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Part Three: Review of Nathaniel Branden Issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Essays, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 12, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is the reproduction of portions of a series of pieces originally published at Atlas Society’s website.  The original series of posts is available here, here, here, and here.

Section II features autobiographical reflections on Branden by his friends and associates Roger E. Bissell, Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Tal Ben-Shahar, Deepak Sethi, and Michael E. Southern. Limited space for review necessitates that I roll my thoughts on these reflections into one sketch. Compressing several autobiographical accounts into one summative analysis does not mean the accounts are unimportant or uninteresting. In fact, they are among the most enthralling contributions to the collection—in particular, Southern’s highly detailed tribute that contains a wealth of insight and information.

But the appreciative tone, personal nature, and intimate recollections in this section are difficult to fully and justly convey as a secondhand report. I thus urge readers interested in Branden’s private friendships and relationships to consult this part of the collection for themselves. I hope that highlighting a few anecdotes will suffice to show the depth and quality of the stories involved.

In one, Bissell relates that, while he was in high school, at the suggestion of his band and choral teacher, he read an essay by Branden. He then read Atlas Shrugged. Testifying to the transformative power of these experiences, he claims that the two texts “irreversibly changed” his life. He suddenly knew he should pursue music, ideas, and writing rather than mathematics. Southern had a similar experience: He read Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self, and immediately withdrew from graduate school and flew to California to meet Branden.

Bissell recalls an exchange in which Branden responded to a question about how effectively to promote Objectivism. The answer, Bissell says, was simple: “to be as rational and productive as you could be at whatever you most loved to do, and to let your success at that be your testimony to the worth of Objectivism’s principles.” Still recapping Branden’s response, Bissell adds that “Objectivism exists to help you live a good life, not to require you to sacrifice your one and only, precious, individual life to its furtherance.”

In another anecdote, Ben-Shahar recalls how Branden comforted him after the death of a friend in a plane crash. In yet another, Sethi remarks that Branden helped him, an immigrant, flourish in American culture by cultivating Sethi’s self-esteem. Later, Sethi and Branden used Braden’s self-esteem techniques on business leaders.

Southern, who also participated in such sessions, relates that they involved “a powerful mechanism for self-discovery,” namely an exercise called “sentence completions.” He tells the story of how Branden once called an agitated woman to the front of a room of 100 people to participate in sentence-completions. She discovered, at length and through many tears, that she had never properly mourned the death of her father, a heartbreaking revelation that jarred Southern to the point that he later raised concerns with Branden, who in turn applied the sentence-completion exercise on him. What happened next was surprising. Southern allowed himself “for the first time to voice . . . all the pain growing up without a father had caused me.”  “I was told throughout my childhood,” he recounts, “that I was better off without my father and continuously heard how much he had hurt those around him who loved him. And so I dutifully repressed the longing.” Southern thus realized firsthand the therapeutic benefits of Branden’s methods.

These moving portraits of Branden suggest that he valued friendships and mentorships. The contributors affectionately refer to him by his first name and dub him a “hero” and “my Aristotle.” Southern claims that Nathaniel and Devers Branden “saved years of my life.” Whatever else he accomplished, then, Branden clearly impacted the lives of those who knew him well. He satisfied felt needs and helped others take responsibility and achieve self-actualization.

Section III, the final section, will be the most trying for readers who, like me, lack training in clinical psychology—first because we have no background or abiding interest in the subject, and second because we have no expertise with which to evaluate the significance of these contributions to the field. Without knowing Branden’s importance or unimportance within professional circles, or whether his techniques and practices are rare or common, strange or normal, exemplary or bizarre, one has difficulty determining if this section represents a necessary corrective or merely wishful thinking. I get the feeling, though, that these contributions would not have appeared in a journal edited by professional clinical psychologists and that their value is therefore bound up in Branden’s significance as an historical figure.    

The essays featured here respond to a Branden-inspired sentence-completion prompt: “If Branden’s works were studied by more academic and clinical psychologists…..” The five contributors then finish—or were supposed to finish—the sentence by saying what would have happened had the condition been fulfilled. Fittingly, they each have backgrounds in psychology, but surprisingly they steer wide of their cue and answer a different question from the one posed.  For instance, Robert L. Campbell, the coeditor of the collection, offers what he calls a “memorial tribute” that has more to do with Branden’s uniqueness among psychologists than it does with some hypothetical readership of Branden’s work. It comes off like an encomium and partly a sympathetic memoir, except for the reserved, professional critique of Branden’s inability to bridge the gap between exploratory research and clinical practice.

Cautious neither to condemn nor celebrate Branden’s more peculiar methods, such as hypnosis or “energy therapy,” Campbell suggests that Branden’s career coincided with the rise in the prestige of clinical psychology. This temporal correspondence, however, did nothing to elevate Branden’s profile within the profession. In fact, Branden was, in Campbell’s words, merely “an occasional consumer” of psychological research who was accused of “pop psychology.” As Campbell does little to recover Branden’s reputation in this regard, or to mount a storied defense on his behalf, one wonders, only one essay into this section, whether Branden the practitioner should be written off as unserious or amateurish. Campbell tempers his vague criticisms with admiring praise and the attribution of his entire career to Branden’s influence. But the point of his essay is to portray Branden as an engaging and enthusiastic expositor of Rand’s ideas, not to evaluate Branden’s contributions to clinical psychology on their substantive merit.

Walter Foddis, a doctoral student in clinical psychology whose essay possesses the tone and style more typical of scientific writing, suggests that Branden’s work never gained academic recognition because he addressed a popular rather than a scholarly audience.  Foddis might have published his piece in a journal of clinical psychology because it is primarily about scholarly views of self-esteem with concluding remarks about the practical application of his argument in light of cognitive-behavioral theory. He reviews the relevant literature on self-esteem and traces its various treatments by researchers over time.

Branden is thus a mere stepping stone for Foddis to present his own model of self-esteem—in addition to a “qualitative and quantitative instrument” called the “Self-Esteem Sentence Completion Instrument” that can be employed in experimental studies with human subjects—which readers outside the field will be unequipped to measure and assess with proficiency or competence.

Foddis doesn’t tell us why Branden remains important to clinical psychology so much as he shows us through the working out of his own unique arguments and findings in which Branden plays a key role. Saying Branden is important to the field is not as convincing as demonstrating his importance by incorporating his ideas and research into novel studies and ongoing conversations. Of the contributions to this section, then, Foddis’s does the most to recover Branden’s professional reputation even though—or rather because—Branden is not the central figure. Perhaps inadvertently, Foddis, with his references to a pragmatist, William James, as a recognized authority, coupled with his passing mentions of “human fallibility and limitations,” reveals how much distance there is between scholarly consensus in the field of clinical psychology and the more abstract, less practical theories of Objectivism associated with Rand, who despised pragmatists and systems of thought premised on the putative restrictions and limitations of human intelligence.

Teresa I. Morales Gerbaud summarizes Branden’s theories rather than applying them as Foddis does. “Branden’s body of work on human psychology,” she pronounces, “exhibits a remarkably consistent thread of logical reasoning that shapes and defines critical ideas, including notions of the key role of self-esteem in human behavior.” She calls Branden’s work “pioneering,” “critical and compelling,” and “novel.” She praises his “visionary intellect,” “the authenticity of his method,” the “salience and importance” of his ideas, “the depth of [his] thoughtful words,” and his “carefully thought-out example” of the integration of conscious and unconscious modes of knowing. And she refers to the “deep gratitude for the joy and inspiration that his work has brought to my life.” These laudatory lines, even when accompanied by the contextualization of Branden’s ideas alongside those of other experts, do not prove Branden’s significance to his field. What they prove is that Gerbaud really likes Branden.

Whereas Foddis uses Branden’s work for practical and theoretical ends—as building blocks for original research—Gerbaud merely celebrates Branden, compliments his methods, and asserts his significance. Ironically, insisting on his greatness and importance without demonstrating the practical or theoretical value of his ideas may actually undermine Branden’s reputation. At a minimum, it makes him susceptible to accusations of the kind he leveled against Rand: that his popularity has more to do with the cult of personality and adoring loyalty than it does with the operative quality of his concepts.

Andrew Schwartz does more than Gerbaud to situate Branden’s innovations in their historical context. The most important of these were, he submits, Branden’s “theory of self-esteem” and “his clinical method of sentence completion”—elements of his work that receive regular and sustained treatment throughout this collection and that, according to Schwartz, were prefigured by the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler. This chapter may lend credibility to Branden’s accomplishments, but the inexpert reader is unable to reach that conclusion with clarity or conviction.

Joel F. Wade’s descriptive essay functions as a “bookend” for this final section, corresponding as it does with Campbell’s opening essay in its approbatory approach and character. Like Campbell, Wade shares personal accounts of time spent with Branden and pays close attention to Devers Branden as well, who surely deserves the attention. Like Gerbaud, Wade has little negative to say about his friend and sometime collaborator. He privileges personality and anecdote over scientific validation of Branden’s working theories and clinical applications. Not that negativity is required, but critical distance and tempered critique add the kind of credibility that makes flattery appear well-earned.

It’s evident from a dispassionate reading that this section, however affectionate and endearing, will not establish or renew scientific interest in Branden among clinical psychologists. Its contents could have fallen in the earlier sections, or the second and third sections could have been collapsed into one, but in either case Foddis’s essay, a work of scholarship, would have seemed out of place.

The contributors to the third section represent a network of friends and associates, not a disinterested community of impartial researchers jealously guarding high academic standards and ensuring strict quality controls. They give Branden a pass. Those outside the field may appreciate the admiration of trained professionals who knew or followed Branden.  Yet even non-experts will recognize that clinical psychology as we know it will be virtually unchanged or unaffected by these eulogistic essays, which are worthwhile not because of what they reveal about clinical psychology, but because of what they reveal about Branden the man.

The soaring tone struck by most of the contributors to the final section would have been more fitting for the epilogue, although one doubts they would have matched the flair and sensitivity that characterizes the essay of Stephen D. Cox, a literary critic and English professor at the University of California in San Diego. Cox’s touching epilogue is principally about Branden’s literary labors and talents. He claims that he saw Branden “in a way in which, perhaps, nobody else saw him—chiefly as a craftsman, busy in a literary workshop.” It’s from this unique vantage that Cox shares his learned opinions. “Our relationship was almost entirely literary,” he muses, “almost entirely concerned with what is ‘beautiful’ in writing.”

The two men had their differences—one was a Christian, for instance, and the other an atheist—but they cultivated a relationship based on shared interests and a mutual love for the written word. They started off as pen pals—Branden having initiated the first contact—and quickly became members of a discussion group at Branden’s home. Then they met regularly, one-on-one, over lunch or dinner and talked about literature—everything from the structural composition of novels (Branden had been working on one) to diction and syntax and the romantic love triangle between three of Branden’s fictional characters. “I didn’t feel it was my role to question Nathaniel about the psychological motivation of his works,” Cox explains of this love triangle, which loosely resembles the complex relationship between Branden, Rand, and O’Connor. Voyeuristic types will, I’m confident, wish he had questioned Branden to elicit salacious details.  

While several characters in Branden’s novel appeared, to Cox, “to represent different aspects of Nathaniel himself,” Cox didn’t see autobiography. Rather, the novel was, in his view, about “the mistakes, and the maturity, that can come with age,” as well as the need “to discover one’s course in life, even after one experiences great intellectual, material, and social success.” Eventually conversations about this novel turned into scrutiny of a draft play involving the same plot and theme; it turns out Branden was something of a dramatist in the vein of Henrik Ibsen. In fact, Rand had once gifted him thirteen volumes of Ibsen’s plays, which Branden later gifted to Cox.  “I’m looking at them now—a princely gift,” Cox remarks of these keepsakes, and you can imagine him sitting by his computer gazing wistfully at his bookshelf.

The Branden of Cox’s rumination is witty, charming, considerate, and friendly. When Cox says that “I never saw Branden try to impress anyone,” he implies that Branden was impressive in spite of himself. In the end, perhaps the most profound and lasting compliment that could be paid Branden comes in one simple line: “He was a fine literary companion.”

No appraisal of this collection could go without mentioning the excellent work of the editors, Campbell and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Along with Cox, Bissell, and Roderick T. Long, they have put together, at the end of the collection, what appears to be an exhaustive annotative bibliography of references to Branden to date. I’m not aware of any works about Branden that don’t appear on this list.  

Although I discussed Campbell in the context of his essay contribution, I saved my praise for his and Sciabarra’s editorial efforts for the end of this review—not just because I have so far focused chiefly on the content of the essays (and hence, in large part, on the authors of those essays), but also because I wanted commendation of the editors to remain fresh on readers’ minds by placing it at the end.

Editors receive too little acclaim for their grinding and painstaking intellectual exertions, from proofreading and organizing to sourcing and advising. Editing can be a thankless, time-consuming struggle with little monetary benefit or professional recognition. Campbell and Sciabbarra should be celebrated and congratulated for their significant, impressive work. They have accomplished what they set out to do: inaugurate a “critical reassessment” of Branden by providing his theories about Objectivism and his “eclectic clinical approach” with a wider audience. They demonstrate that Branden is an important figure in his own right, a man worthy of sustained attention and scholarly exploration.

