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hernan

Why do good things happen to bad people?

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I'm currently rereading Atlas Shrugged with an eye toward certain questions that have nagged at me. Among them is this:
 
Why do good things happen to bad people? Is slavery profitable? How does a looting elite maintain itself?

 

"You have always considered money-making as such an important virtue," Jim [Taggert] said to [Dagney] with an odd half-smile. "Well, it seems to me that I'm better at it than you are.”

 

Ayn Rand struggled with this question. Her answer is generally described as the sanction of the victim.

 

“Dagny,  they’re doing something that we’ve never understood. They know something which we don’t, but should discover. I can’t see it fully yet, but I’m beginning to see parts of it. That looter from the State Science Institute was scared when I refused to help him pretend that he was just an honest buyer of my Metal. He was scared way deep. Of what? I don’t know—public opinion was just his name for it, but it’s not the full name. Why should he have been scared? He has the guns, the jails, the laws—he could have seized the whole of my mills, if he wished, and nobody would have risen to defend me, and he knew it—so why should he have cared what I thought? But he did. It was I who had to tell him that he wasn’t a looter, but my customer and friend. That’s what he needed from me. And that’s what Dr. Stadler needed from you—it was you who had to act as if he were  great man who never tried to destroy your rail and my Metal. I don’t know what it is that they think they accomplish—but they want us to pretend that we see the world as they pretend they see it. They need some sort of sanction from us. I don’t know the nature of that sanction—but, Dagny, I know that if we value our lives we must not give it to them. IF they put you on a torture rack, don’t give it to them. Let them destroy your railroad and my mills, but don’t give it to them. Because I know this much: I know that’s our only chance."
 
Throughout the novel, Dagny, Hank and others are constantly sideswiped by politicians. They are willing to move mountains to stay on schedule when building the Rio Norte line and related promises, but are ignorant of politics and regard it as beneath them. And, needless to say, there is never an armed insurrection. But, interestingly, neither do we see any jackbooted thugs. There is no mention of taxes, confiscatory or otherwise.
 
To some extent this is merely artistic license. Rand has a story to tell and she guides events and characters toward a designed climax.
 
But as Rand was not merely a fictiin writer and as this was her magnum opus, I wanted to open a discussion to explore Rand's thoughts and to better understand how the world works.
 
I'm trying to sort out Rand's artistic license from her philosophical and political views on the question. Any assistance would be welcome.

 

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Rand did not struggle with this question, she deals with it repeatedly in Atlas Shrugged -- it's the major point she makes in the novel. In essence, she believes that people need at least some degree of moral certainty in their actions. If people are "looting," they can't get that certainty from themselves, so they take the lack of push-back from those being looted as an "ok" to continue to loot. As soon as those being stolen from stand up and say, "No," the thieves have nothing to back up their actions, neither intellectually nor physically, since the physical looting is also halted. Rand argues that the looters are enabled by those being looted. "Good people," over the long haul, do it to themselves by not standing up for what they know is right.

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My stab at your 3 questions:

 

1.  Reality is complex.  It would be rationalism/mysticism to believe reality "should" or even could be such that "good things" never "happen" to "bad people".

2.  Not in the long run.  Hence, "No."

3.  A looting "elite" is somewhat of a misnomer, more like a looting "mob", or band of thugs.  Sanction of the victim is one manifest factor, support by the witless and the evil are other manifest factors. The root factor of all of them is "bad/incorrect philosophy".

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I'm trying to tease apart Rand's art and philosphy. Jaskin seems to imply that they are one and the same. I am skeptical and here is why: Let us suppose that someone refuses to sanction the IRS. What should we expect to happen? I claim that they would be crushed without the slightest hesitation or regret. The idea that that the IRS needs our sanction seems laughable.

 

Now I think Rand's portrayal of Lilian is entirely plausible. She has no power over Rearden other than what he grants her. Not so the IRS.

 

Is there any reason to believe that, in the long run, taxation will fail? Not really. Nations may come and go but not because of any reliance upon the sanction of the victim.

 

Many speculate that slavery would eventually have died out, that the Civil War was unnecessary. Perhaps. But it endured throughout the ancient world for centuries, milliniea really.

Edited by hernan

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It is only laughable because you don't consider the full context. Everyone knows that the IRS takes money from involuntary victims. If those victims decided that it was wrong to do it, the IRS would soon cease to exist.

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Surely you are not saying that Rand's insight was merely that. A simple majority would be sufficient to abolish the IRS by ordinary politics. My impression was that Rand was claiming that individuals had more control.

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Hers was a philosophical argument, not a political roadmap for this year's politics. Her principle says that without the producers, the looters can't loot. It says that you shouldn't steal because you didn't create what you're stealing. It doesn't say how to change someone's mind (not that principle, at least), nor which voter base on which to concentrate your efforts, nor which politician is more likely to stick to his word, etc.

