Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

97. Guardian Syndrome Derangement Syndrome

Note: This post is the ninety-seventh in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Today's post is about a group of people who excel at creating prosperity via trade, but find themselves politically oppressed, the fruits of their labours taken from them with little recompense. In response, the oppressed group undertakes to escape their chains, using trade where necessary and force where necessary to make their way to an unoccupied piece of land that they can call home, one where they will be free from political oppressors who would use force to take their wealth.

The bible contains a story like this, the story of the Jews escaping from the Egyptians and eventually finding their promised land - a story that Jane Jacobs cites in 'Systems of Survival' as a good example of how the same group of people can find success by alternating between using commercial syndrome morality and guardian syndrome morality, depending on which is appropriate in the circumstance.

But today's topic is not the Bible, but rather something less concise, the book 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, the setting is the United States, in the era when railways were still the main form of transportation and planes were a relatively new invention. The U.S. government seems to be run by a collection of corrupt businessmen and politicians and is descending into a mix of fascism and communism. In response, a group of leading industrialists decide to 'Go Galt,' destroying or abandoning their companies, leaving society behind to join a secret community in a remote part of Colorado.

The story, which tells the tale of how the government gradually escalates its level of unprincipled interference with business, is quite lengthy, but luckily the leader of the industrialists, John Galt, sums up Rand's philosophy in a pithy 100 page speech.

Unsurprisingly, as a businessman, John Galt's primary sympathy lies with the Commercial Syndrome. This is made clear enough early on in his speech when he assets that,
"There is a morality of reason ... man's life [is] the life of a thinking being - not life by means of force or fraud, but life by means of achievement."

Galt recognizes that, unlike the Guardian syndrome in which most of the precepts relate to interactions between people, the commercial syndrome contains a number of precepts that apply to man on his own, in his battle against his own laziness,
"You who prattle that morality is social and that man would need no morality on a desert island - it is on a desert island that he would need it most. Let him try to claim ... that he will collect a harvest tomorrow by devouring his stock seed today - and reality will wipe him out, as he deserves."

Just a little bit later, Galt lists some of the virtues needed for his moral system, a list which generally matches up pretty well with the commercial syndrome:

"rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride."

Finally, a bit later, Galt expresses the commercial basis of his morality explicitly,
"The symbol of all relationships among such men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit-his love friendship, his esteem- except in payment and in trade for human virtues."

The message is clear, the trader only acts in his own self-interest and cares not for the interests of others. I emphasize this not to criticize, but to contrast with a later point that Galt makes (which we'll get to in a bit).

As for comfort and convenience, Galt makes clear over and over again that this is the primary purpose of existence, perhaps most memorably when he asks,
"who is enslaved by physical needs: the Hindu who labors from sunrise to sunset at the shafts of a hand-plow for a bowl of rice, or the American who is driving a tractor? Who is the conqueror of physical reality: the man who sleeps on a bed of nails or the man who sleeps on an inner-spring mattress."

Only a commercially minded philosopher would take the time in his manifesto to extol the comfort of the inner-spring mattress!

Naturally, in a moral system based on trade, using force is a big no-no for Galt,
"Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate-do you hear me? no man may start the use of physical force against others."

Galt spends so much time repetitively criticizing those who would use force for corrupt purposes that it is easy to lose track of the fact that he does condone the use of force when necessary. Perhaps the most remarkable passage of Atlas Shrugged is this one, where Galt describes when he will use force.

"It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use. No, I do not share his evil or sink to his concept of morality: I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own. He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction. A holdup man seeks to gain wealth by killing me; I do not grow richer by killing a holdup man. I seek no values by means of evil, nor do I surrender my values to evil."

The story backs this statement up, containing a number of instances where Galt and his fellow tribe members throw comfort and convenience to the winds and sacrifice themselves by showing fortitude, employing force and fraud, discipline and obedience in order to successfully fight physical battles against their enemies. On one instance there is a pitched battle vs. troublemakers at a steel factory, in another case, there is a hostage to be rescued.

So notice what has happened here. Galt spends 98 pages of his 100 page speech talking about how the only set of moral values that exists is the commercial syndrome, where self-interest rules, comfort and convenience are paramount and force and fraud are verboten. But then in the other 2 pages he sneaks in this alternate world where, when violence is initiated, suddenly action must be taken, and now force and fraud are not just allowed, but required, and the person undertaking them is expected to be proficient in their use. Not only that, but these actions of force and fraud must only be undertaken in a spirit of sacrifice, in which comfort and convenience are discarded or put at risk, and it is acting in self-interest that is now forbidden!

Later on, Galt allows that government is needed to enforce rules, to retaliate against those who would commit violence, and to defend the state against enemies from outside. Sadly he never seems to explain how it is the people doing this will be paid, or how they will be restrained from using their power to enrich themselves.

I think that if Rand hadn't been inflicted with such a strong a case of Guardian derangement syndrome (or Guardian syndrome derangement?), much like the one that got Thorstein Veblen, she probably could have set out a pretty reasonable pair of moral syndromes that matched up fairly well with Plato and Jane Jacobs. It's just too bad her work is filled with so much distracting pointlessness (such as the endless insistence that reality is real or that only gold can be 'real money') that it takes away from this message.

As an aside, one of the more ludicrous story elements in 'Atlas Shrugged' is the notion that society collapses because a couple of hundred industrialists head off to Colorado for a while. Which is fine, the story is meant to make a point, not to be plausible, but I thought it was interesting to point out why Rand needed such an unbelievable plot point in her book.

The great weakness of a collection of traders is that they are all out for their own interest and that they are (by definition) incapable of acting in a collective manner. Their nature is competition, not monopoly. In the real world, if Steve Jobs left for Colorado and destroyed the Apple company, there are plenty of others willing and able to manufacture phones and provide a service to download songs from the internet. If General Motors shut down, the other car companies could easily pick up the slack. But in Atlas Shrugged, Rand is constantly creating little mini-monopolies by insisting that there is only one company that can make steel properly, only one railway that can run a decent operation, only one person who can find and produce oil, etc.

Rand needs these monopolies in order to allow her collection of industrialists who go on 'strike' and leave for Colorado to have an actual impact on society, instead of just looking foolish. But Rand, who was so attentive to the nature of the commercial syndrome - the competition, the lack of solidarity that would prevent any strike action from being successful, really should have known better. After all, even the Bible, which certainly doesn't shy away from implausible pronouncements, didn't try to insist that Egyptian society collapsed because it couldn't function without the Jews, so that Moses could come back to give the Pharaoh a long, tedious, 'I told you so.'

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