What Ayn Rand got right and wrong

Ayn Rand is a polarizing figure, and it should be pretty clear that I’m not her biggest fan. I find her views on gender repulsive and her metaphysics laughable. I tend to be on the economic left; she heads to the far right. She and I have one crucial thing in common– extreme political passions rooted in emotionally damaging battles with militant mediocrity– but our conclusions are very different. Her nemesis was authoritarian leftism; mine is corporate capitalism. Of course, an evolved mind in 2013 will recognize that, while both of these forces are evil, there isn’t an either/or dichotomy between them. We don’t need authoritarian leftism or corporate capitalism, and both deserve to be reject out of hand.

What did Rand get right?

As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s worldview, it’s hard to say that it isn’t a charismatic one, which explains her legions of acolytes. There are a few things she got right, and in a way that few people had the courage to espouse. Namely, she depicted authoritarianism as a process through which the weak (which she likened to vermin) gang up on, and destroy, the strong. She understood the fundamental human problem of her (and our) time: militant mediocrity.

Parasitism, in my view, isn’t such a bad thing. (I probably disagree with Rand on that.) After all, each of us spends nine months as a literal biological parasite. I am actually perfectly fine with much of humanity persisting in a “parasitic” lifestyle wherein they receive more sustenance from society than they would earn on the market. I’m fine with that. It’s a small cost to society, and the long-term benefits (especially including the ability for some people to escape parasitism and become productive) outweigh it. What angers me is when the parasites on the opposite end (the high one) of the socioeconomic spectrum behave as if their fortune and social connections entitle them to tell their intellectual superiors (most viscerally, when that intellectual superior is me) what to do.

Rand’s view was harsh and far from democratic. She conceived of humanity consisting of a small set of “people of the mind” and a much larger set of parasitic mediocrities. In her mind, there was no distinction between (a) average people, who neither stand out in terms of accomplishment or militancy, and (b) the aggressive, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian true parasites against which society must continually defend itself. That was strike one: it just seemed bitchy and mean-spirited to decry the majority of humanity as worthless. (I can’t stand with her on that, either. We’re all mediocre most of the time; it’s militant mediocrity that’s our adversary.) Yet most good ideas seem radical when first voiced, and their proponents are invariably first attacked for their tone and attitude rather than substance, a dynamic that means “bitchiness” is often positively correlated with quality of ideas. I think much of why Rand’s philosophy caught on is that it was so socially unacceptable in the era or the American Middle Class; and intellectuals understand all too well that great ideas often begin as rejected ones.

To understand Ayn Rand further, keep in mind the context of the time during which she rose to fame: the American post-war period. Even the good kinds of greed were socially unacceptable. So a lot of people found her “new elitism” (which was a dressing-up of the old kind) to be refreshing and– in a world that tried to make reality look very different from what it was (see: 1950s television)– honest. By 1980, there was a strong current of opinion that the inclusive capitalism and corporate paternalism had failed, and elitism became sexy again.

Where was the value in this very ugly (but charismatic) philosophy? I’d say that there are a few things Ayn Rand got completely right, as proven by experience at the forefront of software technology:

  1. Most progress comes from a small set of people. Pareto’s “80/20″ is far too generous. It’s more like 80/3. In programming, we call this the “10x” effect, because good programmers are 10 times as effective as average ones (and the top software engineers are 10 times as effective as the merely-good ones like me). Speaking on the specific case of software, it’s pretty clear that 10x is not driven by talent alone. That’s a factor, but a small one. More relevant are work ethic, experience, project/person fit, and team synergies. There isn’t a “10x programmer” gene out there; a number of things come into play. It’s not always the same people who are “10x-ers”, and this “10x” superiority is far from intrinsic to the person, having as much to do with circumstance. That said, there are 10x differences in effectiveness all over the place when at the forefront.
  2. Humanity is plagued by authoritarian mediocrity. If you excel, you become a target. It is not true that the entire rest of humanity will despise you for being exceptionally intelligent, creative, industrious, or effective. In fact, many people will support you. However, there are some (especially in positions of power, who must maintain them) who harbor jealous hatred, and they tend to focus on a small number of people. In authoritarian leftism, they attack those who have economic success. In corporate capitalism, they attack their intellectual superiors.
  3. Social consensus is often driven by the mediocre. The excellent have a tendency to do first and sell later. Left to their own devices, they’d rather build something great and seek forgiveness than try to get permission, which will never come if sought at the front door. The mediocre, on the other hand, generate no new ideas and therefore have never felt that irresistible desire to take that kind of social risk. They quickly learn a different set of skills: how to figure out who’s influential and who’s ignored, what the influential people want, and how to make their own self-serving conceptions (which are never far-fetched, being only designed to advance the proponent, because there is otherwise no idea in them) seem like the objective common consensus.

