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Dualism: A Difference With Distinction

The chat continues between Geoffrey Allan Plauche, Billy Beck, and me. Billy had originally questioned the very use of the word "dualism" to describe what he believes is mere "difference." He writes here:

What's with all this "dualism"? I'd wondered how they (Chris Sciabarra and Plauche) were using the term, starting with a review of Anaxagorean split of mind and matter. No; I conclude that they're talking about little more than definitions. In his fifth paragraph, Plauche recaps relations among various "monopolistic institution[s]" (what Plauche correctly spikes as Rand's "definition" in his third paragraph), but all this is really only different arrangements of the same basic thing. It's not about "types"; it's about the degree of application of the basic thing. Now; if we want to call it "dualism" to properly identify two different things and scrupulously discriminate between them, then I guess it's okay, but everybody should bear in mind that that's what it means.

Billy takes it one step further with these comments here:

On "dualism": Geoffrey says (quoting Chris Sciabarra, I'm pretty sure, but I think he missed the opening punctuation) that it is "an orientation toward analysis by separation of a system's components into two spheres." He continues diligently and you should go read it. I do understand that technical philosophy—not cracker-barrel jaw-boning—must keep certain standards of concept and referent that are generally alien around the cracker-barrel, but I cannot understand why the plainly simple concept of "difference" would not suffice: it is what it is (which is: understanding that a thing—material, conceptual, whatever: the referent at issue—is not what it ain't and cannot be substituted for with what it ain't), and I, for one, don't see a call for Rube Goldberging structures around "methodologies" when the Law of Identity not only works, but should be endorsed as effective at every turn throughout this currently advancing Endarkenment. K.I.S.S., fellas.

Anticipating the distinction between mere "difference" and "dualism," Geoffrey answers a query from John T. Kennedy, who asks: "Is the True/False dichotomy an example of dualism?" Geoffrey writes:

Nope. Not every dichotomy is a false dichotomy, and often it depends on the context. However, a dualist methodology encourages the creation and/or acceptance of false dichotomies. ... I should add that a dualist methodology will tend to lead one to drop or overlook at least part of the full context of a given phenomenon which will make it difficult if not impossible to identify and analyze it correctly, and failing to identify and analyze the phenomenon correctly will tend to result in any subsequent action/policy/solution being at least partially incorrect.

Everything that Geoffrey says here is accurate, from my perspective.

Let's backtrack a bit to clarify why we need the concept "dualism," rather than the concept "difference" to describe what are essentially "false alternatives."

In the above post, Billy mentions the Law of Identity. Let us recall Aristotle's first formulation of the law of noncontradiction (noncontradiction, excluded middle, and identity, being the first laws of logic):

[T]he most certain principle of all is that regarding which it is impossible to be mistaken. ... It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect ... It is for this reason that all who are carrying out a demonstration refer it to this as an ultimate belief; for this is naturally the starting-point even for all the other axioms. (Metaphysics 4.3.1005b17-33)

In essence, Aristotle is telling us that A cannot be A and not-A, at the same time and in the same sense. That's a crucial italicized proviso, especially for those who seek to deny the law by introducing a temporal element or by viewing A from a different perspective or relationship, and who declare that A is somehow "different" than what it is, that A is not-A.

Well, we can and should accept this fundamental law. And since Aristotle presents the law as both a law of being and a law of thought, that is, as both an "ontological" and a "logical" principle, it is clear that identity implies "difference," and that there is a "difference" therefore between "A" and "not-A."

But there are "different" kinds of "difference." There are certain differences that are differences within a unity; Aristotle called some of these "correlatives." Such differences must be viewed in their indissoluble relationships; any attempt to create a mutual exclusivity between such terms does violence to the meaning of each, since the definition of each depends upon its relationship to the other. Here is Aristotle again:

For example, if a slave is spoken of in relation to a master, then, when everything accidental to a master is stripped off—like being a biped, capable of knowledge, a man—and there is left only being a master, a slave will always be spoken of in relation to that. For a slave is called slave of a master. (Categories 12.7.7a35-39)

So, it is not good enough to say that there is a "difference" between master and slave, as if these are simply in "logical" contradiction to one another. Strictly speaking, in actuality, they are not logical opposites, like "true" and "false," but relational opposites. G. W. F. Hegel would pick up on this theme in later years, in his own discussion of "master" and "slave," which Robert Heilbroner has rendered into more understandable English than anything Hegel ever wrote:

[T]he point is that a Master is a being who can only be defined or described by using a concept that is its meaningful opposite or negation. Without Servants there are no Masters, and vice versa. ... The logical contradiction (or "opposite" or "negation") of a Master is not a Slave, but a "non-Master," which may or may not be a slave. But the relational opposite of a Master is indeed a Slave, for it is only by reference to this second "excluded" term that the first is defined.

