Greg Perkins

Apr 052010

Earlier, I shared what CrossFit is about and that Tammy and I had decided to give it a try. Eight months in, I’m happy to report that we’re still having a blast with it! The feeling of adventure is still there, with no burnout or boredom, no noticeable wear-n-tear on my mid-40′s body, lots more physical capacity, and new friendships formed through a little joyful shared-strife bonding. Very cool.

Recall that the goal with CrossFit training is not to be elite at anything in particular, but rather to perform well at everything in general. CrossFit’s founder thinks this is possible, and that the CrossFit methodology is a great way to pull it off. Doesn’t that just beg to be put to the test? We think so.

Tammy loves to run. When I met her, she’d finished a bunch of races including a couple of marathons, and she had trained for several more. But her tight focus on the endurance thing meant that she simply hadn’t developed (and had maybe even untrained!) the kind of core strength needed to sustain her in those sorts of efforts. That’s why she ran so many fewer marathons than she trained for. She spent lots of time just grinding out long miles on her legs, totally avoiding interval and strength training. And it didn’t help that she’d spent decades eating a lowfat vegetarian version of the typical distance-runners’ carb-heavy diet filled with lots of grains and legumes. This was not exactly a sustainable recipe for robust fitness and health.

After jumping into CrossFit we got wind of CrossFit Endurance, which purports to let endurance athletes avoid those “chronic cardio” workouts while providing the sport-specific conditioning necessary to go out and supposedly crush ultramarathons and triathlons and such. CrossFit Endurance basically turns the conventional approach to endurance training on its head: their prescription is first to do the same CrossFit training that every CrossFitter does, and to then supplement that with run-biased workouts a few times a week. But these additional workouts are not long chronic-cardio sessions: they’re relatively short interval and intensity work, skills work, some tempo work and specific conditioning for body parts that will need to withstand the stress of an actual endurance event.

Tammy hasn’t raced for several years, and had never attempted anything as ambitious as a 50-mile ultrarun. But she was intrigued by the idea that she might be able to complete one — and with a dramatically smaller training investment that also avoided the chronic-cardio thing. So this January, about five months into our general CrossFit adventure (and long after we were both eating paleo), she signed up for the 12/24 Hours of Utah ultra in Moab. To gear up for it, she added two or three CrossFit Endurance style workouts per week (varying tempo runs, tabata interval runs, etc.), coordinated with our usual four-day-a-week random CrossFit regimen to not step on recovery days. Oh, and she also started using our normal CrossFit warmup periods for a little additional conditioning of her core and legs.

It would be an understatement to say this was counterintuitive for Tammy. These super-long running events are no joke, and she wasn’t out there getting ready by running! Imagine training for your first marathon by doing mostly weights, some sprints, and no running over, say, an occasional 5K. This was leaving her with a lot of questions, doubts, and insecurity… Was she just setting herself up for failure, even injury? What if the CrossFit Endurance poster-children she’d read about were simply elites in the first place who would do great whether or not they flouted everything the experts said? Or what if they were more normal but had previously established a huge capacity the standard way and were now just maintaining it with CrossFit Endurance? On and on. It left her uncertain enough that she even panicked a bit and tried to slide a bunch of standard-issue miles in near the end of her training window, over a few weekends last month. Of course those miles were insignificant compared to the volume that the traditional approach would counsel.

After three short months of this training, we packed the car and headed to Moab to put it to the test! Sensing a little adventure in the making, I borrowed a video camera to stick in her face all along the way. She absolutely loved that! (Um, NOT. But stressing her out with all that camera time really was for a worthy documentary cause. ;^) Here’s how it all went down:

Woo! Mission accomplished!! She ended up placing 3rd (just one minute shy of 2nd place) in the Solo Female 12-Hour category, an unexpected bit of fun. And with no limping around for a week afterwards like with earlier marathon efforts: though a bit depleted, she was right back in the gym for our usual Monday-morning random CrossFit beatdown.