A bit of context

Ayn Rand’s view of authoritarian leftism was spot-on. Much of that movement’s brutality was rooted in a jealous hatred that we know as militant mediocrity. Its failure to become anything like true communism (or even successful leftism) proved this. Militant mediocrity is blindly leftist when poor and out-of-power and rabidly conservative when rich and established. Of course, in the Soviet case, it never became “rich” so much as it made everyone poor. This enabled it to keep a leftish veneer even as it became reactionary.

Rand’s experiences with toxic leftism were so damaging that when she came to the United States, she continued to advance her philosophy of extreme egoism. This dovetailed with the story of the American social elite. Circa 1960, they felt themselves to be a humiliated set of people. Before 1930, they lived in elaborate mansions and lived opulent, sophisticated lifestyles. After the Great Depression, which they caused, they fell into fear and reservation; that is why, to this day, the “old money” rich prefer to live in houses not visible from the road. They remained quite wealthy but, socially, they retreated. They were no longer the darlings at the ball, because there was no ball. It wasn’t until their grandchildren’s generation came forward that they had the audacity to reassert themselves.

While this society’s parasitic elite was in social exile, paternalistic, pay-it-forward capitalism (“Theory Y”) replaced the old, meaner industrial elite, and the existing upper class found themselves increasingly de-fanged as the social distance between them and the rising middle class shrunk. It was around 1980 that they began to fight back with a force that society couldn’t ignore. The failed, impractical Boomer revolutions of the late 1960s were met, about 10 to 15 years later, with a far more effective “yuppie” counterrevolution that won. Randism became its guiding philosophy. And, boy, did it prove to be wrong about many things.

What did Rand get wrong?

Ayn Rand died in 1982, before she was able to see any of her ideas in implementation. Her vision was of the individual capitalist as heroic and excellent. What we got, instead, was these guys.

Ayn Rand interpreted capitalism using a nostalgic view of industrial capitalism, when it was already well into its decline. The alpha-male she imagined running a large industrial operation no longer existed; the frontier had closed, and the easy wins available to risk-seeking but rational egoists (as opposed to social-climbing bureaucrats) had already been taken. The world was in full swing to corporate capitalism, which has been taking an increasingly collectivist character on for the past forty years.

Corporatism turns out to have the worst of both systems between capitalism and socialism. Transportation, in 2013, is a perfect microcosm of this. Ticket prices are volatile and fare-setting strategies are clearly exploitative– the worst of capitalism– while service rendered is of the quality you might expect from a disengaged socialist bureaucracy; flying an airplane today is certainly not the experience one would get from a triumphant capitalistic enterprise.

Suburbia also has a “worst of both worlds” flavor, but of a more vicious nature, being more obvious in how it merges two formerly separate patterns of life to benefit one class of people and harm another. By the peak of U.S. suburbanization, almost everyone (rich and poor) lived in a suburb, and this was deemed the essence of middle-class life. Suburbia is well-understood as a combination of urban and rural life– an opportunity for people to hold high-paying urban jobs, but live in more spacious rural settings. What’s missed is that, for the rich, it combines the best of both lifestyles– it gives them social access, but protects them from urban life’s negatives; for the poor, it holds the worst of both– urban crime and violence, rural isolation.

This brings us directly to the true nature of corporate capitalism. It’s not really about “making money”. Old-style industrial capitalism was about the multiplication of resources (conveniently measured in dollar amounts). New-style corporate capitalism is about social relationships (many of those being overtly extortive) and “connections”. It’s about providing the best of two systems– capitalism and socialism– for a well-connected elite. They get the outsized profit opportunities (“performance” bonuses during favorable market trends that should more honestly be appreciated as luck) of capitalism, but the cushy assured favoritism and placement (acq-hires and “entrepreneur-in-residence” gigs) of socialism. Everyone else is stuck with the worst of both systems: a rigged and conformist corporate capitalism that will gladly punish them for failure, but that will retard their successes via its continual demands for social permission.

