not a dictator, but merely one vote among seven colleagues. Moreover, due to the increasing ability of non-banks to expand credit, the Fed was losing control of the money supply in any case.

Curiously, Objectivists like Richard Salsman have criticized Greenspan for raising interest rates and tightening monetary policy in 2000. “ Last week, for example, Greenspan told Congress that he'll keep raising interest rates,” Salsman wrote in March of 2000. “In response, the stock market plunged nearly 3%—meaning that about $400 billion of wealth was destroyed. We have only Greenspan to blame for the drop, because there's nothing wrong with the American economy.”

This is, of course, palpable nonsense, and demonstrates that Salsman’s understanding of economic reality is, if anything, even worse than Greenspan’s. As I wrote at the same time (in March of 2000):
The stock market is vastly over-inflated. It has risen by a factor of the more the six in the last twelve and a half years. Now what economic fact could possibly justify so immense an increase? No amount of rise in productivity, Gross Domestic Product(GDP), research and development, corporate profits, or stock dividends can possibly justify a six-fold increase in the stocks. To believe that the current stock market reflects the genuine economic realities of the present economic situation is to demonstrate a blindness equalled only by investors during the other great speculative euphorias in history.

Now how did I know, in March of 2000, that the Stock Market was grossly over-inflated? It’s really quite simple: I merely applied intelligence and the lessons of history to the economic facts. When the Stock Market goes up by a factor of six, there’s something seriously wrong. You don’t have to be a great mathematical economist to figure that out. So why did Greenspan and Salsman get it wrong? With Greenspan, I think (as I have explained) it had a lot to do with his mathematical training, which predisposed him to accepting mistaken monetarist notions. With Salsman, it is his commitment to ideology, which makes him sacrifice truth to advocacy. Hence the absurdity of his criticism of Greenspan. He is not interested in understanding Greenspan: he merely wishes to find a rationale for abusing the former Fed chairman because the institution of the Fed violates Salsman’s tender ideological scruples.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's All A Socialist Plot!

An anonymous commenter points us to this piece posted at Objectivism Online, which claims that any proposed bailout of the auto industry is "an enormous power grab" by the forthcoming neo Fascist Democratic State. This argument might perhaps have merit had the American auto industry been itself a global power instead of a global cripple. But unfortunately this is not the case, so it is simply a laughable confusion of cause and effect.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 7

Greenspan’s breaking away from Objectivism. In his autobiography, The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan explains why he stopped being an orthodox acolyte of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy:

Like any new convert, I tended to frame the concepts [of Rand’s philosophy] in their starkest, simplest terms. Most everyone sees the simple outline of an idea before complexity and qualification set in…. It was only as contradictions inherent in my new notions began to emerge that the fervor receded.

One such contradiction I found particularly enlightening. According to the objectivist precepts, taxation was immoral because it allowed for government appropriation of private property by force. Yet if taxation was wrong, how could you reliably finance the essential functions of government, including the protection of individuals’ rights through police power? The Randian answer, that those who rationally saw the need for government would contribute voluntarily, was inadequate. People have free will; suppose they refused?…

I still found the broader philosophy of unfettered market competition compelling, as I do to this day, but I reluctantly began to realize that if there were qualifications to my intellectual edifice, I couldn’t argue that others should readily accept it. By the time I joined Richard Nixon’s campaign for the presidency in 1968, I had long since decided to engage in efforts to advance free-market capitalism as an insider, rather than as a critical pamphleteer.

Greenspan here admits what has been suspected for some time: that he came to believe that Objectivism was flawed and so ceased being an orthodox advocate of Rand’s philosophy. More interesting is his decision to advance free-market capitalism “as an insider, rather than as a critical pamphleteer.” This is really where Greenspan most differentiates himself from his former Objectivist comrades. Objectivists want to change the system without being part of it. Hence their conviction that social change can be brought about through philosophical patter.

But what is the real reason why Objectivists shrink from attempting to make change through action rather than merely talking about it? I can think of two main reasons:

1. Most Objectivists don’t have the ability to make change as an insider. While this lack of ability may be rationalized as an unwillingness to compromise (which all insiders must do), let’s not be naive: if every advocate of the free market adopted the attitude of “I will never compromise, therefore I won’t ever become an insider,” all this would accomplish is to surrender the political realm to advocates of various anti-market nostrums. Greenspan became an insider because he had the political chops to do so. Few people who came under Rand’s orbit have comparable chops.

