Murray Rothbard on Organized Crime

Murray Rothbard was a great economist[1], and a disaster when it came to politics.

A while ago, I came across this article, about The Godfather I & II and other Mafia movies. A few quotes:

The key to The Godfathers and to success in the Mafia genre is the realization and dramatic portrayal of the fact that the Mafia, although leading a life outside the law, is, at its best, simply entrepreneurs and businessmen supplying the consumers with goods and services of which they have been unaccountably deprived by a Puritan WASP culture. […]

Hence the systemic violence of Mafia life. Violence, in The Godfather films, is never engaged in for the Hell of it, or for random kicks; the point is that since the government police and courts will not enforce contracts they deem to be illegal, debts incurred in the Mafia world have to be enforced by violence […]. But the violence simply enforces the Mafia equivalent of the law: the codes of honor and loyalty without which the whole enterprise would simply be random and pointless violence. […]

Organized crime is essentially anarcho-capitalist, a productive industry struggling to govern itself; apart from attempts to monopolize and injure competitors, it is productive and non-aggressive. Unorganized, or street, crime, in contrast, is random, punkish, viciously aggressive against the innocent, and has no redeeming social feature. [Italics mine.]

What is the logic (or praxeology) of this? Let me take it step by step:

  1. States are organizations. A particular state may be well organized or badly organized, but an “unorganized state” would be a contradiction in terms.

  2. According to Rothbard and his followers, states are criminal by their very nature. This is why they dismiss the idea of a rights-respecting and rights-protecting state (limited government or a “night watchman” state) as illusory. No matter how hard we try to establish such a state or government, it will always end up with our rights being violated.

  3. Thus, a state is an example of organized crime.

So, if Rothbard (and his followers) is in favor of organized crime, what justification does he (or they) have for opposing the state?

Well, the answer to this seems to be that the state or government is doing a bad job of enforcing law and order. Privately organized crime is simply more effective that governmental organized crime.

And isn’t there a kernel of truth in this? When the state or government does not do its job of enforcing rights – and, instead, violates our rights – other organizations will step in to fill the vacuum.

Organized crime thrives on “victimless crimes”. When drinking is outlawed (as during the Prohibition era) – or taking drugs or gambling – this is when the Mafia takes over and supplies the goods. And when there are heavy taxes on tobacco and alcohol, then organized smuggling takes over. With a truly rights-respecting and rights-protecting government or state, this would not happen. But this, of course, is precisely what the anarcho-capitalists dismiss as illusory.

Rothbard has this graphic illustration of how much better the Mafia is than the government:

One errant, former member of the Corleone famiglia abases himself before The Godfather (Marlon Brando). A certain punk had raped and brutalized his daughter. He went to the police and the courts, and the punk was, at last, let go (presumably by crafty ACLU-type lawyers and a soft judicial system). This distraught father now comes to Don Corleone for justice.

Brando gently upbraids the father: “Why didn’t you come to me? Why did you go to The State?” The inference is clear: the State isn’t engaged in equity and justice; to obtain justice, you must come to the famiglia. Finally, Brando relents: “What would you have me do?” The father whispers in the Godfather’s ear. “No, no, that is too much. We will take care of him properly.” So not only do we see anarcho-capitalist justice carried out, but it is clear that the Mafia code has a nicely fashioned theory of proportionate justice. In a world where the idea that the punishment should fit the crime has been abandoned and still struggled over by libertarian theorists it is heart-warming to see that the Mafia has worked it out in practice.

Now, states are sometimes at war with one another, and sometimes at peace; and this is true of different Mafia groups, as well. About this, Rothbard writes:

In many cases, especially where “syndicates” are allowed to form and are not broken-up by government terror, the various organized syndicates will mediate and arbitrate disputes, and thereby reduce violence to a minimum. Just as governments in the Lockean paradigm are supposed to be enforcers of commonly-agreed-on rules and property rights, so “organized crime,” when working properly, does the same. Except that in its state of illegality it operates in an atmosphere charged with difficulty and danger.

