I enjoyed R.A. Childs, Jr's article (REASON, "Big Business and the Rise of American Statism," February and March 1971), particularly the preface. I was bothered, however, by the approach to the concept of the individual in history.
Childs appeared to regard it as being in a position analogous to that of the "fundamental particle" in physics—basic and indivisible; a "first cause," a "causal primary," an "ultimate stopping point," an entity whose properties are given as the basic premises of the system and are not subject to question. I think he would be better advised to regard it as the chemist regards the atom. In studying a wide variety of behavior in a broad range of systems, atoms can be effectively regarded as truly "atomic"—their various properties (chemical valence, ionization energy, mass, etc.) taken as given without further analysis. However, all chemists are aware, of course, that atoms are made up of electrons, protons, neutrons, and various other particles whose exact nature is still unclear, and that such questions as "Why is the valence of sodium plus one?" can be answered by reference to the fundamental laws of physics with a resultant simplification in the system of premises considered as primary.
Similarly, studies such as those by Lettvin, McCullock, and Pitts into neurophysiology and nerve networks, Ardrey and Lorenz into the evolutionary origins of instinctual behavior, and Minsky into computer simulations of the human mind enable one not merely to, as the article puts it, "speculate on some of the considerations which led a given man to adopt a certain end but ultimately…stop with the fact that he did," but rather to treat of such matters with the same sort of rigor that applies in any other area of the physical sciences.
Of course, the state of such analyses of human behavior is far more primitive than such areas as inorganic chemistry or Newtonian physics—which leads to my second point. Childs appears to regard the primariness of the human consciousness as a closed subject, reference to which conclusively settles any dispute to which it is relevant beyond reasonable debate. This corresponds to the attitude of most physicists toward Newtonian mechanics. Their time and resources are limited, and, while they would admit the principle that Newton is subject to any contradictory evidence that might arise, they don't consider such contradictions sufficiently likely to warrant spending any research money on performing checks on Newton, or to spend any time looking at any papers purporting to advance such contradictory data (such as are put out by the Flat Earth Society, John W. Campbell of ANALOG magazine, and others).
The attitude to Einstein's work is quite different. It is significant that most physicists refer to "Newton's laws," but "Einstein's theory of relativity." Checks on Einstein are performed from time to time, and many papers appear and are widely read on the subject (just recently, there has been considerable stir over a paper presenting the thesis that the perturbations in the orbit of Mercury that were formerly accounted for by Einstein and, in fact, were cited as one of the primary pieces of evidence supporting relativity, can be accounted for by the bulging of the sun's equator due to its rotation). Considering the sketchy state of current knowledge about the workings of the human mind, and the fact that much work in this area is now going on, it would seem more appropriate to me to regard the primariness of the individual more like Einstein than like Newton, to refrain from smug assertions of its finality and of the (as Childs put it) "dead end/ed/" nature of further study, and to use it as a handy working rule-of-thumb while keeping one eye on continuing research in this area.
I realize, of course, that the individualist hypothesis is certainly on much firmer ground than the theories one usually hears in a university history department, and that the temptation to be cocksure is large; I just hope we can manage to keep things in perspective.
Erwin S. Strauss
Santa Barbara, Calif.
In response to Kris Kott (REASON, "Letters," March 1971) regarding return of stolen property, I would like to make the following comments. While Mr. Kott does not exactly say that a thief has the right to sell an owner's property, he does assert that a third party has the right to buy stolen property, as long as he gives "value for value" (to the thief, of course). What Mr. Kott does not explain is how ownership can become morally alienated from the owner without his consent. It is my view that this cannot be done. Further, I would regard someone who knowingly bought or retained stolen property as being of dubious character. If someone sold me Kris Kott's wristwatch, for instance, and I discovered that it was stolen, you can be sure I would return it. I am sorry that Mr. Kott would not do the same for me.
I wonder how those who take Mr. Kott's position would react to the following situations:
Situation One: Hank Rearden works ten years to develop a formula for Rearden Metal. The government confiscates it and sells it to Orren Boyle (who gives "value for value," of course, to the government). Now who owns it?
Situation Two: Suppose I were to steal you, dear reader, and sell you to the operator of a salt mine in Siberia. Would you be morally entitled to reclaim yourself as your own property? (Remember, the salt mine operator "has not initiated force to obtain" you, and his only crime has been to give value for value. Wouldn't your escape be "an act of coercion every bit as damnable as the injustice sought to be rectified"?).
Lest anyone think this latter is an extreme example, let me remind you that the Southern plantation owners did not initiate force against the slaves but merely "gave value for value" to the slavetraders who had; and the 13th Amendment "swept away a $2 billion investment belonging to almost half a million Americans" (Carl N. Degler, OUT OF OUR PAST, p. 205).
Kris Kott's attitude toward the American Indians reminds me of the Indian agent who, in 1862 when the Sioux were being starved through injustices committed against them, exclaimed, "Let them eat grass." This same guilty party later turned up dead, with prairie grass stuffed in his mouth (Ralph K. Andrist, THE LONG DEATH, pp. 31-36).
