Along with the movies it makes, some good, some not, Hollywood spews out an unending stream of goofy left-wing political sentiments. Attacking them is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; it usually isn't worth it. But several months ago a news item about a dinner to benefit Oxfam, the hunger-relief organization, caught my eye because it perfectly illustrates the obstacles we face in fighting to preserve the principles of individual rights.
Under the headline "The Rich and Famous Clamor to Experience a Taste of Poverty," the New York Times gave the following advance description:
...the celebrities will draw lots to determine where they will sit and what they will eat. A total of 15 percent will represent high income countries, 25 percent will represent middle-income countries and 60 percent will represent the impoverished, who make up the majority of the people in the world.
Those in the first group "'will be served by waiters, have a three-course meal, stuffed breast of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and radicchio, salad with shrimp, and a wonderful dessert and wine, all these guests sitting on nice chairs with cloth napkins and linen and crystal,' [said the caterer, Ruth Hedges]. 'The middle percentage will sit on benches at wooden tables; they'll have paper plates with rice and beans and tortillas. And the rest, the majority, will sit on the floor on a mat and have rice and water, no silverware, and that's it. Just like the majority of people in the world.'
"She added: 'What we're doing is bringing across to the philanthropic crowd that the capitalist system doesn't work, that there's totally unequal distribution of food in the world.'"
Certain questions will doubtless leap to the reader's mind. Is equal distribution of food the proper measure of whether capitalism works? Could the poverty of low-income countries have anything to do with the fact that they do not have capitalist economies? Do people in middle-income countries normally eat on paper plates? But let us put aside these obvious questions in order to concentrate on the philosophical essence of the event.
Having the diners draw lots was a nice touch. It perfectly captures the egalitarian worldview that food, or wealth of any kind, is a collective good to be distributed by society; that it ought to be distributed as evenly as possible; that the share which an individual receives is a matter of chance, unrelated to his ability, virtue, or enterprise; and that the relative wealth of nations is equally a matter of chance, or of natural resources, or of imperial power, or of anything but the degree of freedom they permit individual producers.
John Rawls argued that society may treat individual ability as a social asset.
Philosophers have constructed elaborate rationalizations for this worldview. Marx adopted an extreme form of environmental determinism, according to which one's fate is determined by the class one is born into, along with the ineluctable laws of economic production, which guarantee that the capitalists will get richer and the working class poorer. The Harvard philosopher John Rawls (pictured at right) admitted that differences in economic success could be traced to differences in individual ability and effort but argued that we don't deserve the traits we are born with. People with great ability, and great motivation to achieve, are merely lucky winners in a lottery by which Nature distributes these "gifts." Therefore, he argues, society may treat individual ability as a social asset, and distribute the products of effort to the less able and industrious.
More often, however, the egalitarian view is adopted without argument. The hallmark of this approach is an obsession with statistics on the distribution of income and wealth: the share going to the top 1 % (or 5% or 20%) as against the share going to lower brackets. The media have lately been reporting every new wrinkle in these statistics, in order to prove that inequality increased during the Reagan era. In the global economy, likewise, one often hears complaints that the U.S., with only 7% of the world's population, consumes 23% (or whatever) of the world's resources. Or as Roger Donway once said by way of parody: It's outrageous that the French, with only 1% of the world’s population, have 12% of the world’s fun.
Wealth is not found, but created.
Despite the use of numbers, this entire discussion is dominated by an image, the image of a pie that has appeared somehow on the table and must now by divided up. It is a false image, a mirage. Wealth, unlike fun, can be tallied numerically, but like fun it is not a collective phenomenon. Wealth is the product of individual thought, ability, and effort. Wealth is not found, but created, and the identity of the creators is a matter of public record. They are the inventors, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, and producers in every other line of work, who earn what they receive in voluntary exchange with others.
In our mixed economy, of course, not all exchanges are voluntary. Some individuals prosper by turning government regulations to their (short-term) advantage, or finding some other way to wallow in the stream of government largesse. And even in a completely free economy, some people would still be victims of prejudice or other forms of injustice and irrationality. But the very fact that we can make such judgments implies that we can discriminate degrees of merit and commensurate reward. One would think the notion that there is no link between merit and reward, that one's economic fate is a matter of sheer luck, that "the goods are here" (as Ayn Rand put it) and it doesn't matter how they got here, is too fantastic even for Hollywood to accept.
So why does this notion persist? The Hollywood benefit dinner provides an important clue.
Oxfam's press director was quoted in the Times article as saying that a previous dinner "was a very powerful, moving experience in which people had no choice about the kind of meal they were getting.... It was a powerful way of experiencing what billions of people around the world are experiencing every day."
Once again, the obvious objections leap to mind. Surely it is fatuous to assume that a wealthy movie star who eats rice on the floor one evening, and then drives his Range-Rover home to Malibu for a real meal, has had a powerful experience of poverty. But once again, let us leave aside the obvious and attend to the philosophical essence: the assumption that one must actually experience another person's condition in order to understand it.