2. Trying to change things as an insider as risky: one is inevitably competing against people who want to change things in a different direction, and it’s quite possible they will win out. Just look what’s happened with Greenspan: from our current vantage point, his attempts to advocate free market capitalism as an insider do not appear altogether successful. But is that any reason for not trying at all? Either one is willing to fight for one’s ideals on the political stage, or one isn’t. Those who are capable of fighting on political stage but choose not to are cowards—plain and simple.

Objectivists are now frantically trying to rid themselves of the taint of Greenspan’s former association with Rand. Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein have accused Greenspan of being “the voice of government central-planning”—another instance of Objectivists discrediting themselves by over-stating their case. They do nothing but talk and scribble—while attacking the one of the few individuals influenced by Rand who actually had the courage and the capability of trying to affect change within the political realm. Where are such people going to come from if they know ahead of time how they are to be treated if they fail? The hysterical denunciations of Greenspan demonstrate once again why Objectivism will never succeed as an agent of political change.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election 08: Who would Rand vote for?

Since Rand is no longer with us, we can only guess what she might have done. Here I offer merely two possible conjectures: (1) Either she would not have voted for either candidate; or (2) She would have voted for McCain. Let's examine both possibilities.

(1) The evidence supporting the conjecture that she would have refused to vote for either candidate comes largely from her refusal to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the fact that her intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, has stated quite clearly he believes that the Republican Party should either be wiped out or "severly punished." Peikoff's reason are stated in a recent podcast:

Peikoff's views are clearly influenced by Rand's disgust at Reagan's alliance with the religious right. The fact that the Reagan needed this alliance in order to have a chance at winning is of no concern either to Rand or Peikoff. In Peikoff's case, this militant animus against religion is taken to the length of insane paranoia. Peikoff mocks Palin for some of her odd religious beliefs, yet he fails to cite any instance in which her personal religious convictions have affected her political decisions as governor of Alaska. Yet Peikoff's paranoid horror of religion has its source in Rand, so it is quite possible that Rand would agreed with Peikoff and would therefore sit out the '08 election.

2. The evidence suggesting the possibility that Rand might have voted for McCain largely comes from her fear of George McGovern in 1972. Obama is the most left-wing candidate since McGovern: indeed, he might even be further to the left. Like McGovern, Obama is an anti-war leftist who supports a very strong redistributionist agenda, including giving so-called "tax credits" to people who don't pay any federal income tax. Would Obama scare Rand enough to make her vote for McCain? After all, even Peikoff admits that Obama is the first major Presidential candidate to have anti-American views. If McGovern was scary enough to cause Rand to vote for a President who extended the Great Society and implemented price controls, why wouldn't Obama be scary enough to convince her to vote for McCain?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 6

Rand’s influence on Greenspan. In his autobiography, The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan acknowledges an intellectual debt to Ayn Rand:
Ayn Rand became a stabilizing force in my life. It hadn’t taken long for us to have a meeting of the minds—mostly my mind meeting hers—and in the fifties and early sixties I became a regular at the weekly gatherings at her apartment. She was a wholly originally thinker, sharply analytical, strong-willed, highly principled, and very insistent on rationality as the highest value. In that regard, our values were congruent—we agreed on the importance of mathematics and intellectual rigor…

I was intellectually limited until I met [Rand]. All of my work had been empirical and numbers-based, never values-orientated. I was a talented technician, but that was all. My logical positivism had discounted history and literature—if you’d asked me whether Chaucer was worth reading, I’d have said, “Don’t bother.” Rand persuaded me to look at human beings, their values, how they work, what they do and why they do it, and how they think and why they think. This broadened by horizons far beyond the models of economics I’d learned… [Rand] introduced me to a vast realm from which I’d shut myself off.

Greenspan admits to being merely a “talented technician” until he met Rand. Rand, by introducing him to values, persuaded him to look at the motives and values of human beings. The question is: did Greenspan really learn anything about human beings from Rand? Or did he merely learn the wrong things?

We’ve already quoted Greenspan’s acknowledgement of mystification over what’s happened in the financial markets in recent weeks. Greenspan admits to being in “a state of shocked disbelief” that the “self-interest of lending instutitions” failed to protect shareholder’s equity. Some of us are shocked that Greenspan should be shocked. Those who understand human nature through and through know that the very notion of “rational self-interest,” so important to Rand and her Objectivist philosohy, is highly problematic: for how can self-interest be “rational” when even the intelligent human being in history, as Santayana once put it, holds “a lunatic in leash.” Nor should we underestimate the pernicious effects of crowd psychology on the so-called “rational animal.” As Schiller once put it: “Anyone taken as an individual, is tolerably sensible and reasonable—as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead.”

