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Let me start out by saying that there’s going to be no coherent post today.  I got up at one thirty in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep, so, since I’m working a deadline on the new book and don’t want to be late, I got up to work, and here I am.

Right now, I just want to make a couple of points that seem to me so obvious I can’t believe we’re discussing them.

The first is that “artists, scientists and government” are not “parasitic,” nor are the people who engage in them parasites living on the productive work of others.

Government can, of course, be parasitic, and often gets there, but basic government (the police, the courts, military defense, to start) is absolutely essential to the functioning of any society.  Which means that the people who engage in it are engaged in productive work.

And the idea that scientists are somehow parasitic on productive people absolutely flabbergasts me.   i suppose what’s called “pure science” can seem that way to people who don’t understand how this works, but pure scientific research provides the knowledge from which technology is born, and technology gives us everything from the polio vaccine to air conditioning. 

This is, by almost any standard, probably the most productive work in any society.  It is essential for almost all the other productive work done in any advanced society. 

And as for artists–well, I could point out that art (narrative and plastic) is to be found in every society ever existing on earth.  Societies invent art (and especially narrative) before they invent the wheel and even before kinship groups are completely stable.

So we seem to need that.

But never mind that for a second, there’s a simpler way to tell if art is productive work.

Either people other than the artist are willing to pay for it, or not.

Every time somebody puts down a twenty to buy your composer’s CD, he’s testifying to the fact that he thinks the composer has done productive work. 

If you produce something worth something to your fellow citizens, you’ve done productive work, even if what you’ve produced is a Pet Rock.

The burglar and the con man aren’t different from the artist because they’re in a “different occupation.”  They’re different because, in fact, nobody wants what they have to offer.  You wouldn’t pay a man to rob you (well, except in a really complicated Patricia Highsmith plot) or a con man to cheat you out of your money.  They resort to force and fraud because they’re unable to offer you anything of value in exchange from what they want to get from you.

Nor does it matter if the thief goes home and volunteers for meals on wheels.

If the point wasn’t clear the way I put it, then change the way it’s formulated:  the productive citizens does not need thieves to survive, but the thieves need productive citizens. 

I could build a society with productive citizens and no thieves.  I could not build a society with thieves and no productive citiznes.

As for whether slavery is good for the slaveholder–the only way to support such a contention is to look only at the very short term and keep your mind completely blindfolded from history.

Slave societies always produce relatively fewer technological innovations than free societies do, and once you get to the modern world, they produce vastly fewer

So a slaveholder who thinks slavery is “good for him” is deluded–sit in your slaveholding society telling yourself how good you have it while your children die of diptheria and your wives die of puerpal fever and you die yourself from a cancer that can be cured now with very little fuss and bother.

If you don’t know that alleviation of these evils is possible, you won’t realize what you’re missing–but you’ll still be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

As for the Vikings–I was responding directly to a comment that said the Vikings built a successful society by plundering other societies’ wealth.

To the extent that the Vikings did productive work, they did indeed have a successful society.  To the extent that they engaged in plunder, they had a parasitic one. 

And they were a net drain on the wellbeing of the rest of the world–and on their own well being, since they chaos they caused retarded the advancement of learning on all levels.  And we’re back to the problem with the slaveholding society, above.

So, do I think it’s always irrational to break the social contract?


That is, first, assuming that the social contract is valid–an invalid and coerced “contract” (say, a dictatorship) is no contract at all, and not only can be broken but must be if any progress is going to happen.

But assuming a valid contract, then breaking it (to steal, for instance) may be logical, but it is never rational.

And it always involves violating the rationality of other men.

That’s what force and fraud does.

I have no idea how I’ve spelled anything today.

I’m going to go finish this tea and see what I can do about getting some stuff  done.

Written by janeh

July 20th, 2010 at 4:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Catatonic'

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  1. OK, ALL of the above is true. (It;s 5:00 AM: I might have missed something.)

    But since when does Ayn Rand insist as part of her morality that I take the interests of my grandchildren or of society as a whole into account in my behavior?

    I fully agree on the use of non-coercion as a distinguishing mark between the productive member of society and the parasite. But what I said that triggered all this is that Ayn Rand had a difficult time explaining by clear logic from her initial axioms and choices why I could not morally engage in such activities. She still does.

    Off to work.


    20 Jul 10 at 5:14 am

  2. I as a victim don’t want what the thief has to offer. I as the patron of slightly shady flea markets and friends of friends selling secondhand goods certainly do. Or would, if in fact I had no moral objection to buying goods that might (or might not) have fallen off the truck. It’s easy to see that the original owner has been wronged (as has their insurance company if the original owner isn’t terribly moral himself about the claim). It’s not so easy to see that society as a whole is damaged by theft.

    And I know the arts are found in all human societies, so they appear to be important, but we don’t need what they produce to survive. And that’s the criteria, isn’t it? The production of what’s necessary to survive. And I don’t think ‘anything someone will pay for’ is an adequate definition of ‘productive’. People pay for slaves, prostitutes, food they don’t need and drugs (including alcohol) that may well kill them or create situations in which they kill others.