But governments, too, “mediate and arbitrate disputes”. This is what diplomatic services are for – trying to prevent disputes from developing into wars. And wars commonly end with a peace treaty.[2]

It is, of course, true that governments today (and in the past) do a very bad job of protecting our rights and a very good job at violating them. But this is also true of private robber bands. – And I assume that if Rothbard is opposed to unorganized street crime but in favor of organized crime, then he must be opposed to private muggers, who mug on their own with no organization behind them, but in favor of organized robber bands, just because they are organized – or should be, if he follows his own praxeology.

It is also true that the struggle for a proper, limited government (a “night watchman state” or a “constitutional republic” or whatever name for it you prefer) is an uphill struggle. Just think of how many politicians will lose their power, as well as their salaries and other advantages, if this would become true. They will fight back with all their might. But this is also true of Mafias and of all the other “private protection agencies” that the anarcho-capitalists envision. If politicians can be corrupted by power-lust, so can Mafia bosses.

But if this struggle is impossible and illusory, our only choice would be to throw in the towel.

Update July 30 2014: This post has also been published on the new website For The New Intellectual.

Footnotes:

[1]) I haven’t read his magnum opus Man. Economy and State; but the introduction to his America’s Great Depression contains what may be the best explanation of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory and why it is the only possible explanation of the “boom-bust” phenomenon. And his shorter monographs What Has Government Done to Our Money? and The Case for a 100 Percent Gold Dollar are excellent presentations of the case for a 100% gold standard. I also recommend The Mystery of Banking, The Myth of Free Banking in Scotland and The Essential von Mises.

[2]) I once heard a story about Harry Binswanger discussing the idea of “dispute resolution organizations” (DROs) with Ayn Rand, and her reply was: “You mean, like the United Nations?”

The Perverse Logic of Anarcho-Capitalism

I haven’t blogged in English about the latest development in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the terror groups that want to destroy it and chase away, or kill, every Jew in the area; but I have written a few blog posts in Swedish about it (follow the link, if you know Swedish). On one of those posts, I got the following anonymous comment[1]:

Your fascination for the state of Israel makes you completely irrelevant as a libertarian or anarcho-capitalist. Why do you advocate state violence, when it comes to the state of Israel?

Let’s leave aside the fact that I have never been an anarcho-capitalist, have certainly never claimed to be one, and have in fact been highly critical of anarcho-capitalism (and not minced my words about it either). The question here is why anarcho-capitalists side against Israel, when they should know as well as everybody else that Israel is the only semi-free country in the region, and that the terror groups (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah – you name them) are all anti-Semitic to the core[2] and would establish some form of Islamic theocracy in the region, if they were to succeed in annihilating Israel? And why do they call themselves anarcho-capitalists, if, in fact, they are anarcho-Nazis?

The simple reason is that Israel is a state – and, according to anarcho-capitalism, a state is evil by its very nature. The distinction between a totalitarian state and a state that is at least semi-free is therefore, in their eyes, irrelevant. (As for the idea of a truly rights-respecting and rights-protecting state, they believe that this is impossible and that efforts to achieve it are just illusory.)

But Hamas and the other terror groups are certainly not states, and therefore, presumably, there is nothing in their very nature to make them evil. They are perfectly legitimate NGOs (non-governmental organizations) – they are in fact examples of the “private protection agencies” with which the anarcho-capitalists want to replace the state.

What is required to make the anarcho-capitalists reverse this view of Hamas and those other groups? One thing only: That a “two-state solution” is reached (or, alternatively, that they succeed in annihilating Israel). In that case, Hamas (or a coalition between Hamas and Fatah) would itself become the state in the region, and then it, too, would become evil by its very nature.

But to call them evil now, before this happens, would simply be preposterous to an anarcho-capitalist.

