Retrospection

I now have a retrospective department on this blog. I will re-publish those articles in English that are now on my web site. First out:

The Objectivist Validation of Individual Rights
Appendix: An Answer to Walter Block
Is Fractional Reserve Banking Compatible with Objectivism?
Joseph A. Schumpeter – Friend or Foe of Capitalism?

Earlier, I have published My Life as a Translator.

Look out for more.

(I am working on the same on my Swedish blog.)

Fictional taxes

I have written about this in Swedish before, but I think it may be of interest to non-Swedes as well. – For the sake of simplicity (or out of laziness), I keep the examples in Swedish currency. The exchange rate between Swedish kronor (SEK) and US dollars is currently 8.5 SEK per dollar.

Suppose you are a young child and your parents give you pocket money in the form of a weekly allowance of 200 kronor. However, every week your father hands you 300 kronor and immediately takes 100 kronor back. When you ask: “Dad, why on earth do you do this?”, he answers: “Those 100 kronor will go to paying your next weekly allowance”.

This could be described as you, the child, getting an allowance of 300 kronor, of which you pay a third back in “income tax”. But of course, no child would be fooled by this reasoning. Only adults can be that foolish.

Now, back to real life:

For the last 25 years I have worked for the Swedish government, as a librarian (“second assistant”) in the Swedish Royal Library.[1] (Before that, I worked for some years as a school teacher, which is also a job in the public sector.) For this work I receive a monthly salary, on which I allegedly pay approximately a third in income tax. So, every month, I get a slip of paper in my mail, saying that I have received (approximately) 21 000 kronor, from which 7 000 kronor are deducted as tax, so that I actually get 14 000 kronor into my bank account.

But where are those 7 000 kronor? They exist only in the form of a figure on a slip of paper!

By contrast, if I earned the same amount of money from a job in the private sector, then a third of my income would actually go to the government in the form of income tax. In terms of time, it would mean that I work a third of the year for the government and two thirds for myself and/or my family.

This income tax money goes to defraying government expenses, part of which is of course paying the salaries of government servants (such as second assistant librarians at the Royal Library). But when I, a government servant, pay a third of my income as income tax, this money also goes to paying the salaries of government servants – which means, in effect, that I supposedly pay the government 7 000 kronor a month, which then goes to paying my salary for the next month! Exactly as in the fictional example I started out with.

Obviously, this “income tax” I am paying is entirely fictional. The government could just as well pay me 14 000 kronor and take no tax at all; it would make no difference.

But suppose the income tax is raised to, say, 50%. (The public sector is expanding; the government needs more servants and more money to pay their salaries.) For those of you who work in the private sector, this would mean you now work half of your time for the government instead of just one third; but I am a government servant and already work 100% of my time for the government. The change for me would be that I now only receive 10 500 kronor in take-home pay. If the fiction of me paying an income tax is removed, it would simply mean that I now have a lower monthly salary, which is of course exactly what I have. And the situation would be the same, if the tax were raised to, say, 90%. The actual outcome is that I will now receive 2 100 kronor in take-home pay, which, of course, I could not live on.

But the government certainly does not want to treat its servants that unkindly. So in order to compensate me (us) they have to raise our pay. In the 50% case above, this would mean that my “before tax” income would have to be raised to 28 000 kronor. In the 90% case, it would have to be raised to 140 000. But this tax is as fictional as before. I won’t suffer from the raised tax, but everyone who works in the private sector will.

But say there is a genuine tax reform and income tax is lowered to 10%. Now, my take home pay will be almost 19 000! But who is paying for my raised income? Not me: the 2 100 I allegedly pay is still only a figure on a slip of paper. No, the pay raise is paid by the taxpayers in the private sector. But wait a moment – their taxes have just been lowered to 10%! The government after this tax reform will not have enough money to pay its servants’ salaries! Government servants (including second assistant librarians) will have to be fired! Or else, my “before tax” pay will have to be lowered so my take-home pay still stays at 14 000. But even so, the government now has much less money to pay in salaries. It won’t be able to pay me my 14 000 either.

This is of course the reason why such drastic tax cuts are never made. They are simply not affordable, from the government’s point of view. (Such tax cuts of course would have to be made in conjunction with a radical slimming of the public sector – libraries and schools, along with many other things, would have to be privatized.)

Why, then, is this fiction being maintained? Well, I think it is sheer hypocrisy. People with statist inclinations simply want us to believe that we are all taxpayers, although some of us clearly aren’t.

