The horrible world of Ayn Rand



Good news: Last Week Tonight is back. And this week it takes aim at Ayn Rand. The Russo-American philosopher and novelist who by openly advocating the value of selfishness wound up sounding like a satire of the argument for capitalism yet is inexplicably popular on the American Right.

The left-leaning policy journalist Jonathan Chait analysed her influence thus:

Rand’s most enduring accomplishment was to infuse laissez-faire economics with the sort of moralistic passion that had once been found only on the left. Prior to Rand’s time, two theories undergirded economic conservatism. The first was Social Darwinism, the notion that the advancement of the human race, like other natural species, relied on the propagation of successful traits from one generation to the next, and that the free market served as the equivalent of natural selection, in which government interference would retard progress. The second was neoclassical economics, which, in its most simplistic form, described the marketplace as a perfectly self-correcting
instrument. These two theories had in common a practical quality. They described a laissez-faire system that worked to the benefit of all, and warned that intervention would bring harmful consequences. But Rand, by contrast, argued for laissez-faire capitalism as an ethical system. She did believe that the rich pulled forward society for the benefit of one and all, but beyond that, she portrayed the act of taxing the rich to aid the poor as a moral offense.

Countless conservatives and libertarians have adopted this premise as an ideological foundation for the promotion of their own interests. They may believe the consequentialist arguments against redistribution–that Bill Clinton’s move to render the tax code slightly more progressive would induce economic calamity, or that George W. Bush’s making the tax code somewhat less progressive would usher in a boom; but the utter failure of those predictions to come to pass provoked no re-thinking whatever on the economic right. For it harbored a deeper belief in the immorality of redistribution, a righteous sense that the federal tax code and budget represent a form of organized looting aimed at society’s most virtuous–and this sense, which remains unshakeable, was owed in good measure to Ayn Rand.

I made a similar point on my old blog. I contrasted her views with those of Adam Smith:

At the root of the different viewpoints of Smith and Rand are fundamentally different views of morality itself. Rand’s philosophy simply turns the world on its head and makes virtue into a vice. Smith is attempting something much more complicated, to set how to create a good society composed of people who are not necessarily good. If we look closely at his famous saying that ‘it is not for the benefit of society that ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.’ We see not a celebration of self interest but a statement of how Smith believed things were. Smith might wish us to be entirely virtuous but he knows we’re not. He understood that to try to build a socialist utopia on such shaky foundations was futile and we would be better off trying to turn mans vices into virtues through the market.

The point I was making was that she was an extreme and unpleasant distortion of free market thought, and therefore a fringe figure who should not be held against the movement as a whole. In the eight years since I wrote it the Tea Party has invalidated my argument by taking her ideas to the centre of political debate in the most powerful country in the World.

British broadcasters are essentially torturing nerds

The delay in showing American shows in the UK excludes British viewers from the conversation around them and encourages piracy.


IO9’s James Whitbrook has blogged about the frustrating experience of being a fan of cult TV living in the UK:

Gotham. ArrowAgents of SHIELDConstantine. The Flash. Hell, Star Wars Rebels – there’s plenty of shows I’m excited for coming up in the next month, if I didn’t live here in England. At the moment, it’s sort of like looking into the great unknown. Outside of Rebels, none of the above shows actually have Broadcast dates in the UK yet (and even then Rebels has only been confirmed for its première episode, not the season that starts 10 days after that première in the US), and some like Constantine don’t even have broadcast channels yet. American fans of course, know when these shows will be on – Gotham and Agents of SHIELD have already started this week!

I’d add to this list my particular aggregation that the current season of Person of Interest is showing in the US at the moment yet Channel 5 won’t be showing the previous one until next year.

This is not just a matter of being impatient – though I am – but also of the fact that as Whitbrook points out it takes away part of what makes such shows so enjoyable:

Television has always been a social beast, but these days even solitary viewing has become surprisingly public through the rise of Social Media – live-tweeting episodes no longer is in the confines of the public themselves, creators and broadcasters are taking it on themselves to update social media with a play-by-play of an episode as it goes out. The water-cooler moment of a show doesn’t need to wait for the water-cooler any more, it’s instantaneous, out to millions of voices on the internet. Discussion is crucial to our enjoyment of fiction, we love to extol what we loved and vilify what we hate – and having access to a massive audience to share those opinions with at the touch of a button is addictive. It helps elevate watching something into an event.

So whilst everyone else is off talking about these shows, we have to slam our hands over our ears and hope we don’t hear too much whilst Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky One and others hold back broadcast. No one ever wants to be the person who turns up late to the conversation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The long gaps between US and UK release dates for films are largely a thing of the past. And there are some shows like Dr Who and Game of Thrones which are now shown just hours apart on both sides of the Atlantic.