If this collection inspires future studies of Branden, then Campbell’s and Sciabarra’s quiet industry will have paid off. And they will have enabled future knowledge about Objectivism—its principles, founders, and controversies—to multiply. The roots of such education may be bitter, but the fruit will, indeed, be sweet.

Part Two: Review of Nathaniel Branden Issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is the reproduction of portions of a series of pieces originally published at Atlas Society’s website.  The original series of posts is available here, here, here, and here.

The inclusion of Branden’s lecture and question-answer session in this collection gives him a voice in his own commemoration.  Published here for the first time, and transcribed by Roger Bissell, the lecture was given to the California Institute for Applied Objectivism in 1996. Its tenor can be gleaned from the opening paragraph in which Branden compliments his audience for being “dedicated to the broad philosophical ideas of Objectivism, but not in a religiously constricted and independent-thinking-discouraging way.”

Here Branden echoes his implicit criticism of the ARI camp. Debates between the Branden-ARI factions go beyond the personal disagreements between Branden and Rand to a broader philosophical question: is it better, at the outset of an intellectual movement, to insist upon the purity of a set of ideas at the expense of its slower adoption or to engage in an open dialogue that allows for give-and-take?

This is not a subject that can be answered by labeling either side as “religionists” or “compromisers.” It’s a unique problem elevated to historical significance by the profundity and uniqueness of Objectivism. If Objectivism is the most exceptional philosophy to emerge in over two thousand years and one believes, as Objectivists do, that philosophy is the motive force of history, then the answer could reasonably impact the course of civilization itself. The stakes, in other words, are high for those involved.

The question-answer session thus raises an issue of great magnitude in the Rand-Branden divide: How should Objectivists relate to libertarians? The underlying debate is that, on one side, Rand and ARI reject the label “libertarian” or affiliations with libertarian groups (exceptions such as the Foundation for Economic Education and the Cato Institute exist) because they claim that self-identifying libertarians often embrace a sort of “libertarianism by any means,” foregoing philosophical foundations.

Rand and ARI have argued that because philosophy guides human thinking in all areas of life and constitutes a fundamental, salient force, it is unacceptable to categorize their beliefs under a name that permits just any possible philosophical argument for a political conclusion. Objectivism is not primarily an economic or political calculus but a philosophical system whereby the means by which one arrives at conclusions matters. Branden and others critical of Rand have argued that accepting the libertarian label is unobjectionable and better promotes the popularizing and engagement that Branden values. Disciples of Rand disagree to varying degrees.

Branden speaks about himself in the third person (“you had to know Nathaniel Branden or Barbara Branden, and you had to impress them sufficiently to get an introduction to Ayn Rand”) and with superlatives of the sort employed by the sitting President of the United States (“the wonderfully exciting opportunity to read,” “a very special world, which is very close to being incommunicable,” “it was a very intoxicatingly pleasant and enjoyable way to process experience,” “we are somehow participating in this marvelous, exciting and inspiring reality,” etc.).  

His accounts are fascinating; whether they’re entirely true is another matter. His portrayal of a dinner with Rand and O’Connor during which he articulated anxiety about the publication of Atlas Shrugged is telling, as is Leonard Peikoff’s announcement, on a separate occasion, that, as Branden puts it, “in six months of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, we’ll be living in an Objectivist society.” “Now,” says Branden of Peikoff’s comment, “we knew that this was excessive, and this couldn’t be true. . . . But what it also reflects is something of the highly excited, intoxicating mental state of the period.”

Stories like this help those of us who were not alive at the time develop a fuller sense of what these individuals were like. Branden and Rand and their followers set out to form an exclusive community and were often impatient with outsiders who didn’t understand their positions, or so Branden claims. He regrets that their tactic was first to insist on conformity before initiating dialogue with outsiders, rather than initiating dialogue with outsiders to recruit new adherents. “[I]t was very, very tempting to retreat into self-righteousness,” he reflects about his encounters with those who were not yet initiated into his manner of thinking. He also depicts the group—The Collective—as elevating Rand the person over her principles: “In those days, it was made abundantly clear to us that fighting for Objectivism meant fighting for Ayn Rand. Loyalty to Ayn Rand was an issue of the highest possible value in the hierarchy.”

Therein lies much of the controversy surrounding Branden and his legacy. These “fighting words” give the strong sense that battling for Objectivism meant battling for Rand. Those of us who were not present for the conversations, meetings, debates, and interactions of that time cannot speak to the extent to which this is true. However, the accusation seems at odds with Rand’s explicit statements enjoining those who studied her philosophy that thinking for themselves and making their own evaluations of every idea were the only rational means of ascertaining truth. She rejected arguments from authority, even or especially when she was the authority in question. Whether that was conveyed in her personal relationships, though, we cannot know. It is imaginable that someone with such a forceful personality, so certain in her beliefs and ideas, would be difficult to oppose and that the environment of The Collective may have made any but the most resilient participant demure in her presence.

Branden’s stories about Rand are almost invariably unflattering, which is understandable in the context of their personal conflict, but perhaps unproductive in maintaining his broader position of extolling her philosophy and even, in large part, her character. He argues for understanding her as “conflicted” and complex rather than saintly, but he hardly counterbalances his negative portrayals with anything positive. She is, in his renderings, almost universally cranky, rude, aggressive, and bitter—a figure who seems to have gained a following for her ideas despite her horrid persona.  

Moreover, he sometimes assumes a condescending tone towards those associated with her. He represents Peikoff and George Reisman, for instance, as being inextricably caught up in her world, coloring Peikoff as an emotional dependent and Reisman as a social hostage. In all cases, however, Branden remains the sound-minded individual who, if a bit naïve in his youth, learned the error of the Randian ways and parted with her. This attitude dismisses some independent and analytical minds as fragile or conformist. One could argue that Branden’s characterizations of events weren’t wrong—again, we weren’t there and so don’t know for sure—but they also gloss over the fact that now, as older men of prominence, Peikoff and Reisman stand by her legacy and take her side in the split.

It’s clear that Branden detested what he portrays as a culture of loyalty that did not admit of dissent or disagreement and that, in his depiction at least, was unwilling to improve upon or revise Rand’s ideas, which some of her associates, again in his view, assumed to be without flaws. Branden locates the origin of this allegedly rigid groupthink in Rand’s early years. Defenders of Rand will disapprove of Branden’s characterization of this period as “the very dark side of the early years,” just as they may wince to hear Branden describe how her closest associates refused or hesitated to acknowledge their errors or ignorance about certain matters, as though they needed always to pretend to possess perfect knowledge. Although Branden criticized what he dubbed “Orthodox Objectivism,” of which he remained critical until the end, he was equally clear that he wished Objectivism to continue spreading, and he offered pointed suggestions about how to accomplish that, namely by gaining credibility and acceptance within the academy and finding publishers within mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

As much as I have hoped to avoid engaging the Rand-Branden split, it is a major part of Branden’s speech and the question-answer session deals with it. Given that Branden delivered the talk in 1996 and that, as he notes, he rarely spoke on Objectivism by then, one could take his comments as at least somewhat representative of his hierarchy of concerns on the subject. The talk and question-answer session reveal that his fallout with Rand remained a considerable part of his legacy and that he felt the need to defend himself by attacking Rand. That would explain why his answers can, at times, seem unfair to Rand. For example, asked why Rand supported Richard Nixon over George McGovern—rather than the Libertarian Party candidate John Hospers—Branden stated that she should’ve supported Hospers, that she was “uninformed” about libertarianism and political issues, and that she associated libertarianism with anarchism, which she despised. In truth, Rand had contempt for Nixon and a well-reasoned argument against Hospers, even citing his campaign views and the Libertarian Party’s platform. If I know this, then Branden certainly should, so his comment reads as if he’s giving her as little credit as possible and characterizing her as an angry zealot.

Whatever one thinks of Branden, there’s merit and perhaps a degree of honor in his hope that “there is a tremendous area of work that needs to be done, that will be done, … that is nowhere to be found in the Objectivist literature.” His disagreements with other Objectivists did not lead him to give up on Objectivism or abandon its central tenets. He remained ever devoted to this philosophy even if his commitments to knowledge and learning lost him friendships and widened the gulf between his ideas and those of other followers of Rand. It is worth asking whether Branden, despite his implicit discounting of the early years as too preoccupied with “fighting for Ayn Rand,” did not spend much of his remaining years fighting against Rand. Did his autobiographical writings and the writings of Barbara Branden on their relationships with Rand take up too much of his post-Rand career as a psychologist and philosophical thinker?



Part One: Review of Nathaniel Branden Issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 21, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is the reproduction of portions of a series of pieces originally published at Atlas Society’s website.  The original series of posts is available here, here, here, and here.

The idea for a symposium on the life and thought of Nathaniel Branden came in 2012, two years before Branden’s death. Branden himself knew about and approved of the symposium but never saw it completed before he passed away.

The editorial board of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies conceived of this symposium as a wide-ranging, probing treatment of Branden’s vast and complex career, not just of his years with Ayn Rand. The response from potential contributors exceeded their expectations; they were inundated with submissions. What was supposed to be one volume became two. The once-slender manuscript grew to over 300 pages bearing the title “Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy.”  This is the first such work of its kind to assess Branden as a central figure in both philosophy and applied psychology in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Although the contributors to this collection come from various disciplines and represent different, sometimes incompatible positions, the editors received no contributions from the more “fundamentalist” Objectivists, and none from scholars associated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). The editors emphasize this fact in their prologue not to display resentment or animus, it seems, but as a sort of disclaimer—and explanation for the largely positive  tone that characterizes much of the content here.

I have striven for impartiality regarding the Branden-Rand split and have, I think, made a good-faith effort to maintain the critical detachment necessary to write searchingly and decisively about this collection without sacrificing scholarly rigor or causing needless offense to students of Branden or Rand.

Section I

Section I of the collection is devoted to the so-called “Rand Years” of Branden’s career. It contains essays by Duncan Scott and Susan Love Brown and the reproduction of a lecture and question-answer session by Branden himself.

Scott, a filmmaker, tells the “truly epic story” of the improbable rise of the Objectivist movement that is attributable in part to Branden’s efforts. Scott met Branden but did not know him well. Filming Branden in 2003 for the Objectivist History Project, however, led him to realize Branden’s seminal role in the proliferation of Objectivism.

Scott credits Branden with popularizing Rand’s work and institutionalizing her lecture series. “The creation of a philosophy and the creation of a philosophical movement,” he says, “are not one and the same.” Undoubtedly Rand achieved the former on her own, but Branden is largely responsible for the latter, having responded to Rand’s fan mail, planned her events, established a newsletter in her honor, and spread her message across the globe to eager students and curious minds. These labors not only increased Rand’s following, but also lifted her spirits. Discouraged by negative reviews of her work, she began, with Branden’s help, to realize the extent of the impact her novels were having.

Branden popularized Rand as a writer of nonfiction and encouraged her to write about “racism as biological collectivism, totally incompatible with individualist philosophy”—a position that drew needed attention during the height of the Civil Rights Era. Scott succeeds in showing that Branden’s singular devotion to Rand during this period made him something of a publicist for, not just a disciple of, her work. He created vehicles for driving her ideas to vast audiences and made possible the formation of groups devoted to her philosophy. Without him, Rand may not have become the towering figure she is today.

Because it is so titillating and provocative, Brown’s piece on Branden’s sexuality is the most memorable part of the opening section of“Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy,” recently published by The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Even its title—“Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex”—invites controversy. Although Branden was a psychologist, or perhaps because he was one, Brown’s invocation of Freud seems both fitting and surprising. Freud, like Branden and Rand, was educated in philosophy. But Freud’s oedipal theories remain divisive and contested, not to mention opposed by both Branden and Rand. At least since Richard Webster’s publication of Why Freud Was Wrong in 1995, and probably much earlier, consensus among psychologists has held that Freud’s theories, many of them anyway, have been discredited. Yet Brown gives them full and unequivocal expression in her treatment of Branden.

Having left behind the phallic stage, transfixed by an unconscious castration anxiety, aroused by his loving mother and threatened by her loyal closeness to his father, the sexualized developing male child, in Freud’s paradigm, represses his feelings towards his mother or transfers them onto another female, one who is more appropriate for pursuit. When he reaches puberty, his excited feelings for his mother are reanimated; if left unresolved, they can cause eventual adult neurosis, the fading memory of the unattainable, ideal young mother serving as the inescapable fixation that blurs perceptions of reality. The thematic suggestions of this Freudian scheme characterize Brown’s curious approach to Branden.    

That Branden would describe his mother affectionately in his memoir should come as no surprise. Absent any evidence of abuse or neglect, most adult males probably have articulated love for, and devotion to, their mothers. Whether these feelings amount to oedipal sexual attraction in the Freudian sense is open to debate. Branden was a psychologist and so wrote with a vocabulary specific to his discipline. “One consequence of my repression,” he said, “was that sometimes I failed to see that girls I liked returned my feelings.” Brown picks up on the word “repression,” hypothesizing about Branden’s “unresolved feelings about his mother” that implicated “his feelings toward his father.” Either Brown is on to something, or she overreads and overstates what was merely the retelling of an ordinary adolescent incident with no symbolic significance. The value of Brown’s analysis on this score is only as valuable as Freud’s theories are credible.  