This principle actually has revolutionary political implications that have been noted variously by thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand: The revolution consists not in a Slave becoming a Master or a Master becoming a Slave, but in stepping outside this whole relational dynamic. Rand understood, for example, that the independent individual is one who is neither master nor slave, one who neither demands nor provides sacrifices.

In Randian language, the fallacy of dualism is, in essence, the fallacy of "false alternatives." It might be said that a dualist looks at all distinctions as if they are logical opposites, rather than relational opposites. This has the effect of rigidifying all opposites as if they are stark "black-and-white" choices, rather than relations within a unity or terms or philosophic stances united by some common (false) premise. The dualist sees mind and body as fundamentally opposed, for example, rather than as part of some organic unity. The oppositions that emerge from this dichotomy are legion:


... and so on ...

Now, in the history of philosophy those who adopt methodological "monism" do so as a way of resolving the "false alternatives" that have been posited by dualists. But these "monistic" solutions don't seek some "fuller context" within which to understand false alternatives; rather, they simply emphasize one pole of a duality to the detriment of the other pole, and the dominant pole becomes the means of "resolving" the dualism. That's the methodological pretext at work in the oppositions that one finds between

Materialism and Idealism
Intrinsicism (or what was known as "classical objectivism") and Subjectivism
Rationalism and Empiricism

... and so on ...

So, to repeat: "Dualism" is used to describe a specific kind of difference.

Now let's remember that dialectics is the "art of context-keeping." When I speak of a "dialectical" resolution of a false alternative, I am speaking of one that highlights the larger context within which to understand oppositions that are, in fact, relational, rather than logical. That's why it is an obscenity when conventional defenders and critics of dialectical method have attacked its relationship to the law of noncontradiction. As I put it in my book, Total Freedom (I have dropped the footnotes and references for now):

All concepts of method presume the validity of logic. We cannot even think about the world without adhering to the fundamentals of logic, which are as much about being as they are about knowing. Logic is "the fundamental concept of method," a tool of objectivity upon which the theoretical and applied sciences depend. Objectivity entails a recognition of the fact that we can only acquire knowledge of reality by means of reason in accordance with the rules of noncontradictory identification.
One implication of this caveat is that dialectics, as an orientation, is not in opposition to logic, but rather is a fundamental complement to logic, and, as such, cannot correctly be said either to undermine or to "transcend" logic. The widespread failure to grasp this fact has resulted in the irony that dialectics has been as seriously jeopardized by some of those who have sought to preserve and extend it as by those who have endeavored to destroy it. Those so-called dialectical theorists who champion dialectics as "superior to" logic fail to appreciate logic as the foundation of knowledge, an undeniable constituent of all concepts of method. Those who refer to dialectics as being "transcendent of" the axiomatic laws of noncontradiction, excluded middle, and identity are thus speaking nonsense every bit as much as those who claim that dialectics is destructive of those laws. Defending the rightful status of dialectics as a methodological or research orientation is thus made doubly difficult, because those most in need of keeping logic foundational to their dialectical inquiries do not think they need to, while those most capable of showing that logic is foundational to dialectics think that dialectics is antithetical to logic. Logic and dialectics are mutually implied: just as logic is the art of noncontradictory identification, dialectics is the art of context-keeping, and both arts entail various techniques for achieving these mutually reinforcing goals.

How all of this relates to the debate between libertarian anarchists and minarchists is discussed in my book Total Freedom. Since this whole discussion between Geoffrey, Billy, and me began with the question of anarchism, I'll relate these thoughts to that debate.

I think one of the fundamental questions one must ask, and answer, is this: Is the distinction between "market" and "state" a logical one or a relational one? Is there some sense in which it is both logical and relational? I think anarchists and minarchists provide different answers to these questions.

I think on one level, there is clearly a logical difference between the "market" and the "state" insofar as these institutions rely upon fundamentally different principles of organization. The former is based on voluntary exchange, the latter relies upon the initiation of the use of force.