Most interesting was what she learned from actually doing it and watching other runners do it — in contrast to imagining doing it and reading lots of runners’ online descriptions and hints for doing it. The bottom line? CrossFit Endurance was vindicated! Her doubts and insecurities around it are now gone: even with the weird IT band/knee thing that progressively diminished her pace and forced her into walking a few laps in the middle, she ended up doing better than average. And [I'm] pretty sure that without that hip issue, and with some obvious, easy improvements like a little discipline on her pit stops, she would have outperformed all of the female solo runners and all but a couple of the males as well! Sure, that sounds awfully bold for a newbie.  Here’s the deal, though: she found so many ultrarunners talking online about their “walk strategies” and how only the elite didn’t walk that she went there fully expecting walking to be a necessity — and sure enough, we saw a lot of walking at the event. But Tammy’s training left her feeling just fine motoring up all the hills, etc. If it weren’t for the weird IT band/knee thing, she would not have needed to walk at all. She would have simply run the entire thing at her “easy” pace of around 10 or 10.5 minutes/mile.

I expect she’ll want to verify that by going and running every step of it next year, so we’ll see!

Ayn Rand Predicts Reality Television

 Posted by on 5 April 2010 at 7:00 am  Art, Culture, Objectivism
Apr 052010

In 3FROG, we’re currently reading Ayn Rand’s anthology on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto. In our last discussion, I was particularly struck by this passage from “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age,” published in 1962:

If you wonder what is the ultimate destination toward which modern philosophy and modern art are leading you, you may observe its advance symptoms all around us. Observe that literature is returning to the art form of the pre-industrial ages, to the chronicle–that fictionalized biographies of “real” people, of politicians, baseball-players or Chicago gangsters, are given preference over works of imaginative fiction, in the theater, in the movies, in television–and that a favored literary form is the documentary. Observe that in painting, sculpture and music the current vogue, fashion and inspirational model is the primitive art of the jungle.

Would Ayn Rand have been surprised by the rise of “reality television,” starting with The Real World in 1992 and Survivor in 2000? No way! As the quote shows, she predicted that 30 years before.

We’re Number One!

 Posted by on 19 March 2010 at 3:00 pm  Health Care, Law, Politics
Mar 192010

Dozens of states are planning to push back if Congress manages to shove through their 2000+ page suicide note. And Idaho (that’s where I live! :^) is the first state to fully enact a measure in order to attempt to nullify any federal mandate that its citizens purchase federally-approved health care insurance:

Virginia may have beaten Missouri to the punch nearly two weeks ago when it became the first state to approve legislation allowing its citizens to avoid a federal mandate to buy health insurance, but Idaho topped that by becoming the first state to actually have its governor sign such a bill into law on Wednesday.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter stressed that the measure, deemed the Idaho Health Freedom Act, will keep citizens of that state from having to “turn over another part of their life to government control,” reports the Associated Press. He also believes it will have significant nationwide clout, especially if the 37 other states working on such legislation ultimately follow Idaho’s lead.

The Idaho Health Freedom Act says “every person within the state of Idaho is and shall be free to choose or decline to choose any mode of securing health care services without penalty or threat of penalty by the federal government of the United States of America.” And so Idaho now appears to be set to argue the unconstitutionality of its citizens being subject to any such federal mandate.

The law directs Idaho’s attorney general to sue if mandatory insurance becomes federal law. State lawmakers opted for a bill rather than a resolution to give the measure greater weight and to help Idaho’s standing in court, where the issue seems headed.

Let’s hope that it is unnecessary!

How Do You Know What You Know?

 Posted by on 22 January 2010 at 5:30 pm  Epistemology, Objectivism Seminar
Jan 222010

How do you know what you know? And why should you care?

Objectivism isn’t just a bunch of conclusions to collect and apply — there’s a distinctive methodology that emanates from the very core of the epistemology which shapes the entire philosophy and its ultimate effects in every realm. At the center of it all is the Objectivist account of just what concepts are, and how we properly acquire and use them. This is central because it goes to the essence of how we humans navigate reality: we’re the rational animal, i.e., the conceptual animal. Leonard Peikoff explains it nicely:

For man, sensory material is only the first step of knowledge, the basic source of information. Until he has conceptualized this information, man cannot do anything with it cognitively, nor can he act on it. Human knowledge and human action are conceptual phenomena.