In other words, if Greenspan wanted to figure out how and why human beings think, or what they do and why they do it, Rand was nearly the last person he should have consulted. Rand’s influence, therefore, did him little good. Despite all the broadening of horizons that he achieved as a consequence of Rand’s influence, he remained, at his core, merely a talented technician. When confronted with the credit bubble mania of the last twenty years, he failed to see the irrational elements that went into its creation. In particular, he never fully appreciated the irrationality of using derivatives as insurance instruments and, until very recently, has stubbornly maintained that regulating derivatives is impossible because such financial instruments are too damn complex:
Collecting data on hedge fund balance sheets, for example, would be futile, since the data would probably be obsolete before the ink dried. Should we set up a global reporting system of the positions hedge and private equity funds to see if there are any dangerous implosions?...I would not be able to judge from such reports whether concentrations of positions reflected markets in the process of doing what they are supposed to do...or whether some dangerous trading was emerging. I would truly be surprised if anyone could.

Here Greenspan is talking like a talented technician, rather than a wise man who has the benefit of good judgment. Reports of hedge fund transactions are not need in order to determine whether systematic irrationality is taking place in the derivatives market. Some of us have known for years the dangers of derivatives. Doug Noland from warned of such irrationality as long ago as 1999, and I warned about it back in 2003. Even Warren Buffet a few years ago described derivatives as "toxic" and "financial weapons of mass destruction." So it turns out that knowledge of the systematic irrationality of derivatives is possible after all! Nor are reports on hedge funds required to attain such knowledge! Merely knowledge of the the frailties of human nature and the mephitic influence of crowd psychology—knowledge, in other words, that Greenspan could never have attained from Rand.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Former Objectivist Quote of The Day

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief..." - Alan Greenspan

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 5

Market failure: wildcat financing. After President Andrew Jackson succeeded in destroying the Bank of the United States (a great victory of Jacksonian democracy and laissez-faire), the country was plagued by so-called “wildcat” banks. According to Wikipedia:

The term Wildcat Bank refers to a particularly unsound and risky bank chartered under state law in the United States. They flourished after the national bank was decommissioned when a bank was started in a small town. When the banks acquired enough assets their owners would leave town with all deposits. The debt, which hurt many people, eventually became a reason for the Panic of 1857.

Wildcat banks were banks that issued money without proper gold in stock to back up the supply. These banks were often short-lived. Unfortunately, since these banks were issuing large amounts of money, many people lost their investment as the worth of their bank note dropped. These banks became a large problem, and were eventually restricted by the US Government.

Critical in the development “free” banking was the ability of individual banks to gains the privilege of issuing bank notes without being chartered by the state legislature:

In 1838 New York State passed a free banking law. Before this date all incorporated banks had been chartered by states and had been granted the note-issuing privilege. Under free banking, charters could be obtained without a special act of the state legislature. The main requirement for new banks was that they post collateral of government bonds equal in value to the notes to be issued. In principle, noteholders were protected because, if the bank failed, proceeds from the sale of the collateral would be used to reimburse them. Free banking was soon adopted by other states. Because there was little regulation of new banks, many banks failed and bank fraud occurred. The free-banking years of 1837 to 1863 are also known as the Wildcat Banking era. [Encarta]

What we have seen in the last 25 years is the return of wildcat banking, brought about largely through a very insalubrious mixture of government intervention and deregulation. Financial institutions have, in effect, used the securitization of debt to create a kind of money, which they’ve used to leverage more debt that is subsequently used to drive up asset and real estate prices and drive up the current account deficit.