But, on another level, for me, the really interesting questions focus our attention on the historical relationship between markets and states. Here is how I put it in my discussion of the work of Murray Rothbard in Part Two of Total Freedom:

Rothbard's persistent description of the state as an "external" intrusion, however, obscures the "multiplier effect" of state interventionism. Since each intervention engenders another, having multiple, and often unforeseen, social and historical consequences, it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, causally to trace every consequence to either the market or the state. No theorist has such an omniscient view of social evolution. Though logic suggests that predation is a parasite upon production, evolution entails reciprocal patterns of development. The state may depend upon social production for its survival, but it sets the parameters within which social production has functioned. Indeed, the historical development of the interventionist economy has so deeply affected every social practice that it may be impossible to separate market and state influences cleanly. Each sphere is in a dynamic interrelationship with the other. Each sphere permeates the other. And if the very existence of the state constitutes "intervention," as anarchists claim, then the market has always existed within the parameters of state involvement. This includes a statist legal structure that defines the very form of property relations in a way that differs significantly from Rothbard's quasi-Lockean theory of "just acquisition." Will not the market continue to reproduce the injustices of state-influenced property distributions? Moreover, if individuals exist in a concrete historical context, and this context has always been tainted by "coercive" elements, how is it possible to create an accurate balance sheet by which to evaluate who is a producer and who is a parasite?

I concretize this abstract discussion by reference to an historical concrete:

These rigid distinctions create problems for individuals living in today's world. R. W. Bradford conceptualizes the difficulty, in a discussion of the Randian argument that those who receive benefits from government or who take public jobs are "morally justified" only if they regard these as "restitution," while those who advocate for such benefits "have no right to them." As the public sector crowds out the private sector, it is self-defeating for libertarians to become martyrs, while ceding to the profiteers of statism all the alleged benefits of the system. Rand’s only warning to prospective public sector employees is that they ought not to take jobs that bolster statism ideologically or that require the enforcement of "improper" laws, i.e., laws that violate individual rights per se. Like Rand, Rothbard argues that in a state-run world one should "work and agitate in behalf of liberty," "refuse to add to [the world's] statism," and "refuse absolutely to participate in State activities that are immoral and criminal per se." When one realizes that, for Rothbard, the very existence of the state is criminal, one begins to grasp the significant problems. For as Bradford observes, it is often difficult to evaluate the propriety of jobs or benefits—public or private—under statism. Recalling the Ruby Ridge conflict, he reasons: "Sure, it’s easy to see that, say, the FBI murder of Vicki Weaver while she held her baby in her arms in the doorway of her home is an 'improper' function of government." But he wonders:
. . . what about the secretary who helps the FBI agent, who killed Mrs. Weaver, with his paperwork? Is his job also improper? What about the cook in the FBI cafeteria? Is his? And what about the person who hauls the trash from the FBI headquarters? Does it make a difference if the trash hauler or the cook work for a private firm that contracts with the FBI? I suspect that Rand, and most libertarians, would reply that these tasks are peripheral to the murder of Mrs. Weaver, and that the person who prepared the FBI agent’s lunch is not acting improperly. . . . But this doesn’t really answer the question of where exactly the boundary between proper and improper action lies.
Bradford emphasizes that, while the inner contradictions and crimes perpetuated by statism are omnipresent, our evaluation of moral action in that context requires a precise understanding of the particular conditions within which a given person acts. One can only determine the propriety of an action by factoring into one's evaluation such important issues as people's knowledge of the situation, their causal distance from the crime committed, the enormity of the crime, and the mitigating circumstances. Without taking these important qualifications into account, libertarians might gain "credibility" for adhering strictly to their own principles. But such adherence translates into a rationalistic application of dogma that comes "at the price of human suffering."

There is a lot to digest in this post. But I do believe that this whole discussion of "dualism" is not simply a floating abstraction on the level of what Billy calls "terminographologicality." It is a discussion that has real social and political implications. How we organize the data of our world will affect the strategies we adopt when we attempt to change that world fundamentally.

Comments welcome.


"So, to repeat: "Dualism" is used to describe a specific kind of difference"

I thin you are saying:

Dualism describes false dichotomies.

False dichotomies are instances of Dualism.

Am I understanding you correctly?

Yes, John, exactly: Dualism is a word we use to describe false alternatives; false alternatives are instances of dualism.

But let me clarify this a bit more:

People who are "dualists" (or even "monists") do not recognize the alternatives as false. They may, in a certain context, identify alternatives that are genuinely logically opposed; the "dualist error" manifests itself when dualists rigidify the logical opposition, such that they are unable to see a wider context in which the alternatives might either reciprocally presuppose one another, or mutually imply one another, or share a common premise, etc.

