Sunday, January 15, 2012

Booze, Sex and Ayn Rand

Last November the voters in Washington state wisely decided to abandon state liquor stores and allow the private sale of alcohol. Support for the measure was highest in those areas that routinely vote Democrat and lower in areas that are traditional Republican. Yet, the measure itself was to abandon state run agencies in favor private enterprise.

The general perception is that Democrats tend to like government running businesses and Republicans tend to support private enterprise. Yet, in this case the opposite was true.

Conservatives, in general, and Republicans in particular, claim they support deregulation and small government, with local control. Yet they are working to strip the states of the right to set their own marriage laws, oppose deregulation of marriage to allow same-sex couples to enter marriage contracts, and generally support government control of the love life of grown adults. The current debate in the Republican Party seems to be about which candidate supports the most state control of people’s private affairs.

On the other side the aisle, Democrats routinely oppose capitalist acts between consenting adults. They eloquently argue that a woman has the ability to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term, or not, and then turn around and claim she is incapable of deciding whether a labor contract is acceptable or not and needs government help in determining the content of the contract. Gay men and lesbians are competent to decide whom they will marry, but incompetent when it comes to making decisions about medical insurance. The GOP argues the exact opposite. Women who ought to be free to make decisions about labor are not competent to decide whether they wish to go into labor. Individuals who are competent to make decisions regarding medical insurance are not capable in deciding whom they wish to marry.

This apparent paradox was noticed by Ayn Rand back in 1973 when she gave a Ford Hall Forum lecture, Censorship: Local and Express. Miss Rand was unhappy with recent Supreme Court decisions allowing the censorship of erotic material. She dissected the Court’s ruling and noted that in this particular case: “It is Justice Douglas, the arch-liberal, who defends individual rights.” On the other hand, “It is the conservatives who speak of as if the individual did not exist, as if the unit of social concern were the collective—the community.”

This paradox is apparent in the debate on evolution vs. “intelligent design.” The Left tends to argue that complex orders of nature can evolve without centralize design while the Right tends to say a Creator, or divine central planner is required. Yet when the complex order, known as the economy, is mentioned they each abandon their position and take the opposite view. The Left insists complex orders required intelligent designers planning things and the Right is happy to accept evolutionary changes. Herbert Spencer noted that that many reformers simply “cannot be made to recognize the process of evolution resulting from men’s daily activities, though facts forced on them from morning till night show this in myriafold ways.”

Michael Rothschild, in his fascinating work Bionomics wrote:

Putting aside the details of genetic variation and natural selection, is it really possible that an unconscious, spontaneous phenomenon could have brought forth a natural world of such awesome diversity, beauty, and balance? We can see it. But it still boggles the mind.
Oddly enough, the same sense of incredulity underlies the widespread mistrust of free markets. Anyone who thinks carefully about capitalism must ask, how could such a vast and complex system emerge without the benefit of some grand design? Somewhere, somebody must be in charge. How else could, simple, self-interested components coalesce into an immensely complicated, well-coordinated economy? The notion that no one is in control—that economic order spontaneously emerges from the chaotic interaction of millions of individuals and firms—is quite simply, hard to swallow.

I can understand individuals accepting spontaneous order as a general rule and thus wanting freedom. I can even understand those who argue that intelligent design is required in the universe and the economy. What doesn’t appear to make sense, on the surface, is the contradictory views held by both Left and Right with the former demanding social freedom but despising economic freedom, and the latter taking the opposite view.

I have listened to numerous people attempting to explain this paradox. The only explanation that ever made sense to me was the one Rand offered in 1973. She said:
The conservatives want freedom to act in the material realm; they tend to oppose government control of production, of industry, or trade, of business, or physical goods, of material wealth. But they advocate government control of man’s spirits, i.e., man’s consciousness; they advocate the State’s right to impose censorship, to determine moral values, to create and enforce a government establishment of morality, to rule the intellect. The liberals want freedom to act in the spiritual realm; they oppose censorship, they oppose government control of ideas, of the arts, of the press, of education (not their concern with ‘academic freedom’). By they advocate government control of material production, of business, of employment, of wages, of profits, of all physical property—they advocate it all they way down to total expropriation.

The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming this earth, building sand piles or factories—with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe—but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.

Yet is the conservatives who are predominantly religionists, who proclaim the superiority of the soul over the body, who represent what I call the ‘mysticism of spirit.” And it is the liberals who are predominantly materialists, who regard man as an aggregate of meat, and who represent what I call the mystics of muscle.”

This is merely a paradox, not a contradiction: each camp wants to control the realm it regards as metaphysically important; each grants freedom only to the activities it despises.
One of the great virtues of classical liberalism, often called libertarianism today, is that it believed that both man’s physical nature and his mental nature required freedom. Our classical liberal forefathers (and mothers) were among the first to fight for freedom of conscience. They were opponents of flames and faggots that were used to burn heretics and argued that individuals had a natural right to believe as they wished, even if that belief included opposition to the established church.

On the other hand they were also advocates of land reform to end the dominance of land—the prime mode of production at the time—by the aristocracy and the church. They fought attempts to shackle either man’s mind or body, or both.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for talking about the paradoxes of both the left a right.
    I've always been confused by the people in my religious community that were so for the government being out of their lives economically but were so for the government control of social issues.