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At least in this case, it looks like the State Science Institute was essentially spineless and only had power to the extent people believe it had power. No one busted out the guns to get Rearden to cooperate, instead just telling him he had to be selfless. In that situation, it starts to show that the origin of power over others is a lot to do with complying to others out of fear/guilt/anxiety/etc. In other words, it originates in the sanction of the victim. Remember though, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being controlled. There's only so many people an individual can defend from before an institution grows and means business. The State Science Institute was probably the weakest institution in AS, and was too weak to persuade Rearden to comply. But other institutions had power built up and did bring out the guns (Galt was being tortured!). I never took Rand to be saying all institutions collapse as soon as people start to rebel, just that the road to ruin begins with allowing others to control you. To fix things, the first step is to say no.

That's what any strike is about - saying no. But so much more needs to be fixed! What steps to take depends on the context. 

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... complying to others out of fear/guilt/anxiety/etc. In other words, it originates in the sanction of the victim.

I think "fear" does not belong there, unless one qualifies it: say, "unreasonable fear".

If the IRS sends a person a letter asking him to pay some tax that is due, it is not rude. In the first instance, there is no threat of any type of action except perhaps: "you will be charged an extra x% penalty if...", not much different from what a regular creditor might say. One might comply because one knows that not doing so starts a chain of events that ends up with either complying or being thrown in jail. So, I would call the motivation fear, even if one is not feeling an emotion of fear. Would you agree? if so, would you agree that this is not "sanction of the victim"?

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Hers was a philosophical argument, not a political roadmap for this year's politics. Her principle says that without the producers, the looters can't loot. It says that you shouldn't steal because you didn't create what you're stealing. It doesn't say how to change someone's mind (not that principle, at least), nor which voter base on which to concentrate your efforts, nor which politician is more likely to stick to his word, etc.

 

I think she is saying more than this.

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At least in this case, it looks like the State Science Institute was essentially spineless and only had power to the extent people believe it had power. No one busted out the guns to get Rearden to cooperate, instead just telling him he had to be selfless. In that situation, it starts to show that the origin of power over others is a lot to do with complying to others out of fear/guilt/anxiety/etc. In other words, it originates in the sanction of the victim. Remember though, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being controlled. There's only so many people an individual can defend from before an institution grows and means business. The State Science Institute was probably the weakest institution in AS, and was too weak to persuade Rearden to comply. But other institutions had power built up and did bring out the guns (Galt was being tortured!). I never took Rand to be saying all institutions collapse as soon as people start to rebel, just that the road to ruin begins with allowing others to control you. To fix things, the first step is to say no.

That's what any strike is about - saying no. But so much more needs to be fixed! What steps to take depends on the context. 

 

Yes, and this makes sense from a literary perspective. As I noted originally, she was telling a story and guding events toward a selected climax. Nowhere does her story include the violence of, say, the Bolsheviks, with which she was very familiar, but not even the velvet fist of the IRS, that we are all so familiar with. It was her literary choice to give the court no real power over Rearden. (Note that defendatns often pull the kind of stunts that Rearden did and courts are very capable of dealing with them. If, for example, a defendant refuses to enter a plea the court will enter one for him.)

 

Note that while it is not my intention to rewrite Atlas Shrugged, we can imagine a Strike succeeding even in the face of raw state violence; look at the collapse of the Soviet Union. That's simply not the way she chose to tell her story.

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I think "fear" does not belong there, unless one qualifies it: say, "unreasonable fear".

If the IRS sends a person a letter asking him to pay some tax that is due, it is not rude. In the first instance, there is no threat of any type of action except perhaps: "you will be charged an extra x% penalty if...", not much different from what a regular creditor might say. One might comply because one knows that not doing so starts a chain of events that ends up with either complying or being thrown in jail. So, I would call the motivation fear, even if one is not feeling an emotion of fear. Would you agree? if so, would you agree that this is not "sanction of the victim"?

 

That's what I'm getting at. Does the IRS rely on "saction of the victim"?

 

By contrast, Lilian (and the family generally) does rely on sanction of the victim as Rearden discovered. That was entirely realistic.

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Thanks for the reminder. I'd forgotten this :

"...but they want us to pretend to see the world as they pretend to see it."

Reality as perceived by others, who've in turn imitated it from others, and on and on, like parallel mirrors.

Whoever breaks the chain of pretence - to see the world with an independent mind - will be feared and hated.

One of Rand's finest explications of the self-sacrifice in altruism-collectivism, I believe.

Edited by whYNOT

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That's what I'm getting at. Does the IRS rely on "saction of the victim"?

The IRS does not need the sanction of every victim, because it has the sanction of enough victims. Those sanctioner-victims also sanction its use of force against non-sanctioning victims.