Understand too that, typically, dualists view the poles of a dichotomy as "co-equal" and "mutually exclusive." (The technical philosophical way of putting it is that dualists view these poles as "externally related.") And, again, it is entirely possible that, in a given context, one can treat such poles as "mutually exclusive." But a shift in one's level of generality or a shift in one's vantage point might illuminate the ways in which those poles interrelate.

Now, let's return to that "true-false" dichotomy that you pointed to here.

There are, in actuality, "dualistic" thinkers who argue that "true" and "false" are "co-equal" principles. But that's just not the case. That which is "false" is not co-equal with that which is "true." In fact, that which is "false" radically depends upon that which is "true." We can't even define what is "false" without first knowing what is "true."

The same can be said of those philosophers (e.g., the Existentialists) who argue that "something" and "nothing" are co-equal principles. "Nothing" cannot be defined on its own terms. "Nothing" is the absence of something. Rand herself argued that those who sought to elevate "Nothingness" into a special kind of "something" were guilty of the "reification of the zero." As Rand puts it in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: "This fallacy breeds such symptoms as the notion that presence and absence, or being and non-being, are metaphysical forces of equal power, and that being is the absence of non-being."

In the realm of ethics, Rand, of course, took this one step further, and, I would argue, it is a revolutionary step in many ways. "Good" and "evil" are not "co-equal" principles in Rand's Objectivist ethical framework. That which is "evil" is a parasite upon the "good." Frequently, "evil" depends upon the "sanction" of the good, the "sanction of the victim," as it were. Rand understands, much like such thinkers as Etienne de la Boetie who proposed the notion of "voluntary servitude," that it is in the withdrawal of one's victimization that one defeats evil. By stepping outside the "master-slave" dynamic, by not recognizing the terms upon which that dynamic is built, the victim tosses off the shackles and asserts an independent existence, sanctioning neither the sacrifice of himself to others nor the sacrifice of others to himself.

There are a lot of other applications that can be made here; see especially my book Total Freedom, particularly my discussion of Rothbard's distinction between "The Voluntary" and "The Coercive" (pp. 220-23). On one level, he sees these as "mutually exclusive." But on another level, he sees that "the coercive" often relies upon the "voluntary" sanction of those who are coerced (since the coerced often provide a veneer of "legitimacy" to their own subjugation).

...much like such thinkers as Etienne de la Boetie who proposed the notion of "voluntary servitude," that it is in the withdrawal of one's victimization that one defeats evil.

I don't see how withdrawal of *one's* victimization defeats evil.

If *one* of the slaves on a plantation decides he'd rather die than serve, and gets that wish, it doesn't seem to me that evil has been defeated. What Etienne de la Boetie didn't sufficiently address is that individuals act independently of one another - the individual who withdraws sanction from the state gets the same government as the individual who collaborates with it.

Very good points, John.

I don't think Rand was oblivious to individuals acting in concert, however, and how such action might actually topple tyranny.

I also think she was talking about a much broader removal of sanction on multiple levels (e.g., she gives us a portrait in ATLAS SHRUGGED of the character Hank Rearden, whose opposition to the government appropriation of his property makes transparent the naked violence at the foundation of coercive government action).

On a tangential point about "non-sanctioning" strategies of opposing tyranny: To my knowledge, Rand was not an advocate of the strategy of nonviolence. But I've seen some very good discussion of nonviolent resistance (in contrast to pacifism or armed revolt) in the works of Gene Sharp. I discuss some of Sharp's work in TOTAL FREEDOM.

"I don't think Rand was oblivious to individuals acting in concert, however, and how such action might actually topple tyranny."

Not oblivious perhaps, but I don't see that she got that much further on this particular front. It isn't that much of a stroll from the prescriptions of Etienne de la Boetie to the "solution" arrived at in ATLAS SHRUGGED. Did you have some other work of Rand's in mind?


Rand was not a political strategist. She came up against the eternal question for all radicals, one echoed even by "Russian radicals" of a different hue before her (Chernyshevsky, Lenin): "What is to be done?"

I don't think she thought of ATLAS as a model for social change, per se, but she does view "The Strike" of the "men of the mind" as one means of withdrawing sanction from those who seek to destroy the good. If one believes that the unjust "predatory" state survives as a parasite upon the host, it is only through the withdrawal of the host that the parasite is denied nutriment.

Still, Rand once said that she "was interested in politics for only one reason---to reach the day when [she] would not have to be interested in politics." Not unlike Marx, however, she refused to provide a blueprint for change: "I am not a government planner nor do I spend my time inventing Utopias."

