Friday, December 31, 2010

The Fountainhead

Perhaps in honor of Ayn Rand, Kohler Plumbing has a new model of luxury toilet known as "The Fountainhead."

For a mere $4400.00, you too can own one of these gems. Use it well. Please remember the need to actually plumb it into a system with a water source and a drain rather than as shown here on the platform of Portland, Oregon's Union Station. Failure to heed this warning may leave your fountainhead as full of crap as the original.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

When Galt's dog poops

Maybe yesterday's example of Galt's dog killing Smith's dog was a little extreme. It was intended to raise the issue of behaviors in common spaces being limited beyond Rand's simple prohibition of murder. But suppose Galt's dog does nothing more than poop. A stinking mess of dog poop is left in the path for others to step in, inhale, or otherwise enjoy. This poop, of course, is tied to the historically significant personhood of THE John Galt. But consider that a few other people would prefer that Galt honor the standard procedure for dog owners who live in proximity with each other, and use an inverted plastic bag to remove the dog's poop from the ground and move it to some other location from which it can be more properly disposed. Is Galt under any obligation to do so? In other words, does Galt's extreme high worth as an individual person grant him exemption from obligations of civility? I think that Rand would support the position that Galt is, indeed, exempted from such obligations. I expect her to propose that such exemption arises from the summative good that is attributed to having a Galt among us.
Rand's opinion on the matter, however, isn't worth the dog poop it talks about. The only circumstance that mandates Galt's exemption is his ownership of the commons. But even if there is such ownership, how would it be acknowledged among the rest of us? Are there deeds? Who wrote them? Who were parties to the sale? By what authority did ownership convey itself to the sellers? These are serious questions because we presume Galt to be intelligent enough to have avoided purchases of the Brooklyn Bridge. For a claim of ownership of the commons to be meaningful, Galt, and Rand along with him, must acknowledge the presence of an authority strong enough to assure the validity of the sale. Thus, Galt must acknowledge the legitimacy of big government.
If you ask a "libertarian", he or she will tell you that big government ought not to exist. It follows that John Galt cannot own the commons. But the libertarian can attempt to make the case that the commons does not formally exist. They may argue that there is nothiing that can be legitimately set aside for public usage. However, it may be countered that without a commons and the rules that govern its usage, chaos is all that can exist. One simply has to look outside one's front door to see a street maintained by some agency to promote public passage. Without the street to lie on the division lines between one's property and that of one's "across-the-street" neighbor, leaving my own property puts me into a position of trespass. Freedom to move demands a minimum of a path on which such motion can occur. And Galt, too, must pick up his portion of the dog poop, to maintain that roadway in condition for others to travel.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

John Galt walks his dog.

Imagine a sunny day in beautiful Galt's Gulch - entrepreneurial paradise home of the few and worthy. All who live in the gulch have earned all the privileges that Gulch residency provides. One such privilege is dog ownership. For the present, put off speculation about what breed or breeds of dogs would thrive inside of Gulch residencies, and imagine that Mr. Galt and Mr. Galt's pooch are out for a walk. Although Galt is privileged to let the pooch run freely, his choice is NOT to do so, and on this particular occasion, pooch and Galt are separated by only the length of the ten-foot leather strap conveniently fitted to pooch's collar at one end, and Galt's hand at the other. Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine that Galt is unaware of pooch's activities.
Then imagine that fellow Gulch resident Smith is similarly walking his dog. Somewhere on the streets of the gulch, the two dogs encounter each other and Galt's dog, for no apparent reason, attacks and kills Smith's dog. This is Galt's Gulch, of course, and the rules are restricted to prohibition of human murder. So, by rule, Galt is under no obligation to Smith. Presumably, the incident ends with Galt leading pooch back home and Smith carrying off the corpse of his former dog. Because there is no guarantee of happiness and no force that commands respect of the happiness of others, the death of Smith's dog is the final resolution, although Smith may be somewhat unhappy that this is the resolution of the conflict. Galt owes nothing too Smith because the occurrence was simply the natural victory of the stronger dog - a graphic demonstration of survival of the fittest. The recourse allotted to Smith is to get a bigger and stronger dog next time. Although Smith may have been an entrepreneur before moving to paradise, paradise seems not to have been productive of Smith's happiness.
Societies have a long tradition of establishing common areas. They generally have another tradition of imposing social mores to govern behavior in common areas. In the paradise of Galt's Gulch, the streets between Galt's and Smith's homes would have been a common area. As such, it would have been governed by common consent to go beyond the non-murdering standard to a not-harming-possessions standard.
Rand is, by no means, a utilitarian. But one would presume that Galt would have founded the Gulch as a resource for his own happiness, which he would have derived from association with other entrepreneurs very much like Smith. At this point, Smith is very likely to move out of the Gulch. It is very likely that Smith will have conferred with at least a few neighbors before moving out. And it is within the realm of possibility that some of the neighbors would have recognized that they were there for the privilege of associating with the likes of Smith as well as association with the likes of Galt. Behavior on Galt's part that violates the mores of a viable common area makes the Gulch less desirable and encourages Galt's neighbors to avoid association with Galt. Galt, therefore, loses the company of the entrepreneurial class that he had believed would contribute to his own happiness. A commons with no rules is a major source of unhappiness, and should, by reasonable people who seek to live together in harmony, be avoided.
Privilege isn't taken, as Rand would have readers believe. It is extended by the social community. And it carries responsibilities. Responsibilities accompany privilege. In some instances - like driver's licenses - there is a formal and documented process of privilege having been extended in lieu of agreement to follow the rules. But even without the formal license, there is always responsibility. Galt is responsible to pull back the leash and restrain his dog. Smith was out for a joyful walk to the same extent as Galt was. Smith had the same privilege. In the example above, Galt failed his responsibility to honor Smith's privilege of using the common. Whether through force of law and jailing or through isolation that results from becoming a social pariah, the privileged will punish those who violate the commons. Unless the commons will be given up entirely - in which case there is no path by which Galt can enjoy Smith's company, or the commons must be respected.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is Julian Assange Really John Galt?