Branden moved out of his parents’ house when he graduated high school, as is customary for young adults of that age. Brown sees in this natural transition the carnal workings of an oedipal force that explains, in part, his budding relationship with Barbara Weidman, who became his first wife. Brown claims that, through Barbara, Branden “insinuat[ed] himself into a surrogate family and, out of that, tr[ied] to construct an ideal family within which he could at last resolve his Oedipal complex.” It so happened that Branden read The Fountainhead during this time of alleged psycho-sexual fantasy and stimulation, and Brown attributes his interest in the novel, not to his own agency, will, intelligence, or curiosity, but to instinctual sexual fixations that were mostly out of his control and subject to random events and chance relationships, such as the one with Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Brown’s theorizing about Branden’s “genital stage” (a Freudian term she avoids) raises compelling questions: were Rand and O’Connor—who were around the age of Branden’s parents—surrogates for Branden’s natal family on whom he could project his sexual energies? Did Branden’s relationship with Barbara reenact the power plays between his own father and mother? Did Branden attempt to push away O’Connor as a male child in the phallic stage struggles through his rivalry with his father? Was Rand’s dedication of Atlas Shrugged to both Branden and O’Connor a signal that Branden had achieved sexual equality with Rand while supplanting O’Connor as Rand’s romantic interest?  

Brown suggests that, through his affair with Rand, “Branden had effectively slept with his ‘mother’ and vanquished his ‘father.’” These and other stimulating conclusions demonstrate how Brown provides a unique and intriguing perspective even if her psychological hypotheses are ultimately untestable and thus unprovable. Rand’s admirers may take issue with Brown’s portrayal of Rand as increasingly needy and dependent on Branden’s affections as he grew apart from her. They may not like the effort to superimpose Freudian paradigms on complicated human experiences from long ago. But they cannot deny the magnetism of Brown’s analysis.

The Unmeaning of Uneaning

In Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Books, Humanities, Science, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 19, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Chronicles. 

A computer was the victor on a popular television game show, easily defeating its human competitors; an arms race is under way involving militarized robots that can take the battlefield in the place of inferior humans; in Japan, artificial-intelligence software has outperformed college applicants on a standardized college-entrance examination.

Our machines are becoming a part of us, one of us.  Manufactured retinas have restored sight to the blind; the maimed and the crippled have regained their limbs and appendages in the form of robotic prosthetics; brain implants have alleviated problems associated with Parkinson’s disease; a company called EmoShape manufactures robots that display human emotions, including anger and fear and sadness.

But where there is human flesh, even a simulacrum of human flesh, there is the potential for eros.  The 2013 film Her explored the possibility that humans will attempt romantic congress with computer operating systems, reducing love to an algorithm and human sex acts to masturbatory exchanges with disembodied, computerized voices.

We have created our own reproductive anatomy—lab-engineered penises and vaginas—that soon will be tested on men and women with congenital defects.  Men may now visit virtual-reality brothels.  A baby recently was born out of a transplanted womb.

We are building more robots and killing more human fetuses than ever before.  Luminaries like Stephen Hawking warn of the dangers of artificial intelligence; futurists, on the other hand, celebrate the rise of cyborgs and the arrival of transhumanism and even posthumanism.  Synthetic biologists are learning, they claim, to direct natural selection through gene therapy and cell manipulation.  Silicon Valley’s brightest have announced that they are seeking “cures” for human aging.

In light of all this, the question of the meaning of human existence seems more urgent than ever before.

Edward O. Wilson purports to answer this question in The Meaning of Human Existence, his 30th book.  Wilson is one of the world’s most renowned scientists.  He is by all accounts a gentleman who enunciates his words in a soft, Southern drawl.  Raised in Alabama, blind in one eye, he developed a boyhood fascination with insects that eventually led him to Harvard, where he took his Ph.D. in biology.  He earned his reputation by studying ants and by writing popular books that are accessible to laymen.  On Human Nature, his fourth book, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1979.  He has, despite his atheism, drawn praise from conservative intellectuals.  In 1989, for instance, The Rockford Institute, which publishes this magazine, gave him the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters.

As titles go, Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is bold if not presumptuous.  Works that set out to establish definitively the “meaning” of human life promise more than they can deliver.  First, there is the problem of meaning itself.  Thus, Wilson begins with a short chapter titled “The Meaning of Meaning,” which, not surprisingly, raises more questions than it answers.  The meaning of meaning, according to Wilson, resides in the blurry overlap between two worldviews: the theological and religious worldview that locates meaning in the design and intention of an omnipotent creator, and the scientific worldview that locates meaning in the random accidents of history and in the nondesigned, adaptive, spontaneously ordered laws of nature.  These worldviews are tenuously linked, Wilson suggests, in their treatment of human free will and intentionality.

Wilson claims, for example, that intelligent organisms evolve associatively to combine their intents and purposes for their mutual benefit; their behavior grows more alike over time as together they respond to environmental imperatives and learn to commiserate and to cooperate as a social unit.  What was once merely the mechanical firing of brain activity in individual persons has become a behavioral trait among groups of humans.  Wilson provides an arthropodic example:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly.  That is the meaning of the web.  The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web.  Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense.  But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Meaning itself is not identified in this illustration: Wilson does not tell us what it is, only where we might find it.  It’s up to us to do the searching.

Despite his prefatory lip service to theology and religion, Wilson adopts a materialist worldview, which seems, the more he describes it, less and less compatible with the theological and religious worldview, until at last there is no overlap at all.  Wilson tells us that there “is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life.  Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance.”  He assures us that the “eternal conflict” between groups of people “is not God’s test of humanity” or “a machination of Satan.”  “It is,” he says, “just the way things worked out.”

Wilson is convinced that humans are for the first time in their history (“not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia”) leaving behind the process that, he claims, produced us—namely, natural selection—and entering into a new age of choice in which we have available to us a genetic “shopping list” to “direct our own evolution.”  He proposes that we understand our biological and evolutionary past in order wisely to shape our future.

One would think that a grounding in history or tradition would aid in satisfying this ambition, but Wilson makes clear that he is rejecting this kind of history and promoting a secular and scientific history that is not only stripped of providence, angelic intercession, heavenly statutes, and divine intervention but also antecedent to all written records.  “Humanity,” he avers to this end,

arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution.  We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own.  Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

Tellingly, Wilson does not define what it means to “save” or what we need to be saved by or from if there is no God, Hell, sin, Satan, or transcendental moral order to the universe.  He is apparently content in his belief that “[t]here will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above.”  “We have,” he adds, “only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.”

To seek answers to the meaning of human existence from this secular perspective in which man isn’t begotten by Adam but descended from Homo habilis and improved from organism to super organism, Wilson could have turned to the ideas of Emerson or Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell or Einstein or Ayn Rand, philosophers enthralled by the awesome powers of the human mind and dismissive of the doctrinal claims of religion in general and of traditional Christianity in particular—but he doesn’t.  Nor, thank goodness, does he turn to the close-minded, militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins (who is mentioned in the book) and Sam Harris.  He instead turns to “the biological evolution of a species and the circumstances that led to its prehistory,” professing that both our altruism and our instinctive, selfish urge to cooperate are explainable by science, which, therefore, is necessarily antecedent to, although participatory with, the humanities.  Wilson’s problem with the humanities seems to be that they retain the residue of theology, which was once the queen of the liberal arts.

Because in Wilson’s view human creativity and collaboration are the inevitable products of the impersonal forces of raw nature, he considers the “task of understanding humanity” to be “too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities.”  He maintains that “the humanities have not achieved nor will they ever achieve a full understanding of the meaning of our species’ existence” if they do not account for the “biological origins of human nature.”  He reasons that, since human nature has biological origins, and since creativity arises through competition and natural selection, we ought to embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment in which the humanities and the sciences were unified enterprises rather than distinct fields of operation.

Wilson blames Romanticism for the divorce of the humanities from science; rather than irreconcilable differences, he sees in this former marriage a powerful synergy that has since grown weak as experts in their respective fields have become hyperspecialized, the division of their labor increasingly alienated from the Big Picture.  The fact of the matter, he submits, is that the “explosive growth of scientific knowledge” has “everything” to do with the humanities, because “[s]cience and technology reveal with increasing precision the place of humanity, here on Earth and beyond in the cosmos as a whole.”

The meaning of human existence according to Wilson is found not in what we have created but in what has created us: a self-perpetuating, unthinking process of biological production shaped by genetic variety and the instinct for survival, not by a benevolent Creator.  The dust jacket informs us that this is Wilson’s “most philosophical work to date.”  But what we have here is a meandering series of essays that display with exceptional style an accretive learning arrayed from scientific theory.  And we also have a man, however gentle and unassuming, making grandiose claims based on mere supposition—not a call to arms but a triumphalist celebration that the war is already over.  Science has won; religion has lost.  Any seeming contradiction between religion and science must, he insists, be resolved in favor of the latter; any potential overlap between the two fields must, he reiterates, be dismissed.  He thinks that religion hinders knowledge, holds us back, and distracts us from real truths by enslaving us to fancy and superstition.  And he’s wrong.

His secular perspective isn’t unique, and it isn’t philosophical, either—at least not without some analytical backing or historical context.  Wilson supplies neither; he submits as fact what is open to interpretation.  When Wilson informs us that there is no God, as if that “reality” were as established as the laws of gravity, he undermines his credibility and throws philosophy out the window.  No need for proofs, second guesses, theological nuances, or even doubt.  His scientific faith in the unprovable—although politely conveyed—is on equal footing with religious faith in the unprovable.  Wilson doesn’t reject faith; he embraces it.  His faith is evident in his speculations that are unsupported by hard data—for example, that “[b]eyond the solar system there is life of some kind” (he admits that he lacks “[d]irect evidence” for this proposition but suggests that the evidence “may come soon, perhaps within a decade or two”), or that “life may have originated somewhere with molecular elements different from those in DNA and energy sources used by organisms on Earth.”  These claims aren’t provable, yet he believes them.  This is faith in the most rudimentary sense.

One would think Wilson would be more cautious after relying for so many years on “kin selection and its extensive inclusive fitness,” only to learn that “inclusive fitness was not just wrong, but fundamentally wrong.”  Wilson nevertheless evinces not even a modicum of doubt regarding the possibility of a Creator.  He seems blithely unconcerned that, having been wrong about one major premise, he might be wrong about another.  What standing should we assign to someone who faces Pascal’s wager and refuses even to hedge a bet in his own favor?  He is either heroically bold or foolishly proud.

His faith is more rudimentary than that he decries in theism, which recognizes an infinite, sovereign God, eternal and unchanging, Who permeates and controls everything and from Whom all material substance derives.  Wilson’s faith comes across as plain hope about what we’ll learn if the sciences can accomplish this or that.  His diversionary hypothetical speculations about extraterrestrial visitors and about how the humanities (to him, “the natural history of culture”) rather than the sciences would help us explain ourselves to these saucer-flying aliens might seem as radical or absurd to Christians as the doctrine of the Trinity or the nature of the Holy Spirit might seem to an atheist like him.  When Wilson states that the “interval between habitable and inhabited may seem like an eternity to the human mind, but it is scarcely a night and a day in the nearly 14-billion-year history of the Milky Way galaxy as a whole,” he doesn’t seem to realize there’s a scriptural equivalent to this dictum: that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Wilson’s hope about the knowledge-creating possibilities enabled by science sometimes collapses into optimistic but unprovable conclusions about what is real or actual; the distinction between what might be known and what is known remains, too often in his book, fuzzy.  He asserts without qualification that,

[i]n time, likely no more than several decades, we will be able to explain the dark matter of the Universe, the origin of life on Earth, and the physical basis of human consciousness during changes of mood and thought.  The invisible is seen, the vanishingly small weighed.

This is pep-rally speak for scientists, and one has to admit, whether he is an atheist or a theist, that such talk is exhilarating.  Who doesn’t want more answers to these vexing elements of our phenomenal existence?  But when the stakes are so high, and the need for resolution and purpose so urgent, should we believe without hesitation a scientist who refuses to doubt his own suppositions, who goes far beyond rejecting the Genesis account of Creation to deny the possibility of any sort of creator altogether?

By the end of Wilson’s argument, readers are left wondering what, exactly, the title of his book refers to.  Wilson can teach us interesting facts—that some ant species enslave other ant species, for instance, or that the warrior ants are really a bunch of old ladies—but he can’t tell us the meaning of human existence because, in his paradigm, there can’t be any beyond the mechanical, chance desire to be altruistic in order to preserve and protect our “nests.”  Therefore, he reduces the meaning of human existence to this:

[I]t is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.

Our meaning, then, is a sequence of biological accidents aided or offset by our own deliberate choices—and nothing else, nothing at all, according to Wilson.

The mark of a good scientist is curiosity and imagination; when those cease, so do reliable answers to tough questions.  Wilson foregoes any discussion of aseity and fails or refuses to account for how the cosmos could arise out of nothing.  Certainly, there’s the Big Bang, but what caused that?  And what caused the things that caused that?  And why couldn’t there be a God Who created us to evolve?  The fact that this is but a short book is no excuse: If you’re predicating the meaning of human existence on the nonexistence of God, you must at least address or acknowledge the weaknesses of your argument.