For Rand, the basic battle was philosophical and cultural. In her lifetime, she didn't think it was necessary to go to the "barricades"; it is likely that she would have advocated such resistance if a country were embracing one-party rule, executions without trial for political offenses, nationalization/expropriation of property, and censorship... all key characteristics of dictatorship (see "Collectivized 'Rights'" in THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS).

Nevertheless, she conceived of social change on multiple levels: the personal, the cultural, and what I call the "structural" (political-economic). One "checks one's premises" on each of these levels; one must check especially the "man-made" premises of the institutions and structures that predominate in any unjust society, as a prelude to changing those institutions.

Rand was not unrealistic, however. She believed that statist institutions were firmly entrenched, and that these both depended upon and perpetuated a whole host of ideological props, rooted in widespread "anti-conceptual" methods of education. And she clearly believed that social fragmentation and the "civil war" of pressure groups would not end---could not end---unless its source in statist control of the economy was ended.

Practically, Rand made a number of proposals---from a "fairness doctrine" for education to boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience. She also believed that people could milk the inner contradictions of the mixed economy, while challenging it fundamentally. But Rand argued that none of these strategies was a primary; a genuine revolution could only happen as "the climax of a long philosophical development" and only in response to tyranny as "an act of self-defense against those who rule by force."

As for the other works in which Rand discusses strategies for change, see:

o "What Can One Do?" in PHILOSOPHY: WHO NEEDS IT

o "Check Your Premises, Choose Your Issues" (October 1966) in THE OBJECTIVIST NEWSLETTER

o "The Question of Scholarships" in THE VOICE OF REASON

o "Fairness Doctrine for Education" in PHILOSOPHY: WHO NEEDS IT

o "The Cold Civil War" in THE AYN RAND COLUMN

o "The Property Status of the Airwaves" in CAPITALISM: WHO NEEDS IT

o "Government Financing in a Free Society" in THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS

o Also see various audio lectures and Q&A sessions:
- Rand in Lecture 10 of Peikoff's PHILOSOPHY OF OBJECTIVISM
- Rand, "Questions and Answers on Objectivism"
- Rand, "The Role of Education"

I should note that there is a forthcoming volume of Rand's Q&A's; I suspect that many of these comments will be reproduced in that volume.

"...in the same sense".

(nod) It's like pulling teeth, sometimes, to impress the understanding that all knowledge is contextual. It wears some people out to the point where they just go blank whenever they hear the word "context", and I half expect to see some kind of internet "law" (see Godwin) declared just about any day now, by which discussion will be arbitrarily halted at the mention of the word, which -- practically -- is often the case now, anyway.

In any case, the thing that's most compelling to me in all this is that the logic of correlatives depends on first distinctions. Through it all: identity remains. This the principal fact that conditions dualism as a "fallacy", and it strikes me as crucial to analyze the fallacy to its roots. To my mind, this must necessarily destroy the "dualism" at hand, which is a proper thing to do.

Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to write this up.


"Rand was not a political strategist."

I didn't mean to suggest that she need be, or that ATLAS (or any other of her works) ought to contain a practical blueprint for social change through collective action - just that they didn't and she never got much beyond Discourse of Voluntary Servitude on the practical problem of collective change.

In What Can One Do, for instance, Rand writes "...teach men the right philosophy - and their minds will do the rest". Surely Etienne de la Boetie would agree, but this begs the question of why individual men would listen. Neither of these authors after all got a better government than their less philosophically inclined fellow men.

John, you state that Rand didn't have much to say about "the practical problem of collective change." I agree.

That's one of the reasons I've always been intrigued by the works of Gene Sharp. His work certainly merits a separate blog post at some point, but for the sake of those unfamiliar with him, let me recommend THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION and SOCIAL POWER AND POLITICAL FREEDOM.

(Oh how remarkable it would be if some militant Middle Eastern groups would read and absorb Sharp. Unfortunately, violence is seemingly endemic to their ideologies.)

In any event, I'm curious: Do you have anything specifically in mind, John, with regard to practical efforts in large-scale social, political, or economic change?


"nod) It's like pulling teeth, sometimes, to impress the understanding that all knowledge is contextual. It wears some people out to the point where they just go blank whenever they hear the word "context", and I half expect to see some kind of internet "law" (see Godwin) declared just about any day now, by which discussion will be arbitrarily halted at the mention of the word, which -- practically -- is often the case now, anyway."