My fear is that unless that becomes the norm, the void will be filled by piracy and that will leave the legal market for these shows in the UK being too small to make it worthwhile for broadcasters to buy them. If that happens they will have only themselves to blame.

Devo-max and Detroit

The city of Detroit has gone spectacularly bust. Devolution of fiscal policy would mean something similar could happen here.


These are heady days for the small band of us who get excited about decentralisation. The No vote means home rule for Scotland is now a given and that opens the way for devolution within England.

For example, Faisal Islam reports that

In what was derelict east Manchester: an example of what can be done already… new housing, schools, and sports facilities, building on some government spending, but now investment from the wealthiest middle eastern oil funds. They get to add their name, their brand, to council-owned stadiums and tram stops. But the Devo Manc report by Respublica, out this week, says the prize is much bigger. The offer to Westminster and the rest of the country from the city’s leaders is stark: Let us, eventually, pay our own way instead of spending nearly £5 billion in taxes raised elsewhere. Just free us to make our own spending decisions and boost our economy. The report details a myriad of funding agencies and streams, thousands of permutations for public money to be spent in this conurbation of 2.7 million people. All of I — from health to education, from benefits, to the work programme, from crime, to problem families, to transport and housing – the whole lot should be spent locally.

This is rich in possibilities but not all of them are positive. Which brings us to Detroit. The city has just declared bankruptcy on its $18 billion liabilities. Despite having gutted many of its public services, it appears that city will only be paying back 10% of what it owes some creditors.

The collapse of the city’s finances was both caused by and accelerated the same happening to its wider economy. It was once an economic powerhouse: the epicentre of Henry Ford’s mass production revolution and a magnet for migrants. But all of that rested on a single industry which went into rapid decline in the face of foreign competition and industrial discord. It became a motor town that no longer made cars.

The exodus of jobs lead to a similar departure of taxpayers till it reached the point it couldn’t afford to maintain basic public services. That in turn only accelerated the outflow of people – who wants to live in a place where it takes the police an hour to respond to emergency calls. The result is that more than half the city’s population – over a million people in total – have now left.

At present a Detroit style bankruptcy couldn’t happen in the UK. If a council became insolvent it appears that the Treasury would have to stand behind it. Knowing it will be on the hook if a council goes bust, central government goes to great lengths to stop that happening. They are encouraged to borrow through the Public Works Loans Board rather than from the private sector. Their pensions liabilities are centralised in a national. Parliament has even gone as far as requiring Chief finance officers to rewrite the budgets passed by democratically elected councillors if they are too risky. And because most of a council’s funding is provided by central government – contrary to what you might imagine council tax only raises a small part of what local government spends – they are not as susceptible to declines in their local economy.

Councils have in effect been compelled to accept losing autonomy in exchange for gaining security. If fiscal devolution is going to be meaningful then that trade off has to be reversed. Westminster giving devolved bodies more freedom will inevitably give them scope to screw up. And the more scope they have, the less willing the Treasury will be to take on the liability for the mistakes of others.

This is inherent in the process. Nonetheless, the situation of Detroit was made worse by mistakes, which we can avoid repeating. Probably the most important is that the City of Detroit and the city of Detroit didn’t line up. The city’s suburbs lay outside its municipal boundaries. That significantly worsened its depopulation problem. It meant that people could leave behind Detroit, its problems and its taxes without actually moving away from their jobs or friends. To prevent this happening I’d argue city boundaries should include suburbs. That means I’d be far more comfortable with devolution to Greater Manchester than the smaller area currently covered by Manchester Council.

My favourite heretic

The man who convinced me that Liberal Christianity is Bible-based Christianity is someone I don’t believe to even be a Christian

I started to be won over by the Christian view of the world during my first year at university. And initially I was drawn to the more evangelical iterations of the faith. I attended a church which promoted what it described as a ‘bible based’ vision of Christianity. This meant taking the Bible literally, rigorously adhering to it and avoiding diluting the message within with insights from your own reason or emotions.

This was contrasted, with the fuzzier messages of ‘liberal’ churches whose adherence to the word of God was compromised by their determination not to offend the norms of contemporary society. The inferiority of this version of Christianity was seemingly confirmed by their small and diminishing congregations. One view of Liberal Christianity that particularly stuck with me was Alastair McGrath likening it to a particular kind of Swiss: unappealing and full of holes.