Wilson wants to explicate the complex niceties of biology and then, having gained our attention, demands that we take him at his word that God is irrelevant to the meaning of our astounding, sometimes joyous, sometimes agonizing, and always confusing presence on this one small planet in this apparently enormous cosmos.  Follow him at your own risk.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Daniel J. Kornstein

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Communication, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Rhetoric & Communication, Shakespeare, Writing on June 4, 2014 at 8:45 am
Dan Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein is a senior partner at the law firm of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, in New York City.  He earned his law degree from Yale Law School in 1973 and has served as the president of the Law and Humanities Institute.  He has authored several books including Loose Sallies, Something Else: More Shakespeare and the Law, Unlikely Muse, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, Thinking under Fire, and The Music of the Laws.  His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Boston Globe.  In 2002, Dan received the Prix du Palais Littéraire from the Law and Literature Society of France.  In 2013, King Michael of Romania awarded him the Order of the Crown of Romania.

AM: Thanks for taking the time to discuss your new book with me, Dan. The name of the book is Loose Sallies, and as you state in your introduction, it’s not about fast women named Sally. For those who haven’t read the introduction or purchased the book yet, could you begin by discussing the book generally and say something in particular about your chosen genre: the essay.

Loose SalliesDJK: Thank you, Allen, for this opportunity. Those of us who occasionally write are, as you know from your own experience, always delighted to have a chance to explain a bit about how and why we scribble. Loose Sallies is a collection of essays written over the past 25 years mostly about topics of general interest. The first 75 pages is about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and why that remarkable process and its end result are still so important to us today. The rest of the book ranges over a wide variety of topics, from our precious civil liberties to profiles of some famous judges and lawyers to current controversies. It should, I hope, appeal to everyone.

AM: Phillip Lopate has said that the essay is a “diverting” type of literature and that its hallmark is intimacy. You call the essay “intimate, informal and reflective, as if you are sitting at home in your living room or dining room and having a pleasant, sometimes provocative, sometimes stimulating, but always, one hopes, insightful and enlightening conversation.” I agree. The essay is my favorite genre because it’s the genre of the person. You can’t know a person until you’ve met the persona he creates in his essays—and if you don’t write essays, you may not know yourself. Who are your favorite essayists, and what is it about their essays that you find compelling?

DJK: My favorite essayists are the obvious ones: Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Addison & Steele, Hazlitt, Lamb, Orwell, Mencken, Macaulay, Emerson, V.S. Pitchett, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, George Will, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Joseph Wood Krutch. My favorite living essayists are Lopate and Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar magazine. All these writers make their essays compelling by their clarity of thought and uniqueness of expression and their ability to communicate original, stimulating ideas, making us see familiar things in a new light. Epstein, for example, can write on literary personalities as well as personal topics we all think we know about but do not really. Everyone in my pantheon of great essayists is a superb writer with a distinctive and memorable style.

AM: I recently interviewed James Elkins, a law professor at West Virginia University, here on this site, and he talked about lawyer poets and said that “our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law.” You have something to say about this seeming double life. “Writing,” you say, is “part of my double life. I have a life other than the lawyer’s life I lead on the surface. The two sides—law and writing—reinforce and complement each other.” I’ve heard the phrase “the two worlds” problem used to describe the lawyer who is also a writer. But this doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, does it?

DJK: A lawyer IS a writer. Writing is most of what a lawyer does. To be a good lawyer, one needs to be a good writer. Verbal facility, sensibility to language, and lucid thinking are prerequisites for both. A legal brief and a piece of expository writing have much in common. Both have a point to make to persuade the reader. Both rely on effectively marshaling evidence to demonstrate the correctness of a particular perspective. The topics may differ, but the skill and technique are similar. The problem facing the lawyer-writer is more one of time and energy and desire than anything else. Law is a demanding profession, which means taking time off to do anything else cuts into one’s otherwise free moments. But if you want to write, you make the time.

AM: I’m curious, when did your love of literature begin? Did you have an “aha!” moment, or did the love evolve over time?

DJK: I cannot recall ever not loving literature. My paternal grandfather was a printer at Scribner’s and when I was a little boy he gave me four books by Robert Louis Stevenson that my grandfather had himself set in type in 1907. I gave Treasure Island to my son and Kidnapped to my daughter, and still have the other precious two volumes on my shelves.

I remember my father taking me as a youngster to the Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street to get my first library card. In those days, the main building had a circulation department, and my father’s choice for my first library book was, of course, Tom Sawyer, a good choice for a ten-year old boy.

I remember as a teenager reading as much as I could in addition to books assigned in school. There were nights spent, in classic fashion, with a flashlight under the covers after bed time.

Inspiring teachers helped too.

AM: You’ve written a lot on Shakespeare. How did your fascination with him come about?

DJK: Like most people, I first met Shakespeare in high school English classes. Luckily for me, around the same time New York had a summer program of free Shakespeare in Central Park, which continues to this day. Starting in the summer of my junior year in high school — 1963 — I began to see two of Shakespeare’s plays every summer. It was at one of those performances — Measure for Measure in 1985 — that the passion grabbed me. I was 37 years old and had been practicing law for 12 years. As I sat watching Measure for Measure, I realized for the first time how much the play was about law, and that recognition — the “fascination” you refer to — set me off on a project that would last years. First, I wrote a short essay about Measure for Measure for the New York Law Journal, our daily legal newspaper. Then, months later, I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice and wrote another essay. From there, one thing led to another, and before long, I had the makings of a book.

I reread the plays I had read as a student and read many others for the first time. Then I read as much as I could find about Shakespeare and the law. The result was my 1994 book called Kill All The Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal.

I am still fascinated by Shakespeare. Each time I read or see one of his great plays, I get something new out of it.

AM: Many essays in Loose Sallies concern politics, law, government, and current events. You discuss the Founders, Holmes, Bill Clinton, Hugo Black, Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand—all sorts of people and even some decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. You manage to do so without coming across as overtly political, polemical, or tendentious. How and why?

DJK: It is a question of style and goal. Every one of the essays has a thesis, some of which may even be controversial. The idea is to persuade your reader to accept your thesis, and that requires care and sensitivity, logic and demonstration, not name-calling or verbal table-pounding. If I am “overtly political, polemical or tendentious,” I will probably not convince anyone who does not already agree with me. A writer has to be smoother and subtler. We live in a country right now riven by political and cultural partisanship. Public controversy today between “red” and “blue” is almost always shrill. A reader tires of it; it becomes almost an assault on our sensibilities. To reach people’s hearts and minds, you have to credit both sides of an issue but explain patiently and show convincingly why you think one side is more correct than another. I am not running for public office so I have no “base” to appeal to. But I can at least try to keep the tone of the debates I engage in civil and pleasant.

AM: Do you consider the essays on these topics literary essays?

DJK:Most of the essays in Loose Sallies are not about so-called “literary” topics. True, one is about the literary style of Supreme Court opinions, and two discuss Justice Holmes’s opinion-writing style. But they are exceptions. So I do not think the essays for the most part are “literary” in that narrow sense. Nor do I think they are “literary” by way of being precious or mannered. I genuinely hope, however, that they are “literary” in the sense of being clear, crisp, well-written statements on a variety of topics of interest to all Americans today.

AM: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Loose Sallies has been enjoyable for me. I keep it on my desk in the office so that, when I need a ten-minute break, I can open it and read an essay. I slowly made my way through the entire book in this manner: a break here, a break there, and then, one day, I was finished. I really appreciate all that you have done not just for the law, but for arts and literature. It’s nice to know there are lawyers out there like you.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Edward W. Younkins

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Economics, Fiction, Humane Economy, Humanities, Imagination, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics on February 12, 2014 at 8:45 am
Edward W. Younkins

Edward W. Younkins

AM:       Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.  I’d like to start by asking why you chose to write Exploring Capitalist Fiction.  Was there a void you were seeking to fill?

EY:          The origins of this book go back to the Spring of 1992 when I began teaching a course called Business Through Literature in Wheeling Jesuit University’s MBA program.  Exploring Capitalist Fiction is heavily based on my lectures and notes on the novels, plays, and films used in this popular course over the years and on what I have learned from my students in class discussions and in their papers.

The idea to write this book originated a few years ago when one of Wheeling Jesuit University’s MBA graduates, who had taken and enjoyed the Business Through Literature course, proposed that I write a book based on the novels, plays, and films covered in that course.  I agreed as I concluded that the subject matter was important and bookworthy and that the book would be fun for me to write and for others to read.  I went on to select twenty-five works to include in the book out of the more than eighty different ones that had been used in my course over the years.  I have endeavored to select the ones that have been the most influential, are the most relevant, and are the most interesting.  In a few instances, I have chosen works that I believe to be undervalued treasures.

I was not intentionally trying to fill a void as there are a number of similar books by fine authors such as Joseph A. Badaracco, Robert A. Brawer, Robert Coles, Emily Stipes Watts, and Oliver F. Williams, among others.  Of course, I did see my evenhanded study of business and capitalism in literature as a nice complement and supplement to these works.

AM:       I assume that you’ll use this book to teach your own courses, and I suspect other teachers will also use the book in their courses.  Anyone who reads the book will quickly understand the reason you believe that imaginative literature and film have pedagogical value in business courses, but would you mind stating some of those reasons for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book yet?

EY:          The underpinning premise of this book and of my course is that fiction, including novels, plays, and films, can be a powerful force to educate students and employees in ways that lectures, textbooks, articles, case studies, and other traditional teaching approaches cannot.  Works of fiction can address a range of issues and topics, provide detailed real-life descriptions of the organizational contexts in which workers find themselves, and tell interesting, engaging, and memorable stories that are richer and more likely to stay with the reader or viewer longer than lectures and other teaching approaches.  Imaginative literature can enrich business teaching materials and provide an excellent supplement to the theories, concepts, and issues that students experience in their business courses.  Reading novels and plays and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking, to learn about character, and to instill moral values.  It is likely that people who read business novels and plays and watch movies about business will continue to search for more of them as sources of entertainment, inspiration, and education.

AM:       Who are the intended audiences for your new book?

EY:          My target audiences include college students, business teachers, general readers, and people employed in the business world.  My summaries and analyses of twenty-five works are intended to create the feel of what it is like to work in business.  The premise of the book is that fiction can provide a powerful teaching tool to sensitize business students without business experiences and to educate and train managers in real businesses.  Studying fictions of business can provide insights to often inexperienced business students and new employees with respect to real-life situations.

In each of my 25 chapters I provide a sequential summary of the fictional work, interspersed with some commentary that highlights the managerial, economic, and philosophical implications of the ideas found in the work.  My emphasis is on the business applications of the lessons of particular novels, plays, and films.  This book highlights the lessons that an individual can take from each work and apply to his or her own life.  It is not literary analysis for its own sake.

I do not delve deeply into these novels, plays, and films in order to identify previously-covered and previously-uncovered themes in existing scholarship.  My book is essentially a study guide for people interested in becoming familiar with the major relevant themes in significant works of literature and film.  The book can also serve as a guide for professors who desire to expand their teaching approaches beyond the traditional ones employed in schools of business.

Of course, literary scholars can use my book as a starting point, catalyst, or reference work for their own in-depth scholarly studies of these and other works.  For example, I can envision a number of scholars, from a variety of viewpoints, contributing essays to book collections devoted to different literary works.  One possible collection that readily comes to mind would be devoted to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.  Other candidates for potential collections might include Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Norris’s The Octopus, Dreiser’s The Financer, Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, Lewis’s Babbitt, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hawley’s Executive Suite, Lodge’s Nice Work, Sterner’s Other People’s Money, among others.  It would be great if some of the contributing literary scholars to these volumes would come from pro-business, pro-capitalist thinkers such as Paul Cantor, Stephen Cox, Ryan McMaken, Sarah Skwire, Amy Willis, Michelle Vachris, and yourself.  As you know most literary critics are from the left.  Those mentioned above celebrate individualism and freedom in place of collectivism and determinism.

AM:       What can be learned from business fiction?

EY:          Fiction can be used to teach, explicate, and illustrate a wide range of business issues and concepts.  Many fictional works address human problems in business such as managing interpersonal conflict and office politics; using different styles of management; the potential loss of one’s individuality as a person tends to become an “organization man”; the stultifying effect of routine in business; the difficulty in balancing work life and home life; hiring and keeping virtuous employees; maintaining one’s personal integrity while satisfying the company’s demands for loyalty, conformity and adaptation to the firm’s culture; communication problems a business may experience; fundamental moral dilemmas; depersonalization and mechanization of human relationships; and so on.  Fictional works tend to describe human behavior and motivations more eloquently, powerfully, and engagingly than texts, articles, or cases typically do.  Literary authors and filmmakers are likely to develop and present ideas through individual characters.  They depict human insights and interests from the perspective of individuals within an organizational setting.  Reading imaginative literature and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking and to learn about values and character.

Many novels, plays, and films are concerned with the actual operation of the business system.  Some deal directly with business problems such as government regulation, cost control, new product development, labor relations, environmental pollution, health and safety, plant openings and closings, tactics used and selection of takeover targets, structuring financial transactions, succession planning, strategic planning, the creation of mission statements, the company’s role in the community, social responsibility, etc.  Assessing fictional situations makes a person more thoughtful, better prepared for situations, and better able to predict the consequences of alternative actions.  Fiction can address both matters of morality and practical issues.  There are many fine selections in literature and film which prompt readers to wrestle with business situations.

