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Some Philosophical Ideas on Social Justice and the Noble Lie
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-10-05 07:22:13
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“Atlas Shrugged is an apocalyptic vision of the last stages of conflict between two classes of humanity—the looters and the non-looters. The looters are proponent of high taxation, big labor, government ownership, government spending, government planning, regulation, and redistribution.”                                                                                                                                                                                     --Edward Younkins

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a well known novel published in the U.S. in 1957. It has since become the guiding political paradigm, almost a sacred text, for many right-wing conservatives, Straussian neo-conservatives, assorted Libertarians and recent Tea Party populists. It is interesting that its author, who is known in philosophical circles for her philosophy of “objectivism,” ailed as an immigrant from the totalitarian Soviet Union. Many critics saw the novel and her objectivist social philosophy as an extreme reaction to the extreme social philosophy of Karl Marx as practiced by Stalin under which she had lived. Whatever the original cause for the novel, in the era of Mc Cartian anti-communism and the Cold War it came to be seen as a fierce defense of the free enterprise capitalistic market system.

Consider this excerpt from the novel: "Looters confiscate others' earnings by force (at the point of a gun) and include government officials, whose demands are backed by the implicit threat of force. Some officials are merely executing government policy, such as those who confiscate one state's seed grain to feed the starving citizens of another; others are exploiting those policies, such as the railroad regulator who illegally sells the railroad's supplies for his own profit. Both use force to take property from the people who produced or earned it. Moochers demand others' earnings on behalf of the needy and those unable to earn themselves; however, they curse the producers who make that help possible and are jealous and resentful of the talented on whom they depend. They are ultimately as destructive as the looters – destroying the productive through guilt, and appealing to moral right while enabling the "lawful" looting performed by governments. Looting and mooching are seen at all levels of the world Atlas Shrugged portrays, from the looting officials Dagny Taggart must work around and the mooching brother Hank Rearden struggles with, to the looting of whole industries by companies like Associated Steel and the mooching demands for foreign aid by the starving countries of Europe.”

Wow, all this talk of looters and moochers may seem normal in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s Communist China, but in the US of the fifties, even with Mc Carty, it inevitably raised  eyebrows. William Buckley, a Republican and champion of American conservatism, for one, wrote a devastating review of the novel where he implied that this kind of conservatism was the other side of the coin of communism; that it was in fact a flirting with totalitarian fascism. I think he had it on target. It is doubtful that today’s tea party activists have heard of that review. I suppose Buckley himself would be unwelcome in today’s Republican party.

Considering where Ayn Rand (pseudonym for Alisa Zinov Rosenbaum) came from, the above is quite plausible; but what remains intriguing to me is that 20 years after the fall of the totalitarian Communist Marxian system in Russia the novel remains an inspiration to the right-wing mind-set in America as exemplified even in the current crop of candidates running for president in the Republican party. In one of the debates those candidates were asked by the CNN moderator (Wolf Blitzer) if somebody dying in the street were in a coma and in danger of dying, and had no insurance, should he be helped and rushed to a doctor or a hospital or should he be allowed to perish. Somebody from the audience shouted “let him die.” None of the debaters chided the shouter; in fact he was loudly applauded by the audience. Mind you, there are some forty five million people who are presently uncovered by health insurance while they wait for the universal law passed by Congress to kick in, a law that it is disparagingly called “Obama care” by many uncaring Republican politicians who have promised to repeal it at the first chance. That is a scene right out of Atlas Shrugged where compassion and concern for other’s welfare and the plight of the poor and underprivileged is considered a reprehensible weakness, a lack of virtue doing ultimately more harm than good and producing the monstrosity of the welfare state.  So the question naturally arises: how did we get to this sad social scenario?

Of course the idea and the social issue of the nature of justice goes as far back as Plato’s Republic but closer to our times it is important to keep in mind that much of the framing for the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence by the founding fathers was inspired by the liberal views of John Locke, especially his essay On Liberty, and later by the liberal ideas of John Stuart Mill. Some two hundred years later, Locke is all but forgotten and liberalism has become a dirty word. It never occurs to today’s right leaning “super-patriots” that liberalism is at the very foundation of the US. In fact, the founding fathers may well be turning in their grave nowadays at the sight of so much ignorance and small mindedness.

Be that as it may, judging from their abysmal pronouncement on the history and the political philosophy of America, it is improbable that the tea party activists in Congress, now opposing every constructive idea proposed by the current administration to ameliorate a virulent economic crisis, have ever read Jefferson (whom Michelle Bachmann thinks as a champion of slaves fighting for their liberation), or Locke on Liberty, or Stuart Mill, never mind Plato’s Republic, but surely these illiberal ideas did not come down from the blue sky. They must have trickled down from somewhere.