Although concepts are built on percepts, they represent a profound development, a new scale of consciousness. An animal knows only a handful of concretes: the relatively few trees, ponds, men, and the like it observes in its lifetime. It has no power to go beyond its observations — to generalize, to identify natural laws, to hypothesize causal factors, or, therefore, to understand what it observes. A man, by contrast, may observe no more (or even less) than an animal, but he can come to know and understand facts that far outstrip his limited observations. He can know facts pertaining to all trees, every pond and drop of water, the universal nature of man. To man, as a result, the object of knowledge is not a narrow corner of a single planet, but the universe in all its immensity, from the remote past to the distant future, and from the most minuscule (unperceivable) particles of physics to the farthest (unperceivable) galaxies of astronomy.

A similar contrast applies in the realm of action. An animal acts automatically on its perceptual data; it has no power to project alternative courses of behavior or long-range consequences. Man chooses his values and actions by a process of thought, based ultimately on a philosophical view of existence; he needs the guidance of abstract principles both to select his goals and to achieve them. Because of its form of knowledge, an animal can do nothing but adapt itself to nature. Man (if he adheres to the metaphysically given) adapts nature to his own requirements.

A conceptual faculty, therefore, is a powerful attribute. It is an attribute that goes to the essence of a species, determining its method of cognition, of action, of survival. To understand man — and any human concern — one must understand concepts. One must discover what they are, how they are formed, and how they are used, and often misused, in the quest for knowledge. This requires that we analyze in slow motion the inmost essence of the processes which make us human, the ones which, in daily life, we perform with lightninglike rapidity and take for granted as unproblematic. [OPAR p.74]

Rand offers just such an analysis in her monograph, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In doing so she better equips us to do business in reality while repelling deadly threats that can sometimes be quite subtle. For, “What is at stake here is the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind.”

As I [Rand] wrote in For the New Intellectual: “To negate man’s mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Under all the tortuous complexities, contradictions, equivocations, rationalizations of the post-Renaissance philosophy — the one consistent line, the fundamental that explains the rest, is: a concerted attack on man’s conceptual faculty. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data — and to prove the validity of scientific induction …. The philosophers were unable to refute the Witch Doctor’s claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations.” [ITOE Forward]

The Objectivism Seminar is about to start its journey through Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Expanded Second Edition). We hope to thoroughly digest the main work as well as all of the supplementary material. The meetings will feature several fairly seasoned Objectivists trading off on moderation, and we especially encourage those who are newer to the ideas or maybe a little fuzzy on them to bring their most challenging questions and puzzles! (And for those who are more acquainted with the material, this offers the challenge of grappling with helping others find their way through those questions and puzzles — as well as the surprisingly common bonus of finding unexpected fuzziness of their own. :^)

We’ll be meeting weekly, in a one-hour conference call hosted at You can participate online with just your computer, or via a regular phone (or you can listen in later via the podcast recordings). The series begins on Monday, February 1, 8:00 pm Mountain time.

Please visit to learn more and join in!

Dec 092009

Over at the anarchist-libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, intellectual property lawyer Stephan Kinsella posted “An Objectivist Recants on IP.” The posting describes how someone named Bala was mixing it up in their discussion threads and eventually came to conclude that “An Objectivist cannot and should not support the notion of Intellectual Property because it violates fundamental Objectivist principles.”

Unsurprisingly, the culmination of Bala’s odyssey and the central point that cemented the illegitimacy of intellectual property in his mind is a common one voiced by libertarians opposed to intellectual property: the notion that intellectual property rights inherently conflict with material property rights.

