"One's first step in wisdom is to question everything--and one's last is to come to terms with everything." ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
Better late, it's said, than never. So while I should have taken the opportunity years ago, this month I got around to it and listened to the famous interview of Ayn Rand by Mike Wallace, made for TV in black and white in 1959. You too can see it, on YouTube here (use Ixquick to find Parts 2 and 3.)
It lasts 30 minutes, and it's a half hour very well spent. Generally I prefer to read transcripts (find one here), but if this should be your first encounter with the recording, do pick the video. It fairly crackles with the electricity of two powerful intellects in combat.
With a couple of exceptions, Mike Wallace gave her no quarter, and no interviewer of the last half century is known to have been more aggressive. Had I been sitting in Ayn Rand's chair, I'm quite sure I'd have melted, from the ferocity of his questions. But she did not; although this was her first TV appearance, the only sign of nervousness was a curious movement of the eyes. Otherwise she was relaxed and cool and gave every bit as good as she got, with crisp, emphatic and arresting replies.
Let's get the exceptions out of the way: Invited to explain her philosophy, Ayn replies, “First, my philosophy is based on the concept that reality exists as an objective absolute” and Mike Wallace does not challenge or question that; he might have. More on this below.
The second is that after showing that taxation is morally repugnant, Ayn Rand allows as how a minimal level of government is acceptable: “There is nothing wrong with the democratic process in politics. We arrive at it, the way we arrived by the American Constitution as it used to be. By the constitutional powers, as we had it, people elect officials, but the powers of those officials, the powers of government are strictly limited. They will have no right to initiate force, or compulsion against any citizen, except a criminal. Those who have initiated force will be punished by force, and that is the only proper function of government.” But Mike completely fails to ask the obvious question, which simply begged to be posed: “How, then, would it be financed?” Nor does he enumerate for her the other powers supposedly delegated to the Feds, which I reviewed here – including the power to “lay and collect taxes.”
Given that he was being hostile (in a polite way), that omission is amazing. I wonder why he missed it, and can suppose only that to him, government is so much a “given” that it just didn't occur to him that someone has to pay its expenses. Perhaps, like many on the Left, he really supposed that its costs are met by plucking fruit from the money trees that grow on the National Mall. Whatever; but he lost a huge opportunity to skewer his guest, for I have no idea how she could have answered him. She was really caught in what she so frequently exposed and castigated: a logical contradiction. Nobody is so foolish as to pay for government without force, and she had just correctly described force as morally evil, so she seems to me to have placed herself between a rock and a hard place. Yet Wallace let her escape.
Those are the exceptions, though. Elsewhere, Mike Wallace gave her a hard time and she answered him brilliantly, and I'll leave to the reader to enjoy them all and learn, with me, how better to respond to our statist adversaries. Here, I'd like to focus just on the very first issue raised: reality. Ayn Rand based her philosophy on “the concept that reality exists as an objective absolute” and that has been simplified that to the axiom “A is A.” A is not Non-A, its logical opposite; and A is what A really is, not what the spinners may say it is.
Believe it or not, I've seen it written – by an STReader, no less! – that “reality is open to question”! She told me that “there is a hypothesis that what we understand as 'existence' and 'reality' is in fact nothing but a vast computer simulation” and referred me to Huffpost Science (wait . . . isn't that an oxymoron?) by way of evidence. I replied that if she took positions like that, she could derive anything or nothing or everything she liked, and I'd have no way to dissuade her. There has to be a bootstrap of some kind, for any discourse to take place, a primitive premise, upon which all other reasoning is built. My own, formulated soon after I wrested myself free from the grip of religious superstition, is twofold: that “I exist, and can reliably observe and reason about my environment.”
Ayn Rand's stated “reality exists as an objective absolute” says much the same but more elegantly, and Descartes' cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) puts it more succinctly. Too bad the converse (I am, therefore I think) doesn't necessarily hold.
The alternative, which takes many forms, is solipsistic; that is, that the world and other minds do not exist (so, Wiki.) The apparent assumption that “other” minds do not exist while one's own mind does exist, is breathtakingly arrogant--and the whole is fundamentally silly. This is the kind of nonsense into which one rapidly descends after denying reality. The fact that reality cannot be proven results from there being no more primitive premise to use in forming such a proof. It is an axiom; any attempt to refute it explicitly requires implicit acceptance.
In the interview, Mike Wallace did not challenge Rand's opening. Perhaps he was rationing his time, as interviewers must; perhaps he didn't grasp its huge significance. Perhaps he did, but quickly realized that to challenge it would leave him looking stupid. In any case, the result left Ayn Rand with a large advantage. Here are a few things (out of a vast number) that follow, from that premise that “A is A”:
|Self-sacrifice is the highest virtue||Practiced consistently, self-sacrifice is the highest folly; it would denude the world of "good" people, leaving only the "bad" and helpless|
|Selfishness is mean||Self-sufficiency is virtuous|
|God exists||"God" has never even been defined|
|Government is necessary to limit evil||Government is the primary source of evil|
|Laws are rules needed for a peaceful society||Laws are the opinions of the governing elite|
|Criminals do evil||Criminals violate government laws|
|Non-defensive killing is wrong, except in war||Non-defensive killing is wrong|
|Guns kill people||People kill people|
|Preparation for war preserves the peace||Preparation for war produces war|
|Government is about public service||Government is about governing|
|Government schools provide free education||Government schools educate only rarely, and are always horribly expensive|
|Everyone has a right to free health care||There is no such thing as free health care|
|Taxation is the price we pay for civilization||Taxation, being theft, is barbarous|
|Police serve and protect the public||Police serve and protect the government|
|Courts ensure that justice is done||Courts help enforce the government's will|
|Justice is about punishing wrongdoing||Justice is about repairing damaged rights|
|A uniform and a badge confer special powers||A uniform and a badge consist of a costume and a piece of embossed metal or plastic|
|The people delegate special powers to government||People can delegate to anyone only such powers they possess in the first place|
|Roads can be built only by government||Roads can be built only by road builders|
|Limits can be set on governments||Anyone who is limited does not govern|
There are a few to be going on with; very likely you can think of many more. Perhaps this list suffices to show the importance of remaining firmly anchored in reality. Ayn Rand's summary “reality exists as an objective absolute” is expanded, on this Objectivist website, to:
"Reality, the external world, exists independent of man's consciousness, independent of any observer's knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires or fears. This means that A is A, that facts are facts, that things are what they are—and that the task of man's consciousness is to perceive reality, not to create or invent it." Thus Objectivism rejects any belief in the supernatural—and any claim that individuals or groups create their own reality.
That is an elegant starting point for all rational thought, and it's vitally important to think only in rational, economic terms instead of political and/or superstitious ones. The alternative to rational thinking is intellectual vegetation. Thinking rationally leads rapidly to a correct understanding of what human beings are, what government is, how markets work and what ethics are good to follow in life; rational ethics, neither ones that are relativistic, like those prevailing today, nor “revealed” by a mythical engraver of stone tablets.
As shown above in relation to her tolerance for a “limited government,” Ayn Rand sometimes failed to follow her own principle, for government is never other than a fictitious entity; but the principle itself deserves nothing less than full endorsement.