Monday, May 24, 2010

Who Is John Galt (And Why Does He Keep Saying All Those Foolish Things)? Musings On The Rand Paul Controversy

By Manifesto Joe

Why is anyone shocked about Rand Paul, and his views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964? I confess to being a recovering libertarian, and therefore I understand that viewpoint better than most left-leaning people do. It's about absolute property rights.

John Galt, that shadowy character in Ayn Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, articulated this view about as well as something that silly can be. This is from a Wikipedia article on Rand's 1957 novel:

Atlas Shrugged endorses the belief that a society's best hope rests on adopting a system of pure laissez-faire. Rand's view of the ideal government is expressed by John Galt, who says, "The political system we will build is contained in a single moral premise: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force," and claims that "no rights can exist without the right to translate one's rights into reality — to think, to work and to keep the results — which means: the right of property." Galt himself lives a life of laissez-faire capitalism as the only way to live consistently with his beliefs.

The obvious extension of this philosophy isn't much of a stretch. Nobody is obligated to pay taxes -- they would come only at the generous sufferance of volunteer property owners who realize they will have to have roads and bridges to drive on. Your neighbors would be theoretically "free" to bury dioxins in their back yards, and you have no say in the matter. A machine shop owner could hire you, require you to furnish your own tools, ignore safety issues -- and when you get hurt, well, tough, buddy. Go home and get well, and maybe we'll see you again some day. Of course, bear in mind that wage slaves are always "free" to change masters.

And, the private owners of lunch counters would be "free" to segregate, or to ban minorities altogether, as they did before 1964.

This brings to mind a simple observation: No civilized society has been able to function for long with the notion that property rights are generally absolute. It's not workable, and never has been.

I admit, long ago I thought this way, regarding property rights as more or less something that cannot be abridged in a "free" society. To get past this, one must deconstruct the underpinnings of the idea.

Libertarians, and many conservatives, often point to nature as justification for absolute property rights. Territory is visible throughout nature, and animals will fight to defend it.

But this is actually crucial to the point: In nature, there is no property, only territory. And if you're going to keep territory, you'd better be able to defend it.

If one goes back to a time before property rights were codified among hominids, territory was something that belonged to the Baddest MF in the Valley. Let's figure that he had a few rivals across the river, and that there were constant fights over water.

But a generation goes by, and the Baddest MF in the Valley sees his kids grow up. His sons aren't nearly as bad as he was. His little tribe of warriors is growing old and soft. He sees his power over territory slowly slipping away.

So, he arranges a meeting with rivals, now also aging, from across the river. "Gentlemen," he says. "Enough of all this senseless violence and killing. We must have laws -- to govern us!"

And so, the codification of property rights is born. But, who will enforce those rights? The police department and the courts are soon born. Disputes are settled peacefully for a change, and yes, civilization is born.

But are such rights absolute or conditional? It should be obvious. Property rights exist because of government, not in spite of it.

Without codified property rights, my grasp over my home and yard would be tenuous. I would have to be able to defend them, as my territory. If someone could get the drop on me, kill me, my wife and my dogs, and bury us in the back yard -- well, the territory would "belong" to that person. It is the codification of my property rights that would enable the police and the courts to intervene. But I realize that my rights are conditional. I have to pay property taxes, and I don't have the right to let my grass grow over a foot tall.

As for Rand Paul?

I'm going to toss in recent video
of Dr. Paul, now the Kentucky Republican U.S. Senate nominee, talking to Rachel Maddow.

A lot of commentators are painting Dr. Paul as a racist over this. I cannot say whether he is one, as I cannot read his mind. But he is clearly the same thing that I was long, long ago -- an ideologue who has never had the experience of driving into a town, tired and hungry, and finding nearly all public accommodations segregated or just plain closed to him.

I will take the doctor at his word that he opposes segregation. But he also clearly buys into the idea of absolute property rights, something that distinguishes his brand of libertarian conservative from the older and more pragmatic style of Burkean conservatism. And it certainly sets him apart from modern liberalism, which has evolved a great deal since the days of Manchester liberals.

