Thursday, 2 February 2017

How to fall in love with traffic jams

 

A few traditional Auckland traffic jams didn’t disturb last night’s Auckland Liberty on the Rocks in Mt Eden, where we enjoyed a fascinating discussion led by Adriano Melo talking about Brazil’s journey into political darkness -- and also his own personal journey from Brazil to New Zealand, and from Marxism to discovering Ayn Rand.

His observation last night that I enjoyed most was of how his own personal disposition changed as he dispensed with his Marxism, and read more of Rand. As a committed Marxist, one who actively recruited for the cause (so many souls recruited into darkness he now laments, that he owes quite a few to the lighter side) he found that his own soul burned not with love for others but the very opposite. To him, at that time, everyone was an enemy.

It was only once he began to embrace capitalism and reason and Rand, however, that he discovered in himself a growing benevolence towards others.

An important observation.

This, I reflected, is a very natural thing. Even in a traffic jam.

Marx of course argued that the whole world is made up of “fundamental antagonisms,” a view shared today to greater or lesser extent by virtually everybody you stop and talk to – the world, in the view of so many, made up of what they often allege (and Marx insisted) to be “fundamental antagonisms” …

    Between the property owner and the worker.
    Between capital and labour.
    Between the common people and the bourgeoisie.
    Between agriculture and industry.
    Between the farmer and the city-dweller.
    Between the native-born and the foreigner.
    Between the producer and the consumer.
    Between civilisation and the social order.

And, to sum it all up in a single phrase:

    Between personal liberty and a harmonious social order.

Of course, conservative thinkers have their own version of this fantasy, often imagining “fundamental antagonisms” between, for example, their own culture and those dirty immigrants, or between good and evil (as if evil were an actual force in the world, instead of just being an absence of the good.)

What so few thinkers other than Rand have pointed however, and this is certainly one of her major contributions, is that not only are these fundamental antagonisms not necessarily so (the universe is just not constituted that way), but when force is successfully removed from human affairs (making all human interaction voluntary) then human activity itself demonstrates, not conflict, but a fundamental harmony. Or as Frederic Bastiat put it (one of those very rare thinkers to make the same point as Rand):

“All men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern.”

This, as it happens, is one of the most important lessons a rational economics can teach philosophers: what Bastiat called Economic Harmonies, and Ayn Rand student George Reisman calls The General Gain from the Existence of Others. That what characterises human interaction, when self-interest is properly defined, is not conflict but harmony.

What a revelation to someone growing up with the opposite conviction! What a shaft of sunlight on the soul!

As a psychological phenomenon: once one understands and grasps internally that that legitimate self-interest underpins a fundamentally harmonious existence between all of us – of the multiplication of knowledge; of the benefits from genius; of the enormously productive technology (the greatest technology the world has ever seen!) represented the voluntary division of labour – then why wouldn’t you discover that you find yourself becoming much more benevolent to others.

As I reflected, it can even make you love sitting in traffic while you’re trying to get to work . After all, what are all those other people sitting in cars trying to do? Voila, they’re all trying to do the same as you: To head to work to make and service and sell things that all make other people’s lives better (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t sell). So when you think about it, we’re all sitting in traffic trying to get somewhere, just so that we can make other people’s lives better while non-sacrificially improving our own!

Adam Smith pointed out long ago that

it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest.

Isn’t it astonishing however that, once one fully understands that fact and all its many implications, we nonetheless find ourselves imbued with that very feeling.

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1 comment:

  1. Indeed, altruism is misanthropic whereas self-interest is humanistic. The irony is almost enough to make one believe in a supreme being with a wicked sense of humour.

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