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J.R.R. Tolkien vs. Ayn Rand

June 16, 2010

Via the Distributist Review:

There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs. — “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Pate.

Jason Hamza van Boon, who originally posted the quote on Tikkun Daily Blog, goes on to consider what Tolkien’s views on political economy might have been, concluding that the great fantasist was most sympathetic to Distributism — a “third way” economic theory proposing widespread ownership of private property as an alternative to laissez-faire capitalism and socialism alike.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 9:38 am

    I love it when Leftist completely disregard Rand but never attempt to argue her specific points. I’m no objectivist, but some of her points are definitely valid or at the very least deserve debate. Yet, most on the Left, that frankly have never even bothered to read; Atlas, Fountainhead or Capitalism, the forgotten ideal, call her a nut and that’s it. Ad hominem much?
    As for Tolkien, he was much more a progressive of his day than a distributionist. LotR is chock full of early progressive and Marxist ideology. The Orcs represented industrialization and the West represented an agrarian ideal. It was written very much in response to the idea that industrialization caused WWI.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 27, 2010 11:43 am

    I am among those who haven’t bothered to read Ayn Rand. But I get the gist of Atlas Shrugged: the innovative capitalists of the future go on strike in response to government encroachment on their labor. The notion that the rich are somehow more hardworking or virtuous than the rest of us is one I reject, regardless of who espouses it. I also reject Rand’s individualism.

    So sure, I’ll read Rand before bashing her individual writings (she is, incidentally, on my reading last). But I don’t see any problem with rejecting Rand’s ideals a priori on broad philosophical grounds.

    Your understanding of Marxism is incorrect. Though Marx obviously opposed the capitalist exploitation of workers, he didn’t reject industrialization as such, but saw it as a necessary phase of history in the progression toward communism. It was, rather, the distributists — and, with them, Tolkien — that rejected industrialization, and longed for a return to the agrarian past.

    There is another, obvious reason Tolkien would have been closer in sympathies to Distributism than Marxism: Tolkien was a life-long, devout Catholic.

    • June 28, 2010 2:28 pm

      I agree Marx didn’t reject industrialization. He just wanted it run by a different group of people. But my point was that Tolkien’s writings had Marxist ideology thrown in. Specifically in “Scouring of the Shire” and the whole political/economic structure of the Elves.

      As for Rand’s “individualism” this is from one of her books, “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

      “Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.”

      I wonder which parts do you reject?

      I recommend that you read Capitalism before you read Atlas…it’s a much easier read.

      My own personal critique of Rand is that her ideal of a perfectly rational man is false. After reading Kahneman, the whole idea of perfect rationality is ludicrous.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        June 28, 2010 9:33 pm

        I regard man more in the manner of Aristotle: as a political animal. To describe man as an “independent, sovereign entity,” and society as a mere collection of individuals runs contrary to human experience, in which relationships with others form the very basis of individual identity.

  3. June 28, 2010 9:59 pm

    See that’s the problem with inferring the whole from a small sample. I think both you and I are political animal, but there are a lot of people that aren’t. A lot of people could really careless about politics. Those are the ones that want to just be left alone and not have anyone dictate to them.
    I regard man as sovereign, I really don’t understand how you cannot, since the opposite would mean that all men/women are subjects to some other sovereign entity. I’m sure this has something to do with the common notion from liberals that rights are derived from the State and are not derived from nature. Of course that notion would also mean that there can never be any ‘Human right abuses” by the State or any other State. How can China violate the human rights of its citizens, if China is the one that gives them their rights in the first place?

    Society is a collection of individuals and that runs right along with human experience. How can any one man change society? Take Caesar, Napoleon, FDR, or any major figures from history. They as individuals changed their societies for the better or the worse. Again I just can’t see your point of view at all, since it runs counter to my notions of history. Your notion that relationships with others is all fine and dandy but that doesn’t explain how twins form opposite personalities. How do you explain twins in your model of collection of individuals?
    Again I think you should read some Hayek.

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 29, 2010 12:15 am

    By “man is a political animal,” Aristotle doesn’t mean that you and I must necessarily have an interest in politics, but that we are inherently social creatures. Man is to the polis as a fish is to water.

    As for the possibility that “all men/women are subjects to some other sovereign entity” this is, in fact, precisely what I, a Roman Catholic, would assert.

    I agree that we must not reduce the individual to impersonal or societal forces. But I would contend that the opposite is also true — that without the collective, any notion of the individual is meaningless. I consider C.S. Lewis to be highly overrated, but his observation that error often comes in pairs rings true: the individualism of classical liberalism is inadequate, but so is Marxist collectivism. What’s needed, rather, is a philosophy that preserves a dynamic tension between the two.