What’s ultimately fatal to Rand’s ideology– and she did not live long enough to see it play out this way– was the fact that the entrepreneurial alpha males she was so in love with (and who probably never existed, in the form she imagined) never came back. In the 1980s, the world was sold to emasculated, influence-peddling, social-climbing private-sector bureaucrats, and not heroic industrialists. Whoops!

What we now have is a world that claims to be (and is) capitalistic, but is run by the sorts of parasitic, denial-focused, militantly mediocre position-holders that Rand railed against. This establishes her ideology as a failed one, and the elitism-is-cool-again “yuppie” counterrevolution of the 1980s has thus been shown to be just as impractical and vacuous as the 1960s “hippie” movement and the authoritarian leftism of the “Weathermen”. Unfortunately, it was a far more effective– and, thus, more damaging– one, and we’ll probably be spending the next 15 years cleaning up its messes.

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32 thoughts on “What Ayn Rand got right and wrong

    • And if you don’t like his political stuff, read his linguistics material. I’ve been a huge fam of his work there for years.

  1. The problem with Rand is narcissism. She was clearly traumatized as a child, and she developed a narcissistic armor to cope with it. Her protagonist are the alpha man on a white horse come to save her (whether she likes it or not), basically imaginary friends to help her cope with her pain.

    One of the many problems with her philosophy is how you identify a “man of the mind”. Where do these unicorns come from? Rand’s only answer in her novels was to drop these totally inhuman ubermensch as fully formed adults into her world full of dues ex machinas. And her only method for proving that these men were “men of the mind” was to assume the market could figure that out because she couldn’t conceive of any other method for conferring the honor.

    The reason she couldn’t conceive of it is because life is more messy. As you note, ubermensch aren’t just born, their made. A man’s success or failure depends on any number of factors, including luck. So how does a man tell if he’s a “man of the mind”? How does he prove it? And if he was not born a “man of the mind” but only becomes one contingent on other factors outside his control does he not owe something to the factors that make his success possible?

    Narcissistic teenagers who haven’t lived life and realized how messy it is latch on to Rand for the same reasons as Rand, they were alienated and they need some philosophy that tells them its alright because they are really better then these people but nobody knows it yet (how positively Christian BTW). They are the ubermensch and everyone else is a parasite holding them down.

    One reason that I find Rand so laughable is that I’ve met lots of Randoids in my life, most especially on Wall Street. Now a quick look at these men would expose them as the antagonist in Rand’s novels, and yet to a man they all believed themselves to be John Galt. And Rand herself would have endorsed their view, because without the market as the ultimate arbiter of who is and isn’t a “man of the mind” it becomes impossible to prove who is and who isn’t.

    This is a problem because at the core of her philosophy is the idea that anyone who isn’t a “man of the mind” is only a tool to serve him. More like a hammer then a human. So if you don’t know whose in and whose out, you’ve got a problem. The narcissistic armor only works if you’re the ubermensch. And you’ve got to prove it to the world at all costs and by any means necessary.

    A healthier attitude is to strive towards some ideal while recognizing you might not be the hot shit you think you are. Be heroic, but humility is part of heroism. And if you aren’t recognized, but you are proud of the process, then go in peace.

    Rand could never accept that because what she was looking for was never really a philosophical ideal, but a strongman capable of defeating all the strongmen that had terrorized her as a child. Only the perfect ubermensch would do. Only the perfect ubermensch could protect her. A sort of human demigod on her side. Gods don’t show humility. Gods don’t have to play by any rules.

    • > One of the many problems with her philosophy is how you identify a “man of the mind”. Where do these unicorns come from? Rand’s only answer in her novels was to drop these totally inhuman ubermensch as fully formed adults into her world full of dues ex machinas.
      not really true. in “atlas shrugged”, she describes a part of the childhood of james and dagny taggart and francisco d’anconia.

      > their made.
      they’re

      > So how does a man tell if he’s a “man of the mind”? How does he prove it?
      why does he need to tell himself if he’s a man of the mind or not?