One of the causes of this wretched state of affairs is the false dichotomy introduced by two ideologies which, although they seem poles apart, have each helped bring about the current mess. I have in mind free market fundamentalism on the one side and anti-market fundamentalism on the other. Both of these ideologies are more interested in their pet ideas than they are in understanding the facts of the matter. The free market fundamentalist won’t acknowledge any exception to his conviction that markets are purely “self-regulating” and that the only role of the state is to protect private property and uphold contracts between freely acting parties. The anti-market fundamentalist suffers from a pathological detestation of market processes and results. The debate about economic problems in too many instances has degenerated into a tug of war between these two unrealistic extremes—that is, into a debate between knee-jerk “deregulation” on the one side and knee-jerk anti-market regulation on the other. But the real issue is not between deregulation and regulation, but between pro-market regulation and anti-market regulation. Markets in an advanced, industrial society require a framework of law in order to flourish. Whether one wants to call these laws “regulations” or not is merely a matter of semantics. But laws are needed to define the extent and limitations of property rights, to determine which kind of contracts should be enforced, and to prevent systematic fraud and irrationality from harming the integrity and efficiency of the market.

Now Rand and her apologists clearly belong to the extreme wing of free market fundamentalist camp, where ideology trumps good judgment. Laissez-faire is a slogan, not an insight or a coherent policy. It is a product of rationalism, rather than of experience and wisdom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 4

Market failure: Greenspan’s testimony Alan Greenspan’s curious testimony before a House panel on Thursday brings forth a curious admission from the former Rand acolyte. According to an AP report:

Greenspan called the banking and housing chaos a "once-in-a-century credit tsunami" that led to a breakdown in how the free market system functions. Accused of contributing to the meltdown, but denying that it was his fault, Greenspan told a House panel the crisis left him -- an unabashed free-market advocate -- in a "state of shocked disbelief."

The longtime Fed chief acknowledged under questioning that he had made a "mistake" in believing that banks in operating in their self-interest would be sufficient to protect their shareholders and the equity in their institutions. Greenspan called it "a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works." ...

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., suggested that Greenspan contributed to "irresponsible lending practices" by rejecting appeals that the Fed intervene to regulate a surging subprime mortgage industry. "The list of regulatory mistakes and misjudgments is long," Waxman said of oversight by the Fed and other federal regulators. "My question for you is simple," Waxman told Greenspan. "Were you wrong?"

"Well, partially," Greenspan said. But [Greenspan] went on to assign the blame on soaring mortgage foreclosures on overeager investors who did not properly take into account the threats that would be posed once home prices stopped surging upward. He said what had been "a critical pillar to market competition and free markets did break down. And I think that, as I said, shocked me. I still do not fully understand why it happened."

After reading this, Objectivists can take consolation in the fact that Greenspan no longer considers himself one of their number—and perhaps never did. Yet his vision of the free market is not so very different from Rand’s. Self-interest, Greenspan believed, would be sufficient to motivate banks to act in such as to protect their shareholders’ equity. Apparantly not so—much to Greenspan’s confusion and dismay!

Greenspan would have done well to have heeded Joseph Schumpeter’s insight about the sociological flaws of a free market based on “self-interest.” “[N]o social system can work which is based exclusively upon a network of free contracts between (legally) equal contracting parties and in which everyone is supposed to be guided by nothing except his own (short-run) utilitarian ends,” Schumpeter warned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The-Apparently-Not-An-Objectivist-But-Still-One-Hell-Of-A-Rand-Fan Quote of the Day 23/10/08

"Human nature is probably too primitive at this time to accept Rand's ideas." - commenter Herbsewell

The Objectivist Double Standard

Here's an interesting quote from Brandon Byrd over at the ortho-Objectivist site Noodlefood. We'll have more to say about Brandon's post "Getting Ayn Rand Wrong" when we have a moment. Suffice to say for now it is a perfect example of what I will dub The Objectivist Double Standard. That is, any criticism of Ayn Rand's philosophy is dismissed as careless and dishonest, and due to mere "personal biases" on the part of the critic, who "attribute all sorts of nonsense to Rand without actually considering what she has to say."

Yet when it comes to assessing other philosophers' work it would be hard to find more biased, careless and dishonest critics than Rand and her acolyte Leonard Peikoff who, regrettably, has followed in her footsteps all too closely in this as in all else. Rand's quote-free laziness and low intellectual standards should equally attract the ire of Objectivists - who after all claim to "take ideas seriously". Yet instead these glaring faults are either never mentioned (as in this post) or cheerfully and rather incredibly rationalised as her brilliant ability to "think in essentials". This is the ODS in action.

Byrd: I don't know what it is about Ayn Rand that makes many philosophers think they can get away with saying whatever they damn well please about her without having studied her work carefully and honestly. I suspect that the real explanation has less to do with Rand and more to do with personal biases on the part of her critics. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon is nevertheless real. It isn't just that many philosophers dislike Rand. We philosophers are an opinionated bunch; we dislike all sorts of things. Rather it's that many philosophers will attribute all sorts of nonsense to Rand without actually considering what she has to say.