Footnotes:

[1]) I do not allow anonymous comments on my blogs, but in this case I made an exception, because I wanted to tell the guy off, in no uncertain terms.

[2]) The anti-Semitism of Islam is not something new – it is as old as Islam itself. This is from the Prophet himself:

The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say “O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. …”

This is a “hadith”, i.e. something said by Muhammad and written down by his followers during his lifetime or shortly after his death. It is quoted in The Hamas Covenant.

So much, then, for the idea that the Moslems started to hate the Jews only in 1948.

A Note on My Translation Work

The other day I received a comment on my page Leonard Peikoff Takes Legal Action, which I threw away, since I am not interested in flame wars and do not wish to spend my remaining few decades on this earth[1] on senseless quarrels that do not lead anywhere, anyway. But the commenter suggested that, instead of continuing translating Ayn Rand’s works into Swedish without Leonard Peikoff’s permission, I should have asked for this permission, and then I would probably have been paid for my work. Obviously, this person did not take the trouble to read what I have written about the background of this conflict.

The fact of this matter is that I did have Peikoff’s permission to make those translations from 1987 and onwards; he revoked it in 1996 because I had the temerity to demand of him that he explain to me why he had declared his former associates George Reisman and Edith Packer “immoral”. He flatly refused to give me this explanation and chose instead to punish me for even asking by revoking this permission.

This translation project was a joint venture between me and Henrik Unné (we were friends and comrades-in-arms in those years). Henrik financed the venture, while I made the translations; I also performed all the manual work involved: copying, stapling, stamping and taking the result to the post office. (This was before the age of the Internet; today I would have published my translations as blog posts.)

There was never any question about payment for this work. Both I and Henrik did this for idealistic, though thoroughly selfish, reasons. I like translating, and I certainly thought it was a good deed to make Ayn Rand’s works available in Swedish.

So how can anyone think that I would be paid for my work now, if I just performed an act of abject cowardice, licked Leonard Peikoff’s boots and decided to take part in the backstabbing of Reisman and Packer?

The commenter also pointed out that my translations are a copyright infringement. I cannot dispute that. But that Peikoff has legality on his side does not mean that he also has morality on his side. Backstabbing Reisman and Packer and then punishing those who question it is an act of profound immorality.

Had I been a multi-millionaire, I would have fought this in court, and the world would know what this conflict is all about. But I am not even a common-and-garden millionaire; I have enough money to live on, but not more. I cannot afford a court case that might reduce me to begging.

I have to say a word about the sheer hypocrisy of Dr. Peikoff’s actions. In the letter I received from his attorneys it says:

The Estate and the Ayn Rand Institute have built on Ms. Rand’s intellectual property by investing a great deal of money and years of effort in protecting her literary legacy, including careful management of the publication of her works. This includes strict oversight of any translations of her works, which are themselves derivative works.

This clearly implies that my permission was revoked, not because of my refusal to lick Leonard Peikoff’s boots and take part in his backstabbing of the Reismans, but because of the poor quality of my translations.

So has Leonard Peikoff or any of his associates made an investigation into the quality of my translations? Has he asked any Swedish speaking person about it? Has he received reports from Swedish Objectivists telling him my translations are lousy?[2] Certainly not. This is just a smoke screen.

No flame war in the comments, please. If you think Objectivism is all about licking the right boots and stabbing the wrong people in the back, just disregard this post.

Footnotes:

[1]) I am 72 years old, and although I am in fairly good health, I do not realistically expect to become a centenarian.

[2]) I, myself, have never received any such complaints. On the contrary, I have received much praise for them. Some years ago, one person wrote in a discussion forum that my translations were the only ones in Swedish that were worth reading.

Islam versus Reason and Logic

I recently read Ibn Khaldun’s (1332–1406) The Muqaddimah (also known as Prolegomena) in a Swedish translation and wrote a couple of blog posts about it. Now I find that the full English text of this work is available on the web[1], and therefore I will adapt one of these posts for my non-Scandinavian readers.