The notion of absolute property rights is certainly common in America, but the idea falls apart upon proper deconstruction. No civilized society could function that way for long. In a sense, it's time for many Americans, especially the Tea Party variety, to grow up and get over it. They are part of a larger society as much as they are individuals. It's time for people to start acting like it.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.


Nancy Green said...

very good argument. I make my living taking care of elderly. We have Medicare and Social Security-- a deal that they contributed when they were young and should benefit when they need it. What is not always recognized is how much they still give back. Some grandparents are the anchor of their family, and make it possible for the younger relatives to get by.

kivals said...

The philosophy of Ayn Rand appears to be some form of vulgar Nietchzeism (with its references to "supermen" and the immorality of requiring the strong to help the weak), though the association of Nietchze with the Nazis means that most Randers will resist acknowledging the link.

Some have argued that Randian libertarianism would be better termed "propertarianism" as it focuses on the rights of those who make certain strong claims to private property. As you write, the libertarians and Randians have no problem with empowering a government to define, defend, protect, and enforce private property rules, which just happen to benefit the wealthy elites. They only have a problem with a government that attempts to define, defend, protect, and enforce any other rights, which might benefit the non-wealthy.

So those promoting that philosophy tend to be either self-serving wealthy elites or the useful idiots serving the purposes of such elites.

Marc McDonald said...

Here's something interesting about Ayn Rand that a lot of people don't know. She actually came from a fairly prosperous family in Russia. When she first came to the U.S., she initially found the going rough in America's rough-and-rumble, dog-eat-dog capitalist society. She had to ask her parents back in Russia if they'd send her money to live on. I always find it interesting how people like Rand and George W. Bush get all kinds of help from their families and then turn around and claim to be these big "rugged individualists."

Manifesto Joe said...

Thanks to all for stopping by.

kivals, yes, I've read of the link to Nietzche (sp?) before. The notion seems to be that the gifted 2% are pulling the weight of the other 98% human deadbeats. Funny, I was just driving through the swell part of the city today coming back from the doctor, and in my old pickup it felt more like I was part of 98% who actually work so that those 2% who live in places like Highland Park can be the idle rich.

Yes, Marc, I read some about Rand's earlier life. She wasn't exactly a poster girl for rugged individualism.

Nancy -- I've actually heard Republicans say that those programs are like welfare. The person I'm thinking of isn't someone who will likely ever have to genuinely depend on them. The idea of social insurance is lost on such folks.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Rand Paul's philosophy the reason the peasants pressured the land owners after overthrowing King John to establish a little document called The Magna Carta? I swear to God these f@cking billionaires and politicians want the world to turn into corporate feudalism. Then our only hope would be the Chinese conquering us with State Capitalism... I really don't want to live to be 60 anymore...


Marc McDonald said...

>>Then our only hope would be the
>>Chinese conquering us with State

Actually, I believe the East Asian economic model has a lot of admirable qualities. The problem is that Americans (as usual) compare our ideals to other nations' realities.
Incidentally, whether we want it or not, the game is over: the East Asian economic bloc has won.
In coming years, the world will increasingly move toward the East Asian model and reject the U.S. model, which is increasingly outdated. As a result, among other trends, we can expect growing egalitarianism worldwide in the coming years.
The U.S. model, in which the Top One Percent owns everything and the rest of us have pretty much nothing is increasingly going to look anachronistic in the coming years.
We can expect a lot of hissy fits from the rich in the coming years as they struggle to hold onto their obscene wealth and privilege.
I really believe the world will increasingly turn away from Western values and more toward East Asian/Chinese values. And remember, traditionally in Confuscian societies, merchants, shareholders and businessmen have been regarded with contempt and suspicion.
I look forward to the next 20 years. It's gonna be a real sh*tty time to be in the Top One Percent. The only way these bastards will keep their lifestyles will be to turn to violence. And when these scum try to use violence against bitter, angry working-class people like myself who have nothing to lose, then I say: "bring it on, motherf*ckers."
The idea of dying of old age in a nursing home, connected to a bunch of tubes, never much appealed to me anyway.