Older novels, plays, and films can supply information on the history of a subject or topic.  They can act as historical references for actual past instances and can help students to understand the reasons for successes and failures of the past.  Older literature can provide a good history lesson and can help people to understand the development of our various businesses and industries.  These stories can be inspiring and motivational and can demonstrate how various organizations and managers were able to overcome obstacles, adapt, and survive.  Fictional works are cultural artifacts from different time periods that can be valuable when discussing the history of business.  Many fictional works present history in a form that is more interesting than when one just reads history books.

Imaginative literature reflects a variety of cultural, social, ethical, political, economic, and philosophical perspectives that have been found in American society.  Various images of businessmen have appeared in fictional works.  These include the businessman as Scrooge-like miser, confidence man, robber baron, hero, superman, technocrat, organization man, small businessman, buffoon, rugged individualist, corporate capitalist, financial capitalist, man of integrity, etc.

AM:       How will your teaching approach change in your Business Through Literature course now that you have published your own book on the subject?

EY:          In the past students in this course have read, analyzed, and discussed novels, plays, and films.  Each student prepared a minimum of 6 short papers (2000 words each) on the assigned works.  Grades were based on these papers and class discussions.

I am experimenting this semester using my book in the class for the first time.  I am requiring each student to take notes on each chapter of the book to help them in bringing up topics for class discussion and in participating in class discussions.  Each student is also required to prepare and turn in three essay questions on each chapter.  These are turned in before each relevant class.  Grades for the class are based on class participation and two essay tests.

AM:       Isn’t the reverse also true that literature students ought to study economics or at least gain an understanding of business from something besides imaginative literature and film, which tend not to portray capitalists in a favorable light?

EY:          It would definitely be beneficial for literature students to study classes in business areas such as management, marketing, accounting, and finance.  It would help them somewhat if they took a course or two in economics.  Unfortunately, almost all college-level economics courses are based on Keynesian economics.  I would encourage anyone who takes such courses to read and study Austrian economics in order to gain a more realistic perspective.

AM:       You’ve written a great deal about Ayn Rand, and the chapter on Atlas Shrugged is the longest one in your book.  Rand can be a divisive figure, even, perhaps especially, among what you might call “libertarians” or “free marketers” or “capitalists” and the like.  But even the people in those categories who reject Objectivism tend to praise Rand’s novels.  What do you make of that, and do you think there’s a lesson there about the novel as a medium for transmitting philosophy?

EY:          I suspect that there are a lot of people like me who value “novels of ideas.”  There have been many good philosophical novels but none have been as brilliantly integrated and unified as Atlas Shrugged.  Rand characterizes grand themes and presents an entire and integrated view of how a man should live his life.  Rand’s great power comes from her ability to unify everything in the novel to form an integrated whole.  The theme and the plot are inextricably integrated.  Rand is a superb practitioner of synthesis and unity whose literary style and subject are organically linked and fused to the content of her philosophy.  She unifies the many aspects of Atlas Shrugged according to the principles of reality.  People from the various schools of “free-market” thought are in accord in promoting an appropriate reality-based social system in which each person is free to strive for his personal flourishing and happiness.

AM:       I want to ask about Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back, the subject of chapter twelve of your book.  Why do you think this book has not received much attention?  It has been, I’d venture to say, all but forgotten or overlooked by even the most ardent fans of Hazlitt.  Is the book lacking something, or are there other factors at play here?

EY:          Hazlitt’s novel may not be “literary” enough for many people.  However, in my opinion, the author does skillfully use fiction to illustrate his teachings on economics.  I think that the book also has a good story line.  Economics professors tend to shy away from using it in their classes.  Some may be so quantitatively oriented that they cannot envision using a novel to teach economics.  Others may perceive the Austrian economics principles found in Time Will Run Back to not fit in with the Keynesian economics principles found in most textbooks (and of course they are right).

AM:       Thank you again for doing this interview.  All the best in 2014.


Edward W. Younkins. Exploring Capitalist Fiction:  Business Through Literature and Film. Lanham,

Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014.


Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 3, “Individualism and Collectivism”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 16, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and, where he is also editor.

This analysis is the fourth installment in a series of chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The previous analysis of Hayek’s introduction, Chapter I, and Chapter II can be found here, here, and here, respectively.

Hayek’s third chapter, “Individualism and Collectivism,” proves to be what our earlier analyses had anticipated: good on recognizing the economic benefits of liberalism, skilled at pointing out the flawed concepts and illogical thinking that facilitate and perpetuate socialism, and effective in arguing for certain basic fundamentals such as the necessity of an effective legal system, but slightly inadequate in its offering of better concepts, lacking in its defense of capitalism, and guilty of a borderline intrinsicist endorsement of ‘competition’, without treating that endorsement as premised upon the benefit rendered to man as an individual or, for that matter, any other more fundamental value.

The chapter begins with a valuable point as to the extent to which socialism has succeeded by distorting and disguising its own nature, with each socialist faction clinging to its chosen group or alleged beneficiary—a race, party, or class—and proclaiming that by virtue of its superficial differences in approach it is somehow different from all other varieties of statism. It thus exaggerates concrete matters of application, treating them as differences in fundamentals. Hayek repudiates this approach, pointing out that, regardless of the group they claim to represent, “the methods which [the socialists] shall have to employ are the same as those which could ensure an equalitarian distribution” (25). He goes on to acknowledge that “nearly all the points which are disputed between socialists and liberals concern the methods common to all forms of collectivism and not the particular ends for which socialists want to use them” (24), establishing that the basic objection of liberals to socialist policies apply to all socialist policies, not those of a certain type, as the conflict is fundamentally between individualism and collectivism.

Hayek’s shift of focus from political ideologies to the more fundamental dichotomy in all political theory is valid and much-needed in a world that so rarely thinks in terms of fundamentals anymore—both at the time of writing and today. What is lacking in this effort, however, is an explicit definition of ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism.’ He implies, though does not expound upon, the idea that the collectivism is best thought of as a set of “methods which can be used for a great variety of ends,” seeing socialism “as a species of that genus” (25). While he is correct in viewing socialism as a subtype within a broader category of collectivist politics, collectivism itself is not fundamentally definable as a set of methods, but as an ideological framework.

The question that divides the two political philosophies of individualism and collectivism is one of standards of value. It asks, ‘Which is the primary unit for consideration in judging what is politically ‘good’?” Hayek’s failure to define the two concepts and their difference misses the opportunity to dispel the socialist misrepresentation of that dichotomy. Socialists, rather than seeing the question as one of standards of value and units for consideration, mischaracterize human affairs as a perpetual conflict between the individual and collective, accepting conflict as a necessary ingredient in social relationships, and, therefore, self-interest as fundamentally anti-social. They therefore view the question of individualism and collectivism as one of loyalty: “Individuals or the collective: whose side are you on?” Many defenders of socialism, having accepted this false notion of man’s life as perpetually in conflict, thus accept the morality of altruism that preaches that someone’s sacrifice is necessary and good for society to function, and accordingly defer to socialism for fear of being an enemy of an alleged ‘greater good.’

Other flaws punctuate Hayek’s challenge of socialism. The first is his failure to challenge socialists’ ends as goods to strive for. He describes their ends as a desire for “social justice, greater equality, and security” (24), but then sets upon his argument as to the impossibility of separating socialists’ means from the system itself, implicitly suggesting by his omission that their ends are indeed desirable. He writes, “There are many people who call themselves socialists although they care only about [the ideals of social justice, greater equality, and security], who fervently believe in those ultimate aims of socialism but neither care nor understand how they can be achieved, and who are merely certain that they must be achieved, whatever the cost” (24). The error in their reasoning that Hayek seems to imply lies in socialists’ disregard for the means by which they hope to achieve their ends. He does not, however, challenge the ends as such.

Hayek fails to challenge the concepts offered by socialists or to insist that they properly define their terms—what they mean by the bromides they use: social justice—by what standard of justice? equality—of rights or of results? security—from force, or from the facts of reality? Hayek leaves these questions unasked, thus leaving the socialists’ values uncontested and the socialists themselves with more apparent justification than they could ever deserve.

In tandem with this omission, he describes it as “unfair to use the term socialism to describe its methods rather than its aims, to use for a particular method a term which for many people stands for an ultimate ideal” (25). Though he does not elaborate upon this, it can easily be interpreted as a suggestion that some more peaceable socialists’ ends are well-intended—at least “for many people,” but that it is their means which are flawed. Despite his earlier insistence upon the essential connection between different apparent varieties of socialist, he apparently further accommodates the socialists’ ultimate values without challenge.

Hayek’s approach to the subject of planning offers some valuable insights that go to the heart of modern mainstream misunderstandings of liberal thought. “’Planning’”, he writes,

“owes its popularity largely to the fact that everybody desires, of course, that we should handle our common problems as rationally as possible, and that in so doing we should use as much foresight as we can command. In this sense everybody who is not a complete fatalist is a planner, every political act is (or ought to be) an act of planning, and there can be differences only between good and bad, between wise and foresighted and foolish and short-sighted planning” (26).

This distinction—that liberal policies advising against intervention are no less a deliberate form of planning than interventionism and no less based in a conscientious logic—is an important one in today’s world, as libertarian and capitalist ideas are moving more into the mainstream, being discussed more frequently in publications throughout the Western world, but still remain largely misunderstood by those who see liberals’ insistence upon letting the market work as some mysticist assumption ungrounded in empirical observation. Hayek highlights that they are indeed based in a strategic logic, but one that maintains a belief in the ability of markets to provide man’s needs.

From there, however, Hayek proceeds down a shakier path, again criticizing those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism and defining liberalism along strictly economic lines, making no reference to the fundamental values of liberals and showing his own liberalism as based primarily on a pragmatic approach. He writes,

“It is important not to confuse opposition against this kind of planning with a dogmatic laissez-faire attitude. The liberal argument is in favor of making the best possible use of the forces of competition as a means of co-ordinating human efforts, not an argument for leaving things just as they are. It is based on the conviction that where effective competition can be created, it is a better way of guiding individual efforts than any other” (27).

He further argues that “where it is impossible to create the conditions necessary to make competition effective, we must resort to other methods of guiding economic activity” (27), supporting our understanding of his earlier defense of antitrust regulations.  His warning of the dangers of a mixed economy and the destructive effects of trying to combine liberalism and socialism is valid. However, he doesn’t clearly or adequately address the fact that the destructiveness of a mixed economy stems from its statist, coercive elements, and that while the leaders of private industry may use the coercive power of government to enrich themselves in such an economy, it is ultimately the force of government and the political principles it follows that allow the system to exist, enabling such injustices.

Instead, he poorly allocates the ultimate responsibility for a mixed economy, writing that

“the universal struggle against competition promises to produce in the first instance something in many respects even worse, a state of affairs which can satisfy neither planners nor liberals: a sort of syndicalist or ‘corporative’ organisation of industry, in which competition is more or less suppressed but planning is left in the hands of the independent monopolies of the separate industries… By destroying competition in industry after industry, this policy puts the consumer at the mercy of the joint monopolist action of capitalists and workers in the best organized industries” (30).

True though this description may be in some respects, its emphasis on private businessmen as the primary drivers of the process evades the fact of which side makes the whole collusion possible. Private businessmen of a certain kind—the kind that thrives not on productivity but on political pull—can and do act as the accelerants and perpetuators of a mixed economy. They cannot, however, bring it into being. The responsibility for that lies with a country’s political officials, whether in the legislative, executive, or judicial branch. It is through an abandonment of the legal principles of capitalism that businessmen and legislators have either the occasion or the cause to collude.

Hayek goes on to make several statements that will likely surprise strict adherents of liberalism, writing “Nor is the preservation of competition incompatible with an extensive system of social services—so long as the organisation of these services is not designed in such a way as to make competition ineffective over wide fields” (28), and endorsing the idea of naturally occurring market failures. “The functioning of competition,” he writes, “not only requires adequate organisation of certain institutions like money, markets, and channels of information—some of which can never be adequately provided by private enterprise“ (28), suggesting that such instances must be met by governments practicing “the very necessary planning which is required to make competition as effective and beneficial as possible” (31).

Ironically in the context of later debates between classical liberals and mainstream political culture, Hayek argues that roads offer an example of a good that cannot be provided by market forces. Thus, every liberal who has endorsed the potential for market provision of transportation services only to hear political moderates suddenly become crusaders for the transportation sector, passionately demanding “What about the roads?!” has Hayek to credit for endorsing this line of thinking.

Hayek goes on to even endorse broader regulations, with the sole cited criterion for judgment being whether the regulation distorts the market by treating producers differently, or whether it equally infringes upon all:

“Any attempt to control prices or quantities of particular commodities deprives competition of its power of bringing about an effective coordination of individual efforts, because price changes then cease to register all the relevant changes in circumstances and no longer provide a reliable guide for the individual’s actions. This is not necessarily true, however, of measures merely restricting the allowed methods of production, so long as these restrictions affect all potential producers equally and are not used as an indirect way of controlling prices and quantities” (27).

True, policies that apply equally across the board at least have the benefit of not being narrowly discriminatory in their oppression, but they also have the distinction of violating the rights of all producers. If an intrinsicist notion of “competition” and not rights, however, is the standard to be maintained, it is not surprising that Hayek lands at this conclusion.