Let's see now. Rand condemned Kant "the most evil man in history." Yet despite the slagging he gets throughout her oeuvre, how many times does she actually quote him in all her published works?

(In passing: who is the most quoted philosopher in Rand's works?)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Objectivist Quote of the Day 18/10/08

"This is about Ayn Rand winning, her ideas winning, so that the next centenary will include not an address by me, but by the president of the United States, as well as fireworks over Manhattan and over the capital...Victory is ours! Victory is ours! Because truth is on our side."- The Ayn Rand Institute's Yaron Brook becomes somewhat excitable at Rand's centenary event in New York, 2005
Incidentally, despite Brook invoking the typical fanatical cliche that "truth is on our side", one notes the appearance yet again of the Ayn Rand Institute's most regularly repeated fake tale: the notorious 1991 Library of Congress/Book of the Month Club survey.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Building Tomorrow's Randroids

The ARI's annual school essay contest about three of Ayn Rand's novels is, allegedly, "designed to promote critical thinking and writing skills". Here are the winners from the last few years. If anyone can detect anything other than standard ARI bromides regurgitated without the smallest glimmer of critical thinking or individual imagination, please let us know. In fact so great is the intellectual and stylistic conformity on display that, with the prospect of a grand or more on the line one can only assume the students involved are shrewd enough to know exactly who they are writing for.

For a core sample of today's Randroid, Objectiblog's Neil Parille directs us to a review by libertarian economist Larry Sechrest of Objectivist Richard M. Salsman's essay on The Great Depression. Sadly this essay is not itself on line, for as well as venting some ancient animosty against potential allies, the Austrian economic school, Salsman's essay also offers us a jaw-dropping Randroidian fantasia, metastasized to levels not seen since James Valliant. Sechrest describes one such passage:
Woven throughout the fabric of Salsman’s essay is a rather striking vision of American businessmen. In this “subtext,” one can locate both praiseworthy virtues and condemnable flaws. At a deep emotional level it is, one surmises, that message that Salsman most dearly wished to convey. By his account, businessmen are the heroeswho call upon their initiative and intelligence in order to restructure the resources of Earth, thereby creating the wealth from which we all benefit. They struggle on, often burdened by outrageous laws and regulations, not because they are Christ-figures who choose to suffer for their fellow men, but because they profoundly, egoistically enjoy the act of creation. So far, so good. But Salsman goes further. He insists that these producers cannot be deceived. They “know when it’s worth producing and when it’s only worth shrugging” (2004a, 23). They also buy and sell stock shares, but such shares are never overpriced. They invest millions in capital projects but never at artificially low market interest rates, because they are never fooled by the interest rate shenanigans of the Federal Reserve. In addition, Salsman’s businessmen are innocent of any wrongdoing. They never seek government favors, never lobby for corporate welfare, never try to gain at the expense of their competitors. They never miscalculate. They are without error, either factual or moral. What can one say? These are not real businessmen that he portrays. They are cardboard cutouts.

The creation of "cardboard cutouts" seems to be Job Number One at the ARI.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 3

Market failure: derivatives As is well known, Ayn Rand opposed any “interference” in the market by the government on moral grounds. Government intervention, for Rand, is immoral. Since Rand believed that the moral course is also the practical course, she held that any so-called “market failures” were ultimately caused by government intervention in the economy.

Is this true? Well, not entirely. Consider the role that derivatives played in the current financial meltdown, as outlined by Doug Noland at

I am of the opinion that derivatives have played a critical role in the ongoing global crisis. Importantly, the proliferation of derivatives has come to radically distort financial markets. As such, I see derivatives as a very close partner to credit excess. Both work to distort market-pricing mechanisms. It is certainly my contention that derivatives affect risk perceptions and change behavior. In this regard, when discussing derivatives I like to use a flood insurance analogy. Say we have a homeowner who would like to build his dream home along the river. Yet, if this homeowner lacks access to affordable flood insurance, the risk of building is likely to be perceived as too great. If, however, inexpensive flood insurance is readily available, the perceived risk of building on the river is acceptable and building begins.