My interest in him was triggered by somebody whispering in my ear that he had made some interesting economic observations. And so he has. Long before Arthur Laffer presented his Laffer curve – which says that when taxes become too high, they become counter-productive to the tax collectors, because they lower people’s incentive to work – Ibn Khaldun made the same point. (Laffer actually acknowledges this, and the curve is sometimes called the Laffer-Khaldun curve.)

Or take this paragraph on the subject of division of labor, written a few hundred years before Adam Smith:

[…] the power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain (the food) he needs, and does not provide him with as much food as he requires to live. Even if we assume an absolute minimum of food –that is, food enough for one day, (a little) wheat, for instance – that amount of food could be obtained only after much preparation such as grinding, kneading, and baking. Each of these three operations requires utensils and tools that can be provided only with the help of several crafts, such as the crafts of the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the potter. Assuming that a man could eat unprepared grain, an even greater number of operations would be necessary in order to obtain the grain: sowing and reaping, and threshing to separate it from the husks of the ear. Each of these operations requires a number of tools and many more crafts than those just mentioned. It is beyond the power of one man alone to do all that, or (even) part of it, by himself. Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through co­operation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own (number), can be satisfied. [From the First Prefatory Discussion in chapter 1.]

But Ibn Khaldun was also a devout Muslim; and this is what I will write about here.

As you all know, the “Aristotle Renaissance” in the late Middle Ages took hold in the Arabic world before it reached Europe. The best known names are Ibn Sina (latinized Avicenna; ca 980–1037) and Ibn Rushd (latinized Averroës; 1126–1198). And just as Thomas Aquinas would later claim that Aristotle’s teachings are compatible with Christianity, so those philosophers claimed that they are compatible with Islam.

But there were Muslim philosophers who disagreed. The most well-known is Al-Ghazali (ca 1058–1111), who attacked this view in a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers – where he claimed that we should not look for causes, because everything that happens in the world happens because God wills it, and no other causal explanation is necessary, and looking for them constitutes heresy. Ibn Rushd answered him in a book called The Incoherence of the Incoherence; but the Muslim world followed Al-Ghazali, and Aristotelianism was abandoned. (I first heard of this in a lecture by Edwin Locke, who dubbed Al-Ghazali a “reverse Aquinas”. It does explain why the Muslim world has since lagged behind the West; but Al-Ghazali would probably say that it lags behind, because God wills it to lag behind.)

Ibn Khaldun was a follower of Al-Ghazali (and a couple of less known philosophers who held the same view). In The Muqaddimah he has a chapter titled

A refutation of philosophy. The corruption of the students of philosophy

… from which I quote[2]:

This and the following (two) sections are important. The sciences (of philosophy, astrology, and alchemy) occur in civilization. They are much cultivated in the cities. The harm they (can) do to religion is great. Therefore, it is necessary that we make it clear what they are about and that we reveal what the right attitude concerning them (should be).

There are (certain) intelligent representatives of the human species who think that the essences and conditions of the whole of existence, both the part of it perceivable by the senses and that beyond sensual perception, as well as the reasons and causes of (those essences and conditions), can be perceived by mental speculation and intellectual reasoning. They also think that the articles of faith are established as correct through (intellectual) speculation and not through tradition, because they belong among the intellectual per­ceptions. Such people are called “philosophers” […]

And later on:

It should be known that the (opinion) the (philosophers) hold is wrong in all its aspects. […] Existence […] is too wide to (be explained by so narrow a view). […] The philosophers, who restrict themselves to affirming the intellect and neglect everything beyond it, are in a way comparable, to physicists who restrict themselves to affirming the body and who disregard (both) soul and intellect in the belief that there is nothing beyond the body in (God’s) wise plan concerning (the world of) existence.

