By Ryan Griggs
Last week I penned my misgivings about the Objectivist Conference (OCON) hosted by the Ayn Rand Institute in Bellevue, Washington. The short piece was picked up by Lew Rockwell yesterday, and is available here. From there it caught the attention of a fellow attendee, who posted a link to it (thanks for sharing!) to the OCON Facebook group. Though the group is closed to comments by those who have not been approved to join (as you can imagine, I left it after the event), the comments are publicly viewable. They’re here.
Let’s summarize some of the commentary as of noon on Tuesday, July 12. Bear with me, there’s quite a few. Juicy bits are in bold:
Mises would be rolling in his grave.
You’re better off never looking at anything on that web site. [LRC, I imagine — RG]
He attended under fraudulent premises.
I was struck by how far he had to reach far to find anything to criticize.
Get the impression he didn’t the leave the hotel much.
As far as the ritzy surroundings, the writer must have been in a fog: the local Wendy’s, just on the corner of the same lot as the hotel, had a very good cheap menu and was playing classical music every time we went it. Delightful.
I think that we can only conclude that he went with an agenda and our thoughts are irrelevant to it. There are no comments enabled on that blog. …
… That sounds probable given the “snarky” rather than substantive tone of the article. It aims to smear, without engaging with the ideas presented.
the article is just a bunch of echo chamber nonsense
It is appalling he took money under a false agenda. It is abhorrent behavior. He is dishonest and committed fraud. Shame on him for that. Although I disagree with him, he is free to feel how he does, but the fraud is corrupt and unforgivable. Fraudulent people will do anything to support their agenda. Betsy — thank you for sharing to inform of this type of behavior but it is very disturbing on a fundamental level.
I think this is an illustration of the monumental battle facing us. Here is someone who has (claimed to have) read Atlas Shrugged, spent an entire WEEK at an Objectivist conference, and still doesn’t know a damn thing about Objectivism!
Obviously, that blog post is total garbage. But I have to admit that I once had similar feelings
Of the countless people I’ve talked to, I’ve only written off a tiny minority as hopelessly corrupt — usually I come to realize they are isolated by a moat of nihilism. Everyone else, of every age, I’d actually describe as very, very, very confused. Those under 30 tend to be the most open to realizing they are engaged in sloppy thinking. Those over 33 or so seem to slowly go through a process of fossilizing their confused thinking.
Clearly, my post evoked a remarkably emotional response. This is interesting, since as objectivists, one would think these individuals would apply their own principles and behave objectively, rather than emotionally. For the life of me, I can’t imagine Dagny Taggart or Hank Reardon acting in such a manner. Yet I’m the one who doesn’t understand objectivism? Maybe I’m one of “those under 30” who’re “very, very confused.” Classifying intelligence by age group — yet another striking display of the sort of thinking one encounters among modern objectivists.
The charge of fraud, as Nigel Farage would say, is quite a “biggie.” But we may forgive the commenters who accused me of this, and those who were ignorant of the scholarship-awarding process (perhaps they’re one in the same). In fact, I was “vetted” for over 30 minutes by a member of the ARI staff via Skype video-chat, long before the conference and before any award monies were issued. Indeed, I was very direct in telling the interviewer about my anarcho-capitalist convictions, and about how I thought objectivism properly understood was easily reconciled with anarcho-capitalism. [This point is more rigorously developed by J. Michael Oliver, a self-described objectivist of more than 40 years, in his book The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism (there is a Mises Weekends interview of the author here; his book is here). It was not mentioned at OCON.] Of course, someone who wasn’t aware of all this might understandably, though still erroneously, accuse me of fraud or dishonesty.
Unlike my critics, I also leapt at the opportunity to discuss my misgivings with positions held by ARI staff (in this case, Yaron Brook and Ankar Ghate). After thanking donors in the large ballroom for making it possible for students to attend, which was greeted with a warm round of applause, I asked whether the non-aggression principle was important for human prosperity. While the immediate answer was “yes, of course,” Ghate, and then Brook, trailed off into a discussion about “needing government in order to protect our rights.” I followed up: “isn’t government just a property-protecting, property-expropriator, or simply, a contradiction in terms?”
Oddly, I didn’t get an answer to that one. But I did ask — publicly, and openly. I was even caught on camera.
We’ve dealt with the emotional, rather than objective, nature of the backlash against my dissenting views, and the misguided accusations of fraud and dishonesty. Contrary to my cirtics though, I will continue the debate to the substance of the matter, rather than dismiss those who disagree with me out of hand, as seems to be par for the course in the modern objectivist camp.
A small aside though, it should be clear that I made no attempt to “smear,” speak to an “echo-chamber” (unlike those on this facebook page), or smuggle in “an agenda.” I was open, honest, and direct all the way through. Oh, and I don’t eat at Wendy’s.
On to substance.
Point One: Foreign Policy
The notion that the political leaders of Iran, ostenisbly with the consent of their population (after all, governments are formed by the consent of the governed in the objectivist view), must “alter their constitution, “denounce terrorism” (which I’m sure is to be defined by morally just US officials), and “acknowledge the state of Israel” before any negotiations begin is a recipe for war. Likewise, objectivist foreign policy commenters who insist on this, as Elan Journo did during his talks, are sowing the ideological seeds of war.
Therefore, my dear critics, I accuse you of maintaining war-mongering views couched in a morality peppered with non sequitors. It does not follow that since crimes occur between state and non-state individuals in another country, that a third, otherwise unassociated party has the moral authority to call for the “total destruction” of the way of life (Islam) of the conflicting parties. The all-bets-are-off, scorched-earth, anti-negotiation tactic is nothing but a Siren song justification for the civilian body count one may expect in the wake of war.