    • June 29, 2010 9:09 am

      I’ll give you that we need society to see man in the proper context. Yet you have to admit thousands of years of history point to man inherently wanting to be free; free from oppression, free from bondage, free from being forced to do just about anything. I see that the desire for freedom and liberty, which is the crux of Rand’s notion of individualism, is essential to the existence of man.

      As an atheist, it’s obvious that I don’t believe in God. Something that I have always found funny, is that some of the most devout libertarians and proponents of individualism were heavily religious, while some of the worst human oppressors were atheists. I think it has something to do with, having the notion of an all seeing in the background satisfies some human need to order, while if you don’t believe in an all knowing, all powerful men try to satisfy that need for order by imposing their own order, usually to the detriment of man.

      One thing though, is that a nation of individuals has a much better chance of not following those mad men. While a nation that is collective follows those mad men with near religious ferocity. Again I think the history of the 20th century is on my side.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        June 30, 2010 9:54 am

        You are making some pretty broad generalizations here. Sure, man wants to be free, but what, exactly, is meant by “freedom”? It seems to me that the only coherent way to define freedom (as with equality and rights) is with reference to some larger scheme of values. The word standing alone has no content.

        Libertarians tend to assume that freedom simply means the absence of governmental constraints. Yet it is not self-evident that all Americans are “free” to purchase adequate health insurance simply because the state doesn’t prohibit us from doing so. Nor is it clear that the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision was a victory for free speech. Of course, I realize it is possible to argue the merits of each of the examples both ways (I favor single payer health care system and a sharp reduction in corporate influence on American life). But bear in mind that what we are contesting is not simply the merits of the cases, but the very notion of freedom itself.

        The larger scheme of values to which I would refer the notion of freedom is, as I mentioned elsewhere, Christianity. GK Chesterton’s remark on modernity seems pertinent:

        The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

        Individual liberty is a virtue, no doubt — a virtue gone mad. It has not yet produced, and is indeed not likely to produce, totalitarianism. No, our insistence on every man’s right to strike it rich, and the wrongfulness of interfering with corporate profits, has produced another set of evils — among them, the 2008 financial crisis, and the BP oil spill.

  5. June 30, 2010 11:41 am

    “It seems to me that the only coherent way to define freedom (as with equality and rights) is with reference to some larger scheme of values. The word standing alone has no content.”

    See that is part of our disagreement. I just don’t see the world through the same lens as you do. At least not anymore.

    Our notion of rights are different. I don’t see right anywhere and everywhere. There are basic human rights, most of which are outlined in the Constitution, although I’d add a few if I could like gay marriage etc. I do not see how some rights can trump rights for others. That is why I’m against the Health Care law…the right to Health care means that someone has to provide it. So the right of a person to see a doctor trumps the rights of the doctors, since the doctors would then be forced to provide it. I’m sure there are lots of Doctors that would and do provide free healthcare but as we have seen since Obamacare passed, a lot have said frack it…and closed up shop to medicare and medicaid patients. I see that perfectly in their right to freely associate with whom they wish.

    Citizens United was just as much about freedom of speech as it was about equality. I know liberals tend to think equality is all the matters. With CU, certain groups were exempt from restrictions, while others were not. I would think that people who put equality above all else would appreciate at least that aspect of CU.

    As with corporate interests, I think most liberals tend to think of all corporations as somehow evil. That’s why they seem to use Big Oil as a boogie man a lot. Or at least they are evil when they don’t toe the liberal party line, Whole Foods comes to mind. Once they were all good and all liberals liked them. Then the CEO came out against a liberal dogma, and wouldn’t you know it, there were calls for boycotts. I don’t get it but oh well.

    I see all people and groups of people (which all a corp is) as having the same vices and virtues as anyone else. So some corps, groups(you know those evil Unions =))and people can do bad things, they can also do good things. I don’t see the need to restrict their speech because (another generalization coming) most liberals tend to think people aren’t smart enough to make the right decisions on their own. I’m thinking about the soda, sugar, tanning, smoking, pretty much name your, or just out right ban.

