Showing posts with label Ayn Rand. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ayn Rand. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Where have the supporters of capitalism gone?

 

Cartoon by Peter Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au

Some erstwhile supporters of capitalism probably don’t realize that they have gone missing. They still support private ownership of property and businesses, and may claim to see merit in the profit motive. However, they overlook that capitalism also involves “prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”.

The quoted words are from the Merriam-Webster definition of capitalism. Use of a definition from an American dictionary seems appropriate because the supporters of capitalism who have gone missing seem to me to be mainly Americans. That is unfortunate because Americans were once the world’s strongest supporters of capitalism.

In Australia, most of the people I hear talking about capitalism seem to use it as a term of disparagement. The people who support capitalism talk about free enterprise and economic freedom.

I have the impression that it is fairly common outside of America for supporters of capitalism to avoid using the word because it is commonly viewed as a term of disparagement. That may stem from the word’s origins. When I was growing up, someone told me that Karl Marx had invented the word. That is not correct. Marx rarely used the word. He preferred to describe capitalism as “the capitalist mode of production”. Nevertheless, even in America the term was apparently considered to be a socialist expression until well into the 20th century.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the strongest supporters of capitalism had no qualms about using the word. Milton Friedman used the word in the title of a book, Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman made it clear that he was writing about “competitive capitalism – the organisation of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market”. Ayn Rand used the word in the title of a book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She defined capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned”.


Where have America’s supporters of capitalism gone? Johan Norberg prompted me to think about that question as I was reading his latest book,
The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World. This book is a follow-up to In Defence of Global Capitalism, which Norberg wrote about 20 years ago. Globalization has now become a dirty word to many erstwhile supporters of capitalism, but Norberg remains a strong defender of global capitalism.


Who opposes the free market?

One of the most interesting contributions of Norberg’s new book is his account of the changing opposition to the ideal of a global free market. Norberg wrote In Defence of Global Capitalism to counter the arguments of left-wing activists who mistakenly believed that free trade, foreign investment, and multinational corporations were making the world’s poor even poorer. George Monbiot, Oxfam, Bono etc. eventually began to see some merit in free trade, but opposition then migrated to economic nationalists on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

Norberg suggests that the opponents of globalization share an underlying misconception that it is a zero-sum game – someone’s gain is another one’s loss:

“The worldview is the same, the roles are just reversed – twenty years ago free trade was considered bad because we exploited them, now it is considered bad because they exploit us.”

Norberg seems to assume that most readers will already understand why free trade is a positive-sum game – beneficial to both importers and exporters. He uses colourful illustrations to reinforce the point:

“Free trade allows the farmer to grow a new mobile phone in his wheat field, the textile worker can sew a new motorbike and the author can (if lucky) write a holiday trip to Tuscany.”

The author argues that free enterprise is primarily about “opening the dams of human creativity – to let everyone participate and test their ideas and see if they work”.

The opposition of economic nationalists to free trade is associated with the narrative that during the early years of the 21st century, cheap imports from China caused deindustrialization and wage stagnation in the United States.  Norberg’s most important contribution seems to me to be in challenging that narrative. He makes the point that the loss of jobs in manufacturing is attributable largely to automation rather than import competition. He suggests that the slow-down in wages growth in the US dates from the mid-1970s, reflecting a necessary correction of cost levels because wages had previous been growing faster than productivity. The Rust Belt apparently lost more jobs in the decades before globalization reached the US, than it has in recent decades. The share of manufacturing jobs in the US declined more rapidly prior to 2001, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), than it has in the decades since then.

 Fear of China

Economic nationalists suggest that the involvement of China in international supply chains has been particularly problematic because of the theft of technology. Norberg points out that China has been by no means unique in that respect. The US itself apparently once had a policy of smuggling inventions and bribing European artisans to reveal their secrets. There is evidence that the Chinese government has a relatively good track record in following WTO rulings relating to disputes about intellectual property and government subsidies.

Norberg acknowledges the potential for Chinese investment in digital and physical infrastructure to pose a security threat because the Chinese government views Chinese companies as its agents. He points out that this does not mean that the US and its allies were wrong to encourage China to open up to the outside world. He suggests that if China had not opened up, it is much more likely that the Chinese people would have generally perceived Westerners as irreconcilable opponents. He fears that use of trade barriers to isolate China could strengthen the most reactionary and nationalist forces in China.    