      > And if he was not born a “man of the mind” but only becomes one contingent on other factors outside his control does he not owe something to the factors that make his success possible?
      if you read “atlas shrugged”, you’ll see that the “man of the mind” that she idolizes and describes are made

      > So if you don’t know whose in and whose out, you’ve got a problem.
      who’s

      > Be heroic, but humility is part of heroism. And if you aren’t recognized, but you are proud of the process, then go in peace.
      well.. that was hank rearden’s philosophy

      • Yes, she describes part of the childhood of a few characters, but not much. Certainly nothing weighty. They are dropped into the world with basically no idea where they came from. Rand is on record saying she wanted it that way.

        “why does he need to tell himself if he’s a man of the mind or not?”

        That’s the whole point of the books. They don’t do good works just to do them. They do it to own them. And their ownership is contingent on being “men of the mind” whose ownership rights trump all others.

        Let’s take the building that Roark blows up. The building incorporates his design, but it also incorporates raw materials, labor, and the contributions of other designers. Yet Roark blows it up claiming that he owned the whole thing. Clearly, he only owned a part of the thing. And when you get down to it he didn’t even really own that when you consider the contract law of the entire process (his contract with Keating explicitly states that he has no rights in the event of a breach of contract besides exposing Keating). There is also no precedent that would grant him the right to blow up the building in the event of contract breach even if its not in the contract. And he has no contract with the actual owners of the building. In matter of fact he has conspired to commit fraud against the owners of the building. They contracted Keating to provide a Keating design. Keating was not authorized to subcontract that design process to Roark. So Keating is in breach of contract in his agreement with the building owners, and Roark is an accomplice in that fraud. Considering that Roark is a clearly unstable man that blows up buildings if modifications get made its entirely reasonable to believe that the building owners would not have given a contract to Roark if he has approached them openly rather then going through Keating. Yet Roark’s going on and on about his rights as per the contract when he never entered into the contract with the building owners, when he conspired with Keating to commit fraud, and when the building itself clearly includes the inputs of others who have just as much right to their inputs as he does to his.

        Another’s breakdown:

        I agree that Roark’s designing the project was not fraud. What was fraud was Roark and Keating claiming that Roark’s design was Keating’s. Roark even explicitly lies when confronted by Wynand about who designed the project. He says that Keating designed it. Essentially, the issue is that Roark knows that the owners of the project will not hire him, yet he decides not to respect their right to not hire him. He sees Keating’s request for help as an opportunity to subvert the owners’ right to have nothing to do with him. Read the novel. Roark clearly identifies this as his motive for passing off his work as Keating’s.

        Look at it this way: If a publishing house or government agency doesn’t like me, what I stand for, or what they think my paintings represent, and I know that they are opposed to publishing prints of my work, it would be fraud for me to conspire with a friend to submit my art under his name to try to trick the publisher or agency into publishing my art. In effect, it would be theft of their materials and labor if I were to try to circumvent their desire to not work with me. The same is true of an architect trying to subvert a property owner’s (including public ownership) unwillingness to hire him. He doesn’t have the right to use fraud in order to see his dream project realized with others’ wealth and labor.

        The injury is that Roark violated the owners of Cortland’s right to not hire him, and to not use their (and the taxpayers’) wealth and labor to satisfy his desire to work on his dream project against their will. The owners were led to believe that they were buying a work of art-architecture by Keating. They were defrauded just as they would have been if they had purchased a “Vermeer” painted by Van Meegeren.

        Roark and Keating agreed that Roark would design the project and Keating would take the credit for designing it. They agreed not to meet at Roark’s office so as not to be seen together — they thought that “somebody might guess.” Roark told Keating to redraw the sketches in his own manner because some people would recognize Roark’s way of drawing. Roark lied to Wynand about who designed Cortland. Keating lied to Toohey about who designed Cortland. How are you not understanding that they were committing fraud — that they were acting with the purpose of deceiving those in charge of the project?

        Roark justifies it because he is an ubermensch whose will is worth something, and everyone else involved in the process is subhuman vermin with no rights. That’s why it was ok for him to destroy a building owned by others to which he has no claim and in which he attempted to defraud others into using their considerable resources to help him realize his artistic ambitions. He destroys to destroy. The destruction of others property has no justification besides making him happy, but in the same moment he betrays his own ideal that nobody should force their will on another.