On Dec 11/2010, Saturday Night Live broadcast a short clip of an actor pretending to be Wikileaks founder Julian Assange broadcasting from a jail cell. The clip is at
The clip is somewhat funny in itself and noteworthy for the tag line "I'm Julian Assange" being repeated each time some very unlikely or impossible circumstance is mentioned. Look up a few Youtube videos of "John Galt Speaking" and you will see the same interruption of the important paid announcement by some unexplained means that relies on some fictional power associated with the person's name. The context makes the SNL clip funnier than it otherwise would be. The fact that it is Julian Assange, who teabaggers propose to kill, makes the point that the tea party doesn't know what it is talking about. Assange has independently gone off to a gulch and then come back with an undesired seizing of the media to pass along the undesired messages.
Those who identify with John Galt think of themselves as so highly capable that their personal move into Galt's Gulch (GG) would automatically bring worth to the GG community. Rand never sets any criteria for admission to this imaginary elite. And even if she did, applicants would bring SUBJECTIVE judgments that they match up to them. Her "objectivist" philosophy is predicated on wishful subjective judgments. This makes it kind of self-contradictory.
The tea party has little basis for association other than anger. In its search for an ideological basis, it has chosen a work of fiction, open to subjective interpretation. That work is Atlas Shrugged. The notion that the big-brained can or will collude is a wet dream. They cannot even identify themselves, let alone act outside the corrupt system.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rand's real religion and its nutcase interpretation

A couple of days ago, 12/5/2010, Mojoey asked that I post the following: "Howard Shrugged Back has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information." The occasion of finding my first back/forth referral is a milestone for me, and one that I hope to see happen often. Of course, placing Howard Shrugged Back onto an atheist blogroll indicates some sort of tie between atheismm and Howard. Well, Howard doesn't actually preach atheism. If asked about faith, he would claim to be Unitarian-Universalist, a faith that the Christian right calls "atheism with buildings and tax breaks." But he writes about Randian thought, and is taking this occasion to look at how religion plays in Rand's big book.
Although much of the American Christian Rightwing isn't aware of it, Rand's professed faith is atheism. She didn't hang around churches very much - supposing them to be gathering places for the advocates of altruism. And in the absence of doctrinal guidance, she may simply have encountered Nietzsche's claim that "God is Dead", and claimed atheism as a justification for staying away from churches. But she didn't do a very good job of being atheistic. Her first claim relative to there being no God is that the individual finds God within himself (I'd normally say "himself/herself" here but Rand is so caught up in the belief that women are second class sex objects placed on earth (by whom?) to provide worshipful reverence and sexual satisfaction to the Godlike men that dominate society, that she isn't likely to have believed women capable of holding gods inside.). This makes her a misogynistic buddhist more than an atheist. Here's why:
With the death of God, Nietzsche sought to recreate the institutions that enabled civility to occur without reference to an external origin of law. This echoes a project that Kant started over a century earlier of letting reason and the laws of logic be the arbiter of what qualifies as moral behavior. An atheist, in the Nietzschean sense, would look for adherence to the criterion of self-consistency before admitting various maxims into a personal moral code. Rand fails to do this. Because she mistakes altruism for evil, she loses the self-consistency criterion. If she could reduce her misogyny to the point where she was capable of being godlike herself, she still could not reason to the basis of moral law. In the absence of this moral law, she looks for the origin of justification of behavior outside of herself. She looks to John Galt. And in doing so, she props up John Galt by imagining him (He IS a fictional character.) to be omnipotent, omniscient, and (here's the amazing characteristic.) benevolent. Any atheist worth his/her salt knows that when you have introduced omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence into your cosmology, you have re-introduced a god. The proposition that God is only found in a fictional character - John Galt - is roughly the equivalent of idolatry.
So Rand's real religion is roughly describable as misogynistic, idolatrous buddhism that calls itself atheism.
That Atlas Shrugged should have been picked up and venerated by the American political rightwing that claims to be Christian is an absurdity of modern American life. But there has been a glossed-over split in Christianity into two main camps. In camp 1, you have the traditional view that serious worship of Christ requires being affected by the teachings of Jesus that are basically altruistic. The claim of this camp on accurately portraying the spirit of Jesus' teachings is the longstanding line of tradition that links its followers to the historical character of Jesus himself. In the other camp, you have the view of something almost like the Jewish "chosen people" who, to verify their chosen-ness, revel in the accumulation of material possessions. Camp 2 is well-described by Max Webber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The influence of John Calvin on the American church was to bring the doctrine of financial success as the signifier of blessedness. Financial enrichment, as the only value that is tied to a God who wouldn't let his chosen ones suffer the ravages of poverty, is sought for its own sake. Historical Jesus may have been reputed to toss the moneychangers out of the temple. The Calvinist tradition brings them back and venerates them.