To illustrate the hypocrisy: one Swedish politician (Mona Sahlin, who was from 2007 to 2011 the leader of our Social Democratic party) a few years ago made a statement to the effect that she, personally, loved to pay taxes! Paying taxes was the best thing in life! And so, everybody else should love it, too.

But there is no slightest difference between me and Mona Sahlin, except this one: her income is exorbitant, compared to mine. Her “taxes” are as fictional as mine. She loves paying taxes that in actual, sober fact don’t exist.

But what would happen if this plain fact were simply acknowledged and we public servants actually did not have to pay those taxes we do not really pay anyway? Well, there might be a public outrage, as people now would see clearly what the fiction is intended to hide: that some of us don’t pay taxes. The whole public sector would be seen as parasitical (which, to a great extent, it certainly is). The result might be a tax revolt.

Now, I certainly don’t regard myself as a parasite because of my work. Libraries are an important part of civilization, and so are schools (although I say the last with some hesitation, considering the sorry state of our educational system). In an ideal laissez-faire society, such institutions would be privately owned and maintained. But unfortunately, I live in this century, not in some future utopia – so this is not something I should accept unearned guilt for.

In feudal times members of the nobility were tax exempt. But they were so, because they performed another service to the country (or “society at large”, to use the common collectivist catch-phrase) – they were supposed to take part in warfare, whenever there was a war.

Today, many public servants (librarians and school-teachers are examples) do perform a valuable service and of course should be paid for it. It would be unfair to call them “parasitical”, just because they work in the public sector and are paid with tax money. Teachers can of course try to find work in private schools. But I don’t think this is a possibility for librarians – at least not here in Sweden.

So there is no reason for feeling bad about working in the public sector – at least not for us who are also fighting for a future of limited government. But we should not pretend that we are taxpayers – neither me nor Mona Sahlin.

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There is another, “macro-economic” point: although this tax money is entirely fictional, I believe it is still counted when national income or GDP is calculated. Obviously, the figures have to be overstated if fictional money is included.


[1] This was originally written shortly after I retired in 2009 (Swedish law does not allow me to work past the age of 67). My reasoning also applies to the alms I receive as a pensioner, although the amount is smaller.

Some Blog Statistics

I have had a little more than 20 000 visits on this blog since I began blogging in 2010. Not much to brag about …

By contrast, I have had almost 60 00 visits on my Swedish blog. But then, I have blogged much more frequently in Swedish than in English.

Most popular blog posts:

Aristotle on Egoism (727 visits)

The Art of Quoting Ayn Rand out of Context (694 visits)

Aristotle on Youth and Old Age (609 visits)

Murray Rothbard on the Soviet Union (491 visits)

A Short Word on Hans-Hermann Hoppe (485 visits)

Least popular blog posts:

The Robbery (2 visits)

My Review of We the Living (3 visits – why is there so little interest in this book?)

Visits by country (since February 25, 2012; no statistics available before that date):

USA (8 888 visits – yes, that’s right)

Sweden (2 869 visits)

Great Britain (796 visits – yes, this is a gap)

Canada (748 visits)

India (417 visits)

And only one visit from China. (The same for Afghanistan, Yemen. Syria, Morocco, Mongolia. The Dominican Republic, Liberia, Zimbabwe, The Seychelles, The Virgin Islands, Senegal, El Salvador, Antigua and Barbuda, Oman, and Djibouti.)

Happy New Year!

My Review of We the Living

“The year 1923, like any other, had a spring.”

“If they ask you, in America”, he said, “tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery, and that we are all dying slowly”. – “I’ll tell them”, she promised.

These lines may sound like a quotation from a work of fiction, but are in actuality a piece of real-life dialog which has been preserved for eternity. The dialog took place in Leningrad in the fall of 1925, at a farewell party for a young girl about to escape permanently – on a six-month visa – from Soviet Russia.

The girl kept her promise. She wrote a book about it.

The name of this girl was Ayn Rand.[1] Eleven years before, she had made a firm decision that she was going to be a writer. Eleven years later. in 1936, her first novel, We the Living, was published by the Macmillan Company.

The novel was unfavorably received by the book reviewers, who did not like to hear their workers’ paradise described as a cemetery. It did not really reach the broad public until many years later, after its author had achieved world fame.