        This is not surprising of course. Many of Ayn Rand’s ubermensch superheroes were the spawn of real life serial killers that Rand absolutely idolized. In fact some of the protagonist from earlier novels are based on a serial killer she was in love with named William Edward Hickman. He abducted a young girl, raped her, cut her up into pieces, and mailed them back one by one.

        Ayn Rand wrote that Hickman represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.”

        When he was hanged for killing the poor girl (and other crimes) Rand denounced the hanging as, “The mob’s murderous desire to revenge its hurt vanity against the man who dared to be alone.”

        She wrote a whole novel with him as the protagonist, and later incarnations such as Roark and Galt are based on him. Like all psychopaths, they use whatever reasoning they can (in this case Rand’s crackpot metaphysics) to get what they want, but ultimately its all lip service. Their goal is themselves, and they see themselves as Gods that can do whatever they want when the chips are down.

        http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/08/mark-ames-paul-ryans-guru-ayn-rand-worshipped-a-serial-killer-who-kidnapped-and-dismembered-little-girls.html

      • You’re missapropriating Nietzche’s idea of the “ubermensch. “Ubermensch would never be inhuman. That’s an oxymoron and a complete misunderstanding of the concept.

    • I doubt you’ve met any Objectivists, especially on Wall Street. Rand is only narcissistic because you don’t understand that selfishness is a virtue. Without improving oneself through productive work, art, etc. (which is the core of her philosophy that you, Michael, and just about everyone misses). It’s not about being the hot shit or the best at something. It’s not about competition. If it was, it’d be competition of self vs. self, which is illogical.

      Your hate and lack of understanding of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, is probably why you call it Randism, which is, once again, NOT a philosophy. It’s nothing but a made up term. Perhaps we can use that to define the idiots you speak of who don’t understand her philosophy at all but claim to. That’d make you a Randist, however.

      Try studying Objectivism with an open mind … oh wait never mind too late for that.

      • I do “understand” objectivism in the sense I know what its core axioms are and why they are logically inconsistent. It’s bad metaphysics, and that comes out in the books.

        “Without improving oneself through productive work, art, etc. (which is the core of her philosophy that you, Michael, and just about everyone misses).”

        That’s the core of Romanticism, which was around before Rand. If Rand was just a second rate author using themes of Romanticism I’d give her a slide. I like things about Romanticism.

        However, she isn’t. She has grafted on this whole second rate objectivist philosophy. And that philosophy as she espoused it is not consistent.

  2. On the Christian view of good works in contrast to the Randian view.

    “The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents–or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

    “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

    • You mean C.S. Lewis’ point of view of Christians, not the Christian point of view as that does not exist (as evidenced by the hate Christians have towards each other let alone the rest of the world).

      For Christians, pride might be what you say. For the rest of us, pride is a virtue. Not being proud of one’s accomplishments and achievements is a prerequisite for the kind of pseudo-altruism that Christians like to preach while murdering hundreds of millions throughout the years. Rejoicing in one’s own talents is what advances the individual and therefore everything that the individual wants.

  3. “The failed, impractical Boomer revolutions of the late 1960s were met, about 10 to 15 years later, with a far more effective “yuppie” counterrevolution that won. Randism became its guiding philosophy.”

    The first statement is true. The second makes me question wether you’ve even read ANY of Rand’s books. Rand’s philosophy is first and foremost a philosophy of individualist advancement, improvement, and production. How this affects society and economics is dependent on this primary thesis.

    Randism is not a philosophy. Objectivism is Rand’s philosophy. And it did not become the guiding philosophy for any movement, other than the idiots misusing Rand’s philosophy in the same way that the Nazis interpreted Nietzche as elitist and validating their goals.

    • Rand’s philosophy if first and foremost about individual happiness as the highest goal. Rand *posits* that there is only one rational way to pursue this, and that is essentially self actualization through career while adhering to the non-aggression principle. She never convincingly proves this is the most rational way to pursue individual happiness, she only posits it. Her failure to prove it and the masses of real world evidence against it (including her own life) mean her whole philosophy collapses in on itself.

      • Indeed, and she does a great job at proving it. Her life was a huge success as were her writings. It’s not just about a carrer at all though. It’s about being productive for the self. That may tie into a career, but to think for oneself and create for oneself is at the core of her philosophy.