And:

[…] we must refrain from studying these things, since such (restraint) falls under (the duty of) the Muslim not to do what does not concern him.

And what about logic?

[…] the science (of logic) is not adequate to achieve the avowed intentions (of the philosophers). In addition, it contains things that are contrary to the religious laws and their obvious meaning. As far as we know, this science has only a single fruit, namely, it sharpens the mind in the orderly presentation of proofs and arguments, so that the habit of excellent and correct arguing is obtained. This is because the orderly process and the solid and exact method of reasoning are as the philosophers have prescribed them in their science of logic. They employ (logic) a good deal in the physical and mathematical sciences as well as in the science that comes after them (metaphysics). Since (logical) arguments are much employed in those sciences in the way they should be employed, the student of them is able to master the habit of exact and correct arguing and deducing. Even if (those sciences) are not adequate to achieve the intentions of the (philosophers), they constitute the soundest norm of (philosophical) speculation that we know of.

Such is the fruit of this craft (of logic). It also affords acquaintance with the doctrines and opinions of the people of the world. One knows what harm it can do. Therefore, the student of it should beware of its pernicious aspects as much as he can. Whoever studies it should do so (only) after he is saturated with the religious law and has studied the interpretation of the Qur’an and jurisprudence. No one who has no knowledge of the Muslim religious sciences should apply himself to it. Without that knowledge, he can hardly remain safe from its pernicious aspects.

God gives success and guidance to the truth. [Italics mine.]

Well, what do you make of this? Obviously, the Muslim, too, should use logic to some extent – it “sharpens his mind in the orderly presentation of proofs and arguments”, and it “affords acquaintance with the doctrines and opinions of the people of the world”. But he also has to know its “pernicious aspects” – so that he does not employ logic in his study of Islam! Then, his mind should be “unsharpened”. But as long as logic is used to refute the use of logic in religious matters, it is OK. The concept of “concept-stealing” comes readily to mind …

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Ibn Khaldun was also in favor of jihad or holy war.[3] Another chapter in his book is titled

Wars and the methods of waging war practiced by the various nations

… and it begins:

Wars and different kinds of fighting have always occurred in the world since God created it. […] It is something natural among human beings. No nation and no race (generation) is free from it. […]

The first (kind of war) usually occurs between neighbor­ing tribes and competing families.

The second (kind of war) – war caused by hostility – is usually found among savage nations living in the desert […] They earn their sustenance with their lances and their livelihood by depriving other people of their possessions. They declare war against those who defend their property against them. They have no further desire for rank and royal authority. Their minds and eyes are set only upon depriving other people of their possessions.

The third (kind of war) is the one the religious law calls “the holy war.”

The fourth (kind of war), finally, is dynastic war against seceders and those who refuse obedience.

These are the four kinds of war The first two are unjust and lawless, the other two are holy and just wars. [Italics mine.]

Jihad is holy and just!

And in chapter 31 he writes:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the (Muslim) mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. {Italics mine.]

As for the Christians:

It is (for them to choose between) conversion to Islam, payment of the poll tax, or death. [Italics mine.]

It could not be more clearly stated that Islam is not “a religion of peace”.

Footnotes:

[1]) Translated by Franz Rosenthal in 1967.

[2]) The words in parentheses in the quotes are added by the translator to make the meaning clearer.

[3]) An old acquaintance of mine who has converted to Islam has explained to me that there are two forms of jihad. There is the “small jihad”, which is waging war to spread Islam; and there is the “big jihad”, which is waging war within one’s own mind against anti-Muslim thoughts and ideas, like selfishness. – Well, to risk one’s life in the holy war – much more then to become a suicide bomber – one first has to uproot selfishness. But why then all those promises of Paradise and threats of Hell? Wishing to avoid coming to Hell in the hereafter is a selfish wish.

Some Differences Between Swedish and English

Also published as a Facebook note.