Ideas and patterns, on the other hand, presented a problem when I tried to treat them as “property”. While there is no denying the value of ideas in human advancement, exclusion of other individuals from an idea or pattern necessarily involves the initiation of force. For instance, how else is A to prevent B from incorporating A’s idea in his B’s product other than to force himself upon B’s property and coerce B to prevent him from doing so, thus violating B’s Liberty? In effect, recognising ideas and patterns as property is tantamount to saying that A has a moral right to initiate force against B simply because he has coined an idea. Thus, as an Objectivist, classifying ideas and patterns as “property” takes me into dangerous territory where I am ready to label the initiation of force as legitimate.

This is ultimately based on confusion about which kinds of ideas do and don’t properly count as intellectual property, as well as confusion about what does and doesn’t constitute a rights-violation. I addressed this (and more) a few years back in “Don’t Steal This Article!“, an analysis of the strongest libertarian arguments I could find against the legitimacy of intellectual property:

The first thing to note is the plain fact that people are routinely prevented from using their material property when it would violate any right — so the protection of intellectual property rights would not be unique in so “controlling” other people in their use of their material property. For example, my neighbor’s person and property rights are not violated when he is not allowed to spontaneously whack me in the head with his fully-owned two-by-four. His rights are not violated in preventing him from using his tangible truck to pull up to my house and drive off with my entertainment center. We are all restricted from using our persons and property to violate the rights of others, and such restrictions do not themselves constitute an infringement of rights because nobody has the right to violate rights.

It is bad enough that these libertarian scholars ignore such an obvious point, but the evasion reaches full bloom in Kinsella’s explanation of the alleged “taking” caused by the appearance of intellectual property. The charge is that, as intellectual property comes into existence, liberty is lost in a magical transfer of partial ownership from the owners of material property to an author or inventor, thereby unjustly preventing them from doing something they were otherwise free to do with their own property. But in no sense is any ability, permission, or liberty lost. Recall that intellectual property rights protect the manufacture of creations — objects which did not and would not otherwise exist. Before a novel has been written, absolutely nobody has the power to publish it, so its being authored cannot remove any liberty previously enjoyed by printers. And before some better mousetrap is invented, nobody has the power to produce it — so its being invented cannot deny manufacturers any previously enjoyed freedom.

Indeed, far from losing any power or liberty, the options available to owners of material property only increase with the appearance of intellectual property: they are presented with at least the potential to use their property in the production of new, life-serving objects in collaboration with an inventor or artist.

Bala’s friends there at LvMI are definitely not helping him out. How many of the other issues with his account of Objectivism and IP can you see and (constructively) address?

Nov 302009

The Objectivism Seminar is working through Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s all-too-topical book, The Ominous Parallels. In it, he explores what gave rise to to the fascist, totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany — and analyzes whether and how a fascist, totalitarian regime could emerge here in America.