In the present case, the conclusion may come in a more roundabout way. Those who refuse to recognize property rights help to destroy the concept of property rights. This society is far along that road already, and it got there with the help of people who, like Kris Kott, said to the victims of injustice, "Suffer!" That is something the American Indians know how to do: they have done it for almost five hundred years. But once in a while, the foundation of suffering upon which this society is built trembles a little—a quake here, a shifting there—and cracks appear in the superstructure. One day, those who live secure in that superstructure are going to find a load of bricks on their heads!
REPLY TO READER'S COMMENTS
Reader Adam Reed criticized my article on "Big Business" (REASON, "Letters," April/May 1971). I am pleased to reply.
As Ayn Rand states in her INTRODUCTION TO OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY: "A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; a word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its unit." Aristotle puts a similar point this way: "By a noun we mean a sound significant by convention…nothing is by nature a noun or a name—it is only so when it becomes a symbol." In my essay, I used the word "businessmen" to subsume those who are conventionally called businessmen. The meaning of the concept as used by me is made quite clear from the context. By Mr. Reed's definition, there can be no such thing as a dishonest businessman (one who accepts favors from the government). This use of the term would, I submit, rob it of what modern logicians call "existential import," i.e., it might very well have no referents.
I prefer to use the term as it is used by Rand and innumerable other thinkers and then to qualify the concept with adjectives like "honest," "dishonest," and so forth.
But I do not think that Mr. Reed has gotten my point in any case. When Ayn Rand refers to the actual accomplishments of American big businessmen, as a class, as she does in her essay on "America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business," and refers favorably to James J. Hill, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Morgan as honest businessmen, then I must take issue—and it is this which is my point of departure from the Objectivist view of American history. My point has been that the Progressive Era, so-called, was in reality initiated and sustained by criminal big businessmen working with intellectuals whom they made possible (by direct and indirect financial and institutional support). The "Progressive Era" was in reality a conservative movement, in the original sense of that word: supporting and maintaining the political and economic status quo.
In the course of my historical investigation, I found that throughout American history, regulation and control of the economy has been pioneered by American big businessmen. Even the New Deal's economic policies were first championed by such businessmen as Gerald Swope of General Electric, and the same goes for Social Security and other so-called "protective labor" legislation.
What does this mean? That if the American right wing is to be realistic, it should at the very least undertake a massive overhaul of its historical outlook, and a revision of its picture of the American political spectrum might not be out of order either. Long ago the right wing gave up its reverence for intellectuals as such, realizing their massive role in forming the present statist American politico-economic system. Now it is time for them to do the same for big businessmen as such and to realize their critically important role in creating and maintaining statism. It also means that adopting this view of American history will at long last enable the American right winger to communicate with those who criticize big businessmen (as they do exist and have existed), accepting criticisms but explaining them via a different theoretical route. This, I believe, will make libertarians a far more potent force in American ideological life.
This, of course, is only important if they propose to do anything about changing the world, to make it what it "might and ought to be." I am, unfortunately, not at all convinced that many numbers of the right-wing have this end in mind—they are far too pessimistic. But part of this pessimism comes precisely from their mistaken view of history and from their inability to identify their natural friends and natural enemies. This in turn comes in part from their a priori approach to history, treating history as a deductive system. The point to my paper was to suggest that they and the New Left have accepted a false dichotomy between theories and facts—with the New Left thinking that only specific concrete "facts" are necessary for a world-view and the right wing thinking that all that is necessary is a broad general theory, sketched in outlines. The results are obvious: both are in a state of almost eerie spiritual disarray; the right is top-heavy with theory, knowing basically nothing about the inner nature of U.S. foreign policy, for example, and the left is frantically concerned with day-to-day events. In Randian terms, the right has the psychoepistemology of a mystic whose theories are irrelevant, while the left has the psychoepistemology of a savage unguided by the precepts of a rational ethic.
This, then, is what Mr. Reed needed my essay for. Only libertarianism can unite the best aspects of both left and right and cast out the bad. Only libertarianism can unite a rational ethic with an understanding of human history. Only libertarianism can deal with all issues from the guaranteed annual income to feudalism in the "Third World" and imperialism in U.S. foreign policy—by means of applying its theory of justice in property titles to the real world. Only libertarianism, then, as a political and philosophical movement can have a future, for only by understanding the past it is truly consistent with reality—but it can have a future only by understanding the past and the present context of the world. This takes a great deal of research and work, otherwise broad concepts of libertarianism and Objectivism are puny and without content, without the richness they should possess.
The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and other radical scholastics failed to survive because it failed to come to grips with the demands and nature of modern science as it was developing in the Renaissance. The philosophy of Objectivism will likewise fail if it neglects taking history seriously. True, some Objectivists have some historical knowledge, but I think that it is generally that which was uncritically absorbed from American conservatism—whose historical worldview is almost completely wrong. Objectivists have not come to grips with what is called "revisionist history," yet this history has immense importance if Objectivist principles are to be applied to reality. Thus the purpose of my essay was to explain some of this and to combat that a priori approach to history that often comes out of students of Objectivism. It is precisely this approach which an understanding of Ayn Rand's contributions to epistemology should help to combat—producing a true integration of theory and practice, of reason and experience, of philosophy and everyday life.
R.A. Childs, Jr.
Silver Spring, Md.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".