Yet We the Living ranks among the great novels of world literature. And possibly, one day, when the Communist state has withered away (as it is bound to do, one way or the other) a small plaque will be put up on the house of Ayn Rand’s birth in Leningrad [now again St. Petersburg] to celebrate the memory of this book and this writer.

I have a special reason, apart for my admiration of Ayn Rand, to select this particular novel for reviewing: it has recently been translated into Swedish.[2] It is the first of Ayn Rand’s books to appear in Swedish, and this is an opportunity to make a literary acquaintance which I want only my worst enemies to miss. Therefore I hope that this review, at least in a small way, will prove itself worthy of the book.

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We the Living is a novel set in Soviet Russia in the early twenties. The Civil war against the Whites has just ended; Russia is entering the period of the “New Economic Policy”, Lenin’s great compromise, which gave free enterprise a small, precarious leeway. Lenin’s strokes and eventual death form part of the background; closer to the foreground we see party purges, the activities of the GPU (the secret police) and the still unobtrusive beginnings of the Gulag Archipelago.

But it is not on the tangible horrors of labor camps, torture chambers or firing squads that Ayn Rand concentrates; it is on the incredible squalor and dreariness of everyday life under a dictatorship: the hours-long waiting lines to get a loaf of bread or a piece of soap, the leisure hours drained away in “voluntary” social activities, the incessant plotting and power struggle in the lower party ranks, the corruption flourishing under the “NEP” system.

The book has an explicitly stated theme:

The individual against the state; the supreme value of a human life and the evil of the totalitarian state that claims the right to sacrifice it.

The author wants to show in what way the various characters in the book are all destroyed by the system; how the totalitarian society destroys, not only its opponents, but the best of its own adherents (while, parenthetically, preserving the worst elements). In this book every virtuous character meets a tragic end: the young couple sent to Siberia, to camps thousands of miles apart, with the sight of the moon as their only bond; the old revolutionary who sees the revolution betrayed, and who blasts a corrupt business scheme as his last act before dying; the aristocrat who escapes the firing squad only to be killed spiritually; the idealistic young Communist whose world crumbles when he discovers the actual nature of the ideology he has fought for and bled for; the heroine of the book who fights in vain for the man she loves, and who never escapes the cemetery to tell the world about it.

This is not a joyous book, and in Ayn Rand’s production it stands out as the only novel which does not have a triumphant ending; it is as though the theme and the setting forbid triumph. But another hallmark of an Ayn Rand novel is very much present: the sense of drama, the ability to carry the reader away with sheer suspension, the ability to take an abstract philosophical theme and turn it into a cliff-hanger which would make any writer of popular thrillers green with envy. (I think it is apropos here to mention that her own favorite among fiction writers was Victor Hugo.)

Nor does this book lack poetry: a wistful poetry, born out of the characters’ refusal to submit and forbid themselves to live. There is one short and simple line at the end of one of the early chapters which, to me, sums this up eloquently:

The year 1923, like any other, had a spring.

This may sound trivial, even sentimental – but I hope that if you read this line in the context of the whole book, you will find, as I do, that this is one of the most beautiful – and one of the saddest – lines in world literature.


I wrote this as part of a university course in “Creative writing” that I took in the late 70s. – In the seminar, I was asked whether the book did not give a very black-and-white view of Communism. I answered: “I think one should take a black-and-white view of Communism.” The whole class burst out laughing.


 

[1]) Yes, I know. Her name at that time was still Alissa Rosenbaum.

[2]) Not by me, though.

The Robbery

This is a piece I wrote for a course in English in the late 70s. Just for fun, but you may try to figure out the allusions I make.

Once upon a time there was a dragon whose social security number was 500313-6663. He was born on the 13th of March 1450 B.C., the very same day that the Lord mote all first-born in Egypt, and the “3” had recently been added to indicate he was a male dragon. As is dragons’ wont, he hoarded gold. The gold was intended as a dowry for his daughter, a witch who had lived for many a year in the Caucasus, but had now reputedly been deported to some far-off place in Siberia. Quite by accident, the witch was still unmarried. Following the great example of the Queen of Ithaca, she possessed a bow, and the promise was that any suitor who could hit the Czar in Moscow with an arrow would be entitled to share her bread and bed. But the only suitor who was capable of doing this, one Ulysses H. Grant-You-That, happened to arrive in March 1917, just after the last Czar was dethroned. They are still debating whether the Secretary General of the Communist Party will do as well. Anyway.