Our focus this week was Chapter 10, “The Culture of Hatred” — a reference to the rise of Nihilism in the German culture. Topics we discussed included:
  • We explored how “the first truly modern culture” in the world emerged, more accepting of contemporary-everything: the “Weimar culture,” shaped by the “free spirits” of the German Republic, the avant garde in the humanities, sciences, commentary, journalism, and so on. A key question to answeris: what is “modernity” is in this sense? What principle unites Kaiser, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Mann, Barth, Freud, Heisenberg?
  • Touring the culture, Peikoff started with literature (“art is the barometer of a culture, and literature is the barometer of art”). The prominent philosophical novel by Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain) was characterized by a contemporary as the “saga of the Weimar Republic.” “To a country and in a decade swept by hysteria, perishing from uncertainty, torn by political crisis, financial collapse, violence in the streets, and terror of the future — to that country, in that decade, its leading philosophical novelist offered as his contribution to sanity and freedom the smiling assurance that there are no answers, no absolutes, no values, no hope.” It was a hit that resonated with the culture.
  • Turning to poetry like that of Rainer Maria Rilke, a Christian mystic admired across the board, as well as Kafka, Peikoff finds them offering “nightmare projections of nameless ciphers paralyzed by a sinister, unknowable reality.”
  • Turning to the philosophy of Existentialism and Martin Heidegger, it underscores existence being unintelligible, reason invalid, man a helpless “Dasein” — a creature engulfed by “das Nichts” (nothingness), in terror of the supreme fact of his life: death and doomed by nature to “angst,” estrangement, futility. Heidegger’s works rejected any systematic defense of his ideas and were praised as the “intellectual counterpart of modern painting.”
  • In contrast to Heidegger’s rejection of religion and God, the avant-garde theologians tried to reconceive these in modern terms — “Avant-garde religion, in short, consists in ditching one’s mind, prostrating oneself in the muck, and screaming for mercy.”
  • Next was the new psychology with the psychoanalysis of Freud. In the name of science it leaves us “Caught in the middle between these forces — between a psychopathic hippie screaming: satisfaction now! and a jungle chieftain intoning: tribal obedience! — sentenced by nature to ineradicable conflict, guilt, anxiety, and neurosis is man, i.e., man’s mind, his reason or “ego,” the faculty which is able to grasp reality, and which exists primarily to mediate between the clashing demands of the psyche’s two irrational masters.” More generally, the “new science — like the new philosophy, the new theology, the new art — becomes instead a vehicle of the willful, the arbitrary, the subjective.”
  • Finally, touching on sociology, political science, education, art historians, social commentators, philosophers… and even physics and math, we find everywhere that “The notion of ‘reason enthroned’ disappears into myth, and the rational man collapses…”
  • In sum, we find that what is new and distinctive across the board is Nihilism: hatred of values and of their root, reason — this, Peikoff contends, is the essential that underlies, generates, and defines “Weimar culture.”
  • How Peikoff traces Nihilism as a cultural force back to Kant’s philosophy.
  • How this new culture compares and contrasts with other eras of mysticism — and how Peikoff’s framing of it in this book relates to the way he is framing similar phenomena in his new DIM Hypothesis work (forthcoming).

Peikoff summarized the results, social and political:

In the orgy which was the cultural atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, the Germans could not work to resolve their differences. Disintegrated by factionalism, traumatized by crisis, and pumped full of the defiant rejection of reason, in every form and from all sides, the Germans felt not calm, but hysteria; not confidence in regard to others, but the inability to communicate with them; not hope, but despair; not the desire for solutions to their problems, but the need for scapegoats; and, as a result, not goodwill, but fury, blind fury at their enemies, real or imagined.

Nihilism in Germany worked to exacerbate economic and political resentments by undermining the only weapon that could have dealt with them. The intellectuals wanted to destroy values; the public shaped by this trend ended up wanting to destroy men.

The social corollary of “Weimar culture” was a country animated, and torn apart, by hatred, seething in groups trained to be impervious to reason.

The political corollary was the same country put back together by Hitler.

If this sounds interesting, you can listen in on the podcast — just download the session’s MP3 directly, or listen to it with the little player on the right, or subscribe to the podcast series over on the Seminar’s TalkShoe page. And if you have something to ask or add, please do pick up the book and join the discussion! We meet at 8:00pm Mountain on Mondays, for about an hour.
Nov 132009

The Objectivism Seminar is working through Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s all-too-topical book, The Ominous Parallels. In it, he explores what gave rise to to the fascist, totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany — and analyzes whether and how a fascist, totalitarian regime could emerge here in America.

Our focus this week was Chapter 9, “The Nazi Synthesis” — a reference to what gave the Nazis the ability to seemingly offer everything to everyone. Topics we discussed included:
  • How “The nationalists, at heart, were socialists. The socialists, at heart were nationalists. The Nazis took over the essence of each side in the German debate and proudly offered the synthesis as one unified viewpoint. The syntheses is: national socialism.”
  • This synthesis stressed the basic principles common to all groups and served as an opening to every major segment of the population, reactionary and radical alike. At the same time, the non-Nazi parties limited themselves to a narrower, more specific consituency while alienating the rest of the country.
  • The “Twenty-Five Points” document outlining the Nazi agenda: how it demanded special state action on behalf of virtually every group, with the middle class as its most obvious target of appeal. These are the white-collar workers, small tradesmen, bureaucrats, academics — those ravaged by the war and hit hardest by the hyperinfltion, and who felt pinned between government-protected cartels above and government-supported unions below.
  • How the Nazis offered private deals and/or public promises to virtually every significant group in Germany to broaden their support — all the way down to the spinsters. What enabled the Nazis to offer conflicting messages tailored to appeal to each audience, flattering everyone as uniquely important, soothing concerns about their interests, promising punishment of those they felt pitted against.
  • The one real consistency the Nazis offered was that of supporting and sacrificing to the “public interest” — rejecting the Weimarian mixed economy with its partial freedoms for utter totalitarianism.
  • And much more…