Having studied the Swedish language diligently for seven decades and the English language for almost as long (close to six decades), I cannot help noticing some of the differences between the two languages. Here are a couple of examples:

First, the concept of “evil”. The Swedish word for “evil” is “ond” (or – depending on the grammatical context – “ont”). So if I want to say that the Devil (or Ellsworth Toohey, or that weird philosopher from Königsberg whose name I kant remember) [1]is evil, this is the word I will use. Or, if I simply want to say “That was evil”, it becomes “Det där var ont”.

But if I say “Jag har ont”, this doesn’t mean, as one would suspect, that I have something evil in me, but that I have an ache, or simply “It hurts”.

This, perhaps, is not so odd – for, as Ayn Rand points out in “The Objectivist Ethics”, our first contact as children with the phenomena of good and evil is through the sensations of pleasure and pain. Pain is I signal that something threatens one’s life, i.e. of something evil.

But take another example. If I say that “jag är ond på någon”, this doesn’t mean that I am evil to someone, but that I’m angry with someone. Perhaps not so odd, either – since anger might be a reaction to something one regards as evil. (Also, the more common Swedish word for “angry”, which is “arg”, in older times was often used as a synonym for “ond”.[2])

But here is another expression: We often say “Jag har ont om pengar (eller tid)”. The literal meaning of this is “I have evil about money (or time)”, but this simply makes no sense in English. The actual meaning is “I am short of money (or time).” (Conversely, “I have plenty of money/ time” comes out in Swedish as “Jag har gott om pengar /tid”.)

Well, being short of something is a bad thing – and “bad” is a fairly close synonym for “evil” (in many cases just a difference of degree[3]).

Still, we might ask whether this means that we Swedes have a very profound understanding of “good” and “evil” – or that we are terribly confused about those concepts?

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The next example concerns the virtue of justice. Objectivists make a big deal about the fact that we deserve what we have earned. For example, if a man has earned his money by honest work, he deserves his money; if he has acquired his money by theft, or fraud, or levying taxes on the productive members of society, he does not deserve his money. Or if a man has earned respect or admiration by his actions, he deserves this respect or admiration; but if he merely clamors for those things, he doesn’t deserve them.

But in Swedish, this distinction between “earning” and “deserving” doesn’t exist. We use the same word, “förtjäna”, for both. And this makes it quite cumbersome to translate this point about justice into Swedish. The translator has to get around it by saying something like “we deserve such things as we have made ourselves deserving of” – but that is pretty self-evident, isn’t it?

The question here is whether we Swedes really have to be taught or preached to about this aspect of justice, when the point is already built into our language?

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The third example concerns the virtue of pride. Proper pride is the expression of genuine self-esteem – and is obviously a good thing in the Objectivist ethics. A different kind of “pride” is an expression of pseudo-self-esteem – and, for lack of a better word, we may call it “pseudo-pride”. (An example of it is a braggart.)

But in this case, the Swedish language does make a distinction. Proper pride is called “stolthet”, while improper pride is called “högmod”. So the expression “Pride goeth before a fall” in Swedish is “Högmod går före fall”, never “Stolthet går före fall”.

We Swedes understand the distinction! It is built into our language.

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There are of course umpteen such differences between Swedish and English. (The Swedish word for “umpteen”, by the way, is “femtioelva”, literally “fifty-eleven”.) The ones I have mentioned here have some philosophical significance. (Not much, admittedly, but some.)

Footnotes:

[1]) The joke is off-topic, but I kant resist it.

[2]) As in the expression ”argan list”, which means literally ”evil cunning”.

[3]) Not in all cases, though. If a man does something bad by mistake, or out of ignorance, it does not mean that he is evil.

Ayn Rand on ”Organized Objectivism”

There is an ongoing soap opera called “Objectivist Schismology”, and it has recently come to the fore again, when a prominent Objectivist attended a funeral no right-minded Objectivist should attend, and then had dinner with an old friend no right-minded Objectivist should be friends with or have dinner with.[1] This has been widely discussed on Facebook lately (probably in other fora as well). And this has led to a discussion whether there is some organization that can be said to truly represent Objectivism and has the authority to decide who is and who isn’t an Objectivist.