        As it should be. Productivity only comes out of selfish action as there is no such thing as an unselfish or purely altruistic action.

        Selfishness is indeed a virtue.

          • One of the greatest (of the few) original American philosophers and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and you don’t call that accomplished?

            Oh right, she wasn’t delusional like you believing in fictional entities like God. The greater the delusion the greater the accomplishment. That’s how it works with your chosen mental disease.

      • People’s use or misuse of other’s ideas has no bearing on the quality or meaning of the ideas or how the originators of said ideas should be interpreted.

        People are as a whole are incredibly stupid and prejudiced. Of course they will misinterpret, distort, and misuse smart ideas.

  4. Michael,

    You state that you are in favor more of economic leftism. Yes, I agree that compared to being a Randoid economic leftism is more valid. However, there are a few blind spots to economic leftism:

    A. Seeing as OWS did everything in terms of straightforward dollars, when in todays world, it is not just how much money one has right now, but how one got the money, how much one has opportunities to expand the money, when one got the money, and what advantage one can pass onto their children socially. For instance, take a new VC partner worth 5 million (E2), a truly great doctor whose truly useful book about coping with arthritis nets him 5 million (G2), and my blue collar father’s union co-worker who bought and repaired old houses and is now worth 5 million(L1). These people despite each being worth 5 million are not equal.

    B. The economic left seems to act as if there is a Theremocline between the working poor world and the middle class, in which unjust structural barriers keep people stuck in poverty, but once one crosses the Middle class line, one faces a world of opportunity and self actualization. Of course, they do worry about people falling out of the middle class What do I mean: Most mainstream liberals want to send everyone to college, teach inner city children computer technology, etc. What they don’t realize is that if there was a child from the hood or trailer park who had the inherent ability of being as a great at technology as Bill Gates or Steve jobs, even if everything worked out and he managed to get his first job as an entry level programmer, thousands of class or race related barriers would keep him doing fourth quadrant work forever. Despite what Randoids and some well meaning liberals like Gates say, there is some racism in the technology sector.

    C. On a somewhat related note, the typical economic leftist will go one and on about how horrible it is due to structural inequality that Jose Morales or Dwayne Jackson from the projects will likely end up in a horrible situation such as being on the front lines of the army, in jail, or working at Mc Donalds for life. However, they will ignore the fact that Apartheid like barriers, the VC monopoly on capital, the social caste system, and other factors will keep many middle class people from ever being able to achieve their true economic or professional potential. While racism definitely plays a role in keeping Dwayne Jackson working as a security guard or hamburger flipper despite having the ability to do so much more, classism plays a role in why many middle class white people are stuck in jobs below their potential.

    Here is a complex question: How can we on the economic left acknowledge the fact that while Dwayne Jackson who lives in a run down project, takes two trains to work, and makes minimum wage doing physically taxing work at McDonalds is in a worse off position then a middle class 90,000 a year programmer who is stuck doing fourth quadrant work when he could be running his own visionary world changing startup the following is true:

    A. Barriers based on birth keep both people locked in a situation beneath their economic and self actualization potential.

    B. Being stuck in a position beneath their ability, being locked out of interesting work, and having an inferior social status relative to their potential might be equally hurtful to both individuals psychologically.

    Thanks

    • How do you tell the difference between a $90k/year programmer with massive potential and a $90k/year programmer that is making exactly what he’s worth? Same for the ghetto kid. Everyone has a high opinion of themselves, but resources to allow them a chance to prove it are limited.

      Real barriers do exist, and markets are imperfect, but that’s just life isn’t it. I’m not claiming that the current system is optimal for bringing out human talent, but my guess is that any system we come up with will have its positives and negatives. I think we can improve on net from the status quo, but as usual I’m reluctant to endorse moral absolutes (like Randism) or rapid radical change. I am empirically driven and cautious.

      P.S. I agree with you about A, B, and C. One thing I find a giant blind spot in leftist thinking is the idea that the monetary market is the primary market in peoples lives. As if the only thing people care about is their take home pay. For the most part though, money is a very roundabout way of getting other things. Social status, sexual access, etc. I’m far more shocked by the inequality of who grows up with/without a father today then I’m shocked by changes in the gini coefficient. This gets zero play on the left.