The chapter closes by saying:

The poor hated the rich, the rich hated “the rabble,” the left hated the “bourgeoisie,” the right hated the foreigners, the traditionalists hated the new, and the young hated everything, the adults, the Allies, the West, the Jews, the cities, the “system.”

The Nazis promised every group annihilation, the annihilation of that which it hated. Just as Hitler offered Germany a synthesis of ideas, so, appealing to the nationwide, classwide spasm of seething fury, he offered the voters a synthesis of hatreds. In the end, this combination was what the voters wanted, and chose.

If this sounds interesting, you can listen in on the podcast — just download the session’s MP3 directly, or listen to it with the little player on the right, or subscribe to the podcast series over on the Seminar’s TalkShoe page. And if you have something to ask or add, please do pick up the book and join the discussion! We meet at 8:00pm Mountain on Mondays, for about an hour.
Nov 092009

The Objectivism Seminar is working through Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s all-too-topical book, The Ominous Parallels. In it, he explores what gave rise to to the fascist, totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany — and analyzes whether and how a fascist, totalitarian regime could emerge here in America.

Our focus this week was Chapter 8, “The Emotionalist Republic” — a reference to how there was one fundamental principle “everywhere in the ascendancy — among artists and educators, radicals and traditionalists, young and old alike”: the wholesale rejection of rationality for emotionalism. Topics we discussed included:
  • Why Peikoff characterized art as “the barometer that lays bare a period’s view of reality, of life, of man.”
  • The rise of the Expressionism movement in art with its open break with the intellect, with material reality, with all ‘middle class’ values such as work and personal success, industrial civilization, money, business, section standards, law and order, etc. The spread of these values into everything from cartoons in the newspapers, architecture, films, poetry, music.
  • The Conservative reaction to this, which they regarded as a product of “reason”: turning to their traditional values of intuition and feeling with artists who portrayed an irrational, heroic, mystic world “beset by treachery, overwhelmed by violence, drowned in blood, and culminating in … an orgy of self-willed annihilation”.
  • How the “same epistemological cause leads ultimately to the same social effect (whatever the form). The left culturati called their political ideal “socialism.” the right culturati called theirs “Prussianism.” But, as Spengler pointed out in an influential work entitled Prussianism and Socialism, there is no essential difference between these two concepts. Under both approaches, he noted, “Power belongs to the whole. The individual serves it. The whole is sovereign… Everyone is given his place. There are commands and obedience.”
  • The spread of these values via the efforts of both the left and the right into the youth movements and the educational institutions.
  • The effects of such emotionalism in economics: the failure in hyperinflation they would suffer as their mixed, Bismarckian-style economy drove individuals to join into pressure-group warfare.
  • How this all combines into a miserable, volatile circumstance ripe for someone to deliver change and hope…
If this sounds interesting, you can listen in on the podcast — just download the session’s MP3 directly, or listen to it with the little player on the right, or subscribe to the podcast series over on the Seminar’s TalkShoe page. And if you have something to ask or add, please do pick up the book and join the discussion! We meet at 8:00pm Mountain on Mondays, for about an hour.

The Cato Institute recently hosted a book forum with the authors of the two new Rand biographies, Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns. Cato’s David Boaz ran the forum, setting the context, introducing the authors, and running the Q&A.

I am interested in the two books, so I wanted to hear the authors as they presented some of their thoughts and showed their mettle in the back-and-forth. The bottom line? Burns seems honest in her scholarship and sincere in her engagement. She said a lot of interesting things, and I want to hear more from her despite some weaknesses due to a lack of grounding in Rand’s system of thought. Heller didn’t come across nearly as well, which left me much less interested in her work. And then there’s Boaz.