I’d largely avoided considering what adhering to this worldview meant for my view on women and homosexuality. But I was finally forced to, when I read a book by the pastor of my church which made it clear that he considered reactionary opinions on these matters to not only be biblically mandated but an integral part of its message. At that point, the dissonance between my personal sense of justice and what I perceived to be the decrees of the Bible became too much. It was an open question whether my new faith would last much past its first year.

I had decided I could not in good conscience continue to attend my current church. And the option to seek out a more liberal one had occurred to me. However, that seemed unsatisfactory. My image of Liberal Christianity was still as an intellectually dishonest cop-out. I felt there was no point partially accepting the Bible. If it was the message of God, then it should all be true. If it wasn’t, well then it wasn’t.

It was in this context that I came across a video of Scotty McClennan – a Unitarian minister and former director of the chaplaincy at Stanford – talking about his book: ‘Jesus was a liberal.’ I can’t find one I saw but the video below is similar.

I didn’t go looking for it. I think I spotted it while watching a video that was only connected to it by being shot at the same bookshop. It was not something I expected to have a big impact on me. However, the way McClellan talked about Jesus’ ministry was a revelation for me. The point I most remember is McClellan highlighting that Jesus thought it more important to heal people than to observe the Sabbath because “the law was made for man, not man for the law.” Thus a suspicion of religious dogmatism was not corrosive of Christian faith but an integral part of it.

I’d thought of using reason and moral imagination to understand God as something that displaced Biblical revelation. McClellan and others convinced me that they actually complimented each other.

The irony of all this is that having made this journey, I am still probably closer in my theology to the conservative evangelicalism I left behind than to McClellan. As a Unitarian he denies the divinity of Christ, a move which I feel robs the New Testament narrative of much of its power. In fact, I would go as far as to say that prevents him being a Christian because to me Christianity is defined by the notion that God was crucified yet rose again. The crucifixion seems altogether less special if it’s the story of some bloke dying.

So for me McClellan has also become evidence for the
Iiberal conviction that just because someone is wrong doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to them.

Reflections on the referendum in Scotland

Having had a day to mull it, here are some of my thoughts on the outcome of the independence referendum.

1. Phew!

This was a case where – regardless of where in the political spectrum who hail from – the conservative argument about not trading known current benefits for speculative future ones should have been compelling. Forging a new state was as unnecessary as it was risky. That it’s been fended off for the time being is excellent news.

2. Uh oh!

My assumption until a few weeks ago was that referendums usually endorsed the status quo and that unless the campaign backing a change was substantially ahead at the outset it was bound to lose. Yes Scotland showed this to be nonsense. That makes me far more concerned about an EU referendum than I was before.

3. English Devolution should mean devolving power to something meaningful

Once English votes for English issues and an English parliament have proved to be totally unworkable, the next stop is likely to be devolution to regions. This is a sensible suggestion but we can do better.

There seems to be an inverse correlation between the population of American states and their Governors approval ratings: the closer you bring government to people the more they like it. And America also suggests that you can get surprisingly close. The state of Wyoming has more power than the Scottish government yet a population similar to Gloucestershire!

I would therefore favour looking at what powers we can give to City regions and counties.

4. The huge turnout is not quite the cause for celebration it appears

I’ve seen a lots of people tweeting that the 85% turnout heralds a new era of democratic engagement and proves something like ‘people ARE interested in politics just not in political parties.’

The problem is that the latter assertion rather undercuts the former. Very few political issues can be dramatic binary choices about the fate of a nation. It is generally more mundane, involves messy compromises and can’t work without political parties. When we see such high participation in boring old national and local elections then it will be time to celebrate.

5. Yes got some help it probably didn’t want

Being in Venice at the moment – I can feel your jealousy from here! – which is the heartland of the North Italy’s separatist Lega Nord movement, I was curious what the League made of Scotland. Turns out they were really keen on Independence and sent people to campaign for it.

Given that they are a far right grouping which make Nigel Farage look like Caroline Lucas, I imagine that Yes Scotland would have rather they hadn’t.

As an amusing coda, following the result their founder Umberto Bossi lamented that: “They succeeded in frightening people and unfortunately in a democracy, there’s the risk that whoever has the television stations and can control the newspapers, like the state, can manage to frighten people.” That from a political ally of Silvio Berlusconi!

