Friday, May 24, 2013

Selfishness as Reason - "Wants", "Needs", "Fairness" and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions

It is the one point which divides my philosophy most clearly from the Objectivists, and the point which caused me to eventually stop describing myself as a member of that group. It is the belief that one can use reason to determine objectively whether a given desire is better than another. I suppose, on the surface, it might sound reasonable, or it might sound utterly absurd, depending on one's tendency toward positivist thought -- as that is what it is, no matter what Objectivists might think -- the premise is actually an expression of a philosophy Rand once ridiculed, that holdover from the early 20th century, Postivism. You can see it most clearly in Rand's discussion of art, in which she argues that rational men would find value only in certain kinds of art, while all other modes are dismissed as inferior. She is speaking not just of her personal preferences, but is stating that, if one is guided by reason, he will of necessity share the same valuations she does, and will assess these art forms in an identical manner. In other words, she is positing her own preferences as the only rational choice.

Since many Objectivists seem to take these argument seriously -- even if most people who do not idolize Rand can immediately see the problems with such propositions -- allow me to spend a few moments demonstrating the problem with such arguments, as well as providing a few examples to make sure that everyone realizes I am not taking on straw men here, many Objectivists really do believe exactly what I claim.

For example, many, many years ago, back when I used to comment regularly on the Townhall pundit pages, but after I started this blog, I had an article that was actually posted on the pundit pages. ("Absolute Values") It was unusual to have a blogger show up among the paid professionals, so I was rather flattered. Unfortunately, I had not thought through how badly many conservatives responded to the phrase "subjective values", and so, though I was writing entirely in an economic context, I ended up defending myself against endless unrelated criticisms.

However, one criticism I heard was on topic, but was rather absurd. An Objectivist accepted that humans may have differing scales of value, but argued that rationally there was one preference that was better than another. I replied with what I thought would be an obvious counter argument, asking which was more rational wearing red or blue? And I was surprised to hear that there actually was a rationally preferred color of dress. My reader did not know, as it was context dependent and so on, but she kept arguing that everything, down to preferring a given color, pattern or fabric, could be rationally established.

Worse still, a handful of other Objectivists chimed in with their assent.

All of which should go to show that Objectivists really do take things to extremes even greater than I have alleged. They really do believe there is some absolute hierarchy of wants to which we all should rationally subscribe. It is not just Rand's attempts at being an art critic, or pushing her taste in dance and music, they really think reason alone can tell us absolutely everything. In a way, they make the positivists that they malign look sensible, as I never heard of a positivist going that far in their claims for rationality.

Having taken the Objectivists to task, I should be fair and point out they are hardly the only ones to make this error. The specific form may be unique to Rand and her followers, but the general error is held by a number of other, and many more mainstream, groups.

In fact, you can see the other exemplars of this error if you look at the way in which I realized the flaw in Rand's theories. Prior to discovering Rand and Objectivism, I was a very bright teenager, in the most advanced classes, interested in literature and art, and thus, almost of necessity, was also a thoroughly convinced Communist. Not just your run of the mill, "we should all share our stuff", slogan chanting Communist, but one who read Marx and Lenin, as well as the more extreme fringes such as Bakunin and other anarcho-communist thinkers. Thus, when I cam to Objectivism, it represented a tremendous break with my old beliefs, and, as with most who undergo a sudden, radical shift of beliefs, I embraced the new philosophy with a nearly fanatical devotion. As a result, for quite a while, nothing could have convinced me anything Rand wrote was mistaken.

But fanatical as I was, I was also the same youth who was always fascinated with asking "why" and "how", and so the same curiosity that had led me to Rand, and left my mind open enough to allow her to convince me of the errors of my communist beliefs, also led me to avidly consume all the works suggested by Objectivist newsletters, and, among the many thinkers I read, I found Ludwig vonMises.

This may sound strange to Objectivists, as they idolize vonMises almost as much as Rand, but there was one point in vonMises writing, a point which he used quite effectively to undermine communist and socialist planning, that also caused me to rethink my devotion to Objectivism, and that was, quite simply, the Austrian school's emphasis on the subjective nature of valuation.

