Saturday, 1 April 2017

Alex Epstein on ‘Why Tyler Cowen Should Really Read Ayn Rand’


Economist Tyler Cowen is well-known, widely respected and generally a very bright brain. And he reckons he rates Ayn Rand. Yet Alex Epstein, who knows his Ayn Rand, points out that he really doesn’t – points out that being brilliant doesn’t guarantee you know whereof you speak – that “mental virtuosity“ (a big thinkum) does not necessarily equal "mental virtue" (a consistent practice of using the best available thinking methods to arrive at the truth).

You see, Cowen rates  Ayn Rand, saying her her main influence on him was the book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. But then he damns Ayn Rand, waving straw men in the breeze and saying he was unimpressed by her philosophy from the beginning. “But here’s the interesting part to me,” says Epstein:

Cowen is an economist who claims that Ayn Rand's philosophy is essentially worthless--even though she, in the very book he cites, uses that philosophy to pose fundamental challenges to Cowen's field.
Rand’s book “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” gives a systematic and devastating critique of the false and unnamed *philosophical* premises underlying all of modern economics (in her time and ours). She argues that a false, collectivist view of morality along with a failure to understand the nature of human rationality have led this field to be a frequent influence in favour of statism and against the productive.
In this critique, whose brilliance makes me feel like a mental midget every time I read it, Rand illustrates by example the virtues of her philosophy: its recognition of the primary of moral standards (e.g., individual lives vs. some collective “society”) and the importance of naming them; its uniquely clear guidelines to concept formation (e.g., Rand defines her concepts with razor precision); just go read the thing and you'll see how good it is.
Yet instead of acknowledging the critique Rand made of his field (let alone answering it) all Cowen seems to remember or acknowledge from the book … is a bastardisation of Rand’s view that we should give producers *justice*)

It’s actually pathetic. Yet so common – someone steps up to the plate saying they have this and this objection to Rand’s philosophy, and at the first swing it’s clear they’re either never digested a single idea she’s said. Here, for example, in quotes Epstein has pulled out of the first essay in her book, ‘What is Capitalism,’ is a veritable pocket digest of everything Cowen would have had to ignore if he were to have honestly overlooked her unique views about his own field:

**** "It is philosophy that defines and establishes the epistemological criteria to guide human knowledge in general and specific sciences in particular. Political economy came into prominence in the nineteenth century, in the era of philosophy’s post-Kantian disintegration, and no one rose to check its premises or to challenge its base.
"Implicitly, uncritically, and by default, political economy accepted as its axioms the fundamental tenets of collectivism. Political economists—including the advocates of capitalism—defined their science as the study of the management or direction or organisation or manipulation of a 'community’s' or a nation’s 'resources.' The nature of these 'resources' was not defined; their communal ownership was taken for granted—and the goal of political economy was assumed to be the study of how to utilise these 'resources' for 'the common good.'"

This view is virtually unquestioned in Cowen’s field, yet he overlooks the challenge.

**** "Political economy was, in effect, a science starting in midstream: it observed that men were producing and trading, it took for granted that they had always done so and always would—it accepted this fact as the given, requiring no further consideration—and it addressed itself to the problem of how to devise the best way for the 'community' to dispose of human effort."

See for example most of modern macro- and microeconomics as practiced by everyone from Cowen on down. Cowen ignores that challenge too.

**** "The American philosophy of the Rights of Man was never grasped fully by European intellectuals. Europe’s predominant idea of emancipation consisted of changing the concept of man as a slave of the absolute state embodied by a king, to the concept of man as a slave of the absolute state embodied by “the people”—i.e., switching from slavery to a tribal chief into slavery to the tribe. A non-tribal view of existence could not penetrate the mentalities that regarded the privilege of ruling material producers by physical force as a badge of nobility."
    "Thus Europe’s thinkers did not notice the fact that during the nineteenth century, the galley slaves had been replaced by the inventors of steamboats, and the village blacksmiths by the owners of blast furnaces, and they went on thinking in such terms (such contradictions in terms) as “wage slavery” or “the antisocial selfishness of industrialists who take so much from society without giving anything in return”—on the unchallenged axiom that wealth is an anonymous, social, tribal product.
    "That notion has not been challenged to this day; it represents the implicit assumption and the base of contemporary political economy."

Still does.

**** "If capitalism is to be understood, it is this tribal premise that has to be checked—and challenged.
    "Mankind is not an entity, an organism, or a coral bush. The entity involved in production and trade is man. It is with the study of man—not of the loose aggregate known as a 'community'—that any science of the humanities has to begin.
    "This issue represents one of the epistemological differences between the humanities and the physical sciences, one of the causes of the former’s well-earned inferiority complex in regard to the latter. A physical science would not permit itself (not yet, at least) to ignore or bypass the nature of its subject. Such an attempt would mean: a science of astronomy that gazed at the sky, but refused to study individual stars, planets, and satellites—or a science of medicine that studied disease, without any knowledge or criterion of health, and took, as its basic subject of study, a hospital as a whole, never focusing on individual patients."