Since time immemorial, or at least since the introduction of the Income Tax Amendment, our dragon had been hiding out in the Rocky Mountains, depositing his hoard of gold in the deepest cave he could find, well shielded from the searching eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. But then, on the 31st of December 1974, gold was again declared free and legal to be owned by any American citizen. And so it came about that in the spring of 1975 our dragon moved out into the wide plains of Colorado to bask in the sun and enjoy the glittering reflections of his trinkets of gold, large and small, sometimes drowsing off to dream of his daughter and the terrible fate of her failed suitors, to be awakened in the late afternoon by two ravens, carrying news of today’s gold price from the markets in London and Zürich, respectively.

Now, let’s get somewhere. We haven’t yet come close to the actual robbery. First of all, we have to introduce the robbers.

There were only two of them, and at this moment they were gathered in a small abandoned shed in the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. It was late at night, and the shed was frugally illuminated by a kerosene lamp, standing on a table, which was littered with empty beer cans. The walls were decorated with pin-up girls, their sexiness tempered by full scale posters of Bruce Lee, Bobby Orr and Muhammed Ali and a funny drawing of a famous used-cars salesman.

The two men around the table, thoughtfully sipping their beer, were known by the names of Bright Eye and Bushy Tail, their given names long lost in the fog of a slum childhood, long since torn apart by the sun shining through the bars of reform schools and penitentiaries, the remainder washed down in the showers of Fort Leavenworth. Bright Eye had only one eye, the other one having been lost in a fist-fight with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas; but then the brightness of his one eye had doubled. Bushy Tail had acquired his nickname firstly from his eyebrows, enormous enough to hide anything his eyes might express, and secondly from his devoted following of Bright Eye. Before they met, he had been a personal bodyguard of Meyer Lansky, but was fired for growing a beard and taking to smoking cigars. Bushy Tail, however, was too dumb to understand why this aroused ill-temper I Lansky, and to this day hasn’t figured it out.

The upshot of their plotting will be shown in the next chapter.

Chapter Two

The sun poured incessantly and mercilessly down on the Colorado plain. Far in the background, one could discern the jagged line of the Rocky Mountains. Clouds of dust could be seen at the horizon, indicating cars making their way toward Denver or away from that illustrious burgh. The dragon was sleeping un untroubled sleep with one eye, keeping a vigilant watch with the other.

Suddenly one dust-cloud was coming in his direction. Soon the cloud was materializing into a jeep, and presently its wheels were screeching to a stop by the left ear of the dragon, who groaned and tried to think of tinkling cymbals. Two men, whose identities you will have guessed, stepped out.

“Hi, Smoggy,” called out Bright Eye. “We wanna have a word with ya.”

“Whaddya mean, have a word whimme,” retorted Smoggy. “In case it’s a four letter word, as I have reason to believe, lemme point out it can’t be shared between the three of us.”

“What’s that gibberish he’s talking?” said Bushy Tail, but Bright Eye hushed him down with a kick on his shin bone. “We’ve heard”, he continued, “that you’re a master at guessing riddles.”

“What of it?” said Smoggy. “In case you’re from the IRS, as I have reason to fear, I can give you one right away. Why isn’t the head of a dead cat tax-deductible?”

Bright Eye knew the answer to this, having once shared cell with a Zen Buddhist. And now the riddle game began in earnest. “What animal is busy convincing everyone he is really an ass, too?” (Answer: the elephant.) “What famous economist is only one ‘s’ removed from sanity?” (Answer: Paul A. Samuelson.) “What university is in the eye of God?” (Answer: Berkeley.) “What’s the crime for which there is no bail outside the Church?” (Answer: being born.) “How many answers can blow in the same wind without getting blurred?” (Answer: any number, as long as they don’t contradict one another.) “How did Cartesius actually die?” (Answer: he stopped thinking.) “Who’s got better esthetic judgment than Edmund Wilson?” (Answer: an illiterate high-school student.) “What’s the greatest conquest in the history of Soviet Russia?” (Answer: Robert.) “What’s the offspring of a Black Angel and a White Devil?” (Answer: gray labor.) “Do dragons possess free will?” (Answer: not if they don’t want to.)

How the actual robbery took place is so obvious that I will not tire the reader with any lengthy description thereof. Anyone who knows his Tolkien will have guessed what the last riddle was: “What is it that Bushy Tail has just carried away before he jumped into the back seat of our jeep?”, and that the jeep was far off before the dragon had figured it out and collected his fire into that all-consuming blast.