If it can then be said, following the logic of Hayek, that some regulations are necessary, what is the standard for determining the conditions under which it is proper? He gives us an indication:

“Economic liberalism is opposed, however, to competition being supplanted by inferior methods of co-ordinating individual efforts. And it regards competition as superior not only because it is in most circumstances the most efficient method known, but even more because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority” (27) [emphasis mine].

In this passage, Hayek reveals his defense of competition (and, thus, of economic freedom) as based on a belief in its superior abilities in coordination, its efficiency, and, almost tautologically, the fact that it does not involve coercive action. The last condition is an act of circular reasoning, as Hayek states, to word it differently, that a system not guided by coercive action is superior because it is not guided by coercive action, without referencing any particular standard of the good that would make such an argument functional. His other expressed standards, however, tell us something of his political values.

Elsewhere, he writes of the need for regulations “[t]o prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements,” arguing that such use of preventive law “is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.”  One is then brought to wonder: if a regulation or any other use of preventive law can be said to promote competition, is there some other standard that it must meet, some other moral test it must pass to merit enforcement? Hayek would tell us there is not, writing that “The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs which they impose” (28) [emphasis mine].

We can thus see Hayek’s defense of liberalism as a largely pragmatic, utilitarian one and not one based soundly or primarily in a moral argument. In line with this, he pursues what can be interpreted as an intrinsicist approach to valuing “competition” and policies that promote it. Certainly, competition is a value agreed upon by all who value freedom in economics, but the failure to tie it back to what competition offers individuals and to root the defense of it in the political freedom and material well being it provides gives us only half a defense.

Competition is, after all, not a value in and of itself, but a process by which men can pursue their own self-interest, hindered only by their own limitations. In the words of Ayn Rand, “Competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal.” Elsewhere, she elaborates

“The concept of free competition enforced by law is a grotesque contradiction in terms. It means: forcing people to be free at the point of a gun. It means: protecting people’s freedom by the arbitrary rule of unanswerable bureaucratic edicts… There is no way to legislate competition; there are no standards by which one could define who should compete with whom, how many competitors should exist in any given field, what should be their relative strength or their so-called “relevant markets,” what prices they should charge, what methods of competition are “fair” or “unfair.” None of these can be answered, because these precisely are the questions that can be answered only by the mechanism of a free market.”

Alan Greenspan, writing in his early years, makes a similar observation on the subject that may point out from where Hayek is deriving this emphasis on “competition”:

“Competition” is an active, not a passive, noun. It applies to the entire sphere of economic activity, not merely to production, but also to trade; it implies the necessity of taking action to affect the conditions of the market in one’s own favor.

“The error of the nineteenth-century observers was that they restricted a wide abstraction—competition—to a narrow set of particulars, to the “passive” competition projected by their own interpretation of classical economics. As a result, they concluded that the alleged “failure” of this fictitious “passive competition” negated the entire theoretical structure of classical economics, including the demonstration of the fact that laissez-faire is the most efficient and productive of all possible economic systems. They concluded that a free market, by its nature, leads to its own destruction—and they came to the grotesque contradiction of attempting to preserve the freedom of the market by government controls, i.e., to preserve the benefits of laissez-faire by abrogating it.” (“Antitrust”)

Whether this is in fact the context of Hayek’s focus on “competition” as the ultimate goal to be pursued is uncertain, but it reveals both a misplaced focus and, yet again, the propensity to look at matters of political ideology through the lens of economic reasoning, failing to adopt the necessary concepts to make an effective, complete defense of capitalism.

Along those same lines, even in those instances where Hayek seems to be on the right track, there is a conspicuous absence of concepts that one would expect from a defender of liberalism. For instance, he offers a valid argument on the need for legal structure in functioning capitalist systems, writing that competition “depends above all on the existence of an appropriate legal system, a legal system designed both to preserve competition and to make it operate as beneficially as possible” (28).  As true as this is, what is striking is that his assertion of the need for appropriate laws rests entirely upon the question of competition and effective operation, and not on any more fundamental principles or political values of a higher order.

Such navigating around the task of making principled arguments appears to be a recurring theme in The Road to Serfdom thus far. It is intriguing and disappointing that after an introduction and three chapters of Hayek, dealing with questions and issues as fundamental as the intervention of government in economics, individualism versus collectivism, and the dangers of socialism to a society, we have not once read the word “rights” in any of Hayek’s arguments. It is difficult to fathom how one could effectively address subjects that deal with such fundamental questions without even mentioning what are and are not man’s rights.

That Hayek has not even mentioned rights once suggests that the notion is so far outside of his intellectual framework as to not have occurred to him (doubtful), or that he has some aversion to a rights-based argument to freedom, or does not have a certain view himself as to what man’s rights are. Indeed, were he to be consistent as a skeptic, Hayek would be unable to maintain a consistent and objective notion of man’s rights, and would thus have to either advocate rights as floating abstractions not grounded in man’s nature, or resort to arguing that rights are debatable and subjective.

Hayek’s third chapter proves to be roughly what we expected: stronger and less contradictory than chapter one, but not as successful as chapter two. He occasionally makes valid points that we can translate into the present day. “The dispute about socialism,” he writes, in a passage that could be applied as truly to the statist elements of both parties in the United States in 2013 as to England in the 1940s, “has thus become largely a dispute about means and not about ends” (24). However, the pragmatic, utilitarian approach Hayek takes to counter it sounds much more like the moderate defenders of capitalism in the US today, Republicans who argue for “free markets” because they “work” without the slightest mention of their ethical superiority, than like the paragon of liberal intellectual thought that Hayek is portrayed to be. Whatever Hayek’s abilities as an economist supporting liberal economic policies—and they are remarkable—his force as a political theorist and defender of liberalism is lacking. In tandem with the author’s reputation as an economist, this deficiency threatens to encourage those who seek to defend liberty to invest too heavily in the wrong kind of argument, potentially crowding out more worthwhile ones. Just as in monetary economics “the bad money chases out the good”, so in political philosophy a chiseled, fool’s gold defense of freedom stands the risk of jeopardizing that which it seeks to uphold.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 1, “The Abandoned Road

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Epistemology, Essays, Ethics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 11, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and, where he is also editor.

This analysis is the second installment in a series of chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The previous analysis of Hayek’s introduction can be found here.

If Hayek’s introduction gave us a brief summary of the ideas and practices he is setting out to oppose and contextualized the progression toward a socialist political culture in the last half century of Europe’s history, his first chapter, “The Abandoned Road”, firmly roots his grievances in the present and the problems facing England at the time of his writing and seeks to explain how England (and the West more generally) arrived there. He describes the intellectual evasions, distortions, and faulted epistemology—often consisting of poorly defined key concepts —that led to and are, in his time, perpetuating the state of affairs he observes. He then proceeds to address the subject of liberalism and how socialists who misconceive of their own system do so at least as much with its antithesis. In the process, Hayek makes many excellent observations, but also succumbs to several dangerous philosophical errors and unsubstantiated claims against laissez-faire capitalism that tarnish what might otherwise be an outstanding defense against government controls.

Hayek begins the chapter with one of the most argumentatively powerful, poignant approaches that one can take in opposing socialist ideas: illustrating to those who support more moderate, tempered versions of statist controls that though they may differ in degree from those statists they oppose, the philosophical fundamentals they advocate are the same. “We all are, or at least were until recently, certain of one thing,” he writes,

“that the leading ideas which during the last generation have become common to most people of goodwill and have determined the major changes in our social life cannot have been wrong. We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilisation except one:  that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part, and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals have apparently produced utterly different results from those which we expected” (8).

Hayek’s point is well made and much needed at a time when such widespread, utter contradictions were even more severe than they are today. Writing to Britons in the 1940s, but with as much truth to offer Americans who stumbled over the same contradictions in the 1960s and 1970s, as the platitude “we are all socialists now” manifested on Nixon’s lips as “we are all Keynesians now” (and with less fundamental difference between them than Keynesians would have you believe), he asks us to recognize that “the tendencies which have culminated in the creation of the totalitarian systems were not confined to the countries which have succumbed to them” (8-9). Nor, for that matter, are they confined to those times, and Hayek’s message to this effect—the importance of recognizing the same fundamental ideas across contexts—is as much needed today as it was then.

He goes on to recognize that the conflict between the Axis and Allied powers in World War II is fundamentally a conflict of ideas: “The external conflict is a result of a transformation of European thought in which others have moved so much faster as to bring them into irreconcilable conflict with our ideals, but which has not left us unaffected.” He is quick to point out, though, that “the history of these countries in the years before the rise of the totalitarian system showed few features with which we are not familiar” (9).

Such an appreciation for the motive power of ideas in human conflict was not so unique in Hayek’s time. In fact, the Allied leaders superlatively acknowledged the enemy they faced as “fascism” and condemned it explicitly (though the economic and social policies of FDR, along with his earlier overt flirtations with such ideas, may have made the condemnation somewhat ironic). If Hayek has a lesson to teach to this effect, it is most needed in today’s world, when the significance of philosophy is so frequently cast aside by the influences of multiculturalist nihilism and the failure, even in academia, to appreciate the role of broadly held cultural ideas in deciding man’s fate. At a time when the mention of a “clash of civilizations” invites accusations of oppressive Western chauvinism, Hayek’s acknowledgement that conflicting fundamental ideas may lead to actual conflict is a welcome reminder.

Much of the chapter appropriately looks to fundamental ideology as the cause for the rise of Nazism, seeing the rejection of individualism in favor of collectivism as a necessary prerequisite to the “National-Socialist revolution” and a “decisive step in the destruction of that civilisation which modern man had built up from the age of the Renaissance.” The spirit of this argument is undoubtedly sound. However, the method by which he proceeds to argue it leaves much to be desired. Hayek proceeds down a path of questionable historical interpretations, a half-cocked swipe at moral philosophy (that, as we shall see, is flawed but not unfamiliar to readers of this site), and ultimately an incomplete defense of the liberal policies he hopes to defend—showing the consequences of that brief glimpse of skepticism we witnessed in the introduction.

In his historical contextualization of the trends he observes, Hayek writes,

“How sharp a break not only with the recent past but with the whole evolution of Western civilisation the modern trend towards socialism means, becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century, but in a longer historical perspective. We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton… Not merely the nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides is progressively relinquished” (10).

Hayek’s invocation of these great names in the history of liberal thought is, in most instances, not misplaced. It is true that all emerged from Western civilization and that to varying extents they all fit well into the liberal, individualist tradition he means to illustrate. One would be wise to regard the inclusion of Hume and Montaigne, paragons of skepticism, as only conditional points on such a list, though Hayek’s own skepticism and that of many libertarians in his tradition would certainly allow them.

More broadly, however, it must be said that the individuals mentioned, no matter how great their contributions to political and social thought, were not often the rule in their place and time, but the exception. One can admire the works of Pericles, but should bear in mind the fickle reception he received among the Athenians. Likewise, Cicero may deserve praise above any in his time, but for those virtues we might praise he was slaughtered without trial by a dictator who faced no consequences.

Thus, as admirable as Hayek’s examples may be, to suggest that they were the norm throughout most of Western civilization is unsubstantiated. They may have embodied those qualities that most distinguished Western civilization and have been most responsible for its progress, but it was a progress often achieved by much-abused minorities. The Renaissance, Enlightenment, and nineteenth century were the high-points of individualism and Western ideals, and Hayek is right in singling them out. However, he also runs the risk of obscuring the philosophical roots of National Socialism, itself the product of contrary trends in Western thought, by engaging in careless generalization from those high-points and distinguished individuals to Western history in general.

Departing from this somewhat problematic historical interpretation, Hayek moves through a favorable discussion of the benefits of economic and political freedom on scientific innovation. His recognition and argument that “[w]herever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed man became rapidly able to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire” is incontestable (12). He also anticipates the common objections by socialist apologists today who characterize the Industrial Revolution as a period of oppression by citing the difficult living conditions of the urban poor. He rightly rejects this by contextualizing the period in the experiences and expectations of those who lived through it, writing that

“[w]e cannot do justice to this astonishing growth if we measure it by our present standards, which themselves result from this growth and now make many defects obvious. To appreciate what it meant to those who took part in it we must measure it by the hopes and wishes men held when it began… that by the beginning of the twentieth century the working man in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years before had seemed scarcely possible” (12-13).

What proceeds from there is where Hayek seems on unsteady footing, as he briefly undertakes the task of trying to explain what ideas diverted man from the individualist course set from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Inexplicably, Hayek credits an excess of ambition as responsible for the turn toward socialism. He writes,

“What in the future will probably appear the most significant and far-reaching effect of this success is the new sense of power over their own fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving their own lot, which the success already achieved created among men. With success grew ambition—and man had every right to be ambitious” (13).

He returns to the idea again later, writing that,

“Because of the growing impatience with the slow advance of liberal policy, the just irritation with those who used liberal phraseology in defence of anti-social privileges, and the boundless ambition seemingly justified by the material improvements already achieved, it came to pass that toward the turn of the century the belief in the basic tenets of liberalism was more and more relinquished” (14-15).