One should therefore recall what Ayn Rand herself said about this.

In her statement on the “Branden split” in 1968, “To Whom It May Concern”, she writes:

I never wanted and do not now want to be the leader of a ‘movement’. I do approve of a philosophical or intellectual movement, in the sense of a growing trend among a number of independent individuals sharing the same ideas. But an organized movement is a different matter.

And in “A Statement of Policy” in the next issue of The Objectivist, she uses even stronger words:

I regard the spread of Objectivism through today’s culture as an intellectual movement – i.e. a trend among independent individuals who share the same ideas – but not as an organized movement. [...] I want, therefore, to make it emphatically clear that Objectivism is not an organized movement and is not to be regarded as such by anyone. [...] I shall not establish or endorse any type of school or organization purporting to represent or be a spokesman for Objectivism. I shall repudiate and take appropriate action against any attempt to use my name or my philosophy, explicitly or implicitly, in connection with any project of that kind or any organization not authorized by me.

But after March 8, 1982, she has not been in a position either to endorse or to repudiate any organization using her name or purporting to use her philosophy.[2]

Sarcasm aside, the fundamental issue here is that everyone has to speak for him- or herself. Only Ayn Rand can speak for Ayn Rand, only Immanuel Kant can speak for Immanuel Kant, only I can speak for myself, etc., etc. Pretty obvious, but often overlooked.

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The best analyses I have seen on “Objectivist Schismology” have been written by Robert Tracinski:

Anthemgate (on the “McCaskey split”).

The 1980s Called, and They Want Their Objectivism Back

And I have written a few posts on “Objectivist Schismology” myself. And some years ago, I made an attempt to untangle the subject (hardly the last word, though).

As to my own role in this soap opera, see My Life as a Translator and the English section of my website.

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[1]) Deliberate sarcasm on my part – but I think you understand that.

[2]) This is not to say that The Ayn Rand Institute is not doing good work on disseminating Objectivism – but so do others, as well. (There are quite a few Objectivist blogs and websites nowadays, and some of them are good.) But it is not any kind of “final authority” on what is and what is not Objectivism. Neither is The Estate of Ayn Rand.

Evil Thoughts?

In Atlas Shrugged Francisco d’Anconia says to Hank Rearden:

There are no evil thoughts, except one: the refusal to think.

Nit-pickers may object to this that the refusal to think is not a thought, but the absence of thought. But that is nit-picking. It is quite common that people refuse to consider some issue that they should consider. I do not think it is even possible for someone to refuse to think altogether; but it is certainly possible – and happens quite frequently – that someone refuses to think about this, that or the other issue. Sometimes, it is even justified – if the issue is too unimportant to think about – but mostly it is impermissible. If an issue is important and you refuse to think about it, it will land you in trouble (do I need to elaborate on this?). – And refusing to think is of course the same as “evasion” or “blank-out”, which Ayn Rand identifies as the basic sin or vice, lying at the bottom of all other sins or vices.

But I have to ask myself how this statement is to be reconciled with the statement that Immanuel Kant was

the most evil man in mankind’s history. (“Brief summary” in the last issue of The Objectivist.)

Does this mean that Immanuel Kant consistently refused to think? If so, how did he manage to write his book (or hold his lectures at the University of Königsberg, for that matter)? I, myself, cannot write a single sentence without thinking, let alone this blog post and let alone a whole book or a whole philosophical corpus. So how did Immanuel Kant perform this feat, if he consistently refused to think?