Suffice it to mention that the trinket stolen was a golden ring, set with a sparkling diamond, which had once belonged to the Queen of Sheba; that powerful curses were laid upon it, so that Bright Eye’s one eye grew dimmer and dimmer, and Bushy Tail grew moodier and moodier and took to reading Ecclesiastes; and that the ring was ultimately found in an ash-can by Grandma Grant-You-That and swiftly dispatched to Ulysses H., so that it has now taken its rightful place on the witch’s finger. Czardom is yet to be reintroduced in Russia, and the couple is still living in sin.

The dragon, after cooling off, tried to sue the IRS, but lost his case through contempt of court: he accused the counsel for the defense of being a blood brother of John Maynard Keynes and thus unable to estimate the true value of gold; of being a former boy scout and therefore prejudiced against dragons; of being a creature of the welfare state and thus incompetent of justice; of being a cross-breed between Charles Darwin and Madame Blavatsky and thus unfit for survival.

The author of this faithful chronicle, finally, was charged by his critics with the following: turning the mystery story into a vehicle for philosophical ideas; smuggling reactionary political concepts into the narrative; showing disregard for the established literary traditions of Naturalism; not giving due credit to the works of Samuel Becket; rejecting evolutionism and embracing catastrophism; and inventing his own robbers rather than being content with the robbers next door.

Perusing the stack of reviews on his table, he laughed heartily and said to himself: “If this be reactionary, make the most of it!”

Per-Olof Samuelsson
(note the spelling!)

Time Preference and Net Consumption

Adapted from a Swedish blog post.

In case you are unfamiliar with these terms: “Time preference” refers to the fact that people (everything else equal) prefer a need satisfaction now or in the near future before the same need satisfaction in the more remote future. – “Net consumption” means the consumption of the capitalists, and the “net consumption theory” is the theory that the general level of profit in the economy is equal (or nearly equal) to the consumption of the capitalists. The theory is presented at length in George Reisman’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, chapter 16.

Everything else equal, poor people have a higher time preference and – which is to say the same thing – a lower degree of future orientation than rich people. Take a homeless person, for example: he has to try to survive the day or the week; he is not in a position to set money aside for long-range projects or for his retirement. Another example would be a drug addict, whose time horizon is limited to his next “fix” – or an alcoholic who can only think of his next drink. – A less extreme example would be a poor farmer, who can only plan ahead for one year at a time; he needs this year’s harvest for him and his family to survive, and cannot put away more seed corn than is necessary for the next year’s harvest. (All farmers in Adam Smith’s “rude and early state” would be in this situation.)

At the other end of the spectrum, take a multi-billionaire such as Bill Gates or George Soros: he does not have to worry about surviving the next day, week, month, year or even decade; he can plan ahead for the future without having to concern himself too much with the present. He can even plan ahead for the time after his death and for securing the future of his children and grandchildren.

In between there are the rest of us: people with a moderate or fairly high income. We are in a position to set some of our money aside for the future: for buying a new house or a new car, providing for our children’s education, planning vacations, providing for our retirement.

But everything else is not always equal, so there are exceptions. A poor person may be struggling hard to get out of his poverty; and a very rich person may be squandering his wealth and end up poor.

If you are familiar with The Fountainhead, you may remember that Gail Wynand was sleeping on a couch in his office while building up The Banner and only later used his money to buy a yacht, create an art gallery, and commission a house from Howard Roark. – And for an example of rich people squandering their wealth, read Bernard de Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees[1].

A change in the time preference of very poor people does little for the economy as a whole. Neither does such a change in the time preference of the few “squandering rich”. It is the time preference of the well-to-do and the industrious rich that makes a difference. As long as those people have a low time preference and a correspondingly high degree of future orientation, they will invest their money, and it is those investments that move the economy forwards.

According to George Reisman’s theory, the level of profit in the economy as a whole is equal to the net consumption of the capitalists (I leave net investment aside, because I don’t think it changes my point). As long as the capitalists have a low time preference, net consumption stays at this low level; the greater part of their wealth goes to productive investments. And the richer they become, the lower becomes their time preference, the more gets invested, the more gets produced, the more workers get employed and the higher their wages become.

But assume that the capitalists’ time preference would increase (and their future orientation would correspondingly diminish); this could happen if there were to be a serious threat of confiscation of their wealth by a socialist government (or if there were certain indications that doomsday was approaching and the world would come to an end). Then the opposite would happen: they would consume their wealth instead of investing it; production would diminish or cease altogether; unemployment would rise; and so would the general level of profit and interest.