      • Not quite zero play, but close. I’m averse to that issue for admittedly tribal reasons. The social conservatives have claimed that issue as one of their own, and in so doing, poisoned the well.

        Also, I don’t view fathers as a commodity, and I certainly don’t assume “with a father” rates a higher value for the utility function than “without a father.” That is most certainly something that operates on a case-by-case basis. I’m inclined to believe that divorce increases quality of life as often as not.

        • “and I certainly don’t assume “with a father” rates a higher value for the utility function than “without a father.”

          I believe the available data would support the thesis that “with a father” > “without a father” in the aggregate. Further, that the mass increase in fatherlessness (approaching 50%) is therefore a “bad thing”.

          “I’m inclined to believe that divorce increases quality of life as often as not.”

          I’m inclined to believe that the only thing we can say about divorce is that the initiator has reason to believe at the moment of divorce that it increases their long run utility. We can’t say whether the initiator believes it increases the long run utility of everyone involved (the non-initiator and the children). Nor can we say if the initiator is accurately assessing their own long run utility. We can make some guesses about all that based on the data, and the data isn’t too kind to divorce, but with all data its open to interpretation and theory. Even if we posit that the circumstances of not getting divorced are indeed worse for everyone then getting divorced, considering that divorce is an awful outcome we might want to ask why there has been a mass increase in marriages faced with such abysmal options. On balance it seems worry, caution, and possible action in relation the mass increase in divorce is warranted. Both/either to decrease how often the divorce option is taken or to change the societal circumstances that are leading to marriages in which people want to get divorced.

          Of course divorce itself is only one aspect of the “fatherless” problem. It’s actually mostly an out of wedlock birth problem. There is never a marriage or man around except during the act.

          I’m an empiricist, and the data just doesn’t seem to support the “progressive” narrative on the sexual revolution. It’s one thing to say XYZ is better. It’s another to actually prove it.

  5. Michael,

    You and most commentators on your blog seem to believe that the basic ‘system’ is sound. I am guessing that most of you also believe that it can be improved, fixed or molded into something better.

    I do not think that it is possible. The ‘defects’ you agonize over are not due to bad design. They are, if anything, signs that the system is operating ‘normally’.

    The origin of many, if not all “defects”, can be traced down to a few ignored fundamentals.

    1] Evolution is not optimal, ‘wise’ or systematic. Artifactual patterns will survive until they do not leave any viable descendants. The only realistic way to change involves making sure that undesirable artifactual patterns, and their progeny, die out before everyone else. There is no ‘nice’ way to do that.

    2] Any new model of social organisation with significant leftover legacies from the old one will over time come to resemble the old one. A society based on any sort of new ‘meritocracy’ or preferential distribution of ‘scarce’ resources (which are not scarce) will quickly morph to something resembling the current one.

    3] For almost all of human history, we just did not have the direct or indirect means to make ourselves extinct. That is no longer the case. The idea that society will collapse into something based on older socio-economic paradigms and models is no longer true. Humans could just become extinct and frankly that is where we are headed right now. The best part is that it will most likely be unintentional.

    4] Most of our customs, mores, hierarchies, societies etc are a legacy from an era with above replacement fertility, poor communication and access to information, significantly higher levels of social cohesion AND the inability to make ourselves extinct. It does not help that many of the still powerful institutions depend on continuation of the old ways for their survival.

    5] Most people don’t think rationally even though they are clearly capable of such thoughts. The clever (high IQ) justify their scams through various forms of sophistry and the intelligent ones don’t give a fuck about people. Civilization, with the possible exception of the post-WW2 era, has been one long dystopic ponzi scheme based on the premise of above-replacement fertility.

    PS: Why does your commenting window refresh in such a annoying manner. Surely you could fix it? or not..

  6. Corporatism turns out to have the worst of both systems between capitalism and socialism. Transportation, in 2013, is a perfect microcosm of this. Ticket prices are volatile and fare-setting strategies are clearly exploitative– the worst of capitalism– while service rendered is of the quality you might expect from a disengaged socialist bureaucracy; flying an airplane today is certainly not the experience one would get from a triumphant capitalistic enterprise.

