Friday, January 8, 2010

Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged

Erik Naggum died last summer. He was a very intelligent, interesting and highly controversial human being. Before his untimely death, he wrote these thoughts about the meaning of life at his web site:

[Erik Naggum in 1999]

People search for the meaning of life, but this is the easy question: we are born into a world that presents us with many millenia of collected knowledge and information, and all our predecessors ask of us is that we not waste our brief life ignoring the past only to rediscover or reinvent its lessons badly.

Because I am not religious, I have no mystical conception of an afterlife. To me, a person lives on not in Heaven or Hell but instead in the minds and hearts of those they touched while alive—or, even if no one knows it, as an integrated part of the world through the effects of their substantive contributions on the way in which the future comes to unfold. In that spirit, I hereby offer some remarks he once wrote about the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I wanted this writing to persist as part of the public record, rather than quietly fading into the obscurity of my personal mail archives. I think he’d be happy I thought this worth sharing.

Atlas Shrugged is the source of immense controversy generally, but is specifically relevant lately since this book is often cited as formative by many among what I would call the “Modern American Ruling Class,” by which I mean those who control the corporations and the big money that buys politicians’ votes. Erik here gives his views of this book, and discusses how those views have changed with time.

And, to clarify, I don’t offer this piece for the purpose of saying that I either agree or disagree with everything he has to say; as with all things Erik, this piece is complex and bravely resists reduction into the deceptive simplicity of words like Good, Bad, Right or Wrong. I like some of what he says, parts of it makes me uneasy, and all of it makes me think.

These are actual thoughts, reified into text by one who was fearless about self-expression. This is a view into the mind of a person unafraid to think, a stark reminder of the power of our words to transcend our existence, to speak for us even when we are gone.

I hope this text, in being offered posthumously, reminds each of us that we have at our respective fingertips the power to leave such a gift to others, so that when it’s our turn to join our predecessors in history, we will do so having augmented the knowledge, information, and wisdom of the world that came before us.

This was not an essay written for publication. It was just a casual message shared with a friend who had asked a question and earnestly sought an answer. Coming from a man who had a well-documented lack of patience with people who he perceived to be wasting his time, it honored me by suggesting I was worthy of the time required to express a lifetime’s evolution of thought on an important issue, that his time writing it might be well spent.

It is a reminder—a challenge—to each of us to write, to write something meaningful, to write something passionate, to write something worth reading, to write something worth saving.

If you’d prefer not to read white-on-black, click here.

Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged
March 13, 2003

I first read it in 1978 at the ripe old age of 13, much to my parents’ chagrin, and I therefore enjoyed the company of other people who had enjoyed the book and more of Ayn Rand’s works throughout the 1980’s. In addition to the science fiction fans who hated Ayn Rand, these two groups of weirdos from another planet formed the basis of my social life, including my choice of university, until about 1991, when I attended the inaugural meeting of David Kelley’s Institute for Objectivist Studies in New York City and was promptly shunned by the orthodoxy back in Oslo, who had become Peikoffians. I did meet with a bunch of objectivists in California when I worked in Sunnyvale in the last half of 1993 and re-established ties with some of my old friends, who had returned to sanity after tumultous breaks with the Peikoffians, but I had found something really evil in the human nature: The survival characteristics of the group. I have later come to define freedom as the maximum tolerable amplitude of the diversions from the most accepted norm of the community, and this is a function of both the group’s surplus resources and the ability of the individual to produce more than it demands from the same community.

I think Atlas Shrugged portrays an extremely strong model of the world which it can be difficult even to detect that is different from the Real World. This model is a romanticization of a handful of aspects of the human condition. There is nothing wrong in this per se, since e.g. the rule of law with constitutional democracies and human rights and all that good stuff is also a romanticization of a few select aspects, too, but the real question when it comes to dealing with real people is how able the model is to accomodate those who disagree with it. In normal society, we have married the good of the rule of law with the unbridled evil of locking people up in prisons or even killing them when they disagree with the model. This evil is, however, deemed acceptable because the good it is married to is the foundation of so much human progress. However, like socialism, which is a far simpler model than capitalism and which has proved fantastically evil in its treatment of those who disagreed with it, objectivism has turned out to be completely inept at dealing with disagreement. Constructing a social system that tends to those who agree with it is a piece of cake compared to constructing one that makes those who disagree with it want to obey its principles.

If I had not been as unscathed by real life when I read it, I would have noticed that the whole principle underlying Atlas Shrugged was precisely that of a massive, systemic failure to deal with disagreement. I mean, appealing as it seems to people who have failed to deal with some people who think differently (or not at all), going on strike against something you can externalize and segregate from yourself as Evil is really the strongest evidence of intellectual defeat there is. Suppose we take one premise for granted, that only those people who have been able to grasp certain ideas are necessary to run the new world and to hell with the rest, the question that is never asked, because it would ruin everything, is: What do you do with the offspring of the chosen ones, who maybe wanted to disagree with these ideas? In other words, how long would it last? Or, put differently, what kinds of freedoms would one have to think critically about anything in this ideal society? Constructing a social system that tends to those who agree with it today is really not a worthy accomplishment when you measure it against the standard of a system that not only needs to encompass those who do not agree with it, but with future generations, as well.