I don't mind someone telling me I'm dropping context, provided they go on to specify the context they think I'm ignoring. I've certainly been guilty of committing logical fallacies many times; who hasn't? And I don't mind having them pointed out to me, not at all. But I wonder why it's even necessary to tell someone they're dropping context when all that matters *is* that context. It would seem to me to suffice to simply draw their attention back to what you think they're missing. There's no disputing that dropping context leads to false alternatives. Nobody gets a penalty flag from me for claiming that I'm dropping context, unless they continue to make the claim without proceeding to back it up.


"Do you have anything specifically in mind, John, with regard to practical efforts in large-scale social, political, or economic change?"

Yes, I respond here.

"The production of means by which individuals may increasingly evict collective politics from their lives."

Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like more of that " rational evangelizing" here John, that you mentioned above: as in.. "Oh Gee if only the Libertarians would stop engaging in "collective politics" they might get somewhere."

How's that working for ya?

The comment attributed to "Joh" above is mine.

Thanks, John, and others, for additional comments.

I have always been of the view that there are many different strategies (not all of which are mutually exclusive) in which one might engage in an attempt to roll back tyranny. I wish I had all the answers here; for example, I wish it were easier to distinguish between "milking the inner contradictions" of a system, and becoming "co-opted" by it.

What is genuinely awful about the system that is currently in place is what Rand pinpointed many years ago: that statism creates a "class of beggars" and that, in that context, no power on earth can prevent the institutionalization of a civil war among groups. And as Hayek said: When political power becomes the only power worth having, it will touch off a war among groups who are most adept at using that power. That's why "the worst get on top."

Abstaining from these structural dynamics and creating parallel institutions is one important strategy; I'm just not sure how effective this will be without a corresponding change in the overall culture that generates institutions, whether they be social, economic, or political.

MWW notes:
"Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like more of that " rational evangelizing" here John..."

Rational evangelism is effective only on people who are both capable of and willing to process rational arguments.

That's a subset of about zero percent of the populance, and that's why rational evangelism is a failure in regards to manufacturing freedom: there just isn't a large number of people capable of being convinced.

In fact, there won't be a sizeable number of such people any time soon, because a democratic welfare state provides incentives for irrational behavior.

This comment thread, on the other hand, probably does contain a relatively sizeable number of people willing and able to understand rational arguments. Therefore rational evangelism can work, here.

So, can I take it to mean that you are refuting the notion that all human beings (barring some physiological infirmity) have the capacity to reason?

Maybe "capable of" is a bit of an overstatement. Pretty much everyone can count money or make it to the video store and back without killing themselves. They can get from A to B.

But the incentives are overwhelmingly against making rational choices in government.

I think this is a very important distinction to pay attention to.

If one is trying to determine the right/proper sort of relationships that men should have with other men, if they are living as human beings, one really should have a handle on the nature of human beings, which I would suggest does require one to examine the capacity for rational thought of human beings.

If one does not really believe that most human beings have the capacity to reason, or worse, that they are incapable of rational thought... then what is left in how to deal with other human beings?

ie in order to effectively develop strategy to achieve a civil society, where rights are respected... operating under the assumption that most human beings are incapable of rationality, means that achieving a civil society amongst men is impossible.

Now if that's really what you believe, fine. But you should say so, and in those terms -- exactly.


"ie in order to effectively develop strategy to achieve a civil society, where rights are respected... operating under the assumption that most human beings are incapable of rationality, means that achieving a civil society amongst men is impossible."

As David Friedman points out:

Prisoner's dilemma provides a simple demonstration of a problem that runs through the economic analysis of law: Individual rationality does not always lead to group rationality. Consider air pollution, not by a few factories but by lots of automobiles. We would all be better off if each of us installed a catalytic converter. But if I install a converter in my car I pay all of the cost and receive only a small fraction of the benefit, so it is not worth doing. In much the same fashion, everybody may be better off if nobody steals, since we are all potential victims, but my decision to steal from you has very little effect on the probability that someone else will steal from me, so it may be in my interest to do it.

Men nearly always behave in an instrumentally rational manner but there are systematic disincentives for epistemic rationality in collective politics. That's why I say the problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces.

I just wanted to thank people for the additional comments.

I think there is room to accommodate those who stress volitional factors in social change and those who stress what I've come to call "structural" factors (economic and political). As this Rand-inspired model indicates, there is a complex reciprocal interrelationship among at least three levels of social relations, and any analysis that emphasizes one level to the exclusion of the others will fail to take account, I think, of the enormous difficulties involved in changing society.