Now, taking this analogy one step further, let’s say that there has been a very long drought, which has led to a stampede of companies writing flood insurance. Why not? Premiums in this environment are as close as it gets to "free money." Here, insurance only gets cheaper, encouraging more exuberant homeowners to build dream homes on the river. Despite the appearance of prosperity, risk grows for the entire system. Importantly, the proliferation of cheap insurance fosters a change in behavior – encouraging a building boom along the river and the acceptance of greater risk by individual homeowners and the insurance companies. So come the inevitable flood, there will be more homes destroyed, the solvency of the insurance companies will be in jeopardy, and the risk of failure for the entire system will be much greater than if the building boom had never occurred. Importantly, if a few homeowners purchase insurance and build on the river, flood insurance works fine. If everyone builds on the river and there is a flood, there is a big problem.

All the same, a very strong consensus led by Greenspan and Wall Street argues that derivatives reduce risk. I disagree. Derivatives simply shift risk from one party to another. Sure, an individual market participant can use derivatives to transfer risk. But if much of the market moves to transfer risk, there will simply be no one to take the other side of the trade. Entire markets can not hedge themselves. Indeed, for the system, the proliferation of derivatives significantly increases the risk of both market distortions and dislocations.

Noland’s analysis pretty much hits the nail on the head, but I think that nail could be driven in even further. Derivatives are often seen as a form of insurance. That’s what the whole notion of a hedge fund is all about. Investors are “hedging” their speculative bets, with the underlying idea that, if their investments turn sour, they’ll still get something out of it. Yet this is plainly irrational behavior. The economist Frank Knight distinguished between risk and uncertainty. Risk, Knight contended, is something calculable. For example, mortality is something that is fairly steady over time. Therefore, there is a calculable risk that an individual will die in a given year, and based on that calculable risk, a company can provide life insurance and still expect to make a profit. Speculative investments do not, on the other hand, involve calculable risks. They are, as Knight would say, uncertain. Hence, it is irrational to try to “insure” investments. For the reasons given by Noland, they can’t be insured.

Where is the market failure in all of this? Well, it’s quite simple: derivatives are a market phenomenon. They are the product of freely acting market participants. They prove, once and for all, that the market is no guarantee of rational behavior. Whenever the effects of irrational behavior are (1) not felt immediately and (2) profitable in the short-run, human beings will tend to behave irrationally. The question then is: should the government have intervened to stop or limit this irrational behavior, particularly the large consequences it has had over society at large?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 2

Government interference. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand wrote:
If a detailed, factual study were made of all those instances in the history of American industry which have been used by the statists as an indictment of free enterprise and as an argument in favor of a government-controlled economy, it would be found that the actions blamed on businessmen were caused, necessitated, and made possible only by government intervention in business.

Let’s examine those aspects of the current financial crisis that unquestionably corroborate Rand’s thesis, starting with the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Back in 1999, financial analyst Doug Noland gave a fascinating lecture entitled “Putting a Coin in the Fuse Box.” (The title is inspired by a phrase used by Alan Greenspan in his Objectivist period to describe the Fed policies that led to the Great Depression.) Nearly ten years ago, Noland saw what the GSEs were up to. They were keeping the credit bubble alive and thriving, flooding the market with a fresh supply of liquidity. As Noland explains:
[I]n the midst of financial crisis and dislocation in the mortgage securities market, mortgage rates dropped dramatically as Fannie & Freddie incited an historic refinancing boom. Fannie & Freddie, with their implied government debt guarantees, were able to borrow easily, largely from the money markets, and ballooned their balance sheets with new mortgages. The holders of the old mortgages ... received desperately needed liquidity as households refinanced and Fannie & Freddie bought these new mortgages as well as other debt securities in the open market. During the final three months of 1998, Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Home Loan Bank System together expanded borrowings by almost $130 billion.

Admittedly, this had both the look and feel of a true miracle, but in reality this was one of history’s greatest episodes of credit excess. Some may argue, of course, that Fannie and Freddie are not banks and do not create credit. I disagree and see this [as] a critical analytical misconception. Actually, I see Fannie & Freddie as the greatest instigators of credit excess in history. I even go one step further and believe they also create “money.” Consider: as these institutions borrow aggressively from money market funds ... they exchange their short-term IOUs for existing money stock. This borrowed "money" is then instantly used to purchase financial assets. Importantly, this "money" remains within the financial system where Fannie and Freddie can borrow it again and again, repeatedly replacing it with additional IOUs, thus increasing total money market assets. The money just spins around the system as the amount of debt multiplies. Actually, this mechanism works much like the old bank multiplier effect from econ 101, except for one crucial difference. Since Fannie and Freddie liabilities are not subject to reserve requirements, these institutions can virtually create an "infinite multiplier effect."