One particular problem that has been highlighted by the abject irrationality of George W. Bush and his cohorts is that in a society where you have the freedom to keep the products of your work, the kinds of accidents that take it away from you become a question of life and death at the personal level and hence define your risk and threat assessments. In societies where people band together and form nation-wide insurance systems designed for accidents large and small and where people have to pay a hefty price for the freedom to go their own way, the same accidents mean that people still pull together and manage to pull through a large number of accidents that would have crippled and killed individuals. The deep irony of the rationality of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that a supremely rational individual does not want to be left in a post-accident situation where he has to fend for himself without the social fabric that formed an invisible tapestry of freedom pre-accident. The even deeper irony is that the level of education that would be necessary to teach the vast majority of the people how to set up insurance and spread risks would be unimagineably more expensive than forcing people to participate in such a system. The fundamental problem is that you cannot “choose freedom”, which President Moron has suggested that the terrorists have not and the Iraqi people would want to. What one can and does choose in life is the level of risk, and the level of freedom falls out from the consequences of how competently you manage your risks. The absolutely stupidest thing you could possibly do if you want people to embrace freedom is to increase the risks in their lives. Just like the United States has dispensed with its freedoms to feel more secure, so does every other nation and group of people.

Ayn Rand grew up in a society that intended to provide people with a nearly risk-free existence provided that they also gave up all their freedom to disagree with the decisions that would remove all the risk. Now, if you remove all risks from someone’s life, they will want both freedom and risks and will most likely fail to grasp that freedom from the consequences of risks is what human society has been working on for the few thousand years it has existed. Capitalism and rational egoism is vastly superior to communism and rational altruism in solving this problem of communal risk management, but if the problem is forgotten and the solution is seen as an end in itself, the problem will come back and destroy you. For instance, if you seek the freedom to enter contracts and seek the force of society to protect the sanctity of contract, there will still be a point at which you will have to accept the risk that the other contractor fails to deliver. We do not want a society where one man’s failure to protect himself from risks can be used to enslave his offspring for generations. We do not want a society where people are left to starve to death and therefore will kill others to survive if their risk management network breaks down. In the end, whether you create a society of all people who pay for a communal risk management system involuntarily (that is, the system becomes more advanced than the individual is able to understand) and so makes a tradeoff between freedom and risk through what will be considered force by those who disagree with it, or you create a society with a voluntary communal risk management system with much smaller groups of people who can opt in or out and then have a form of involuntary support for those who fall through the cracks to keep them from having to use force to survive, whether you choose one over the other is merely a question of the size of the group who band together for communal risk management.

There is ample evidence that if the group becomes too large, the first problem becomes that of the impossibility of opting out of it. Atlas Shrugged solves this problem by taking the one group that matters out of the greater system’s circulation, but it still is not a group of one person. The internal reward for taking part in the communal risk management system is productive work, which provides a short and very powerful link between how much risk management a person can provide to the group (i.e., the profits of producing more than it consumes) and how much it needs in return. Capitalism and the United States are based on the premise that what needs protection in society, that is, the focus of the communal risk management, is each individual’s productive capacity. The rule of law and the laws themselves are both set up to protect those who are vastly more productive than sustenance requirements from those who are unable to sustain even the standard of living that they enjoy in the society they live should they be left to their own devices. The core problem is that those who consume more than they produce refuse to die and cannot be killed. The surplus of the community that those who have overproduced have built up, and which is their pension funds, insurance, drought supplies, etc, will be stolen by those who face the death of their overconsumption. The big question is whether it is more cost-effective to keep people fed and clothed and housed than to prevent those who need food and clothing and shelter from stealing it.

There is very strong evidence, historically, biologically, and psychologically, that the survivability of the individual is a function of the group’s ablility to hoard and thus to protect itself from risks by overproducing when times are good. Failure to overproduce is in fact the single greatest threat to group as well as individual survival, because each accident that comes along will cause a net loss that is not recovered and replenished. Now, accidents are not only inevitable, the accidents that the group survives defines the group. It is a truism that “that which does not kill you makes you stronger”, but the summary of evolution and natural selection is all wrong: It is not “survival of the fittest”, a phrasing that has prevented billions of people from grasping the mechanism, it is “death of the unfit”, by which is, of course, meant that which failed to deal with a particular accident, which means that those individuals or groups that had less surplus than was required to stay alive long enough to recover after an accident had wiped some of them or their stored resources out, strengthen the group and the survivability of all fit individuals by dying. Therefore, each individual is not only morally obliged to overproduce if it wants to stay alive, it is morally obliged to underconsume, i.e., not consume all that it can.