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The IRS does not need the sanction of every victim, because it has the sanction of enough victims. Those sanctioner-victims also sanction its use of force against non-sanctioning victims.

 

Precisely. Similarly, we can say that slaveholders do not need the sanction of slaves so long as they are wiling to be absolutely brutal. It's true, of course, that dead slaves don't till soil and that citizens in jail do not pay taxes. But that they do serve as warnings to others.

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One contextual bit to keep in mind is that this is taking place in the United States, where the founding fathers proposed a political system based on moral principles, a system founded on the individual and that culturally, the legacy of freedom and individuality still lingers even if in the subconscious recesses of those falling into socialism...  In such a context there are limits to what could happen and how it would happen... in fact I think AS is a statement of what would happen (|eventually).

 

In essence I think it is the idea that once the ideal of freedom came to be almost fully lived by a society (albeit briefly), it becomes part of that society, and that even when the society is in decline it cannot be fully killed because of the nature of individual men and their volition: I.e. as long as the ideal of freedom is not completely forgotten, the "looting elite" cannot maintain itself indefinitely.

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Precisely. Similarly, we can say that slaveholders do not need the sanction of slaves so long as they are wiling to be absolutely brutal. It's true, of course, that dead slaves don't till soil and that citizens in jail do not pay taxes. But that they do serve as warnings to others.

I agree. I don't think slaves sanctioned slavery.

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Watch what happens with Obamacare. It has some interesting parallels including the pretense of voluntariness and reality of perpetual failure and adhokery.

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What's your point? What do you think would happen if the pretense is discovered by people who also aren't willing to go along with the government scheme?

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What's your point? What do you think would happen if the pretense is discovered by people who also aren't willing to go along with the government scheme?

I think Obamacare is much closer to a reliance upon the sanction of the victim than other familiar government programs. The Supreme Court approved it on the basis of a tax finding no power to otherwise compel. Some wish to go full socialist with single payer but they lacked the political strength at the zenith of popularity and are unlikely to get it as the problems snowball.

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Things can always change, but.. most people think healthcare is either an ID card or a policy number. Market mechanics has been effectively divorced from the industry for so long now, that the impression of most is that the problems are with distribution alone. As the problems snowball , I fear the political will will be to seek a fairer and simpler solution. In the press I rarely if ever see doctor or hospital groups interviewed, and it seems the insurance companies have been promised a 'bailout' to offset profit loss due to implimentation of the ACA.

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So how might Rand's insights about the sanction of the victim be applied to Obamacare? (I think if ever someone wanted to play the John Galt role this would be the opportunity. One can easily imagine rewriting Atlas Shrugged to be a story about medical practiioners going on strike.)

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Noble Vision by Gen Lagreca is good novel about the difficulties medical practioners face when going up against state and corporate controls.

 

I took a look at that but it doesn't appeal to me.

 

I've noted before the dearth of Atlas Shrugged-type novels by which I mean stories that portray heroic capitalism. One can certainly find some great biographies of industrialists and entrepreneurs and there are certainly many fictional stories that revolve around business almost always portraying the businesman as villian. But for some reason Rand's story stands out uniquely absent a wider genre.

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Inequality is a perenial subject but it has grown especially hot since Obama's election. Many have tried to connect the misery of the poor and declining middle class to inequality. I don't think we need to waste time rehashing those tired arguments in spite of the fact that they are widely held.

 

Instead, I'd like to raise another related issue: the paradox of Marxism. There was an excellent opinion article in the WSJ that quoted Alexis de Tocqueville against Obama thus:

 

"Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy," Tocqueville wrote. "This complete equality eludes the grasp of the people at the very moment they think they have grasped it . . . the people are excited in the pursuit of an advantage, which is more precious because it is not sufficiently remote to be unknown or sufficiently near to be enjoyed."

One result: "Democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy." Another: "A depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom."

 

 

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304591604579290350851300782

 

What interests me is this: How can the weak lower the powerful? As I noted originally, Rand's theory was the "sanction of the victim." But this explanation is, I believe, inadequate. Yes, there may be some situations where this holds true and it may well be part of the problem in every case but it cannot alone resolve the paradox.

 

Now it is probalby true that the powerful can abdicate to the weak or that the mere focus by the weak on lowering the powerful is, itself, problematic and immoral quite apart from the failure to achieve it's aims. And it's also the case that moral certainty (whether correct or incorrect) is powerful; those who lack moral confidence are more apt to subject themselves to those who are more courageous.

 

But, generally speaking, to talk of the institutions of the state as an exercise of the weak against the powerful is absurd on it's face.

 

Let me put the question in more tangible form: Can you be said to own property if your ownership of said property is subject to the whim of others? Is it your income if it can be taxed away at the will of others?

 

Now it is certainly true that power shifts over time for various reasons. Those who were weak may become strong and vice versa. And relative wealth and power varies over time though never as much as some imagine.

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