On the surface, there is nothing inherent to vonMises' theories that contradict Objectivist belief. Individual human desires can be thoroughly subjective, and yet there can be a proper, rational hierarchy of values. However, once I began to read vonMises' arguments against Communist, and even mainstream, belief in planning using these objective values, it made me ask by what definition one could determine these "rational" values? How did Rand's claims differ from a commissar taking his own biases and declaring them the proper values? Yes, we could say that, if one wanted to achieve X, then pursuing Y might be beneficial or detrimental, and that would be rational, but how could we say choosing to pursue X, or pursuing X in preference to Y was rational or irrational? The arguments, as I already demonstrated, simply did not make sense.

All of which is a rather lengthy way to point out that, being fair to all involved, Objectivists are hardly alone in this error. Everyone from Communists to Socialists1 to mainstream regulators2 to many social conservatives3 to FairTax4 advocates to Objectivists seem to embrace this error in some form. And when they do, as I plan to demonstrate, they tend to do so by using a specific set of words, words which have no clear definition, no inherent meaning, but words which carry strong connotations, and thus serve as perfect vehicles for hiding one's biases while gaining popular support.

Which brings me to my main point. Despite the fact that we hear the term "fairness" so often, or hear its equivalents, such as using tariffs to "level the playing field", using death duties to "balance out inequities" and the like, the terms themselves really mean nothing5.

Well, to be accurate, "fair" has one meaning. In a situation in which one can act with completely arbitrary power, and then chooses to act in a manner which provides the same benefit to all, I suppose that could be called "fair". But unless you are discussing children doling out Halloween candy, or taking turns riding on a shared bicycle, there really is little meaning to the word. Economics is not a realm for "fairness", because it is a field dominated by self interest. Not that everyone is concerned only about money6, that is a myth. But one will always act in a way which advances whatever his interests may be, be it getting rich, feeding his children or clothing the poor. Whatever he wants, he will act in such a way as he trades something that he values less for something he values more. And so will everyone else. Thus, all trades are "fair" and "unfair" simultaneously, depending on how you look at it. If I give you a hat I don't want for money, I think I won, and you lost. On the other hand, you value the hat more than the money or you would not trade, so you think you won and I lost. And thus, all trades are neither just or unjust, they simply are. And all of the economy is based on the same foundation. No matter how complex, how elaborate, that is the basic nature of trade, of wealth, or reality. To try to change it is to end up making things worse all around7. And thus, "fair" is meaningless when describing the marketplace. And yet it is used, and used often, because it is a useful term for some.

The same is true of "needs" and "wants"8. Theory after theory of government is predicated explicitly or implicitly upon this fictitious distinction, as well as the arrogant belief that the masses can't tell the difference while some elite can9. How often have we heard that the free market is to be rejected because it panders tot he lowest common denominator, making trinkets while people starve? Or that it creates wasteful, throw away flimsy goods when it could produce substantial items satisfying our true needs? Or even that it prints comic books while ignoring scientific and literary works? We even hear a hint of it in the complaints that teachers and firefighters earn so little while actors and sports stars (or sometimes CEOs) earn so much10. The implication always being that we ignore our true needs in favor of ephemeral wants.

The problem with this argument is that needs and wants mean nothing. Or if they have a meaning, it is only in context, not in the absolute sense they are used in such arguments. There is no need without a goal, and goals are arbitrary. We cannot say men "need" something in absolute sense, they need it only to achieve something, and that something to which they aspire is once again in the realm of arbitrary values. There is nothing which is an absolute need, there are only needs that fulfill desires, and thus to distinguish between needs and wants is silly, futile and essentially meaningless. Yet, again, it is done all the time, and again, it is because it is useful to some.

And how is the misuse of these terms useful? Because it clothes the arbitrary whims of individuals in the garb of higher aspirations. When I say that man should do X because I want him to do so, it sounds selfish. if I say he must for his own good, or because it is fair, or fulfills his true needs, then I sound enlightened. And that is why these terms, meaningless as they are, enjoy such wide popularity, they make our petty desires sound elevated, our resentment and envy sound like justice. We are not striking at those who have more than us, who enjoy more success, have more wealth, we are fighting for justice, we are helping the sheep like masses recognize their true needs.

In short, it makes us appear to be other than the resentful, jealous mob that we are.