Where Ayn Rand objected only to a society that was mired in overconsumption, as in “account overdrawn”, and desperately wanted a society marked by the aristocratic exuberance that e.g. José Ortega y Gasset described, where massive overproduction would be the rule rather than the exception, she failed to enunciate this latter point, and I have serious doubts that she understood the ramifications of her “sense of life”. Perhaps it would have been unpalatable to her American readers, perhaps she could never have lived with the full force of the realization, considering that she herself mooched off several people and retouched her past when she met with success and the profits of overproduction herself, but at least she followed through completely in her own failure to procreate. The single greatest source of overconsumption is procreation to exhaust resources. The single factor that best defines civilizations as they become richer and therefore offer more freedom, is that people procreate less and at a later age. Capitalism has proved to be inordinately effective in keeping people from procreating when they could not produce enough to feed and care for their offspring. Nothing has been done more wrong against the poor black in America than encouraging them to breed like rabbits, and the new groups of people who are still stuck in poverty are precisely the groups that breed out of control, like the latinos. The strongest contributing factor to the rise out of poverty by the Chinese slaves, was that they did not procreate. With considerable historic irony, China has non-procreated itself out of third world economy, as well, while Africa has been encouraged to keep up their overconsumptive procreation.

As for the success of capitalism, its success is not in higher degrees of freedom, not in better communal risk management, not in a higher standard of living, but in causing people to volunteer to delay procreation and to opt out of it altogether. Only by providing women with something to do that is vastly more worthwhile than rearing children have capitalist countries improved their standard of living. By giving women something that it costs so much to give up by having children that they weigh the cost that having children is and decide against it, capitalist society has short-circuited the senseless wastes of procreation with wild abandon that have marred every pre-capitalist society that happened to overproduce. By giving each woman a present that is very attractive, women have not felt the urge to spawn a new generation that they could hope would get a better stab at life than they got. Not only is the easiest way to underconsume simply to avoid procreation, the time and energy released by breaking the natural cycle and not having children goes into overproduction. And the childless die younger, too.

Atlas Shrugged is a novel set in a fictional reality that is entirely incompatible with the Real World. To many people, this fictional reality is incredibly enticing and attractive. Rational egoism, not this base, natural altruism of child-rearing, it appeals to people who are not of child-bearing age themselves. The more people want to take care of their children, the more they work to set up communal risk management systems that will not break down when some major accident occurs. Freedom will always translate to the death of those who can afford to take too large risks. To be able to afford freedom, some people will need to accept the burden of spawning the children that those who seek their freedom do not. A politico-economic system that managed to encourage people who were able to bring forth viable offspring to do so at a higher than replenishing rate, while it encouraged those who were not so able to spend their lives doing something else, would be both genetically and financially optimal. This is profoundly incompatible with the capitalist society as it has evolved in the United States. By sheer luck of a narrow window of opportunity, Ayn Rand escaped the Soviet Union and entered the United States at a time that allowed her philosophy to sound rational and profound. Indeed, much of it was probably predicated on timing, and so much of it points the way to a better way for human beings to live on earth, but there are some glaring flaws in the core premises that modern-day readers should “check”.

Atlas Shrugged is a “time piece” that works exceptionally well to set off something bad as destructive and evil, but it does in reality not offer anything at all to replace it. The core principle of overproduction (in defense of profits) is not coupled with underconsumption, although her heroes are prudent and physically slender people compared to the fat villains. Today’s capitalism is marked by both overproduction and overconsumption, and our social insurance systems encourage reckless wastes such as single welfare mothers. The really stupid religious conservatives who want to prevent both responsible parents and abortion virtually force a segment of the population into poverty and makes them produce the nation’s future generations, like the most braindamaged dysgenics experiment one could think of, where the least fit are “breeders” for society. Atlas Shrugged appears to reach for the same solution to its next generation: Whoever on the outside just happen to become usable to them, will be included. There is a stark parallel here to the Biblical Garden of Eden, which was also unsustainable and required people from the outside to make the next generation “work”.

However, all this said, I think Atlas Shrugged and the philosophy of Ayn Rand has set up a number of interesting warning signs and just as a group is evolutionally defined by what they survive, those who have read Atlas Shrugged and have thought about how it can let them learn from the world they live in more productively, will form “The New Intellectuals”. It is just as impossible to become a contributor to a free, humane society without having read Ayn Rand as it is to become one having only read Ayn Rand. To make the crucial leap requires that one be able to think about a society that must deal with its discontents and its detractors humanely and fairly, without jeopardizing the benefits to those who choose to subjugate their desires to those that are allowed within its freedoms. To many young people, the concept that one can benefit greatly by succumbing to the desires of the group, or at least not to deviate too far from them, appears to be intellectually unavailable, but to live in a society means precisely that one understands that one benefits from that society.

I have changed this text only to add a title and to add better typography, since our exchange in email was unformatted. For example, he used notation like “/text/” in plain text for emphasis, which I’ve upgraded to “text” for this publication. But the choices of what to italicize are his, not mine. I’ve also updated the quotation marks to be curly instead of straight. The text is otherwise a direct and complete quotation, without editorial correction.

I added hyperlinks in a couple of places, but they aren't visually marked so as not to disturb the text. Some of the references he makes may be unfamiliar, so if you want further reading, there are places you can click through. Adding these is not an endorsement on my part.

To learn more about Erik, see my eulogy of him.

If you would rather read Erik’s piece in black-on-white,
click here to visit the post on my home site.

Photo cropped and resized from a photo by Kevin Layer,
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Author's Note: Originally published January 8, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

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