And this is why time preference is not a direct but an indirect cause of the level of profit and interest. It works through the net consumption of the capitalists.

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Update December 26, 2015: As George Reisman has pointed out to me in a private message, it is not entirely true that capitalists will continue saving and investing indefinitely. As long as a capitalist is building his fortune, he will save and invest heavily out of his income and consume correspondingly less. But once his fortune is sufficiently large to make his own future – and even his children’s and his grandchildren’s – secure, he will have no incentive to further enlarge it, so he will save and invest less and less and finally may come to the point where he will consume all of his income. (For an extensive discussion of this, see Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, pp.  739–744.)

I think (this is my own reflection) that this explains why so many of the greatest capitalists establish educational or other foundations (for example Rockefeller and Carnegie, and today Bill Gates and George Soros). From the point of view of the capitalist, this is consumption, since the purpose is not to make more money and enlarge his fortune, but simply to make the best use of the money he no longer needs.

George Reisman also tells me that

capitalists continue to save to the extent that the rate of profit/interest exceeds the rate of their consumption (the rate of net consumption). What causes this is the continuing increase in the quantity of money and volume of spending in the economic system. If the quantity of money and volume of spending ever stabilized at some given level, accumulated capital would grow to the point at which the consumption of the capitalists exhausted the whole of their incomes; at that point, saving out of  income would be zero.

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The honor of having discovered the role of time preference goes to Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. Later “Austrian” economists, such as Mises, have considered his explanation of the causes of time preference as not quite satisfactory. But the one who nails it is, once again, George Reisman:

The nature of human life implies time preference, because life cannot be interrupted. To be alive two years from now, one must be alive one year from now. To be alive tomorrow, one must be alive today. Whatever value or importance one attaches to being alive in the future. one must attach to being alive in the present, because being alive in the present is the indispensable precondition to being alive in the future. The value of life in the present thus carries with it whatever value one attaches to life in the future, plus whatever value one attaches to life in the present for its own sake. In the nature of being alive, it is thus more important to be alive now than at any other, succeeding time, and more important to be alive in each moment of the nearer future than in each moment of the more remote future. If, for example, a person can project being alive for the next thirty years, say, then the value he attaches to being alive in the coming years carries with it whatever value he attaches to being alive in the following twenty-nine years, plus whatever value he attaches in the coming year for its own sake. This is necessarily a greater value than he attaches to being alive in the year starting next year. Similarly, the value he attaches to being alive from next year on is greater than the value he attaches to being alive starting two years from now, for it subsumes the latter value and represents that of an additional year besides.

The greater importance of life in the nearer future is what underlies the greater importance of goods in the nearer future and the perspective-like diminution in the value we attach to goods available in successively more remote periods of the future. (Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 56.)

To put it in shorter words: To be alive today and this year is the necessary pre-condition of being alive tomorrow or in fifty or a hundred years. Everything else equal, we have to value life in the present over life in the future, for if we don’t, there will be no life in the future. Thus we have to have goods or money to survive the day before we can start thinking about saving for the future.

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I originally wrote this some years ago, when I was pulled into a discussion with an idiot not too well-informed person, who claimed that George Reisman could not be a real “Austrian”, since he does not share the conventional “Austrian” view om time preference.

(Other schools than the “Austrian” have no inkling of the role of time preference.)

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See also my earlier blog post Christianity and Time Preference.


[1]) Mandeville claimed that this squandering would be a boon to the economy; but this is simply a version of the “broken windows” fallacy and has been refuted time and again by better economists.

The Choice to Live

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. – Galt´s speech.

An objection to this is that one does not explicitly choose to live. We do not choose to be born; that choice was made by our parents (and their ancestors before them). Before we were born, we had no choice about anything.

The only situation I can think where one explicitly chooses to live is if one is seriously considering suicide and then decides against it. But this cannot be what Galt means. It is unimaginable that Galt, or any other Ayn Rand hero or, for that matter, most of the rest of humanity, does this.

My conclusion is that the “choice to live” is an implicit choice: it is implied in all (or most) other choices we make. We make pro-survival choices – and only the suicide candidate (or the mystic, whose standard is death, not life) makes anti-survival choices.