It is here that Hayek’s inadequacy in analyzing philosophical ideas, and perhaps an economic bias toward looking at matters purely as a function of supply and demand, begins to show. The notion that an inadequate or insufficiently rapid provision of living standards by capitalism is to blame for the introduction and spread of socialism is baseless, as it not only commits the philosophical error of attributing a total change in fundamental beliefs to external conditions, but also ignores the fact that the introduction of socialist policies preceded the slowdown in quality of living improvements in the Western world—and, furthermore, that the slowdown still wasn’t all that slow, as anyone who looks at world history from 1870 to 1928 will readily observe.

Thus, Hayek’s notion that “ambition” is somehow to blame is irrational. If we accept the notion that capitalism was responsible for man’s improved quality of living, then the only function that ambition should serve in this context is to drive men back toward capitalism and its fundamental values—not toward socialism. To the contrary, it is not an excess of ambition that drove men away from capitalism, but the fact that the philosophical principles that underlie and empower capitalism were not consistently established in the minds of its practitioners in the first place. That is: those who lived under capitalism had not explicitly embraced reason as man’s means of acquiring knowledge, nor rational egoism as his proper ethical system, and thus lacked the fundamentals on which individualism rests. Thus, ultimately, the individualism that Hayek admires was present in the West, but not firmly rooted enough to survive the philosophical revival of Plato in the forms of Kant and Hegel. Undercut by their philosophies, in the face of Marx and Engels the West was a pushover.

Hayek’s invocation of excess ambition as an explanation for socialism shows that though he understands the role of political ideology in man’s fate, his ability to explain how that ideology stems from deeper levels of philosophy is severely lacking. Unfortunately, he does not allow this lack of expertise to stop him from making such baseless speculations as to the roots of socialism being in man’s ambition, nor from making a similarly arbitrary and more dangerous conjecture: that the essential quality that animated the Renaissance and Western civilization’s embrace of individual man was “tolerance.”

“Tolerance,” he writes, “is, perhaps, the only word which still preserves the full meaning of the principle which during the whole of this period was in the ascendant and which only in recent times has again been in decline, to disappear completely with the rise of the totalitarian state” (3). Hayek offers no further explanation to support this statement or the implication that tolerance was the animating virtue of these times, or at the very least played some crucial role in it. Nor does he illustrate the point with citations or examples. The claim stands alone.

We are thus left to speculate as to his actual beliefs on this point. However, a look at a somewhat younger contemporary libertarian economist who dabbled in political writings such as this and who shares certain philosophical fundamentals—namely a skepticist epistemology—may shed some light on the claim. Milton Friedman similarly cited ‘tolerance’ and, more specific to Friedman’s case, “tolerance based on humility” as the fundamental basis of his libertarianism. That is: the rejection of statism based not on the rights of individuals but based on the fact that no one can rightly initiate force against another since the initiator has no basis by which to know whether the cause in whose name he would initiate that force is right or wrong. Put simply, it establishes a social system in which peaceable relations between men depend upon the impossibility of establishing objective principles. In which ignorance, not knowledge, is man’s saving grace. In which moral certainty is perceived to be the root of all tyranny.

(I will not go further into Friedman’s confused moral philosophy here, though it is encouraged that the reader reference my article “The Failures of Milton Friedman” for a fuller explanation his views and the dangers they entail.)

Whether Hayek’s implication in citing “tolerance” as the great virtue lost by the rise of collectivism is in line with Milton Friedman’s connections of “tolerance” and libertarianism is unknown, but the fact that the two men share a skepticist epistemology and both ultimately land at the same word to describe the virtue that they see to be animating their ideals cannot be ignored and provides a possible explanation for Hayek’s unsupported statement.

Where skepticist epistemology and haphazard forays into moral philosophy are found, an incomplete defense of freedom usually follows. So it is here with Hayek, who shows us precisely his conception of freedom and how it should be fought for, writing, “There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed, there are no hard and fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications” (13).

I will not engage with this statement directly, as it has been soundly argued elsewhere in other essays from this publication such as “The Philosophy of Capitalism” and Brian Underwood’s “Political Capitalism”, as well as in Ayn Rand’s essays “Man’s Rights”, “The Objectivist Ethics”, and “The Nature of Government.” I will observe simply that for a man accepted by many to be symbolic of twentieth century liberalism to take such a pragmatic, unprincipled approach to the defense of freedom stands as much as a symbol of the unsteadiness and lack of a moral basis in that movement as it does a condemnation of the man himself. What’s more, it shows that no sound defense of liberty can be based on a skepticist epistemology. A defense of man begins with an admiration for man and his nature as a rational, efficacious being. Whoever hopes to undertake a task so daunting and so crucial as a defense of man’s rights against oppression cannot enter the fray with a puttering “Who knows?!” as his battle cry.

It is the inevitable fate of such pragmatists that they should ultimately abandon a strict conception of liberty and that they should shrink principles down to the level of momentarily expedient guidelines to be cast aside at the first sign of opposition. We must be immensely grateful that the Founding Fathers of the United States had the moral basis to recognize and firmly assert the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, yoking future statesmen to these principles rather than settling for such a shrugging recommendation that they “make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society.” We must be proud that Jefferson swore “an oath upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, and not merely an oath to “resort as little as possible to coercion.”

The distortions, sadly, do not end there. Hayek confounds our expectations further by seeking to balance his critique of socialism with a contrary charge against advocates of full individual rights, writing that “[p]robably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez faire” [emphasis mine] (13).

Hayek’s ambiguous accusation against advocates of laissez-faire, that they are somehow partly responsible for the rise of socialist policies, apparently rests on the capitalists having viewed the principle as a “hard and fast… rule which knew no exceptions” (13).  He goes on to explain that the downfall of liberalism is explainable by reference to the liberal’s strict adherence to the laissez-faire principle, finding it “inevitable that, once their position was penetrated at some points, it should soon collapse as a whole” (13).

At this point, Hayek quickly reveals several key implications: that advocates of laissez-faire are partly responsible for the rise of socialism, that laissez-faire is a flawed system, and that its legitimacy has indeed “collapse[d]” through being disproven. He continues, “No sensible person should have doubted that the crude rules in which the principles of economic policy of the nineteenth century were expressed were only a beginning, that we had yet much to learn, and that there were still immense possibilities of advancement on the lines on which we had moved” (14).

To be clear: Hayek is not referring to changes in application or translation of the existing principles, but a shift in principles as such. ‘What’, one must ask, ‘could have fundamentally changed so drastically in the period in question, to make the basic principles of economic freedom no longer relevant or applicable in one period as they had been in the previous one?’ According to Hayek, it was the inevitable result of having

“gained increasing intellectual mastery of the forces of which we had to make use. There were many obvious tasks, such as our handling of the monetary system, and the prevention or control of monopoly, and an even greater number of less obvious but hardly less important tasks to be undertaken in other fields, where there could be no doubt that the governments possessed enormous powers for good and evil;” (14)

Thus, Hayek posits that our “increasing intellectual mastery” (though I can think of a century of economic instability primarily brought by government controls that would refute this alleged “mastery”) is to credit for government intervention in the economy. He implies that the belief that governments could regulate the economy by force somehow translates to the presumption that they should do so—a significant leap that Hayek does not and cannot, without reference to philosophy, explain. Not only does this misconceive of the problem; it carelessly implies that those statesmen of earlier times did not intervene in the economy because they could not conceive of how to do so. To the contrary: earlier liberal thinkers did not plead ignorance in the face of proposed interventionism—they opposed it on principle, and suggesting otherwise is a discredit to their defenses of liberty.

Hayek’s passing statements apparently endorsing the “control of monopoly” and his suggestion that “the governments possessed enormous powers for good and evil”—that is, that good could be achieved by force just as surely as evil—only add layers to the disappointing picture established thus far. He goes on to make an unconvincing argument that the slow pace of economic progress under liberalism was to blame for people having turned away from it—a confounding claim to make about a century that witnessed the most rapid and dramatic rise in quality of life in the history of humankind, and one that even Marx himself would likely have disputed as unsubstantiated.

Finally, he ends the chapter on an agreeable note with a brief description of how the geographical flow of ideas—from Britain and the US east to continental Europe—reversed at this period in history and the prevailing current turned westward, exporting German socialist ideas to the Atlantic. He astutely summarizes how the ideas of Marx, Hegel, List, Schmoller, Sombart, and Mannheim overtook the intellectual tone set by the English after 1870. He ends on the essential point that it was ultimately the lack of confidence in their own convictions by Western thinkers that made this shift possible. In this effort—narrating the history of philosophical and cultural trade balances—Hayek is excellent and displays the power of which he is capable when he remains in his purview, capitalizing on his unique perspective.

After a promising introduction, the first chapter of Hayek’s book has proven shaky at best. The flaws are numerous and fatal: a questionable interpretation of the histories of both liberalism’s origins and socialism’s ascendance, a dangerously inadequate grasp of the role of moral philosophy in the histories he details, a desire to blame liberalism for its own destruction with insufficient substantiation, a skepticist rejection of principles that leads to a pragmatist’s approach to policy, and, finally, a rejection of laissez-faire capitalism.

To his credit, Hayek is overall favorable on matters of economic history, arguing effectively for the role of capitalism in promoting scientific progress and advances in standards of living. However, his suggestion that advancement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was slow, and that this slowness of progress is to blame for the West’s acceptance of socialism, is largely without a supporting argument, is contrary to the unrivaled history of economic progress that we know to have characterized that period, and, incidentally, indulges a determinist philosophy that we saw him as likely to avoid in the introduction—a serious point of inconsistency.

Overall, Hayek’s first chapter is a dramatic step down from the introduction and a disappointment considering the reputation of the book. It is, in its own way, an abandonment of the road, if in a slightly different direction than those whom Hayek criticizes. Though future chapters may redeem the work to some extent, the fact that so much ground is lost in the first few pages is a severe blow, but one that is in keeping with the suspicions which we noted in assessing the introduction and which we warned to be on the lookout for. It illustrates well the consequences of even small cracks in one’s intellectual foundation and confirms the value of critically applying careful philosophical detective work in reading works such as this, no matter their reputation.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Introduction

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and, where he is also editor.

This piece commences a series of analyses on Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For those unfamiliar with the work, first published in 1943, it details the famed Austrian economist’s observations, drawn from having lived in Austria in the years after World War I, witnessing firsthand the culture of political ideas that preceded and led to the rise of Nazism there, and then, some decades later, living in England, teaching at the London School of Economics, and observing the rise of similar ideas at work in English political culture at the onset of her own period of experimentation with socialism.

Britain was, at the time, feeling the onset of what would become a set of devastating postwar economic ailments: the loss of many colonies—sold off one by one to finance the war, severe physical destruction (though not as bad as on the Continent), a trade imbalance skyrocketing the prices of much-needed American goods, and an economy of permits and privation in basic commodities. The end of the war would bring the sweeping 1945 victory of Labour and greater troubles with the onset of the Brain Drain, a period of bitter class resentment, and nationalizations of industry. Shortly after the second edition of The Road to Serfdom was printed in 1946, England was facing strikes, falling exports, and almost £200m lost every week as dollar convertibility was introduced in 1947.

In the midst of it all was a growing culture of socialism in both major parties. As Hayek wrote, “the socialism of which we speak is not a party matter, and the questions which we are discussing have little to do with the questions at dispute between political parties” (3). Though Labour would be its more avowed exponents, the fundamentals of socialist ideology were well enough embedded so as not to be challenged at any basic moral or systematic level by either side. What’s more, many Britons would see this as a proud new political and economic identity for a Britain without an empire. Historian Norman Stone writes,

“the British were pleased with themselves, supposing also that their example was one to be widely followed as some sort of ‘third way’ between American capitalism and Soviet Communism… combining the ‘economic democracy’ of Communism and the ‘political democracy’ of the West: socialism without labour camps…. People who argued to the contrary [such as Hayek—ed.] were in a small minority… but even in the later 1940s these supposedly half-demented figures were starting to have reality on their side. It struck with a ferocious blow, in the second post-war winter. The money began to run out, and the government became quite badly divided as to priorities.”

It is easy to imagine how remorsefully vindicated Hayek must have felt in those first few years after the publication of The Road to Serfdom—affirmed and disappointed in the way that all those who warn of impending danger are wont to feel.

Though the book would be praised by proponents of liberalism from the time of its publishing to the present and cause a stir among his peers in academia, policymakers would be, as they ever are, roughly a generation late in feeling the aftershocks of this groundbreaking statement. By the time began its creep into the political lexicon, Hayek had moved on from the LSE, going on to teach at the University of Chicago (in its Committee on Social Thought, as the School of Economics vehemently opposed his hiring under their banner), the University of Freiburg, the University of California, and the University of Salzburg, where in 1974 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Since the onset of the 2007 recession, sales of The Road to Serfdom, along with other works that challenge the fabric and assumptions of modern Western philosophy, political culture, and economics such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, have skyrocketed. In 2010, 66 years after its publication, The Road to Serfdom became a #1 bestseller on Amazon.

As this and other such works grow in popularity, it is important to take a second look at them, assessing both their virtues and faults, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. The analysis that follows sets out to do just that. It is an overall favorable assessment, as this author agrees with many of Hayek’s basic political premises. However, for that reason, it will also more scrupulously critique and highlight perceived flaws, ambiguous wording, platitudes, and those floating abstractions common in political treatises that, though they seem plausible at first glance, prove deeply flawed when translated into concrete practice. Though these analyses will strive to give an adequate overall summary of what Hayek himself writes, the reader is encouraged to read Hayek’s words along with these critiques and to judge for himself their validity.