I think we can identify where they issue from in two relatively recent and influential books from two Harvard University professors with two radically different visions of what justice is. These books may go a long way in explaining the political polarization we currently observe in Washington: one book is to the left of Marx’s Socialism and champions the Lockean liberal state and the other to the right of Marx champions the Randian minimalist state. I refer to John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice (1971), and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) which was in many ways a direct reply to Rawl’s ideas on justice. Let’s take a brief look at those two books. Hopefully the inquisitive reader will be motivated to read them. They are veritable eye openers and explain much of today’s sad and destructive debacles among our politicians; their lack of compromise and moderation, now considered quite “normal.”

Rawl’s theory of justice is in between the communistic utopia of Marx and the minimalist utopia (the minimalist state) of Nozick. It has its roots in Locke’s idea of the liberal state which is what exists today in most Western democracies. These democracies on both sides of the Atlantic consist of a large degree of free enterprise with capital and natural resources in the private sphere but regulated by the state which assures low inflation and high employment and also justice and equity. There are regulations about what people can do to each other in the acquisition of goods. Also, the state controls unemployment benefits or social security which mitigates poverty for those who for some legitimate reason or other cannot work or cannot find work. Cooperation is needed between the state and the private sector and all the stakeholders have a fair share in the competition for the production and the obtaining of goods. That is what justice is about for Rawl: basic fairness in the production, distribution and consumption. It is not an Utopia, as it is in Marx, but it is based on human needs and human dignity. The liberal society should never be coercive but should remain democratic at all times and should be based on universal reason, not an imposed ideology. Two essential principles of this sort of society are: 1) equal and maximum liberty for each citizen, consistent with equal liberty for others. 2) wealth and power to be distributed equally except where inequalities work for the advantage of all and the common good. Distributive justice is definitely part of justice in this theory.

One of the most controversial aspects of the theory is that of the “noble lie” or the “magnificent myth” which we also find in Plato’s Republic where people are told that the memories of their past are really memories of a dream and what they believe of themselves is false. Similarly, Rawls myth is one establishing a “veil of ignorance.” Here too, as in Plato, the facts we know about ourselves are set aside. Those are our psychological, physical, social, and racial characteristics. Thy myth assumes that we are not envious and that we rationally pursue our own self-interest. It is paradoxical: one pursues one’s self-interests rationally via a “noble lie” or a myth. Both Plato and Rawl utilize the myth as a philosophical device for use as an analytic tool to demonstrate the rationality of a certain kind of society. They seem to be saying that without myths a society will succumb to greed and envy and class warfare.

It is this myth or noble lie of the “veil of ignorance” that allows the political philosopher to acknowledge the intuitive fact that some inequalities in an evolving society are unjust because they are undeserved. It is unfair that some have to suffer because they were born with less. Therefore a society can only be just if it partially redistributes wealth for the benefit of its most disadvantaged. This liberal society is even superior to the utilitarian society advocated by John Stuart Mill because within utilitarianism a few slaves may produce the maximum amount of happiness for the majority. In philosophical terms we need to transform ourselves from Hobbesian egoists to Kantian universalists.

The response to the above vision was fast and furious. It arrived with a theory by Rawl’s colleague at Harvard, Robert Nozick, in a book titled Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). This theory of justice has unmistakable echoes of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In the state which Nozick dubs “the minimalist state,” less is more. No public works or aid to the needy is ever justified. All taxation must be consented to. Only those who pay taxes are entitled to any benefits. Absolutely no distribution of wealth is allowed, no matter how wide the gap between the super-rich and the poor gets. That is seen as class warfare, never mind that it is the rich who usually acquire enough political power to guaranteed their privileges, so that a billionaire ends up paying less taxes than his middle class secretary. Entitlement and privilege is a one way street; it only applies to the rich. Nowadays they have been dubbed “job creators,” even if the reality is that they are sitting on some two trillion dollars of profits and have created precious few jobs in the last three years. The slogan that Nozick is very fond of is this: “goods do not fall from heaven like manna.” Which means that those who produce the goods should enjoy them, but by producers Nozick does not mean the workers who produce those goods by the sweat of their brow, but rather the capitalist who takes risk with his money and not unlike a gambler is entitled to the lion’s share of the profits deriving from his enterpeneurship.

So the investing capitalist is entitled to his property and the transference of his property to his inheritors or anybody he so wishes. The minimal state is there to protect those rights and entitlements, not to ensure an equitable distribution of goods or the needs of others. If the state cannot do this, then the second amendment (the right to bear arms) is there to assure that right, even to bring down a state that is tyrannical because it prohibits “capitalist acts between consenting adults.” The only concession to the common good on the part of Nozick is that after one has grabbed what is rightfully one’s own, one should have the decency to leave enough for others. Without Rawl’s myth or noble lie, or veil of ignorance, one is left to wonder if that is indeed ever possible within a human nature prone to greed and envy. But that is not the main critique leveled at Nozick. The real critique is this question: are property rights really absolute as claimed, and if so why? And the answer should not be based on second amendment rights which is a subtle way of affirming that in an Hobbesian Machiavellian world “might is right.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, a prominent British philosopher, says that “belief in absolute rights of property is one with belief in witches and unicorns.” And Alan Brown says that “claiming that I have a right to something is just an elliptical way of saying that all things considered, there is a good moral reason to respect or promote my freedom in this case.” That does not sound very universal, therefore rights cannot be absolute or foundational but are derived from other moral deliberations.