Because of the tremedous destruction wrought in war, the provocation for which you adovcate, this foreign policy is an anti-human policy. As such, it isnot an element of a philosophy “for living on earth” (as we were reminded objectivism is, at least five different times by five different speakers). Rather, it is a policy for “death on earth,” and a philosophy which accepts it part and parcel is a philosophy for precisely the same.
I challenge you to justify this policy, given it’s blowback-friendly consequences, and to logically integrate it into a philosophy which portends to value life.
Point Two: Government ‘Enforcement’ of Rights
First, I should point out that quoting from the Declaration of Independence is not an argument. One is not logically permitted to assert that individuals are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that therefore, ipso facto, we must form governments to protect these alleged rights.
Before addressing the second part of the non sequitor, let’s focus on the first. What the hell is a right to the pursuit of happiness? Suppose it makes someone rather happy to use Dallas police as target practice, or for others to use minorities as punching bags and bullet pin-cushions. Hey, they’re pursuing their right to happiness aren’t they? See, what’s needed to denounceboth of these forms of behavior is a consistent theory of property — of just ownership over scarce resources (bodies included). I assert, as a substantive challenge to you, my dear objectivist friends, that you have no theory of property. The absence of such a theory, and the patchwork substitution for it with banal references to what is actually a secessionary document, creates an ideological vacuum. All sorts of conflicts are thereby justified (see Point One above).
But suppose we accept, arguendo, that one does have the rights so cited (this requries setting aside the objectivist admonition that rights are positive, rather than negative as is the libertarian position — but that is a discussion for another time). Even then, it does not follow from the fact of the existence of rights that it ought — indeed must — be government that enforces them. Private security firms and their employees, of which there are already three times as many as state (anti-)security agents, are perfectly capable of enforcing rights. When the television you ordered from Amazon arrives malfunctioning, is your right to a functioning television, per your order, enforced by the state? Of course not! Imagine the fees, wait times, potential backlash, and stress of resolving this issue with your local county court. No, it is private enterprise — in this case Amazon — that steps to the plate to resolve this potential conflict. And the heroic firm doesn’t tax you to do it.
Thus, for my critics: I challenge you to the following: prove that a right to the pursuit of happiness does not breed conflict, and prove that the state is necessary to enforce rights. As it stands, I doubt you can.
Point Three: The Moral Status of Government
Following up from Point Two, it must be made clear that government does not, cannot enforce rights. At least not without first violating them.
I was told by Ankar Ghate that Rand would have preferred that taxation be voluntary. Well, to him and to others who hold this view, I invite you to examine reality. You might notice that taxation is defined by the element of coercion. A consentual transfer of funds from one party to another is not“voluntary taxation.” Indeed, a word already exists for this type of exchange. It’s called a gift. In the case that some quantity of goods or services are to be exchanged for the funds, this transfer is called a sale. The purchaser willing forfeits his ownership claim to the funds, whereas the seller willing forfeits his ownership claims to the goods and/or services.
This vocabulary exists for a reason.
Conversely, when funds are involuntarily transferred from one party to another, it is called taxation, also known as theft. He who lost the funds is called the victim. Carried out en masse these actions may be collectively referred to as instutionalized theft, or as it is currently and euphemistically known: fiscal policy. Victims, when fleeced en masse, are known as citizens.Actions performed after these acts of theft, ostensibly to the benefit of the victim, are not “public services.” They are disservices and that they are performed under the auspices of “putting your tax (theft) dollars to work” is simply an admition of guilt after the fact.
Wouldn’t it be conveninent if the common thief, propelled by popular opinion, could strip of you what he wished, alert you to when next he would come to fleece you again, and then be greeted by rounds of applause from objectivist students who patriotically assert the thief’s right to thieiving!
Therefore, my dear critics, I encourage you to consider the statement that government is nothing by a property-expropriating property-protector, and my assertion (backed by the reasoning above) that this is a contradiction in terms. I challenge you to prove to me that the state, an agency defined by its coercive activities, actually can protect rights — without violating them, and systematically so, in the first place. I doubt you can.
Other possible challenges abound. Why praise the neo-con, war-monger, anti-lifer Ted Cruz whil disparaging pro-peace thinkers at the Mises Institute as “really evil” or Ron Paul as “unintellectual?” As far as I can tell, the only substantively objectivist material was a series of lectures delivered by Harry Binswanger, which anarcho-capitalists would generally agree with. If objectivism is truly so complex and difficult, why spend less than a fifth of the conference time to hash it out? (One critical commenter recalled his having to read all of Rand’s fiction and listen to “hundreds” of Leonard Piekoff’s podcasts in order to understand the philosophy — clearly some need more face time!)
I imagine further slurrs are currently accumulating on the Facebook page. I hope this episode of insults and mischaracterizations can be used as an opportunity to discuss the real issues, like the points I mention above. However, I imagine it will be dismissed out of hand; after all, I’m just some young student who, in the words of Ankar Ghate, “doesn’t know what liberty is.” If I can’t nail that one down, I guess I’m doomed to ignorance on objectivism.
Imagine my devastation.
I’ll close with a screenshot of a fellow attendee admitting, in public, that he watched me eat. Apparently the comment has since been deleted (thanks, screenshots!). By the way, meals to which students were invited were “mandatory” for scholarship recipients. Ancaps at OCON beware, they take “see something, say something” very seriously.