It is broadly understood that those concerned with the cause of liberty must be vigilant in our criticisms of its destroyers, but it is no less essential—if not more so—that we be judicious toward those authors and works on which we base our own beliefs, as every philosophy is a structure and every flaw in that structure a weakness. The closer our faults are to our foundations, the greater our vulnerability. As more and more libertarians and capitalists turn to works such as Hayek’s to form understandings and shape their beliefs, let us look carefully to what ideas we are resting upon. We have nothing to lose but our contradictions.

Note on citations: all page references, unless otherwise stated, are based on the February 1946 edition published by George Routledge & Sons LTD.


Hayek’s introduction effectively sets the tone for the rest of the work by illustrating his own unique perspective, having come “as near as possible to twice living through the same period—or at least twice watching a very similar evolution of ideas,” (1) then giving us a brief summary of what wisdom that twice-lived experience has offered him: an understanding of the linkages between the spread of socialist ideas, the various debates it engenders in countries operating on similar philosophical premises, and the eventual rise of dictatorship.

The summary of events transpiring in the half-century leading up to World War II that Hayek describes is perhaps most powerful and most distinctive for its recognition of the role of ideas in man’s life. Hayek superbly recognizes the consequential nature of ideas in human life, writing “If in the long run we are the makers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created. Only if we recognise the danger in time can we hope to avoid it” (2).

In this short passage, just a few paragraphs in, Hayek has already distinguished himself from the long and destructive philosophical and political tradition of determinism and, more subtly and implicitly, by viewing the connection between man’s ideas and actions, rejected the mind-body dichotomy, which has long divided philosophers and intellectuals between those who concerned themselves with the workings of man’s mind, dismissing his physical actions as inconsequential marginalia, and those concerned with man’s physical nature but who view the content of his mind as meaningless.

These abstract philosophical notes are crucial, allowing us to establish several inferences as to what misguided political camps and ideologies Hayek will successfully avoid being mired in. By denying the metaphysical premise of determinism (whether in its environmental or genetic forms), Hayek embraces the concept of free will and the essential premise that ideas matter, inviting us to commence his work with the presumption that what wisdom we glean from it individually might be actionable and applicable in our own lives and experiences. This quickly separates him from the philosophical premises of the Left (or, to indulge a common but unbearably ironic label, “progressivism”), whose policies largely rest upon some variant of determinist metaphysics, leading them perpetually to the conclusion that man, left to his own free will, is doomed to irrationality, but that the ideal society is achievable through the right amount of systematic tweaking and statist controls. It already begins to become clear what premises lead Hayek to become the symbol of liberalism he is today.

In embracing the importance of the mind and the function of ideas, however, he does not assume a mysticist rejection of reality. To the contrary, he presents to us the implicit proposition that the “ideas we have created” will have very real consequences, and that to change our fates we must scrutinize and perhaps alter our ideas and those of our culture. It rests on the recognition that man is not immune from his own illogic and that, to paraphrase Rand, while the practice of reason may be evaded, the consequences of evading reason cannot be. This acknowledgment separates him from the premises that underlie much of conservative political thought, also concerned with the perfection of man, but oriented toward controlling his thoughts and beliefs, viewing the force of government as a means of instilling values in the minds of its people to produce a more moral citizenry.

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a warning, and all warnings are fundamentally rejections of the determinist premise.  What’s more: it is an intellectual warning connecting certain ideas and beliefs to their metaphysical consequences. While common logic, particularly among those who recognize the practical benefits of liberty, would suggest that that which one values should be left free to flourish, to the contrary, both progressives and conservatives seek to control those aspects of man which they most value—progressives, man’s body; conservatives, man’s mind—relegating its opposite to a status of expendability.

If all philosophy can be thought of as the great duel between two men—Plato and Aristotle—both sides of the political spectrum in Hayek’s time, as in our own, are operating on a fundamentally Platonic premise that divides man’s physical and spiritual nature. True liberalism is fundamentally a diversion from this view in favor of the Aristotelian view of man as a unified entity, to be treated and thought of as such, his life and fate as his own, and his right to dispose of them as he sees fit unchallenged. Thus, Hayek, as an exponent of such liberalism, whether he recognizes and describes it as such himself, begins with this philosophical framework. Whether he maintains it in the chapters to come is a separate question, but his grounding is thus far solid.

Wasting no time, Hayek soon enters the fundamental comparison of his book: that of the ideological roots of Nazism and the rise of socialist thought in Britain precisely at a time when the two nations are at war.

Much equivocating in classrooms, editorial pages, and student coffee shops has transpired in the last seventy-plus years as to the differences between Nazism and true socialism, with socialist apologists quibbling about how Nazis abused what was a noble ideal in socialism. Most engage in such momentous evasions and distortions as to treat socialism and fascism as in any way opposites, portraying what is in fact a genus-type distinction as fundamentally inimical, when they are, in fact, merely differences in application of the same basic premises.

Hayek tolerates none of this, observing,

“Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies… As a result, many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny” (3).

Indeed, one cannot help but feel that little has yet changed in Western intellectualism when Hayek describes the parallels between Germany after World War I and England during World War II: “There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious ‘realism’, and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of ‘inevitable trends’… It does not affect our problem that some groups may want less socialism than others, that some want socialism mainly in the interest of one group and others in that of another. The important point is that, if we take the people whose views influence developments, they are now in this country in some measure all socialists” (2-3).

More familiarity ensues when Hayek notes how Germany was once held in England and other Western countries as an ideal to be pursued and how that idealized conception has since been transferred elsewhere: “Although one does not like to be reminded, it is not so many years since the socialist policy of [Germany] was generally held up by progressives as an example to be imitated, just as in more recent years Sweden has been the model country to which progressive eyes were directed” (2). One so often sees the case of Swedish socialism invoked as a statist ideal in today’s world, since the recession of 2008, but it is often forgotten how old this example is—mentioned here by Hayek in the 1940s, discredited for its proclaimed cultural superiority by Ayn Rand in the 1960s, but still going strong as part of statist mythology today.

In support of his parallel, Hayek rightly rejects the concrete superficial details of German National Socialism to which the broader abstraction of ‘fascism’ is so unproductively and irrationally married in the minds of most who refer to and write of it. More than any other ideology, the word ‘fascism’ has attained a pejorative quality that has overcome its literal meaning and distorted the popular understanding of it to such an extent that most today will readily proclaim that they reject it, but remain utterly incapable of defining it. Modern dictionaries and encyclopedias are similarly unhelpful, as much victims of the disintegrated epistemology of their times as those who reference them.

(This is not the place to go into a fuller explanation of the meaning of fascism, but those interested would do well to refer to my previous essay on the subject, “Understanding Fascism”.)

Thus, in Hayek’s understanding of National Socialism will be found no deterministic German racial explanations, recognizing both the influences of German fascist thought on the English and the early role played by Thomas Carlyle and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Scot and an Englishman, on the formation of fascist ideas.

A cautious approach is wise here, as while no racial explanation to the effect that some innate German-ness led to National Socialism can be held as rational, the role of culture and philosophy in German society is indispensable to understanding its rise. Hayek goes on to write, “It would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism. It was the prevalence of socialist views and not Prussianism that Germany had in common with Italy and Russia—and it was from the masses and not from the classes steeped in the Prussian tradition, and favored by it, that National-Socialism arose” (7).

True as much of that is, to say “the socialist element produced totalitarianism” is perhaps only to scratch the surface by acknowledging that one political idea was connected to another It does not explain why the socialist element was accepted in the first place. For that, one must look to German culture. To that end, Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels offers an incomparable philosophical genealogy of Nazism that would serve as a necessary complement to Hayek’s work, assuming Hayek continues down the path he is setting out here.

Perhaps the most detrimental statement in Hayek’s introduction is said rather in passing. After having written that “by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes watch similar phases of intellectual development… They suggest, if not the necessity, at least the probability, that developments will take a similar course” (1), “some of the forces which have destroyed freedom in Germany are also at work here” (2), and “our chance of averting a similar fate depends on our facing the danger and on our being prepared to revise even our most cherished hopes and ambitions if they should prove to be the source of the danger” (2-3), Hayek betrays the premise upon which he has built up his whole work by conceding, “All parallels between developments in different countries are, of course, deceptive; but I am not basing my argument mainly on such parallels” (3).

Certainly it must be admitted that parallels between such developments are not deterministic or without mitigating factors, not immune to changes in trajectory. But to suggest that they “are, of course, deceptive” is perilously asserting a skepticist rejection of the principle of causality and the recognition in earlier statements of the role of ideas. Hayek would do well to apply the same social scientific rigor to the subject of politics that he does in economics, recognizing that just as effects of supply and demand on prices are assessed by holding constant certain variables, so the effect of ideas presumes a measure of ceteris paribus, but this does not negate the principle demonstrated by such models or demand of the author some token measure of self-doubt.

In all, Hayek’s introduction is strong and offers much to think about, hope for, and consider proceeding onward into his analyses. His overall support for the importance of ideas, propensity (if somewhat unconfidently) toward conceptual integration and a comparative approach to political ideologies, and positive views of individual man and political freedom make for a promising start. Hayek even provides sound reasoning for why England should be interested in engaging in such self-critical analysis, arguing,

“[T]his will enable us to understand our enemy and the issue at stake between us. It cannot be denied that there is yet little recognition of the positive ideals for which we are fighting. We know that we are fighting for freedom to shape our life according to our own ideas. That is a great deal, but not enough. It is not enough to give us the firm beliefs which we need to resist an enemy who uses propaganda as one of his main weapons not only in the most blatant but also in the most subtle forms. It is still more insufficient when we have to counter this propaganda among the people under his control and elsewhere, where the effect of this propaganda will not disappear with the defeat of the Axis powers… It is a lamentable fact that the English in their dealings with the dictators before the war, not less than in their attempts at propaganda and in the discussion of their war aims, have shown an inner insecurity and uncertainty of aim which can be explained only by confusion about their own ideals and the nature of the differences which separated them from the enemy. We have been misled as much because we have refused to believe that the enemy was sincere in the profession of some beliefs we shared as because we believed in the sincerity of some of his other claims” (4).

Likewise, we begin to see his potential faults: a propensity to begin at the level of politics without looking more deeply toward philosophical and cultural ideas, and a creeping skepticism that may lead him to an unconfident defense of his comparative approach and, thus, the warning he seeks to achieve with it. Whether these virtues and potential faults continue, only time and further reading will reveal, but as for the introduction, Hayek hits all of his marks: providing context, provoking questions and challenges, establishing a conceptual framework, and enticing our curiosity. A solid start to a modern defense of classical liberalism.

Flourishing and Synthesis

In Uncategorized on February 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

Edward W. Younkins

Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2011

That Edward W. Younkins is well and widely read is apparent in light of the diverse, mutually illuminating subjects he brings together in this short but impressive book: Aristotle, Ayn Rand, and the Austrian economists Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. These thinkers, and the schools they represent, are participatory, not wholly separate or distinct, in their celebration of capitalism. Each thinker has, to be sure, his or her own colorful methodologies and idiosyncrasies; but the differences among them are often overstated and under-analyzed, or treated with such closed minded certainty that insistences on ideological purity preclude searches for significant commonalities.

The ideas championed by these thinkers are not only reconcilable, Younkins suggests, but complementary and profoundly, sometimes intimately, connected. “By combining and synthesizing elements found in Aristotle’s writings, Austrian Economics, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and in the writings of neo-Aristotelian classical liberal philosophers of human flourishing,” Younkins explains, “we have the potential to reframe the argument for a free society into a consistent reality-based whole whose integrated sum of knowledge and explanatory power is greater than the sum of its parts” (16). In an era of groupthink and infighting among those who profess individualism and liberty, reason and freethinking, the clarification of intersections between various lines of individualist thought is happy indeed. It’s refreshing to read a book that aims to build rather than demolish, coordinate rather than exclude. Differences of opinion are important, and there are certain issues on which reasonably and rationally minded people—Aristotelians, Objectivists, and Austrian economists included—will disagree. But differences of opinion are not all that matter.

Truth matters; knowledge matters; the future matters. To the extent that this book integrates the shared ideas and vocabularies of different thinkers, it, too, matters a great deal. It is, after all, through shared ideas and vocabularies, arrived at independently, over time, in disparate times and places, that individuals glean and confirm truth. Younkins seeks, to this end, nothing less than a reevaluation of existing paradigms in pursuit of perennial themes reflecting and describing truth. His is a work of synergy and fusion; his is a work of revivification.

Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society opens with a “Preface” and an “Introduction” written by Younkins. Readers of this journal will not find anything original or surprising here. These sections, while noteworthy, merely lay the foundation for what is to come. They contain no footnotes, but provide extensive recommended reading lists and summarize unifying premises among the book’s principal foci: Aristotle, Rand, Menger, Mises, and Rothbard. In sweeping strokes, Younkins explains that later thinkers depended upon and revised earlier thinkers—that Rand, Menger, and Mises, for instance, borrowed from Aristotle even as they modified and reworked Aristotle. In conjunction with the “Conclusion,” which recapitulates the most important theses and arguments of the book, these sections “bookend,” as it were, the more substantive, detailed, and thorough chapters. Read the rest of this entry »

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