Here is an obvious example of the pernicious effect of government in the economy. Since no one believes that the government will allow a GSE to go out of business, such corporations are not beholden to market discipline—with cataclysmic results, as we’ve seen in recent months.

Another pernicious effect of government is the implementation, through various legal and tax devices, of incentives that work against rational decision making. The government wants more people to own homes. After all, homeowners make better citizens. So the government pressures the GSEs and other lending institutions into lowering lending standards. Of course, this winds up having the deplorable effect of increasing the amount of bad credit flooding the economy. Examples of this sorts mal-incentives could be multiplied endlessly.

One final example that could be used to bolster Rand’s thesis is the Fed. Again to quote Doug Noland:

Like the Fed of the 1920s, the 1990s Fed has repeatedly put "Coins in the Fuse Box" over what I see as a "Persistent Financial Crisis" going back to the 1987 Stock Market crash. I believe this post-crash accommodation helped foster the real estate bubbles in the Northeast and California, the junk bond fiasco, the S&L debacle and other excesses from the late 80s….And it was during the early 1990’s that the Greenspan Fed "let their guard down" and began to lose control of the financial system. First, the Fed’s aggressive move to bailout the bankers created a big moral hazard issue. Second, with short-term rates plummeting, an opportunistic Wall Street went into what I call "harvesting asset mode," inciting a major shift of funds from bank deposits to mutual funds, money market funds, and securities, thus sowing the seeds for today’s financial bubble. Third, by pushing Fed Funds to 3% and creating an unusually steep yield curve, the Fed incited unprecedented credit market speculation, thus playing a major role in the proliferation of both leveraged speculation and its close sibling, derivatives. After all, 3% Fed funds were a godsend for the hedge funds, Wall Street proprietary traders, and derivative players.

Fourth, ultra-easy money fostered leveraged speculation in high-yield emerging debt markets. And fifth, a very important but unappreciated factor, was the emergence of Wall Street inspired non-bank financial companies and the incredible growth of the asset-backed securities market. As an aside, it was in 1991, during the darkest days for the banks, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began to aggressively expand their balance sheets. Yet, Greenspan acquiesced, apparently more focused on the "Strong Headwinds" of an impaired US banking system that he saw as restricting the US economic recovery. He was loose and Wall Street took full advantage. The explosion of non-bank financial credit had begun and the Fed was quickly losing control.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 1

My original intention was to start a series of posts on Objectivism and politics. But the seriousness of the crisis in the credit and finance markets suggests that our focus should turn to economics. What is happening to finance capitalism is extremely serious—more serious even then what happened in October 1929. While much of what has happened in the last 20 years can easily be laid at the hands of government interference, it is not clear that everything that has happened is the government’s fault. No specific ideology comes out of this mess looking like it has all the answers.

Yaron Brook from ARI has issued the following statement about credit debacle:

But the mounting financial problems reveal that Paulson and Bernanke are as clueless as any other central planners who try to control an entire economy. They are not saving us from anything; they are delaying some of the pain that necessarily follows from a Fed-induced credit bubble, and redistributing that pain to innocent victims. They are punishing responsible individuals and rewarding irresponsible individuals.

“The bailouts must stop. The government must make clear that from now on, those who are in financial trouble must turn to the private market for help if they are to avoid failure; the government must no longer foist their failures on others, and invite another crisis in the future.”

For better or worse, Brook’s "do-nothing" approach to the problem is not a viable option. Any politician who stood for it would be immediately discredited in the eyes of the electorate. The political reality is that market solutions are not allowed in crisis situations like the one we are facing. Hence we find former Objectivist Alan Greenspan (who understands the underlying political climate better than any of the ARI folks) suggesting another approach. "We need laws that specify and limit the conditions for bailouts -- laws that authorize the Treasury to use taxpayer money to counter systemic financial breakdowns transparently and directly rather than circuitously through the central bank as was done during the blowup of Bear Stearns," Greenspan has written in the paperback version of his autobiography, The Age of Turbulence. In other words, Greenspan is arguing that, since the government is going to intervene anyway (no preventing that), at least it should intervene in as rational a way as possible.