Rand was among the most important champions of human volition. But she (and other libertarian theorists) have been very careful to emphasize that choices always take place in a complex historical, social, and cultural context. That context often constrains both the choices that individuals can make and the choices that are available to them. (On these issues, see especially her discussion of "The Comprachicos" and her various discussions of the "New Fascism," all of which suggest that pedagogy, education, culture, politics, and economics reciprocally reinforce the same tenacious "altruist-collectivist-statist" practices, regardless of how much these practices are challenged.)

Hayek was also very good on this point. He stresses, for example, that one of the most insidious results of welfare-statist government intervention is not political, but social-psychological, insofar as it changes people's views of individual responsibility, accountability, and entitlement. In many ways, it is this dynamic that makes "the road to serfdom" all that more threatening, socially speaking.

So, what I'm saying is that I agree with the central issue as laid out by MWW---that much of this speaks to one's conception of human nature. But I also agree with those others (and with Rand and Hayek) that there is a complex context (which relates to the system of statism and its evolution over time) within which human beings are situated, and which has a significant effect on their capacities to think and to act.

ie in order to effectively develop strategy to achieve a civil society, where rights are respected... operating under the assumption that most human beings are incapable of rationality, means that achieving a civil society amongst men is impossible.

Maybe I'm not explaining myself well. Most people are capable of rationality. However, in a welfare state, there is little-to-no incentive to make rational political choices. You get the same government no matter how much (or how little!) thought you put into it. You don't pay the costs of your bad decisions, and you don't get the benefits of your good decisions.

Any "strategy to achieve a civil society" has to take this into account, it can't be just wished away.


For the purposes of curtailing government I don't think the problem is as complex as you're suggesting.

In level two of your model you are only going to be able to rationally persuade people who are manifesting epistemic rationality in politics. But few people do because it's instumentally rational to eschew epistemic rationality in politics. And it's fruitless to attempt to argue someone into epistemic rationality because such arguments only have force for those already employing epistemic rationality.

It's instrumentally rational for most individuals to not waste their time improving their political philosophy because it won't improve their political outcomes. It hasn't improved yours or mine, we get the same political outcome as everyone else.

Level three of your model is where individuals can make real progress. As I pointed out in my earlier answer on my blog, Phil Zimmermann changed the structure of communication without putting it up for a vote. Only a very small number of people were required to effect a profound structural change.

John, I think you're right about how people can make real progress on the structural level. But I think that the extent of that progress still depends on the larger context (which includes Levels 1 and 2).

Perhaps we're a bit spoiled since our lives are situated in a uniquely American context, which, as compromised as it is by the generational influence of interventionism, is still very much informed by a kind of commonsense "rugged individualism."

But think of Russia, or even of Iraq: How any attempted change to the structures of political power is most likely to be undermined by a culture of tribalism, collectivism, and dependency, built over generations of statist intervention.

Even in this country, certain structural changes can occur... but genuinely radical change that challenges the fundamentals of statism is something that requires some kind of change in Level 1 and 2 practices.

I discuss the implications of the Randian model in particular (with a few additional Hayekian insights) in this section of an essay I wrote in response to the neo-Hegelian David MacGregor (published in Critical Review).

Please excuse the intrusion.

I have worked out a model based upon AP or Assassination Politics with a change. Instead of promoting aggressive violence the idea intends to promote defensive avoidance of violence. I call the idea “Anti-Despotism Insurance”.

Utilizing an Open Source Start Up Model: the business purports to offer potential customers a measure of security against specific aggressions. Ideally the customers vote unanimously with their own monetary investments and award a settlement to a specific claimant.


I check the web page and type in “Refugee”. On the top of the list is a claimant whose family is being forced out of his home. The total current monetary settlement, an account held in escrow, is sufficient to get that person out of trouble; in my personal estimate. I move down the list and find a claimant worthy of my dollar. I send it.

The enterprise could be competitively policed with transparency including the publication of charges against the total capital (a percentage on every dollar completing the exchange) defraying the costs of administration. Insurers more capable of minimizing costs tend to weed out those who don’t.

This type of business model is evolving now. It may continue to evolve so long as people remain free to communicate in parallel (a network). If people give up that freedom, require a license, a tax, prejudiced exclusivity, then, avoidance becomes less possible, borders return, power centralizes, and conflict ensues.

Joe, thanks for sharing this with us. I don't know enough to comment one way or the other, but found the points you make interesting. Feel free to let us know if you develop this in print or online at some point.