    I blame intransparency in the market, more than corporatism or quasi-socialism. It is of interest to me because it stands as proof that access to more information technology, and even to more data, does not, in itself, make a market more transparent. Supposedly travelers are shopping online and supposedly no longer realizing some small savings as informational table scraps from the insider knowledge of travel agents, but they are systematically denied the opportunity to query against the industry as a whole* by exclusivity deals between websites and airlines, or package dealing between hotel chains and airlines.

    This brings me to my own list of things I see Ayn Rand as having got right. Mine is only two items long, and both relate to her linguistic sensibilities; perhaps a by product of writing huge tomes in her second(?) language.

    1. The practice of repeatedly (almost, but not quite, ad nauseam) using the phrase “package deal” as a pejorative. She was of course referring to philosophical package deals, but I’ve reached the point where I find package deals in product offerings every bit as insidious. In addition to the travel information mafia you mentioned, another example is TANSTASAB… the fact that there ain’t no such thing as stand-alone broadband. The industry (Big Phone, or Big Cable, take your pick) calls it “bundling” but I call it “package dealing,” and with every bit as much obscene emphasis as Ayn Rand…

    2. The practice of calling people out on pronouns without referents, even when the people in question are fictional characters being used as two-dimensional straw men. I am better off for having read some of her works because I have picked up the habit of muttering under my breath questions that end in “for whom?” or “by whom?” and the like. Has some utility as a BS filter.

    * Shameless plug

  7. Michael,

    What did Rand get right that earlier Romantic thinkers didn’t get? I can buy your enjoying her celebration of human excellence and virtue, but that idea goes back thousands of years and is expressed way better by others. Why even talk about Rand when the romantic elements of her work can’t be disentangled from the monstrously retarded philosophy she lumps onto it.

    • Rand was willing to go out there and say that humanity has a long-standing problem whereby the mediocre form a cohesive identity, become militant, and take down the excellent. This is not a problem for most people (since the adversity focuses on a minority) but it’s a major draw against society’s ability to function.

      What she got wrong was the correlation between such excellence and economic fortune. She asserted that the economic elite and the “people of the mind” would be the same set of people; no society has achieved more than a _very slight_ positive correlation. That correlation goes to zero (or negative) as the successful attempt to protect their (less deserving) progeny and society turns back toward feudalism.

  8. Are people really trying to “take down the excellent.” While there are some bitter and spiteful people out there that literally hate excellence that doesn’t seem to be the case in general.

    People will cut down others who are better then them if it benefits them in some way. Say by sabotaging a better employee so that you can get some reward (promotion, social status, power, etc). However, they are doing so because they want XYZ, not because of some inborn hate of excellence. If their attempts to cut people down didn’t lead to XYZ they wouldn’t bother.

    As such its mostly a problem of the mechanisms by which XYZ is attained. There has yet to be developed a social structure by which XYZ correlates at the 1.0 level with excellence. As such what you call militant mediocrity will always exist, though I’m tempted to blame it more on social incentives then on some group of inherently evil individuals (who, even if they did exist in small numbers, would not be able to hurt anyone if the social structure didn’t allow them opportunities).

    • P.S. The times when Rand’s characters are at their most heroic is when they are focused on simply being excellent. It’s when they stop caring about excellence and start worrying about XYZs (like money) that they lose their heroism and just seem like whiny brats.

      • P.P.S. More broadly the key issue is “process vs results”. As an individual you have control over the process (your own efforts) but not the results. One of the things that I find so compelling about religion/spiritualism is the idea that its the process, not the results, that matters. That’s something you can never get from a materialist utilitarian viewpoint on life.

        I don’t begrudge anyone worrying about results or trying to push for a results based outcome that they believe is fair. However, one must approach this with humility. Results will always be at the mercy of the fates, if your entire ego is wrapped up in results then adverse results outside your control will destroy you (as they did Rand herself). The key is not to let concern over the results effect the process.

    • Supreme Commander was a good if not great game. I appreciated its ambition quite a bit, even if its way to many APMs for a guy like me.

      That video was very sad. I’ve been there at rock bottom when you’ve failed at a dream, its hard.

      • Yeah, it was sad, but also telling what a stand-up guy he is. Even with all that going on, he maintained his grace, dignity, and perspective. I was impressed.

  9. Pingback: The Dangerous Way We View Money | Unshackling Progress

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