Another criticism to Nozick’s theory of justice is its disingenuous insistence that only an historical theory of acquisitions can be truly just and that current entitlements to holdings is just only if original acquisitions were just. Tell that to the Native Americans! None of them willingly bestowed any land to the European settlers who are the ancestors of most US citizens. So Nozick’s theory is as Utopian as Marx’s and may be perhaps the other side of the coin, as Ayn Rand’s transmutation seems to confirm.

It comes as no surprise that Robert Paul Wolff, a Marxian philosopher who has written a very popular introductory text for philosophy, criticized Rawl’s book from a Marxist perspective as an apology for the status quo. But it seems to me that it is beginning to look more and more that the real status quo in America, rather than liberalism, is right wing politics, almost a fascistic mind-set which will not accept democratic compromises and advocates “my way or the highway.” But I have already written on this.

As an aside it should be noted here that if Rawl is attacked from the left by Wolff and from the right by Nozick, perhaps he is in the right place as were the US founding fathers despite their refusal to denounce and abolish slavery. Be that as it may, it is up to the American people, in approximately a year’s time (in 2012), to choose one of the two visions of social justice: that of Rawl or that of Nozick. In a democracy the people usually end up getting the government they deserve. As Plato pointed out: in a society where there are 96% fools and four wise men, the fools will win out and the democratic state that they will set up will reflect that reality. Some have said that Plato was advocating the dictatorship of the philosopher king. Perhaps, but he was also advocating wisdom. The conundrum is this: how do we make wisdom compatible with democracy? It is a conundrum which remains to be solved and, contrary to what some current elitist philosophers have declared, even the noble lie may not be able to solve it. Could  Nietzsche and Marx be right when they proclaimed that mankind still awaits a New Man.   

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Emanuel Paparella2011-10-05 08:41:19
Correction: the excerpt above is not from Atlas Shrugged but from a commentary on it of Edward Younkins, the same scholar quoted at the beginning of the article and who is considered an international authority on Ayn Rand’s works.

Footnote: also, regarding Buckley’s assessment of Ayn Rand’s conservative views and philosophy: in 1957, Buckley attempted to take Ayn Rand out of the conservative movement by publishing Wihittaker Chambers’s highly negative review of Rand's Atlas Shrugged. In 1964, he wrote of "her desiccated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral," as well as "the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding, dogmatism that is in itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg, Savonarola--or Ayn Rand."

Larry Nannery2011-10-05 15:38:20
Not only Wittaker, Chambers, but also Sidney HOok in teh NYT, raked her ove rthe coals. Buckley was no thinker, for sure.

Roman Stranger2011-10-05 16:29:55
Since when are Straussians favorable to Rand?!?

Roman Stranger2011-10-05 16:36:54
I know Rawls, but who on earth is Rawl?

James Woodbury2011-10-07 04:12:10
Dear Emanuel.
I didn't know about Rawls (?) and Nozick and their basic differences and welcome that insight.
The strongest reason for Buckley's distaste for Ayn Rand and her outlook including any usefulness she might have had for the conservative movement back in the 50s and 60s was her fundamentally antireligious philosophical stance, which he simply couldn't accepy and thought harmful to conservatism. A historical detail: Ayn Rand came to the US when only a child about the time of Lenin's death. She never actually lived under Stalin's rule. But no doubt she and her parents had seen quite enough of early Soviet "War" Communism before they arrived in this country.

Prof. Robt. Griffin, Ph.D2011-10-10 05:01:20
J.Locke a "liberal" as we understand the term? Be real. Locke's favorite colony was the slave plantation colony of North Carolina! We must not try reading too many of our pet attitudes and ideas into our favorite great minds of the past. Not only American Indians (and Indians of India under British rule), and plantation slaves suffered the whip of Locke's ideas of "property" and uncivilized "savagery," Women, too, were liberally excluded from property rights by our Lockean inspired founding fathers. Yes, we do still say "founding fathers," tacitly dismissing half our society from any part in the formation of our nation.

Emanuel Paparella2011-10-12 17:07:32
Professor Griffin,

given that philosophy is the love of wisdom, I wonder if indeed it is wise to judge the founding fathers of 200+ years ago by our ethical and political standards. In any case, the article had precious to do with the founding fathers and more to do with two visions of justice as presented in the 20th century. Too bad that not much dalogue ensued on that.
Professor Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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