Of course, not everyone is motivated by such personal resentment. Some actually buy into the sham arguments of others. Some because they believe the claims, others because the claims match their own envious inclinations, but still not everyone is acting out of their own pettiness, some are swept along by the disguised pettiness of others. However, whatever the motive, the fact remains that these terms, no matter how noble they might be made to sounds, are rarely, if ever, anything but a subterfuge, behind which lurk motives afar more base than the selfishness so often attributed to businessmen11.


1. I know Communist and Socialist were once used interchangeably, in fact Marx and Lenin treated them as identical. Even now many do not distinguish between the two. However, as many have taken socialist to mean "less authoritarian communist" or sometimes "a mixture of regulation and freedom, just one falling closer to the regulatory end than we are", I figure I will use the term in that more loosely defined sense. As the precision of these two terms is not important for this essay, it doesn't seem a problem in this instance to adopt the common usage.

2. As I argued in "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences" , all modern regulatory states pretty much rely upon the same basic premises as more authoritarian states, and one of the three fundamental beliefs is that there is some objective, absolute set of valuations. See also  "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism",  "The Right Way", "Some Thoughts on "Summerhill"", "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great "What If?" - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism"  and "Absolute Values".

3. Not all social conservative fit this mold, as some want to apply social pressure rather than state power to solve social ills. (See "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "If You Wear a "Kick me" Sign, Don't Complain About Getting Kicked", ""...Then Who Would Do it?"" and "Three Approaches to Social Conservatism".) On the other hand, there is a spectrum of social conservative positions, and many do want to apply, to one degree or another, an amount of force to prevent individuals from engaging in acts they deem undesirable, but which fail to violate individual rights. Thus, these groups clearly fall within the category of those who think there are fixed values, and more, believe these values must be coercively enforced. (See  "Hard Cases Make Bad Law" , " In Loco Parentis " and "The Case for Small Government" .)

4. The FairTax claims one of the major benefits is that it promotes savings and investment, which is based upon the claim that we "spend too much." This is a common error, but one that falls in the category being discussed, assuming there is some objectively correct amount of savings and spending. See "To Correct Debra Saunders", "Debt", "Living Beyond Their Means", "More Thoughts on the FairTax" and  "The FairTax's Liberal Assumptions" .

5. See  "A Question of Fairness", "Protean Terminology" and "Semantic Games", as well as a passing mention in "Two Thoughts on Taxation" and "A Passing Thought". I also discussed the whole issue of the market and fairness at some length in "What Is Fair? or, How Game Theory Leads Us Astray".

6. For a discussion of this myth see "Bad Economics Part 16",  "Greed Versus Evil" and  "In Praise of Contracts" . For a discussion of the strengths of the free market see   "Competition", "The Other 99%", "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth",  "Planning For Imperfection" , and "Production and Consumption".

7. See  "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse" , as well as "The Price of Equality", "The Threat of Perfection" and "Utopianism and Disaster" . A similar point is also made in  "Third Best Economy" .

8. See  "The Most Misleading Word" and "Luxury and Necessity". 

9. See  "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences" , as well as  "The Weakest Gun Control Argument", "Seeing People As Stupid", "Arrogance and Gun Control", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Path of Least Resistance", "The Essence of Liberalism", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Those Other People" and "Man's Nature and Government".

10. See "Why Do They Earn So Much For Playing a Game?" and "A Little More On CEO Salaries".

11. I try my hand at showing that the "selfishness" of which so many are accused is nothing more than a behavior to which we all ascribe in several posts. See  "Moral For Me, But Not For Thee" ,  "The Triumph of Good" , "Greed", "Greed Part 2", "Perverting Self Interest", "Bad Economics Part 19", "Those Greedy Bankers", "The "Lucky" Rich",  "Envy Kills", "Envy And Analogy" and "Brief Discussion of Envy " .



I found something odd. When I tracked down the article on archive. org, I read through the comments and could not find the debate I mentioned. Now, I know it grew out of that article, but I also recall I was taken to task in the comments to a few articles, so it likely was on another article from that day or the next few days, but I lack the determination to actually track it down. Still, it is interesting to go back to double check a reference and find what you thought would be there is missing.

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