The Costs of War, Part II
My post "The Costs of War" has elicited more than a dozen comments so far, and if there are any additional comments to be made, I will be sure to reply in that thread. But I wanted to take this opportunity to expand on the points made in the former post, since I have benefited from a good chat with an offlist correspondent on these issues.
My correspondent would prefer to remain anonymous; it is more important for me to post comments that enable me to work through an issue, rather than to focus on who said what. I'd like to extend my appreciation for the offlist correspondence.
Let's call my correspondent "Dr. A" so that we can avoid using gender-identifiers. :) Dr. A writes:
I have to comment on your comparison of Ayn Rand to Ward Churchill. It's quite impossible to justify, try as I might. You were clear in saying that there is no moral equivalence, but to responsibly make the comparison requires a lot more explanation, qualification and context than you gave it.
I do, in fact, agree that much more discussion is merited. But, as I said in the comments section of that thread, not every blog post is meant as a full-fledged, finished article. I like using the blog to "think out loud." Unlike a few people I've met through the years, I don't wait to dot every "i" and cross every "t" before publishing anything, especially in an electronic era of real-time "give-and-take." (Books and professional journal articles are a different breed, of course.) I just think that dialogue on these issues is necessary. And I'm delighted to receive the feedback, especially when I'm clearly grappling with what I believe is a dilemma. Dr. A continues:
9-11 was an intentional act. The tunnel disaster in Atlas [Shrugged] was the result of a build-up of (domestic) evasion and irresponsibility that no person specifically intended. The tunnel disaster therefore invites the question: who was responsible and to what degree? Rand is pointing to the fragments of responsibility in many for the mosaic of negligent causes to a tragedy. We know who was specifically and fully responsible for the evil brutality that occurred on 9-11. It wasn't us.
Not only is the point well taken, but Dr. A drives home an issue that I should have articulated with much greater care. Given my Hayekian predilections, it's an obvious issue too. It revolves around the distinction between intended human action and unintended social consequences. No single person on the Comet intended for that tragedy to occur, and yet, through their ideas and actions, each person reflected and perpetuated a social and cultural milieu that made such a tragedy possible. And this, after all, is part of the very essence of the interventionist dynamic, as I described it in my "Understanding the Global Crisis" article. So much of what Rand calls the "New Fascism" arose by default, by an ad hoc process of moral and philosophical deterioration, over generations. For Rand, the neofascist US economy "was—and is—a de facto, predatory fascism, the result of pragmatic expediency and of ad hoc, incremental policies that had enriched some groups at the expense of others."
The key phrase here is "ad hoc." This is not meant to whitewash the growth of statism over the past hundred years. It's not as if it took place completely "behind people's backs," as Marx might have put it. There have certainly been groups that campaigned for, and that became adept at using, the political process to enrich themselves; these groups aim to achieve this enrichment. But it is not necessarily the case that each parasitic group intends to contribute to the growth of state power, which, in the long run, destroys the host that is required for such parasitism to exist. A good point on this topic was made by economist Karen Vaughn; I cite it in my book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. While it may be
correct to note the class character of government interventionism, it does not follow that the overall growth of government has been intended by the various classes. It is still quite possible to see the overall growth of the state as an unintended consequence of the relative expansion of particular government agencies, programs, and regulations.
Or, as I stated in my L&P essay, "Ideology and Myth in American Politics," the reality of the mixed economy
nourishes the development of ad hoc groups, because groups become the only political units that matter. Simultaneously, it atomizes a society, as people-in-groups become increasingly fragmented and fractured across every dimension, in search of this or that privilege or exemption: a Hobbesian "war of all against all"—which goes global.
Rand herself understood that many groups were responsible for the growth of state power, but she never assumed that all were equally responsible; some are quite clearly more "equal" than others, to use an Orwellian phrase. As I pointed out in "The Costs of War," Rand focused on those who bolstered statism explicitly; she also recognized the key role played by certain structurally privileged interest groups in the rise of the "New Fascism" (Grinder and Hagel are even more explicit in their article, already cited, detailing the location of "ultimate decision-making" in neofascist political economy.)
But Rand, who grew up under Soviet communism, also understood that people trapped in specific circumstances not of their own making, must sometimes milk the inner contradictions of the system just to survive (see We the Living, for example). If that entails going to public schools, driving on public roads, taking public scholarships, Social Security benefits, unemployment compensation, etc., while the state is busy robbing your money through the tax structure, so be it.
Because there are differential beneficiaries in a mixed economy, I think it is valuable, then, to focus on that question highlighted by Dr. A: Who is responsible and to what degree? Perhaps these questions invite a hierarchy of "sins" in a corrupt social system. Rand might reserve a special place in hell for those who have consciously used the state to benefit themselves at the expense of others, as well as for those who have been part of the ideological vanguard, legitimizing the interventionist functions of the state.