    I’m also not entirely convinced that slavery is incompatible with prosperity or development. Incompatible with the idea of equality of all humans, yes, mostly, although even there you can try to get around the issue by claiming something along the lines of ‘equal’ meaning something spiritual, not social or economic. Or ‘separate but equal’.

    But it’s really not proof that slavery=dying of easily-treated diseases when in the present world, your counter-examples are places like the Sudan, which wouldn’t have modern medicine even if they didn’t have slavery, which some of their citizens insist they don’t, not really. I think the argument is that in remote districts with few opportunities poor people descended from slaves tend to work under very poor conditions for richer people descended from slave owners.


    20 Jul 10 at 8:36 am

  3. Well, in the first place, I never said “the production of what we need to survive.” I just said productive work. And that a society where everybody did productive work and nobody committed fraud or burglary could survive, but one where everybody did fraud or burglary did not.

    But in the second, I think that art IS necessary for survival. In fact, I think it may be vital. Human beings (unlike cats) seem to need to create their own identities and to be unable to function until they know “who they are.” And that’s what art does, in the very beginning–that’s why idigenous peoples have narratives before they have the wheel. They may have had those narratives before they have fire.

    Art gives them their identity, tells them who they are and who their friends and enemies are, turns them from a collection of stray individuals into an actual society.

    And no society we know of has ever existed without it. Ever. Which is indictive of it being more important than just “being important.”

    As to slavery and lack of development–all I can say is, you can check. Historically and anthropologically, slave societies produce less technological innovation than free societies. And in any era where all societies are slave societies, the one that produces that most technological innovation (the closest thing to a scientific civilization) has always been the one where a)the smallest percentage of the population has had slaves and/or b) the one where the status of slaves was the highest relative to the societies around it.

    You can look that up. The history is without exceptions that I know of.

    As for slavery=dying of easily treated diseases, the issue is not whether the Sudan is able to access medicines invented and produced elsewhere to treat its people.

    The issue is whether the Sudan (if it is a slave society) could ever INVENT THOSE CURES FOR ITSELF.

    If those cures did not exist–would a society like the Sudan’s invent them?

    No such society has ever invented them. ALL such innovation has been made in non-slave (or virtually non-slave) societies.

    I think there are practical reasons for this–if you’ve got to break your back for ten hours a day getting the ore out of the mine, you start trying to figure out how to make the job easier; if a slave does it for you, it’s not your problem. If your slave is of high status and well treated (as in much of the Roman empire, where slaves could buy their freedom if they came up with something worthwhile), he might figure out something like that, but if he’s being constantly abused, he’s not only in no position to, but probably not much interested in producing anything that could help you.

    But here’s my thing–to me, what I’ve been presenting ARE the reasons why “don’t enslave people” and “don’t use people as things” and “don’t rob and cheat” are moral precepts.

    You don’t do those things because your first requirement is to accept reality, and reality is that human beings are those creatures that do art, science, government, analysis, Rheims Cathedral, differential equations and the Cheesecake Vesuvius at Serendipity.

    Once you have accepted that you must face that reality, all the rest follows.

    And that reality and what it entails is the foundation for morality.

    What other foundation would you expect, unless you do insist that the foundation must be God not because God is logically necessary to such a foundation but because that’s what you want and nothing else will do?

    I’m REALLY very tired here.



    20 Jul 10 at 9:37 am

  4. Rome and Greece were supposedly highly inventive in any area you care to name.

    My personal prejudices re God aside, I don’t really see how the reality of human nature is something you can use as a foundation for morality. Sure, human nature is responsible for fabulous buildings and lots of great science and art and so on. It’s also responsible for hideous and even fatally flawed buildings and incredible atrocities and cruelty. If you just look at human nature, there’s no particular reason to assume that that reality leads to rules or beliefs about not enslaving people and working honestly. Rand appears to have gotten around that problem by picking one aspect of human nature – ‘productivity’ – one she valued, I guess, and one that’s easier to measure than, say ‘love’ or ‘human rights’ or any other of the many candidates – and using that as a measure of what is required to be human. That’s arbitrary, and I don’t find it a convincing choice, not even if high productivity is associated with the kind of nice modern societies with air conditioning and medical care that we like living in. Or I do, anyway. The fact that two things, activities, ideals, whatever, exist side-by-side doesn’t mean that one causes the other or is based on the other or is a necessary condition for the other. You need more evidence, which is really tricky in these situations, because there are just so many different things leading to modern societies to consider. And that’s without the possibility that human nature can’t be simply reduced to produce or be a parasite, live or die.

    Are you one of these people who gets their entire sleep cycle thrown off if you nap during the day, ending up ‘as crooked as sin’, as we say here to mean ‘bad-tempered’, when you wake up from the nap? I am. If you aren’t, why not just take a short nap?


    20 Jul 10 at 10:38 am

  5. Robert keeps saying I’m doing a good job of explaining this, but I must not be, because we keep ending up here.

    Rand is NOT basing her moral philosophy on the idea that man is productive.