**** "A social system is a set of moral-political-economic principles embodied in a society’s laws, institutions, and government, which determine the relationships, the terms of association, among the men living in a given geographical area. It is obvious that these terms and relationships depend on an identification of man’s nature, that they would be different if they pertain to a society of rational beings or to a colony of ants. It is obvious that they will be radically different if men deal with one another as free, independent individuals, on the premise that every man is an end in himself—or as members of a pack, each regarding the others as the means to his ends and to the ends of 'the pack as a whole.'"

**** "The 'practical' justification of capitalism does not lie in the collectivist claim that it effects 'the best allocation of national resources.' Man is not a 'national resource' and neither is his mind—and without the creative power of man’s intelligence, raw materials remain just so many useless raw materials.
"The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve 'the common good.' It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.”

**** "If one begins by defining the good of individual men, one will accept as proper only a society in which that good is achieved and achievable. But if one begins by accepting 'the common good' as an axiom and regarding individual good as its possible but not necessary consequence (not necessary in any particular case), one ends up with such a gruesome absurdity as Soviet Russia, a country professedly dedicated to “the common good,” where, with the exception of a minuscule clique of rulers, the entire population has existed in subhuman misery for over two generations.
    "What makes the victims and, worse, the observers accept this and other similar historical atrocities, and still cling to the myth of 'the common good'? The answer lies in philosophy—in philosophical theories on the nature of moral values."

All profound and important points; and every one ducked by what amounts to a hack reading.

Epstein concludes:

I think I've proven my point that there is a lot of profound material here--completely original material that no philosopher or economist before Rand came close to approximating. But please read the whole first essay "What is Capitalism?" to grasp her whole argument.

You should.




  1. I'm afraid it's Tyler Cowan who has read & comprehended correctly. Rand knew little economics and even less philosophy('capitalism' wasn't even spelled correctly in the first edition).

    "Government has a monopoly on force"; "altruism equals communism" - what an utter load of horseshit. Epstein also credits her with original arguments, but even that is incorrect.

    How old are you PC? You're supposed to grow out of this drivel by your early 20's at the latest.

    1. What are you meant to outgrow by your early 20's? The ability to think in principles?

  2. Ross, it is amusing to read your comment as you haven't even bothered to spell Tyler Cowen's surname correctly.

  3. @MarkT Principles like what? Rand was a hypocrite who relied on the altruism of others when she first arrived in America, ran her cult like the Ayatollah, and helped herself to taxpayer funds in her senior years.

    @tombr My bad. But if you're consistent then you'll agree that Rand is discredited by not 'bothering' to spell 'capitalism' correctly in the first edition of her aforementioned book.

    1. That response shows you for one have certainly lost that ability (or never had it).

    2. Ross, Ayn Rand's arguments are not 'discredited' by a spelling mistake. If you will recall, English was her second language. Should the published book not have had proof readers checking the manuscript, who would be the ones discredited by permitting a basic spelling error to slip through the net? It is entirely possible Rand spelt the word correctly in the first place. Faultless spelling, of course, does not automatically confirm her beliefs as being correct.

  4. Ross, I have no idea whether that's true. Why does it matter so much to you? Anyway, the generally abusive nature of your initial comment, such as the lame sneer about views in one's 20s, doesn't incline me to take you seriously. I'm not seeing a substantive argument against the original post. Why not make one?

    1. You have to understand, MarkT doesn't actually know what Rand said and is generally relying on smears by others who don't know or care either. First, she relied on the help of her family when she came to America. That is not necessarily altruism--she didn't define altruism as simply helping others, of course, as anyone (unlike MarkT) would know who bothered to read her writings on ethics, but rather giving them greater value than they hold for you. Second, the whole issue of her applying for Social Security was set straight several years ago here, but of course again one suspects MarkT has never read it, and moreover probably wouldn't admit he was wrong if he had.

    2. Mike - you're confusing me with someone else. My comment was directed at the person making the smears (Ross). I have read Rand extensively and agree that there's no hypocrisy in her accepting help, or taking a benefit when you've paid taxes all your life.

    3. Oh, crud! Sorry, you're right. Not sure how I chose the wrong name; probably a combination of haste and a browser that jumps around a bit.

  5. ahh. Haven't seen any more recent writing by PC. Unusual. Normally he should give an excuse if he goes wandering off somewhere.

  6. I love the "but she took taxpayer funds!" argument that comes up all too often. No, what she did is take her resources back from a government who forced them out of her for her entire life.

    1. Nonsense. Before Rand was revealed to have collected SS that argument was regarded (correctly) as a weak rationalisation by members of her cult.


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