Leviathan’s helpers

Where have the capitalists gone? Many business owners and executives now seem to spend less time on conventional entrepreneurial activities than on seeking to ingratiate themselves with politicians and bureaucrats who are engaged in active industrial policy.  

The chapter in The Capitalist Manifesto entitled “Picking Losers” should be of particular interest to Jim Chalmers, Australia’s Treasurer. In his article in The Monthly (Feb 2023) Chalmers wrote:

“As the influential economist Mariana Mazzucato has explored in her work, markets built in partnership through the efforts of business, labour and government are still the best mechanism we have to efficiently and effectively direct resources.”  

Johan Norberg has quite a lot to say about Mariana Mazzucato’s na├»ve views. I will not attempt to provide a summary here because it might spoil the fun for readers. However, I particularly liked this sentence:

 “Governments are bad at picking winners, but losers are good at picking governments.”

That observation seems particularly relevant to Australia at present.

Concluding remarks

In focusing on reasons why support for capitalism has declined, I have failed to mention many of the virtues of capitalism discussed in The Capitalist Manifesto. For example, I was particularly interested in what Johan Norberg had to say about the relationship between capitalism and various aspects of happiness, in his chapter on “the meaning of life”.

I began by noting that many supporters of capitalism are reluctant to use the word because socialists have historically used it as a term of disparagement. I commend Johan Norberg for writing a capitalist manifesto. In doing that he is following in the footsteps of great advocates of economic freedom who had no qualms in talking about the virtues of capitalism.

In this book, Norberg has provided an interesting account of how many erstwhile supporters of capitalism have come to oppose global free markets. The most important contribution of the book, in my view, is the challenge it offers to the narrative that cheap imports from China have caused deindustrialization and wage stagnation in the United States.


Monday, July 24, 2023

Where is the soul of libertarianism?

 


Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have contributed an excellent history of libertarian ideas in their recently published book, The Individualists. The question I pose for myself is related to the subtitle of the book: “Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism”.

The reason Zwolinski and Tomasi refer to individualists rather than to libertarians in the main title is presumably because they believe that a commitment to “individualism is at the core of libertarianism”. They also note that many of the most intellectually active friends of liberty in Britain were known as individualists before the term libertarian caught on.

Synopsis

The authors spend some time discussing who is, or isn’t, a libertarian. They note that “libertarian” has been used in both a strict sense, to refer specifically to those who see liberty as a moral absolute, and in a broad sense, to include classical liberals who view liberty as a strong presumption. The book discusses the views of contemporary classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as those of “strict libertarians”, but doesn’t devote much attention to historical classical liberalism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify six markers which form the core of a libertarian world view: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty. They observe that while libertarians don’t necessarily view those principles as absolutes, they typically see them “as a tightly integrated system of thought, with each commitment being supported by, and lending support to, the others”.

After providing a historical overview, the book discusses the history of radical and reactionary libertarian ideas relating to private property, libertarian anarchism, big business and free markets, poverty and spontaneous order, racial justice and individualism, and global justice and noninterventionism. Much of this information was familiar but I was surprised about how much was new to me.

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s final chapter focuses largely on the battle between bleeding heart libertarians, left libertarians and paleolibertarians for control of the libertarian party in the United States. The authors conclude that libertarianism is “intrinsically a diverse ideology”, and that “the struggle between libertarianism’s progressive and conservative tendencies, a struggle for the soul of libertarianism, is likely to go on”.

That may be an appropriate way to end a history of ideas directed to an audience composed largely of people who live in the USA. As a person who doesn’t fit into that category, however, I am concerned that describing differences of opinion as “a struggle for the soul of libertarianism” may generate more heat than light. As I see it, libertarians should be encouraged to acknowledge good ideas whether they are espoused by conservative or progressive libertarians. I would have preferred to see the book end by acknowledging that libertarians are engaged in an ongoing struggle against authoritarianism as people on opposing sides of the culture wars seek to enlist the coercive powers of the state to pursue their interests.