A Conservative government is a poor argument for Scottish Independence

The man on the left does not justify the one on the right

I wrote last week about my own reasons for doubting the case for Scottish Independence. This week I’ve been sharing some of other people’s writings on that theme. Today it’s Kenan Malik‘s explanation of why it is hard to square using the election of government of which you disapprove to justify separatism with the idea you respect democracy:

Whether an independent Scotland would actually ditch austerity policies or create the health service that Scots need is a moot point. But the nationalist argument is a challenge as much to democracy as it is to Tory policies. If everyone always got the government they desired, democracy would be redundant. We only need democracy because different people hold different views, and we often disagree with government policies. The Scots have, of course, a democratic right to vote for independence. But to suggest that they should do because there is a conservative-led government at Westminster seems fundamentally to misunderstand the nature and demands of democracy. Democracy puts the onus upon us to engage with people and to change their minds. Rather than create a movement that can challenge Tory policies throughout the UK, however, proponents of Scottish independence seek to create a new constituency that they think will be more amenable to their views.

An independent Scotland will not solve the dilemma that democracy often creates governments with which a large proportion, even the majority, of the population disagree. There is no single Scottish view on any issue from abortion to Iraq to independence. Scots, like the rest of the UK, are divided by class, culture, politics, gender, age and much else. And, when it comes to politics and values, rather than a mythicised national identity, Scots often have greater affinities with people in England than with fellow-Scots. As the comedian Billy Connolly has put it, ‘I’ve always remembered that I have a lot more in common with a welder from Liverpool than I do with someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands.’

The very fractiousness of the independence debate shows how divided Scotland is. If Scotland becomes independent, should the Labour-supporting areas of Glasgow, or the Orkney and Shetland Islands that for decades have voted for the Liberal Democrats, insist that they have no desire to be ruled by Edinburgh and seek to self-govern? Or should those who oppose independence seek to form their own mini-state?

More prosaically of course there is a good chance of a change in government at Westminster soon and it might be that the political allegiances of Scots shift. So it would be a mistake to project the current situation forward indefinitely.

Listening to a demagogue

What my encounter with the late Ian Paisley taught me about political and religious extremism.

I didn’t know what one was supposed to do while listening to a demagogue but I knew I hadn’t expected to be straining to hear him. Ian Paisley’s image is of course forever set as the man booming: “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER” not as the frail old man I saw at the Oxford Union in 2011.

Paisley had, however, been on quite a journey. When he first spoke at the Union in 1969, he delivered an explosive fire and brimstone sermon which was booed and heckled by the audience.

More than three decades later, he seemed not only to lack the physical strength for a repeat performance but also the inclination. In the interim, he had acquired a degree of political respectability. Having done his best to sabotage attempts at sharing power with Republicans, he embraced them at the 11th hour. This allowed him to become First Minister of Northern Ireland with – rather extraordinarily – former IRA commander Martin McGuiness serving as his deputy.

This political mellowing was reflected in a softer public persona. When I heard Paisley I didn’t hear him preaching hellfire but instead delivering a rather bland and often inaudible lecture on the merits of the Kings James Bible. He responded jovially to audience questions which while always polite – itself a change – were often very pointed. Perhaps most surprisingly he talked warmly of the fact that Martin McGuiness had attended a service at a protestant church. Paisley seemed to take this not as a political gesture that an indication that McGuiness might be on the road to being saved. The notion of Paisley welcoming the prospect of McGuiness one day joining him in heaven is certainly a strange one.

What this does show is the extent to which the religious appeared to be more important to Paisley than political. Strangely for a man who was in parliament for 40 years, he seemed to believe he was addressing us not as a politician but as an evangelist. Much as with his view of McGuiness, this portrayed a certain unworldliness; he was a messenger who would repel rather attract young liberal mainlanders to Christianity.

And for all the changes to his politics, religion clearly remained an area in which he had not evolved. When asked if he might reciprocate McGuiness’ gesture and attend a Catholic service, he was adamant that that was not possible as it would be collaborating with an evil force. Challenged by one audience member to repeat his claim that the Pope was the antichrist, he did so albeit rather indirectly – he is still a politician after all. He also made it clear not only were Catholics and non-Christians beyond the pale but so were Protestants who did not share the fundamentalist positions of his Free Presbyterian Church. And he also stood by his opposition to homosexuality.

I note that Paisley remained staunch in his intolerant religious beliefs while coming to accept nationalist politicians playing a part in government because I feel it has contemporary relevance. Many people including David Cameron have suggested that tackling Islamism requires tackling not just those who advocate jihad but also ‘non-violent extremists’ who advocate intolerant positions but not violence. I would suggest that Paisley indicates this is not necessarily the case. He was moved from being a fanatical opponent of the peace process(es) to one of its cornerstones while still being a bigoted fundamentalist. Political extremism is a political problem which needs a political solution and seeking a spiritual one may well be an ineffective distraction.