Can the government intervene without making things worse? Well, given how dire the situation really is, it may not really matter. If market forces were allowed to do their thing, the consequences would be little short of catastrophic. There is at least $2 trillion dollars in bad debt out there (and this is not even including bad derivative-related debt, which may be in the tens of trillions). If you allow company A to go under, then it can’t pay it’s obligations to company B. But then company B can’t pay company C, which in turn can’t pay company D, etc. etc. In other words, if the market it allowed to do its thing we would almost certainly see a collapse of a good portion of the financial system. Even more serious, such a collapse could trigger a very serious deflation, as the credit bubble bursts and suddenly you have massive contraction in the money supply (some of this deflation has already occurred, but it has been confined to the housing and asset markets). Deflation is one of the worse things that can happen to an economy in peacetime. If the United States went through a major deflation, that would greatly strengthen the anti-capitalist left in this country, which would put the nation in serious peril (and put an end to any hope for a market solution).

Perhaps the real truth is that nothing can be done one way or the other. Whatever we do, we’re screwed and there’s an end to it. As Doug Noland, the financial analyst who more than ten years ago saw what would happen as a result of wildcat financing of the nineties wrote:

As we are witnessing today, the issue is not some manageable amount of new “capital” to replenish banking system losses.  Instead, the predicament is the massive and unmanageable amount of new Credit necessary to, on the one hand, sustain a mal-adjusted Bubble Economy and, on the other, the Trillions more required to accommodate a gigantic speculative de-leveraging.  I have a very difficult time seeing a way out of this terrible mess.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 12

Eschatology. Eschatology is a part of theology or philosophy dealing with the ultimate destiny of humanity or end of the world. While Objectivism does not have an explicit eshatology, it’s philosophy of history contains obvious eshatological implications. Consider the following from the pen of Leonard Peikoff: 

From another point of view, however, [the power of philosophy to change the world] is not ominous—it can even be regarded as encouraging. For it means that if a good philosopher arises who answers and philosophically destroys [a pernicious philosopher like Kant], that will turn the reign of the evil and save the world. And such a philosopher has arisen in our time—in my judgment, at least, and I am sure in most of yours. I am speaking, of course, of Ayn Rand.

On the basis of the theory of history I have put forth today, therefore, it is proper to have hope for the future. I do think that Objectivism will triumph ultimately and shape the world’s course, and that today’s culture will be remember in the end only for what it is—which I refrain from saying.

So Objectivism will “ultimately” triumph! Here we find the primary raison d’être of Rand’s philosophy of history. “It took decades of collectivist philosophy to bring this country to its present state,” Rand wrote to a correspondent in March of 1962. “And it is only the right philosophy that can save us. Ideas take time to spread, but we will only have to wait decades—because reason and reality are on our side.”

This optimistic prognosis was made over four decades ago, and still Objectivism has made little if any progress towards its “ultimate” triumph. Indeed, if by Objectivism we mean the purest, orthodox brand of that philosophy, we would have to admit that it has regressed since 1962, thanks to two major schisms in the movement, one involving Rand and her leading disciple Nathaniel Branden, the other involving Rand’s intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff and the movements most promising and effective advocate, David Kelley.

Since Rand’s 1962 prognosis has turned out to be so palpably wrong, how much faith should we place in Peikoff’s suggestion of an “ultimate” triumph? Given the intellectual foundation that these Objectivist hopes are based on, no faith should be placed in them. The Objectivist hope for an “ultimate” triumph is on the same level as the Marxist’s hope of for the eventual triumph of the communist paradise or the Christian’s hope for the rapture. It is an extra-empirical hope, without basis in fact, science or even good sense. It completely ignores what actually motivates human beings, substituting instead an entirely baseless schema of motivations based on abstruse metaphysical and epistemological notions that hardly anyone understands or cares for. Worst of all, it is a species of conceit so gross and intense that it boggles the mind: for it suggests that Rand and her disciples, simply by wagging their tongues and jiggling their pens, can “turn the reign of evil and save the world.” Under this notion of history, ideas become a kind of talisman or power. “In the beginning was the Word,” begins the Platonist gospel of John. Rand’s philosophy of history is merely a kind of secularist riff on this mystical theme.

Should this mystical, Platonist detour surprise us? Not at all. For that is the tradition of philsophy that Rand harkens from: the Platonic-Aristotelean tradition of metaphysics and wishful thinking, rather than the tradition of the Greek Naturalists, modern science and the critical empiricism of Hume and Popper.