More fundamentally, the struggle the authors describe - about which set of political prescriptions will come to be most closely identified with the ideology – seems to me to be conducted without much reference to the soul, or essence, of libertarianism. The book left me wanting to promote the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi may have good reasons for not exploring that idea more fully in their book, but it seems to me to be an idea that deserves to be given more attention.

The soul of libertarianism

In my view, the passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt quoted at the beginning of this review comes close to capturing the soul of libertarianism. Liberty is the best principle for the coexistence of humans because it offers conditions most favourable to self-directed individual flourishing.

Humboldt’s contributions influenced John Stuart Mill in writing On Liberty. They were also acknowledged by Friedrich Hayek in the conclusion of the chapter of The Constitution of Liberty discussing education and research:

“And we cannot think of better words to conclude than those of Wilhelm von Humboldt which a hundred years ago John Stuart Mill put in front of his essay On Liberty: ‘The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.”

Readers who are eager to know more about Humboldt will find an online article by George H Smith published on libertarianism.org to be of interest.

The discussion of egoism in The Individualists is relevant to considering the link between liberty and individual flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi note that in the 19th century American libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker, were influenced by Max Stirner, a German theorist, who held that the only standard or right was the ability to transform one’s will into action. That view is in stark contrast to the ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand and her followers during the 20th century. Rand denied that might makes right and argued that egoism is compatible with recognition of universal natural rights.

The link between liberty and individual flourishing is recognized today in the writings of some classical liberal and libertarian authors. Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl deserve special mention because they have developed related ideas rigorously in their trilogy of books: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn.

Readers looking for a non-technical introduction to these ideas may find relevant discussion in various places including an article by Ed Younkins on The Savvy Street, and in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  Rasmussen and Den Uyl have provided a summary of their views in Chapter 2 of The Realist Turn. A quote from the conclusion of that chapter will convey the essence of their understanding of the role of liberty in the context of human flourishing.

“In essence, natural rights represent a realization of certain normative requirements that are inherent in the individualized nature of human flourishing within a social context. In particular, when thinking about rights, we are concerned with the conditions that must be secured for the individualized nature of flourishing to function. Although liberty is the key term in this context, we regard it not as the central concept for flourishing generally, but only with regard to setting the social context for flourishing. And although we reject constructivism as a foundational principle, we recognize the role of social constructs within the constraints provided by a framework of natural rights. As such, our theory is not about the whole of political and social life, but about the political/legal structure within which such life should and must be allowed to function if flourishing is our standard.”

Conclusions

My reading of The Individualists by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi has prompted me to present a view about the soul of libertarianism. Zwolinski and Tomasi end their excellent history of libertarian ideas by suggesting that progressive and conservative factions within libertarianism will continue to struggle over the soul of libertarianism. I put the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Wilhelm von Humboldt came close to capturing the soul of libertarianism 230 years ago when he suggested: “The highest ideal … of the co-​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake”. The link between liberty and individual flourishing has been recognized by many libertarians and classical liberals, and is rigorously explained in the writings of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl.

References

Bates, Winton, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, Hamilton Books, 2021.

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Smith, George H., ‘The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt’, libertarianism.org, 2013.

Younkins, Edward W., ‘Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Trilogy of Freedom and Flourishing’, The Savvy Street, 2021.




Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Is Vipassana meditation consistent with self-acceptance?



Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation based on practice of equanimity in observation of physical sensations and thoughts. As people who practice Vipassana observe sensations arise and pass away, they experience a lessening of both aversion of unpleasant sensations, and of craving for pleasant sensations.  The Vipassana tradition has been kept alive since the time of the Buddha, and popularized over the last 50 years by S. N. Goenka, who died in 2013. The practice is taught in 10 day residential courses.

People who hold views that are incompatible with the Buddhist principle of anatta, or no self, are not excluded from attending Vipassana courses. I have practiced Vipassana meditation, with varying consistency, for about 25 years, and associate the practice with self-acceptance rather than loss of a sense of self. Moments of self-forgetfulness, accompanying feelings of goodwill towards other beings, could be described as quieting the ego rather than abandoning it. It seems to me that Scott Barry Kaufman may be on the right track in his suggestion that “those with the quietest ego defenses often have the strongest sense of self”. (See Transcend, p 204-5).