“Spain without the sunshine”

A noble prize winning economist has warned that: “If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.”

On Saturday, I quoted at length from Oxford economics professor Simon Wren-Lewis’ fisking of the Yes campaign’s fiscal policy. However, it’s its monetary policy which is most reckless.

Paul Krugman is an even more eminent economist than Wren-Lewis. He has been a professor at Princeton for more than a decade, won the Noble Prize for economics in 2008 and is one of America’s most important political pundits. He’s also no fan of the ‘effing Tories’ but nonetheless he warns Scots that:

…the combination of political independence with a shared currency is a recipe for disaster. Which is where the cautionary tale of Spain comes in.

If Spain and the other countries that gave up their own currencies to adopt the euro were part of a true federal system, with shared institutions of government, the recent economic history of Spain would have looked a lotlike that of Florida. Both economies experienced a huge housing boom between 2000 and 2007. Both saw that boom turn into a spectacular bust. Both suffered a sharp downturn as a result of that bust. In both places the slump meant a plunge in tax receipts and a surge in spending on unemployment benefits and other forms of aid.

Then, however, the paths diverged. In Florida’s case, most of the fiscal burden of the slump fell not on the local government but on Washington, which continued to pay for the state’s Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as for much of the increased aid to the unemployed. There were large losses on housing loans, and many Florida banks failed, but many of the losses fell on federal lending agencies, while bank depositors were protected by federal insurance. You get the picture. In effect, Florida received large-scale aid in its time of distress.

Spain, by contrast, bore all the costs of the housing bust on its own. The result was a fiscal crisis, made much worse by fears of a banking crisis that the Spanish government would be unable to manage, because it might literally run out of cash. Spanish borrowing costs soared, and the government was forced into brutal austerity measures. The result was a horrific depression — including youth unemployment above 50 percent — from which Spain has barely begun to recover.

And it wasn’t just Spain, it was all of southern Europe and more. Even euro-area countries with sound finances, like Finland and the Netherlands, have suffered deep and prolonged slumps.

In short, everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous. In economics jargon, fiscal and banking integration are essential elements of an optimum currency area. And an independent Scotland using Britain’s pound would be in even worse shape than euro countries, which at least have some say in how the European Central Bank is run.

I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.

First independence, then more austerity

Opposition to austerity has given new impetus to Scottish Nationalism yet independence would ironically mean Scots enduring more austerity

In a scathing post on his Mainly Macro blog, Oxford Uni economics professor Simon Wren-Lewis dissects the claims made about the fiscal position of an independent Scotland. He observes that the’ independent and impartial’ IFS has indicated that an independent Scotland would be reliant for revenue on diminishing supplies of North Sea oil and tackling an ageing population. In addition, Wren-Lewis believes that being part of a currency union would mean Scotland having to pay more interest on its borrowing. The net effect of this would be to leave an independent Scotland looking at a much larger gap between the government’s revenues and its spending than would the UK as a whole.

He argues that the results would not be pretty:

Could Scotland just borrow more? I am all for borrowing to cover temporary reductions in income, due to recessions for example, which is why I have been so critical of current austerity. However, as the IFS show, North Sea oil income is falling long term, so this is not a temporary problem. Now it could be that the gap will be covered in the longer term by the kind of increases in productivity and labour supply that the Scottish government assume. Governments that try to borrow today in the hope of a more optimistic future are not behaving very responsibly. However it seems unlikely that Scotland would be able to behave irresponsibly, whatever the currency regime. They would either be stopped by fiscal rules imposed by the remaining UK, or markets that did not share the SNP’s optimism about longer term growth. So this means, over the next five or ten years, either additional spending cuts (to those already planned by the UK government), or (I hope more realistically) tax increases.
Is this a knock down argument in favour of voting No. Of course not: there is nothing wrong in making a short term economic sacrifice for the hope of longer term benefits or for political goals. But that is not the SNP’s case, and it is not what they are telling the Scottish people. Is this deception deliberate? I suspect it is more the delusions of people who want something so much they cast aside all doubts and problems.
This is certainly the impression I get from reading a lot of literature as I researched this post. The arguments in the Wee Blue Book are exactly that: no sustained economic argument, but just a collection of random quotes and debating points to make a problem go away. When the future fiscal position is raised, we are so often told about the past. I too think past North Sea oil was squandered, but grievance does not put money into a future Scottish government’s coffers. I read that forecasting the future is too uncertain, from people who I am sure think about their future income when planning their personal spending. I read about how economists are always disagreeing, when in this case they are pretty united. (Of course you can always find a few who think otherwise, just as you can find one or two who think austerity is expansionary.)