    You’re using human nature in a different way than she is.

    Rand says this:

    a) human beings are not infinitely malleable. They’re a specific kind of living thing that is built (by God or nature, take your pick, when Locke did this he took both) to operate in a particular way

    b) the way the human being is built to operate is through the use of his mind

    c) the human use of the mind is not automatic–unlike other species, a human being can choose whether to use his built-in survival mechanism or not

    d) morality is the codification of the rules for using this survival mechanism in its optimal way

    e) and when we use this survival mechanism in its optimal way, we also optimize both the possibility that we will not only survive but thrive, and that we will be happy.

    Productivity, for Rand, is not a fact of human nature but a virtue–one of those things human beings have to choose to be if they are to survive and thrive and be happy.

    There are other virtues: rationality, integrity, etc. I think I did a post on those a while back.

    Any human being can of course refuse to practice the virtues, thereby decreasing his ability for OPTIMAL survival (or any at all, and any thriving) and happiness.

    For what it’s worth, part of the problem we’re having here may be that Rand sees the PURPOSE of morality to be different from that of most other moral philosophers.

    Most codes of morality are sort of like medium security prisons–they’re meant to curtail what is assumed to be an essentially corrupt human nature.

    For Rand, human nature is neither essentially corrupt nor essentially good. It’s just a choice.

    Morality shows us how to make the right choices, and tell us why they’re the right choices.

    The end result of a moral code is to show us how to survive and thrive and be happy in the OPTIMAL way possible for us.

    In a state of nature, the common run of moral philosophers (except Aristotle) say, virtue is its own reward. Be virtuous and you’re likely to end up with less of everything (stuff and happiness and you name it) than somebody who flouts morality and does all the bad stuff.

    In a state of nature, Rand says, virtue brings rewards–be virtuous, and you’ll be more likely to survive, get rich and be happy.

    But Rand’s list of virtues are not the traditional Christian (or any other) sort–charity is not a virtue for Rand, neither is humility, neither is faith, neither is chastity.

    And I’m so tired, I have no idea what I’m doing here.

    But, yes, I’m definitely one of those people for whom a nap will throw off my schedule for a week, and I can’t do that this week, not with the funeral on Thursday and God knows what else going on.


    20 Jul 10 at 12:49 pm

  6. I’d disagree with (b) – our minds are important and unique, but we are also built to live through instincts and emotions and physical exertion. We don’t understand ourselves yet just how our brain biochemistry has evolved to give us certain instincts and emotional needs, but we do have them. We get pretty weird if we don’t have contact with other humans. We don’t develop properly if the contact isn’t of a specific type when we’re children. We respond to situations with rage or pleasure.

    I also disagree with (e). For some people, using their minds to defraud or steal from others gives them a better life than they had before and (from what I hear) lots of pleasure and excitement too. And no doubt it’s because you’re sleepy, but you’re veering back and forward between individuals and society. There’s a good argument that fraud damages societies (although in a large and prosperous one, the damage may be minimal) but it might benefit the individual. If this is true, the whole idea that Rand’s virtues bring their rewards is false. I can be productive as I like, but if I’m robbed, the thief, not me, gets the benefits of my productivity. Maybe Rand gets around this by using ‘more likely’ rather than guaranteeing wealth to the virtuous.

    Is a medical specialists more virtuous than an equally hardworking convenience store clerk?


    20 Jul 10 at 5:32 pm

  7. I don’t think you’d have to regard a medical specialist as more virtuous than a convenience store clerk, if I’ve been following the argument. They are both productive jobs.


    20 Jul 10 at 5:46 pm

  8. Well, to start, I don’t think human beings have anything that can properly be called an instinct at all.

    But virtue brings rewards–even when the thief steals the fruits of your labor, they’re still the fruits of YOUR labor. His thievery produces no wealth.

    What we’re talking about is MORAL precepts. In the above, the you behave morally (and in doing so create wealth) and the thief behaves immorally.

    Are medical specialists more virtuous than convenience store clerks?

    If both are working to their optimal capacity–no.

    But medical specialists reap higher rewards because they create more wealth–in the form of better health and longer life, in their case–than convenience store clerks.

    In fact, the average convenience store clerk around here probably takes more from the system than he gives. Or she. Most of the ones I meet are incapable of making change and can only do their jobs because somebody working at a much higher capacity designed a cash registered that does that calculation for them.

    The worker is worthy of his hire–but not of more than his hire, although workers on the bottom end of the ability scale always take more back than they are capable of giving in.

    Certainly if you’re not very bright–and lots of criminals are bone stupid–you’ll get more stuff if you steal than if you work honestly.

    But it’s not really a “better” life, unless you discount the hassle of being sought by the police, being largely rejected by most of the people you meet, having no status in society at large, and all the rest of it, not even counting the internal psychic effects.

    Most of these guys are not proud of thsmselves, they don’t feel like winners except in very short burst when they’ve just managed to score, and that’s usually followed by stuff that’s really not nice.

    I think she gets her “virtue brings rewards” pretty well done and done right.


    20 Jul 10 at 5:47 pm

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