    I think your making more than a few over generalizations yourself. Not too many Libertarians or even Conservative I know or read think that the Market is perfect or that full liberty is going to produce a Utopia. Utopia is NOT the goal for libertarians (except those anarcho-libt. but they are the extreme not the median). Your going to have bad people no matter what. The incentives are much weaker under a individualistic culture than a collective culture. I’d recommend Hayek Road to Serfdom Chapter 10 “Why the Worst Get on Top.”
    Most Libertarians want some Government, but we want it more in line with what the Constitution says, limited in both size and scope. The financial crisis was caused just as much by insane and asinine government regulations (Basal I and Basal II capital requirements, Tax incentive to housing, low Fed Funds rate, regulators surfing porn instead of doing what they were supposed to do) as it was by market actors. But remember that most libertarians want those banks to go out of business, not propped up with tax payers money.
    As with BP, I think they need to pay up for the damages they caused and go bankrupt. There are hundreds of other companies that drill and do it safely, they shouldn’t be punished because BP and MMS fell asleep at the wheel.

    I still recommend Sowell Conflict of Visions, maybe after reading it you’ll see a bit on how and why we see the world through totally different lenses. I respects differing opinions, no doubt some of mine won’t turn out the way I think they should, same with yours. It’s only through debate and compromise, that we can make things better. That’s the whole point of the market and individualism to me.

  6. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    July 2, 2010 1:54 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful comment — though I’m not really sure where to begin responding. (You make many, many assertions amounting to about ten of my blog posts.)

    A couple of thoughts:

    I’m not sure that debating the concept of rights is going to get us very far. While I would define rights so as to include “freedom from want” (FDR’s phrase), I am not prepared to make the case that rights, as I define them, can be seen “anywhere and everywhere.” Quite the opposite: I would reject the notion that the human intellect can discover universal rights — or, for that matter, moral truths — by itself, but would instead argue that such rights and truths are discovered in and through culture and tradition. In this regard, I am actually further from accepting universal rights than you are as a classical liberal.

    What I was suggesting in my previous comment is that the contemporary disagreement over rights is irresolvable. You may not be able to see how “some rights can trump rights for others,” but that it is only because you are assuming that the first set of rights (self-determination on the part of doctors) is valid, and the second set (“freedom from want”) is not. Supposing that I assume otherwise (as I do), you would have to push your argument back to its first principles, and show them to be better grounded than mine in order to resolve the debate. But the Enlightenment project of providing purely rational grounds for belief — whether Kantian, Utilitarian, or otherwise — has quite clearly failed.

    So my objection is not so much to contemporary notions of rights as to the larger intellectual framework that has produced endless debate over their content. At the same time, by placing rights and liberties firmly within the context of tradition (the Catholic tradition, in my case), I end up rejecting arguments in favor of the absolute right of individuals and corporations to self-determination — including the arguments you make on behalf of CU and BP.

    With that said, tradition to me by no means blindly clinging to the past, and I would agree with you as to the importance of vigorous debate.

    • July 2, 2010 3:36 pm

      I think crux of the debate is about where do rights come from. I think the two distinct groups are 1)from God, or Nature or where ever, it’s that rights are fundamental and unchanging, the other is 2)from the State. I know I’m in the first camp, even though I’m an atheist. People know that some things are wrong that when someone takes their property, that it’s wrong. So the notion of property ownership is a right. Where as the other, the State, means that the state can give and take away rights as they see fit. Take what just happened in Finland, they made it a “right to internet access.” I see that as totally absurd, since as with the doctor example, whom are you going to redress your grievances when you can’t get internet access? The State obviously, but what are they going to do about it? They will have to take away from some, to give to others. I just don’t see that as a right.

      The problem with “freedom of want” is that it’s ignores the fact that their is an unlimited amount of want but only finite resources and finite labor. It’s the economic problem in general, how do you distribute finite resources to everyone with wants. I see freedom of want as a Utopian concept, that is far from anything in reality. You may as well ask for 3 wishes from a Genie than have freedom from want.

      I agree that tradition is a good thing. But there is a fine line between tradition and blindly clinging to the past as you said. I see tradition as being useful in heuristic. Where as tradition in terms of institutions be both useful and a hindrance. Take the Catholics gay rights things as an example of hindrance and Catholic charities as helpful. It’s the job of man to determine, with every generation, which traditions are actually holding us back and which ones are saving us from ourselves…that is the endless debate we really are having.

  7. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    July 4, 2010 2:37 pm

    I think your critique of state created rights is spot-on. If the state can simply “give and take away rights as they see fit,” rights are reduced to nothing more than the language in which power speaks. On the other hand, I’m not sure how it is possible for an atheist to arrive at the position that rights are “fundamental and unchanging.” If there is no God to guarantee the right to private property, where does that right come from?