I was impertinent enough to ask this question in a thread on Facebook, and the answer I got was that what Kant was engaged in was not thinking at all, but something entirely different. Let me quote:

Some people have asked me how I can take the position that irrationality in one’s own mind is immoral when Miss Rand said that there was only one primary vice and that was not to think. But there is no contradiction here at all. Running obtuse verbiage through your mind is not thinking. In order to be thinking you have to go by the evidence in a non-contradictory manner, even if you are the only one aware of what is going through your mind. Put another way, thinking is a very specific process, it is not any ole thing that passes through your mind. And because of this, one has to consider Kant to be evil because Kant was not engaged in a thinking process. So, what was he doing, say, when he wrote Prolegomena to Any future Metaphysics?

The short answer is that Kant was not thinking — he was not being rational. He deliberately wrote long tracks of obfuscatory verbiage in an effort to undercut your mind’s connection to existence, but he was not thinking. Thinking would have required him to point to evidence that what we observe is not real, and he didn’t do that. He wrote and wrote many passages that cannot be grasped by a rational mind just to confuse you into thinking that you have no access to existence either with the senses or via a process of reason. He was not thinking, he was irrational, and even if he had only written that down for his own amusement and never showed it to anyone, he would have been thoroughly irrational and therefore evil.

But this explanation, I have to say, is “obfuscatory”. The guy who wrote this is running obtuse verbiage through his mind.

(Those sarcasms will not be posted on Facebook. I have no desire to start a “flame war” on Immanuel Kant.)

Sarcasm aside, I have actually read Prolegomena (in a Swedish translation), and I am perfectly capable of refuting it myself without much help from others. Yes, it does require an effort to grasp what Kant is saying, and it does require a further effort to see what is wrong with it. But it is impermissible to dismiss it merely on the grounds that he is obtuse.

What is the alternative to thinking before one formulates one’s thoughts (be they clear or obscure)? The only alternative I can think of is speaking in tongues – in which case one’s thoughts are dictated, either by God or by some demon. Was Kant speaking in tongues when he wrote his books and delivered his lectures?

And it is not possible even to write obtusely without thinking. Even obtuse writing requires the use of words – and how does one grasp the meaning of words, except by a process of thinking?

And it is not possible to abandon the use of reason entirely. Even the philosopher who attacks (or undermines) reason has to use reason to formulate his attack. – A case in point is Martin Luther, who called reason “the devil’s highest whore” (”Des Teufels höchste Hure”) . The same Martin Luther performed the incredible feat of translating the whole Bible into German. How did he do this without consulting this whore?

And on a non-philosophical level, even a bank robber has to use reason to plan and execute his robbery. His aim (to get rich by robbery rather that by productive work) is certainly irrational. But his means does require some amount of rationality, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to rob the bank. (And you can probably make up your own examples.)

So what is my point in writing this? Certainly not to defend Immanuel Kant – who might very well be the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy (with the reservation that there are many philosophers that I haven’t even read). But it is true about every philosopher that if one wants to refute him (or her, as the case may be), one first has to thoroughly understand what the philosopher is trying to say. Merely pointing to his (or her) obtuse language will not do the trick.

If Kant’s philosophy is unimportant, then one may safely refuse to think about it. But if it is so important that one has to declare him, not just the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy, but even the most evil man in mankind’s history – then one has to think really hard about all of the main points in his philosophy. And, first of all, one has to read him.

 Footnotes:

1) There are at least two factual errors in the quote that I have to point out:

First of all, Kant did not say that what we observe is not real. This is a misunderstanding that he clears up in Prolegomena.

And secondly, he did not doubt the evidence of our senses. On the contrary, he defended the senses. This is taken up in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.

2) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written a Prolegomenon to Kant’s Prolegomena in Swedish – plus a whole slew of other blog posts on Kant. For non-Scandinavians, I mention Prolegomena in my blog post Rand Debating Kant.

I should also mention that Wikipedia has a good summary of Kant’s Prolegomena. (It will confirm that Kant’s reasoning is obtuse.)

PS. I just discovered that the full text of Prolegomena is available in an English translation.

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