Boaz began by speaking of the enduring influence of Rand, especially on libertarians and conservatives, and about the recent surge in interest in her and her work. He agreed with a Liberty magazine review of Heller’s book, saying that “There can be no question about the fact that Rand remains America’s most influential libertarian, with the possible exception of Milton Friedman, and America’s most influential novelist of ideas.” Extending this, Boaz characterized Atlas Shrugged as a libertarian book, and Rand as a libertarian who has done more than anybody in our time to introduce people to libertarian ideas.

What got my attention was Boaz’s treatment of the elephant in the room: he chuckled that many listening may wince at his talking that way, that indeed Rand would have disagreed with being classified as a libertarian (this would be an understatement) and that “many of her fans maintain that point even now.” He dismissed all of this, saying in effect that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. You see, “anybody who believes in individual rights, free enterprise, and strictly limited government is a libertarian. And Ayn Rand certainly did.” QED. Yet, he informs us, somehow this impeccable logic is lost on the “high priests” of Rand’s estate, who refused to let any of her material appear in his book, The Libertarian Reader.

As an Objectivist, I see a different puzzle here: Many people, libertarians in particular, clearly admire and profit from Rand’s ability to analyze and integrate, to identify widespread and longstanding false alternatives and package deals time and again, and to then offer something better. So I find it odd that when they see Rand apparently ignoring the incredibly straightforward point that she fits their definition, that they don’t pause to consider whether there might be some more basic reason for her balking so.

And of course there is. Here’s a hint: it’s an epistemology thing.

Concepts are important. They are how we organize our knowledge of the world so we can act in service to our lives. Good concepts are immensely helpful (see the basic ideas that ushered in the fruits of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution), and bad ones can really hurt us. What if, for example, your moral system left you seeing the bully and the victim who fights back as morally indistinguishable? As we’ve seen with pacifism, the result of such thinking is unjust and destructive to all concerned, both personally and socially: victims are morally if not legally discouraged from defending themselves, predators are only emboldened, and this view naturally translates to unjust and destructive cultural sentiments, laws, and policies like those against simply “violence”. So it makes all the difference to distinguish sharply between aggressive and defensive use of force because these are in fact morally opposite things with existentially opposite effects on human lives. Examples abound, but the general point to appreciate is that Objectivists are methodologically careful about this sort of thing because they grasp that accepting any concept which treats essentially identical things as opposites, or opposite things as essentially identical, ultimately means inviting difficulty if not disaster in our efforts to successfully navigate reality.

Now consider the libertarian way of thinking about political classification. Rejecting the generally useless left-right spectrum, they offer a two-dimensional approach based on degrees of personal and economic freedom which is often shared via their educational and recruiting tool, the Nolan Chart. In this view, libertarianism is neither left nor right, and it stands fundamentally opposed to totalitarianism. This sets up the natural axis of size or extent of government as their key normative criterion, which is pretty easy to pick out in their policies and rhetoric and reactions to world events. This is also why libertarians have always had influential anarchists in their ranks: even those who might be wary of the “extreme” of anarchism have no principled objection to it because, in their own basic way of thinking, anarchism is the natural full opposite of the evil of totalitarianism — indeed, they have framed it as the pinnacle of libertarianism.

We can now appreciate what Rand was signaling with her outrage at being grouped or associated in any way with anarchists in particular and libertarians in general: she was refusing the mental, personal, and social chaos that flows from a fundamentally flawed way of seeing things. Rand understood that the essential concept in politics is individual rights, and so she identified totalitarianism and anarchism as indistinguishable in what’s important: their complete lack of an objective recognition and systematic protection of man’s rights. In contrast, as noted above, the libertarian way of thinking mis-classifies totalitarianism and anarchism as moral opposites by focusing on the inessential characteristic of size. If the purpose of politics is to sort out and enact the conditions required for people to successfully live among one another, this kind of confusion is about as disastrous as it gets — even while self-consciously seeking the good, the conceptual lens of libertarianism will drive you to its opposite.