    You could, I suppose, make the argument from natural law: human beings have an innate moral compass and therefore simply know that property ownership is a right. The problem I have with this argument is that if the right to private property were innate, we would expect everyone to acknowledge it. But that it is quite clearly not the case.

    The strongest dissent comes from socialism, which denies the right to private property altogether. Yet even within ideological camps acknowledging at least some right to private property, you have widespread disagreement as to the nature and extent of that right. Libertarians and most conservatives view the right to private property as absolute, while liberals and social democrats favor a middle ground (e.g. raising the tax rate on the upper income bracket from 36 to 39 percent). The Catholic Church takes a liberal position insofar as it teaches that property rights must be balanced with the common good; yet Catholic notions of the common good have, on occasion, clashed with liberalism (on abortion, most notably).

    So the right to private property is a) by no means self-evident and b) too broad of a category to talk about meaningfully, other than as a means of differentiating socialists from the rest of us. The right to private property is no more “fundamental and unchanging” than is belief in God or traditional marriage: it is, rather, the subject of sharp disagreement which cannot possibly be resolved apart from historical development — supreme court decisions, social movements, wars, technological advances, and so on.

    As for tradition, I would agree entirely. Catholic tradition cuts both ways, as you suggest: it is, on the one hand, a hindrance to human progress insofar as it remains staunchly opposed to gay equality and rights (something I’ve written about occasionally on this blog); on the other hand, doctrines of Catholic social thought such as subsidiarity and the preferential option for the poor are (in my view, at least) a great boon to human progress. I would also wholeheartedly concur with your view that “It’s the job of man to determine, with every generation, which traditions are actually holding us back and which ones are saving us from ourselves…that is the endless debate we really are having.”

    (A quick note on freedom of want: want, in the archaic sense used by FDR does not mean “desire” but “lacking in some necessity” — not having access to basic goods like food, shelter, health care, etc.)

    • July 6, 2010 11:11 pm

      Re: “I’m not sure how it is possible for an atheist to arrive at the position that rights are ‘fundamental and unchanging.'”

      I’m not quite sure how that makes a bit of difference. As I said before, history has shown that man has striven for such “fundamental rights” as freedom from servitude, the right to reap the fruits of their labour, etc.

      Re: Property Rights

      There is a reason why not everyone acknowledges property rights, because there have always been those that would rather rape, pillage and steal, rather than work for a living. It’s the socialists that want to steal, not the ones advocating private property rights. It’s the socialist that committed horrible acts of murder in the name of the social good. History has shown this to be true, however it might irk those advocating socialist ideology now.

      I do agree that it is a point of sharp disagreement. I just see it more in terms of a disagreement between the thief and the owner. A thief will always put property in terms of collective ownership, it’s in his best interest to do so.

      As for FDR’s use of want, I think your right. He did use it in that sense. But he did it because he knew the public would interpret it the the more modern sense. Just same old rhetorical style that has been used by politicians since Rome. There is a reason why they say politicians peddle snake oil.

  8. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    July 7, 2010 7:36 pm

    So it’s an ad hominem fallacy for liberals to dismiss global warming skeptics as “funded by big oil” (per your comment on The Semipermeable Liberal Bubble), but not an ad hominem fallacy for you to dismiss socialists as “those that would rather rape, pillage and steal, rather than work for a living”?

    I’m confused.

    • July 7, 2010 9:58 pm

      I might have gone a bit overboard. I don’t dismiss Socialist because they have killed a lot of people, I dismiss them on economic grounds. Hayek and Mises showed in the Economic Calculation problem that socialist economics will never work. Lange could never come up with a refutation and his was as bright and intelligent as they come. So I dismiss socialism on it merits, not just on it’s evil, which we both know happens in all economic and political systems. The question that needs to be addressed is whether or not socialist systems favour the those evils. I think they do, since to have socialism work you have to have a strong authority or State. A strong State, with it’s concentration of power in the elite, selects for the worst types of people, which Hayek showed in Road to Serfdom chapter 10. (I don’t know if you read that or not.)

      The “rape, pillage and steal” is indicative of man, not just socialists. The entire history of man, is of two different types of peoples, those that work the land (gathering or hunting) and those that worked over those working the land (raiding and pillaging). The socialist system is at it’s core a system of taking from one group to give to another. I don’t see any difference between that and straight theft, which is why I put it in the latter category.
      I’m sure you might have a good reason for why you think we need some social programs…that’s all fine and good. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s still stealing the fruits of the labor of one group to give to another.
      I’m sure you see it differently. I’d be surprised if you didn’t see it differently and still think socialism is in anyway good. (I only say that because your defending it.)

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