Honesty is the best policy. To see the wisdom of those four words is one thing; to actually live honestly requires courage and, perhaps, faith.

You may wonder why my response to you begins this way as I wonder how to avoid insulting people with my efforts to be honest. Faith in the value of truth is my answer. The garbage that emits from my brain through my fingers onto this screen is the best I have to offer, honestly, at this moment in time.

Now; I have to tie things together and try to communicate relevance in as few words as possible. The world is rapidly changing because people are connecting voluntarily and at liberty through a connecting medium linking almost everyone to almost everyone else practically instantly.

The result of this ability of almost limitless connectivity is a much greater appreciation for liberty, honesty, transparency, and perhaps most importantly; cooperation.

The business model I have described is a reality already, if not exactly, as a result of honest, transparent, cooperation. My efforts to promote this evolution of human trade may or may not add much to the improvement. Your recognition of this phenomenon, in my opinion, is more important than my personal effectual efforts.

To me; what is most important is that honesty becomes popular and more and more people find the courage to be honest. All else will fall into place because honesty is the best policy among trading partners. Enemies choose falsehood. Weak, cowardly, ignorant subjects, slaves, whatever, embrace the veil of falsehood.

Virtually unlimited connectivity, like an electrical parallel circuit, bypasses the resistive nature of falsehood. Each connective node in the matrix becomes a battle ground, a choke point, a bridge used to carry supplies. Falsehood and honest transparent communication contend and compete at each choke point for dominance because, now, in the matrix or network, the path of information is practically limitless. The path of least resistance, a going around of the broken or undecided nodes, bridges, is made instantly.

If falsehood is truly popular then honesty can no longer impede the progress of falsehood. At each node where honesty dominates, or rejects falsehood, the effort to spread falsehood simply finds a more accommodating path.

The phenomenon is now being played out world wide so long as local conditions remain civilized. Hurricanes, invading armies, trade blockades, and other such destructive physical conditions eliminate the local network and the local matrix connectivity thereby reducing the free flow of information into single paths like a series electrical circuit. Control of the single path of information then returns to the old way subject to the whims of the few who control the single path.

Too many words dilute the message. Too much effort, on my part, dilutes the honesty. I am often just another lying coward.


Just wanted to thank you for your additional comments.



Thanks and Cheers,

I woke up early with a dream of significance fading back into nothingness. Before the inspiration evaporated I managed to save a few recollections intact. Four young women, daughters, were arrested and being held by the foreign soldiers. The Mom refused to take the oath of allegiance demanded by the faithless Imperial commander of the invading infidel army. The Mom audaciously struck out with a single arrow killing the commander. I stood frozen in place as the four daughters were dragged away into a certain unconscionable horror. I woke up.

People tell me I am honest to a fault. Is that meant to insult? It manages to insult me. People tell me I am a loon. That is mostly funny. My friends, the few that I have, tell me to light up. Fewer have thanked me. This is what you get when you thank me.

I have developed a routine of waking up and thinking out loud. My thoughts are very, very clear as I think. By the time I get to the keyboard things change some. It helps, immeasurably, to have feedback, direction, and personal communication. Few books offer this treasure. Books record some faded memory of a past history; like a few recollections captured after waking up from a dream. Solzhenitsyn offers treasure in book form as does Albert J. Nock. They are artists. I am not. I am simply trying to be honest.

My dreams are the fruits of diligent work: I think. Sleeping on the problem is a form of feedback. Thanks are better. I can now turn my work into a relevant direction.

Dependence upon external authority is a false notion. Authority is nothing more than a contest of wills seeking control. Giving in or abdicating authority is not dependence; it is subjugation. Subjects are powerless because they embrace a false notion. Subjects can be honest in their efforts to find the path of least resistance. The false notion hides the easier path. The subject, at first, refuses to see the better path; soon the better path fades out of view. The better path, at first, appears to be hard; soon the better path appears to be impossible. Soon the master, falsehood, becomes reality in the mind.

The master is busy closing doors and locking them. Obeying becomes more important than knowing. How false is that? When the order is given to start digging; the subject digs. When the order is given to dig faster; the subject digs faster. The subject refuses to see the hole for what it is in fact. The hole is a grave. The hole is falsehood. The subject refuses to see the bodies piling up in the grave. The subject sees only a greater need to obey, dig faster, block access to the doors with more dirt. Somewhere deep inside the subject still knows dishonestly; he is next. Who will fill his grave?