But Rand also seems to distinguish between those whom she would hold morally accountable, and those who might be held legally responsible. In the Comet tragedy from Atlas Shrugged, for example, there are people who are responsible for the technical glitches that made the train accident inevitable. But there is nothing that Rand leaves to accident in the construction of her plot, from a moral perspective. In the general atmosphere of the novel, where the failure of statist intervention is dramatically illustrated, each action—taken, euphemistically, in the "public interest"—is actually a cover for exploitation, which undercuts private property, social accountability, and individual responsibility. As I write in my essay "Ayn Rand: A Centennial Appreciation":
Rand documents, painfully, how the destruction of the market economy and its specialization and division of labor is, ultimately, a destruction of the "division of responsibility." In a statist social order, where everybody owns everything, nobody will be held responsible for anything. "It’s not my fault" is the statist’s credo.
Given all this, I think there is much more to be said about moral complicity and the death of innocents in war. For example, one thing that still concerns me is this. Rand argues that, "[i]f by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, [the citizens] couldn't overturn their bad government and choose a better one, then they have to pay the price for the sins of their government—as all of us are paying for the sins of ours." Here, she seems to be observing a fact: people will suffer the consequences, even through no fault of their own.
But, in other circumstances, she clearly believes that people should suffer the consequences. She argues: "If some people put up with dictatorship—as some do in Soviet Russia and as they did in Germany—they deserve whatever their government deserves." By using the word "some," however, Rand accepts the possibility that there may be citizens who do not "put up with dictatorship." And Rand would certainly not blame people held at gunpoint in a concentration camp, whether it is called Auschwitz, or whether it applies to a whole segment of an oppressed society. There are dissenters who don't have the means to get out of a slave pen. There are those who find themselves in very tangled, complex personal situations, involving family and other relationships. There are children who have no choice.
Some might argue that parents are responsible for children, and that governments who transgress put their own citizens at risk, and are thereby responsible, from a moral standpoint, for what happens to their citizenry. But a bomb doesn't discriminate between those who should and those who should not bear the consequences. Placing the moral responsibility for war on the outlaw government that uses its citizenry as a human shield does nothing to alleviate the suffering of those who are caught up in the conflict through no fault of their own.
It is for this reason that even if one is morally committed to one's cause, the decision to go to war, with full knowledge of its devastating effects and long-term unintended consequences, is a grave decision.
Returning to my initial essay on these questions of moral complicity and responsibility, I did make an explicit comparison between Rand, Churchill, and Bin Laden. Dr. A takes exception to the comparison, and to Churchill's own comparison of the WTC victims to "little Eichmanns." In this instance, Churchill compared these victims to a very "specific Nazi whose incredible evil/level of guilt is known," and on that point, Dr. A will get no argument from me. I too found it appalling. There is little doubt that Rand would have been equally appalled; her work invites "the reader to self-examination," as Dr. A puts it, not to make "moral excuses for evil."
So Dr. A wonders why I'd use Churchill in my "on-going quest to demonstrate Rand's 'radicalism'." But I don't think that in this particular instance I was attempting to demonstrate Rand's radicalism per se; in truth, I was merely confessing my uncomfortability with the unqualified ways in which this issue of moral complicity has been handled by people with such different ideological frameworks—including Rand, who, despite some qualifications, never developed a full treatment of the subject. (Most of her statements on this subject came in Q&A sessions, not formal essays.) I made the comparison because, if I accept Rand's maxim that people who are complicit in a situation bear some responsibility for it (albeit differential responsibility relative to their roles in it), then I must grapple with the equivalent use of that maxim by those who repudiate the moral framework that Rand enunciated, a framework I continue to accept.
I agree with those commentators, therefore, that it is always necessary to reintroduce the moral dimension; one cannot detach any single principle from its embeddedness in a rational moral perspective.
I should make one final comment here. In the past, I have made similar comparisons across political perspectives by focusing on methodological considerations. As many of my readers know, for example, I have used the word "dialectics" to describe the "art of context-keeping," and in so doing, I have invited comparisons among thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Menger, and Rand. But the point of my comparison was not to drain dialectics of all meaning; it was to isolate, for the purposes of analysis, a principle, and then, to trace how its embeddedness in different frameworks has made for huge applicative differences.
If I were not concerned about the moral and political framework, I'd only be an advocate of "dialectics," rather than "dialectical libertarianism." And in this day and age, that phrase helps to distinguish my own position from previous incarnations of both dialectics and libertarianism.
Ultimately, the battle is not over the applications, implications, or qualifications of principles or methods taken in isolation. It is over the philosophic and moral framework that gives such principles and methods their existential meaning. Otherwise, as Dr. A suggests, any "clinical comparisons" will have the unintended consequence of wiping out the very dimension upon which our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor depend.
Noted at L&P here.