However, when Goenkaji was asked why he only spoke of the ego in negative terms, he replied:

“Now it seems to you that there must be an 'I' who feels, but after beginning to practice Vipassana, you will reach the stage where the ego dissolves. Then your question will disappear! For conventional purposes, yes, we cannot run away from using words like 'I' or 'mine' etc. But clinging to them, taking them as real in an ultimate sense will only bring suffering.”  

That raises interesting issues. In this article I will briefly discuss the concept of no-self, illustrate similarity between the practice of Vipassana and a psychologist’s approach to self-acceptance, consider how Vipassana meditation might be viewed from an Aristotelian perspective, and end with some observations about the nature of the inner game involved in acquiring equanimity and practical wisdom.

The No-self idea

In their book, Classical Indian Philosophy, Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri note that the Buddha sought to differentiate his view from those who say that we are identical to our bodies and from those who say we have souls that lack connection to anything else. They write:

“To express his own view, the Buddha offered similes: a person is not like the thread running through a necklace of pearls, but like the flowing of a river or the flickering of a candle flame.”

The river metaphor captures the idea that to grasp on to feelings, perceptions, or mental fabrications of the self is as futile as it would be for a person to try to avoid being swept down a swiftly flowing river by grasping on to grasses etc. growing on the banks.

I am attracted to a different river metaphor which reconciles my observation that impermanence is pervasive with my inability to doubt my own existence, and perception of my “self” as having continuity (at least while I remain alive). I have written previously about Richard Campbell’s suggestion, in his book The Metaphysics of Emergence, that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”. It makes sense to understand consciousness as a flow, and to perceive ourselves as complex processing systems.

Self-acceptance

In explaining Vipassana meditation, Goenkaji emphasized that attempts to escape from misery by diverting the mind to another object did not provide lasting benefits. He explained:

“The object of meditation should not be an imaginary object, it should be reality—reality as it is. One has to work with whatever reality has manifested itself now, whatever one experiences within the framework of one's own body.”

It seems to me that the Vipassana approach of observing thoughts and sensations with equanimity has much in common with the approach to self-acceptance recommended by the psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

“At the most fundamental level, I accept myself. I accept the reality of my thoughts, even when I cannot endorse them and would not choose to act on them; I do not deny or disown them. I can accept my feelings and emotions without necessarily liking, approving of, or being controlled by them; I do not deny or disown them.” (p 163)

An Aristotelian perspective

It is clear from the passage quoted at the beginning of this article that Aristotle thought it inconceivable that a person could doubt his or her own existence.

However, Vipassana’s emphasis on equanimity as a desirable frame of mind has much in common with Aristotle’s view of temperance as a virtue. An equanimous person could be expected to be temperate in emotional expression – to be able to avoid excessive anger, fear etc. The techniques involved are also similar in respect of the emphasis placed on practice of the relevant frame of mind and associated behaviors.

As I see it, one possible difference between an equanimous person and a temperate person is that the latter would be less inclined to accept that there should be no craving. In accordance with Aristotle’s teaching, a temperate person could exercise his practical wisdom to crave the things he ought, to the extent he ought, as he ought, and when he ought.

Nevertheless, I have not found the practice of Vipassana meditation to be an obstacle to exercising practical wisdom to pursue personal goals enthusiastically. When I meditate conscientiously early in the morning that tends to promote clarity of thinking which serves me well later in the day.

The inner game

How is it that a person who lacks peace of mind (equanimity) can learn to observe troubling sensations and thoughts with equanimity? How can it be possible to adopt a frame of mind which requires the exercise of a quality that you perceive yourself to lack? It seems to me that the people who do such things must be drawing on inner resources that they didn’t fully realize that they had.

Tim Gallwey, the inner game guru, has helped many people to draw upon resources that they didn’t realize they had. Gallwey is recognized as a pioneer of sports psychology, and is the author of books applying inner game concepts to a range of activities including tennis, golf, work, and stress management. The aim of the inner game is to improve the internal dialogue that people carry around with them. For example, if an individual’s internal dialogue is infected by self-doubt, they can improve their performance in sport by observing what happens when they trust their unconscious minds to coordinate their muscles.