It seems that few, if any, have raised this objection – for the only one I know of who has brought it up and answered it is Tara Smith in Viable Values, who writes:

Admittedly, the embrace of life is not usually crystallized in an unmistakable, do-or-die moment when well-defined options are laid out and a decision is imperative. […]

Rather, we choose life by choosing all sorts of specific things that constitute and further our lives. In embracing countless people, projects, objects and destinations – in loving Megan, saving money, buying coffee, studying French, playing jazz, having a child, building a career, planning a vacation, or planting a garden – a person may be choosing life. By getting out of bed in the morning and having at a day, a person may be choosing life. In setting any life-enhancing aims for himself, be they modest or ambitious, trivial or profound, short or long range, a person may be choosing life. Remember that life consists of a person’s activities, all that he does in pursuing his various ends. Thus, life is not a distinct aim that one can adopt in addition to learning French, saving money, building a career, and so on. To embrace life is to embrace the condition of having specific ends (and more, of having consistent and life-furthering ends). – Viable Values, p. 105.

Which is to say that this choice is implicit rather than explicit.

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On a similar note: Some years ago, there was a person here in Sweden who jumped into every discussion about Objectivism and pestered us with the idea that “life as the standard” means that the goal of the Objectivist ethics is to live as long a life as possible. No matter what I or anybody else answered, he stuck to this idea and repeated it over and over again.

We could answer that there is “quality of life” as well as “quantity of life” – that

it is not the years in one’s life that count, it’s the life in one’s years.

We could quote the following (from “The Objectivist Ethics”):

Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as “survival at any price”, which may or may not last a week or a year. “Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan – in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.

None of this helped. (And since Ayn Rand speaks out against merely momentary survival, What else than “longevity” could be implied? The rest of the paragraph gets lost in such a person’s mind.)

If I said that an implication of this “longevity” idea is that Bertrand Russel must be exactly twice as good as Thomas Aquinas, since he lived till the age of 98, while Aquinas only lived till the age of 49 – he would of course have accepted it.

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In getting this off my chest, I have y chosen life – albeit implicitly.

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Addendum: On Facebook, I got this comment.

Moral issues ought to be something more concrete.

Well, “life” is an extremely abstract concept, since it subsumes − how should I pot it? − a vast number of concretes. For examples, it subsumes every living organism that lives now, has ever lived, and will ever live. It subsumes the lifespans of every man, and every organism, that lives now, has ever lived, and will ever live. And you may certainly think on other things, as well.

“Choice” also subsumes every choice that is made, has ever been made, and will ever be made. But is is far easier to form this concept, since it only requires a simple act of introspection. If you have ever made a choice or a decision, you know what a choice or decision is.

A good thing about the quote from Tara Smith above is that she gives a few concrete example of what this “choice to live” implies. But such a list could never be made exhaustive, since it would then list every choice that has been made or even could be made.

Take the choice or decision to get out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, as the case may be). One then has to decide to put on one’s clothes, brew some coffee, make a sandwich, go to the bathroom to take a leak, getting off to work, etc., etc.

Most of those choices/decisions are so self-evident that we hardly think of them as choices; they are automatized. It is only if one is very sleepy that one would regard getting out of bed as a choice that require some will-power.

The “choice to live”, most often, is not experienced as much of a choice. That we want to live, we simply take for granted  unless we are extremely disappointed with life or tired of life.

Now, I will make the life-enhancing decision to stop blogging about this and prepare today’s dinner. ;-)

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Update November 16: Come to think of it, the word ”choice” is equivocal: it may refer to ”the act of choosing”, but also to ”the thing chosen”, ”the result of the choice”.

Let’s say, to give an example, that there are two women I want to marry. I’m attracted to both of them – even in love with both of them − and both of them are willing to marry me. But, marriage laws being what they are, I cannot marry both of them; I have to choose between the alternative possible wives. But after I have made the choice, I can say: “She was my choice”, and others can say “She was his choice”.

Or take the situation I was in right before writing this down: Should I bother to publish this now? Or should I wait till later on? Or is it too unimportant to even mention it? But now I have made my choice: publish it.

The failure to make this distinction might be one reason why discussions about “free will versus determinism” seldom lead anywhere. I, as a free will advocate, will insist that the choice is actually a choice and that to say it is determined is nonsensical and a contradiction in terms. And the determinist will insist the thing chosen, the result of the choice, as determined by everything that has happened in the past. The point the determinist is missing here is that one determining factor is precisely my act of choosing.

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