And conversely, the libertarian framework fails to capture crucial differences. Consider a powerful government that performs all and only its proper functions in the defense of man’s rights, and one that happens to have all the same laws and institutions but also has, say, conscription on the books just in case war breaks out. These two governments are all but indistinguishable (and neither is smiled on) in the libertarians’ basic classification scheme based on size. But Objectivists see these two as moral opposites because one is committed to the essential task of the defense of man’s rights and the other is not. Even though not currently violating any rights, the government with conscription laws clearly rejects the key principle of the field. It has no principled defense against the slippery slope to serfdom we’ve seen play out in history all too many times.

The politics of liberty that Objectivism advocates really does depend on a particular philosophical foundation. The Libertarian movement might be in a better position to understand this if they weren’t so eager to set aside the fact that fundamental ideas are critically important.

While scholarly leaders like Boaz should surely know better, there are plenty of people who innocently adopt the libertarian way of thinking about government because it seems to line up reasonably well with fundamental American values like strictly limited government, respect for rights, and capitalism. (Indeed, I was just such a person.) But even innocent use doesn’t mitigate the very real problems and dangers discussed above. So Objectivists will continue to pointedly reject the libertarian label and its conceptual basis in the interests of moving our culture toward one that genuinely values liberty.

Oct 292009

The Objectivism Seminar is working through Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s all-too-topical book, The Ominous Parallels. In it, he explores what gave rise to to the fascist, totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany — and analyzes whether and how a fascist, totalitarian regime could emerge here in America.

Our focus this week was Chapter 7, “United They Fell” — a reference to Germans’ widespread agreement on important fundamentals despite often fierce political differences that were evident as they strove to create a new, constitutional republic. Topics we discussed included:
  • A tour of the political diversity in both means and ends that was present as Germans drew up their nations new, republican constitution: the four major groups forming two broad coalitions in the Wiemar Assembly — and the two paralleling major groups in the “street”.
  • How despite the seeming ideological diversity, all of the major groups battling to shape Germany’s new government nonetheless shared the same essential ideas in epistemology (anti-reason, mysticism), ethics (sacrificial, altruistic), and politics (anti-capitalist, collectivist). They argued fiercely, even violently, over more derivative matters: In the formal discussions of the Wiemar Assembly, in the end the marxist Social Democrats and their allies sought state control of the economy for the benefit of the lower classes — versus the conservative/monarchical Nationalists who sought state control of the economy for the benefit of the upper classes. And at the same time the major parties active in the “street” were more pure in their desired ends, and more direct in their means to achieving them: the Communists fought for an all-powerful state to determine the fate of individuals’ lives, versus the Free Corps who fought for an all-powerful ruler who would determine the fate of individuals’ lives.
  • And much more…

The chapter closes:

Wherever the German turned — to the left, to the right, to the center; to the decorous voices in parliament or to the gutters running with blood — he heard the same fundamental ideas. They were the same in politics, the same in ethics, the same in epistemology.

This is how philosophy shapes the destiny of nations. If there is no dissent in regard to basic principles among a country’s leading philosophic minds, theirs are the principles that come in time to govern every social and political group in the land. Owing to other factors, the groups may proliferate and may contend fiercely over variants, applications, strategy; but they do not contend over essentials. In such a case, the country is offered an abundance of choices — among equivalents competing to push it to the same final outcome.

It is common for observers to criticize the “disunity” of Weimar Germany, which, it is said, prevented the anti-Nazi groups from dealing effectively with the threat posed by Hitler. In fact, the Germans were united, and this precisely was their curse: their kind of unity, their unity on all the things that count in history, i.e., on all the ideas.

If this sounds interesting, you can listen in on the podcast — just download the session’s MP3 directly, or listen to it with the little player on the right, or subscribe to the podcast series over on the Seminar’s TalkShoe page. And if you have something to ask or add, please do pick up the book and join the discussion! We meet at 8:00pm Mountain on Mondays, for about an hour.
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