The general pattern of the inner game is to recognize that performance is being adversely affected by mental interference associated with false beliefs about one’s self – the lack of a desired quality – and then to observe what happens when that quality is expressed. People improve their performance as they discover qualities, or inner resources, that they didn’t know they had.  (Readers who want to know more about Tim Gallwey’s inner game approach may be interested to listen to a podcast I have prepared.)

The point that needs to be emphasized is that if we assert that we are inherently lacking in desired qualities (wisdom, temperance, integrity, courage, self-trust etc.) we are fooling ourselves. We all have potential to demonstrate qualities that we perceive to be lacking by asking ourselves what we would be thinking or doing if we believed that we possessed those qualities to a greater extent than at present.

So, I ask myself: If I was a wiser person, what would I be thinking right now? I am thinking that it would be wise to end this now and leave readers to contemplate their answers to that question. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Should we expect our heroes to be perfect?

 


When I am asked who my heroes are, I have often said that I don’t have any these days. If asked why, my response has been that my heroes all turned out to have feet of clay.


I began to reconsider that view while reading Kay Nolte Smith’s novel, Elegy for a Soprano. The main character in the book, Dinah Mitchell, finds out that she was an adopted child and learns that her natural mother is her idol, Vardis Wolf, a famous opera star. Vardis’ magnificently successful career is attributable to her natural talent, support of her friends and admirers, and her own dedication to developing her skills. She views her singing career as having the utmost importance. However, Dinah eventually learns that Vardis has a dark secret. When her singing career was just beginning, Vardis did something which showed complete disregard for the value of the life of another human.

After that brief sketch, readers might wonder why the novel induced me to reconsider my original view about heroes. You might expect me to say that no-one should be surprised if their idols turn out to have dark secrets. Heroes inevitably disappoint us!

So, what was it about the novel that has induced me to reconsider my view? Kay Nolte Smith managed to convey the complexity of Vardis’ character well enough for me to still admire her achievements, while feeling horrified by some aspects of her behavior. The author showed great skill in providing plausible explanations of the attitudes and behaviors of each of all the main characters in the novel.

The novel contains some discussion of whether people have a basic need to have heroes. It points to a difference between hero worship – viewing the hero as a sacred idol – and viewing a hero as a role model in respect of some aspect of your life. At that point the author quotes the passage from Longfellow’s poem A Psalm of Life which is reproduced at the top of this article.

It makes sense to me to look for opportunities to learn how others manage to achieve superior performance in various fields, and to recognize outstanding accomplishments. That has been my view for as long as I remember.

So, where do I end up? I now see no problem is referring to people who have superior performance or outstanding accomplishment as my heroes, provided I attach an appropriate qualification. They are entrepreneurial heroes, academic heroes, sporting heroes, artistic heroes, and so forth. I will not be surprised if I learn that most of my heroes are far from perfect in many aspects of their lives, and that some may even have dark secrets.

It is possible to recognize heroic achievements without engaging in idolatry.

Addendum

Some readers may be interested in how I came to read Elegy for a Soprano. A few months ago I stumbled across an article by Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan, an American Economist, entitled ‘Ayn Rand and Me’ on his blog An Oeconomist. The article is critical of Ayn Rand but, unlike most Rand critics, the author seems to me to be seeking to offer a balanced appraisal. The article ends thus:

“By the way, I want to mention a book by another author, The Watcher (1981) by Kay Nolte Smith. Smith was at one time amongst those personally associated with Rand, but (like many) eventually left. The Watcher is a novel that successfully fused much of what virtue is to be found in Randian fiction with a deep sense of empathy. And its heroes don't simply march relentlessly towards triumph, but reach back to save people who ought not to be lost.”

That led me to read The Watcher. I was impressed, and decided to find out more about Kay Nolte Smith. A reviewer of her works suggested that Elegy for a Soprano was a better novel than The Watcher, and I am inclined to agree.

One reviewer has suggested that Elegy for a Soprano is inhabited by the ghost of Ayn Rand, as well as that of Maria Callas. With regard to Rand, I think it is worth noting that while Vardis Wolf could be described as a Nietzschean egoist, Ayn Rand sought to distance her views from those of Nietzsche in her later writings. For example, she wrote:

“Nietzschean egoists … are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit.”