What’s Wrong with the World

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... According to primatologists, demonstrate capacities for humaneness exceeding those of Randroids, the architects of the nineteenth-century British Poor Laws, the British politicians and capitalists who spent the Great Hunger debating the finer points of Malthus, Manchester liberalism, and the imperative of not encouraging the production of surplus mouths, and various and sundry other ghouls who think sharing, altruism, and compassion to be sins against nature.

The researchers do note that it is possible the behaviour is essentially selfish, undertaken with a view to future reciprocation; this, however, does not mitigate the contrast, inasmuch as a simulated compassion is still preferable to actual callousness.

H/T: Yves Smith.

Comments (11)

"This sort of generous behaviour was previously thought by some to be an exclusively human trait."

I wish these articles would name these "some people." Seeing virtues and vices in animals has been the norm in human experience. The Christian imagery of the Pelican myth, for instance.

I remember school films which said how discovering chimps use grass to fish for ants challenged the definition of man as the only a tool-making animal. That definition was by Benjamin Franklin, and I'm not even sure whether he even said tool-making was exclusive to mankind.

The habitual "science overturns X!" journalism template must have some good function, but it's far too superficial.

KJJ - exactly. The reason these articles never name these people is because these people don't exist. Apparent "altruism" in the animal kingdom is a very, very old story. Which is why evolutionary theorists spend so much time trying to explain it.

Maximos - I don't know about "Randroids," but I think that Ayn Rand had a clearer understanding than you do of what's *really* going on when "moralists" & politicians start talking about "sharing" and "altruism" and "compassion."

They're a-dodgin' for your dime.

Yes, and when Rand, and the Randroids, start a-rantin' against the "altruists", they are, more often than not, running interference for some private-sector rent-extraction racket, or some other form of exploitation. The myth of "John Galt" is simply the Fuhrer principle applied to a capitalist, and in saying that, I'm only lending some colour to Chamber's famous panning of Rand.

Besides, I do not believe that "altruism" and "compassion" are mere cloaks for self-interest. Not only can I not believe this, personally, as a Christian, I happen to believe that many people quite ingenuously believe what they say when they speak of these things as social goods.

Jeff (if I may), according to one or another of the corollaries to Godwin's Law, you have just lost this argument.


Anyway, I couldn't care less about the "Randroids." They don't interest me. But if you could provide some particular example of an anti-"altruist" rant by la Rand herself and explain just exactly how it runs "interference" for "some private-sector rent-extraction racket," I'd be interested.

Godwin's Law, whatever. Sometimes, the allusion fits.

The Randian conception of selfishness, as the pursuit of one's interests, which are assumed to harmonize with those of others, assuming a 'correct' understanding of such interests, is not identical with the conception of economic rationality predominant in the Dismal Science, though it is sufficiently homologous to serve as a proxy for it. That conception of rationality, undergirding as it does much of the ideological scaffolding of the market instruments and processes which have failed in recent years, is obviously the handmaiden of socially useless rent extraction, the attempt to extract wealth from numerous non-existent sources. The Randian running dog function is thus intrinsic.

More specifically, Randroids support Wal-Mart, an 'enterprise' which, even where it does not receive subventions from local governments seeking to lure it to their locales, externalizes certain of its costs of doing business, as when it pays substandard wages and contrives means of preventing its employees from qualifying for its health coverage, thus burdening social service systems with its 'business model' of Low Wages, Always. To be certain, Randroids will oppose those very social service systems, whether food stamps, subsidized housing, CHIP, or mandatory emergency room treatment; but even the protest that these things should be left to charity, if they are at all necessary, only serves to prove the point: if charity is necessary in order to provide for the needs of Wal-Mart employees, then it follows that Wal-Mart is still socializing the some of the costs of its business model. And it does this because it can, which is to state that it is able to socialize some portion of its costs, not because of its stupendous productivity, but because of its position in a network of power - rent-seeking.

Then there is this gem of Randian analysis, from a September 2008 Time blurb:

Brook doesn't blame speculators, traders or financiers for the market's near-collapse, but instead blames government for having overregulated the markets in the first place. The business leaders bailed out by government this week "are victims," he said, "and the government set it up." Washington underreacted to previous crisis, let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spin wildly out of control as quasigovernment agencies while taxpayers piled up unsecured debt in their names. The crisis, he added, was "really fed throughout by government policies."

Now, one needn't deny the role of misbegotten government policies in contributing to the genesis of the crisis in order to acknowledge the roles of private sector actors and incentives in creating that same crisis. To the extent that an analyst endeavours to transfer responsibility for a calamity to one actor, while exculpating the others, where that calamity is the product of all the actors, that analyst is 'running interference', intentionally or otherwise, for the parties he seeks to exculpate.

Whatever one might say about disinterest in the Randroids, they cannot be severed so easily from their master, inasmuch as they are only applying her theories of selfishness/rational self-interest to disrete policy questions and situations. The claim will be advanced that in the absence of any "intervention" whatsoever, there will be no perverse incentives to distort and misdirect the workings of self-interest and social harmony; but once we've reached that point, we're at the level of ideology proper, floating amidst gaseous billows in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

"Autonomy is society's excuse for negligence," says a 2006 article on the mentally ill http://bit.ly/cfX4TG

(Doubly relevant for Randians?)

Why, yes, it is doubly relevant for Randroids, as well as the liberals who pushed deinstitutionalization.

Maximos: apparently I didn't make myself clear.

"I couldn't care less about the 'Randroids' They don't interest me."

It seems that there was something or other about that statement that puzzled you.

a simulated compassion is still preferable to actual callousness.

I fail to see how. A simulated compassion is actual callousness. Else, it's not "simulated" at all. And fake sympathy is really, really callous if it coexists with the knowledge that 1) it won't actually help, and 2) will do actual damage.

In any case, I don't buy the mindlessly partisan false choice which pits compassion (policies I like) against callousness (everything else).

I wrote, in the conclusion to my previous comment:

Whatever one might say about disinterest in the Randroids, they cannot be severed so easily from their master, inasmuch as they are only applying her theories of selfishness/rational self-interest to disrete policy questions and situations.

Or was that puzzling?

The reason, in case I haven't been sufficiently clear, for my discussion of the Randroids, is simply that a) it would be madness to expect Rand to have addressed some particular case of rent extraction that would be pertinent to us now, and b) her writings, however ineptly they did this, attempted to address these things from a more theoretical perspective. She wasn't, so far as I'm aware, writing editorials on discrete, controverted policy questions, or did I miss something when I wasted my time on her work as a teenager?

Besides, I'm not much for arguments in which some forms of evidence, perhaps the only forms of evidence that could be adduced, are ruled out a priori. That's not an argument, but a debater's trick. Unless, of course, we're committed to the (dubious) proposition that political theories do not, in themselves, exhibit any sort of structural tendencies. But I doubt that we'd be saying something similar about Rawlsianism, or Marxism.

Or, one could enjoy this link: Ayn Rand defends the nineteenth-century robber barons as great benefactors of mankind.

We could also give chapter and verse on that gaggle of railroad monopolists exploiting public land grants and subsidies, monopoly-builders, speculators and swindlers, and outright political capitalists, but there is no question whatsoever that the Gilded Age was one in which the "benefactors of mankind" purchased alterations in the law to suit their business requirements. If that isn't rent seeking, the concept is void of meaning.

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