"Experience" in this context means the perceptual level of cognition: direct perceptual awareness of a phenomenon, as opposed to abstract conceptual knowledge of it. As Ayn Rand pointed out, it is impossible for human beings to function solely at the perceptual level, as animals do. Every distinctive human need or capacity—from language, to morality, to science and technology, to social institutions—depends on our ability to grasp and reason with abstract ideas. What is possible—indeed, all too common—is the syndrome she called "the anti-conceptual mentality," the syndrome which "treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes.
It is impossible for human beings to function solely at the perceptual level, as animals do.
The anti-conceptual mentality regards a concept like “wealth or “justice” as a given, as something that requires no logical process of integration and definition. This syndrome is motivated by the desire to retain the effortless, automatic, and infallible character of perceptual awareness, and avoid the mental independence, effort, and risk of error that conceptual integration entails. In the anti-conceptual mentality, "the process of integration is largely replaced by a process of association." People who function this way are typically unable to define their terms; for them, the meaning of a word is a jumble of memorized examples, emotional connotations, and floating images. And their convictions tend to be held as slogans, detached from logic and evidence. On any issue involving values, such people rely heavily on emotions, which, like percepts, are experienced as automatic, effortless, and infallible.
And that is precisely the approach that the sponsors of the Hollywood dinner are demanding. To understand poverty, they imply, we need not investigate its causes. We need not consider what actions a person must take, what virtues he must exercise, in order to produce. We need not ask what social conditions are required for production. We need not examine the nature of welfare programs to see whether they have succeeded in relieving poverty, or whether they are consistent with the rights of producers. All this would require conceptual thought, the use of evidence and reason to identify the relevant causal relationships and moral principles.
Instead we are urged to function perceptually: to experience hunger for an evening, and then act on the empathy we feel. The sponsors did not actually propose any particular solution to world hunger, but it's pretty obvious what they have in mind. If some people have more than they need, and some have less, the answer is simple. Take food from one pile and move it to the other. Can't you see that? Don't you care?
As Ayn Rand frequently pointed out, the anti-conceptual mentality is encouraged by the educational practices and techniques of our schools. (See her essay “The Comprachicos.") But the Oxfam benefit represents a new level of effrontery: the explicit demand, almost as a matter of principle, for an anti-conceptual approach to social issues.
In colleges and universities, it is generally assumed, and in some cases is a matter of explicit policy, that only a woman can teach a course in Women's Studies, on the ground that a male cannot experience what it is like to be a woman. The same is true for Black Studies and other ethnic programs.
According to a recent article in the New Republic, a course on "Poverty and Culture" at American University allows students to get credit for begging on the street. "The one student who chose to spend an hour-and-a-half approaching strangers at Dupont Circle said she ended up feeling 'very close' to the real homeless people there."
The anti-conceptual mentality is a psychological phenomenon, not a political one. But it represents a tremendous obstacle to the achievement and maintenance of a free society. As Rand noted, this mentality breeds dependence on the group; someone who does not think in principles tends to rely on social customs, and thus does not function independently in practice. The anti-conceptual mentality also makes it difficult to grasp the very idea of a free society.
The anti-conceptual mentality represents a tremendous obstacle to a free society.
Any political ideology—from individualism to socialism—can be formulated in terms of principles about the proper relation of the individual to the state, the proper functions of government, etc. At the level of principles, no ideology can be understood, much less consistently practiced or advocated, by those who function non-conceptually. That is why anti-ideological pragmatism is so popular. But the nonindividualist ideologies have a concrete model they can use to convey their view of society: the model of the family. The political left stresses the nurturing role of the family, its unconditional support of every member. Conservatives stress the authority of the parents in teaching virtue and enforcing standards of behavior. These aspects of the family are understood by preconceptual children, and can be grasped in a primitive form by anti-conceptual adults.
But there is no comparable form in which it is possible to grasp the concept of individualism. Needless to say, this is not because individualism excludes family life. The family is a necessary institution for raising children, who cannot yet function as adults, and a free society permits and encourages families to achieve this purpose. But the principles of a free society are based on the need of adults to function independently. A free society is not a family, not even by analogy. It is a society of independent equals, of people who possess the same rights in virtue of their common attributes as human beings, regardless of skin color, customs, practices or affiliations. A free society is a society of traders who exchange values rather than favors, who operate on the principle of justice rather than unconditional love. To grasp the ideas of rights, of values, of justice, one must be able to think in terms of principles.
On issue after issue, we can see how the anti-conceptual mentality is unable to grasp the nature of capitalism. For example:
Those who think of society as a giant family cannot understand why the government may not take just a little bit from the wealthy to help the poor. Isn’t that what families do? They share. But government is not a loving parent. Government is an institution invested with the power to use force. Its function is to protect individual rights, including property rights, and it must apply that principle uniformly, in accordance with the rule of law, regardless of the degree of property any person has. To violate the rights of wealthy individuals is to abandon the principle of rights in theory, and to set a precedent that jeopardizes all rights in practice.
Government is an institution invested with the power to use force.
Again, those whose sense of reality is limited to what they can perceive cannot fully grasp the nature of a free market. This fact can best be illustrated by Frederic Bastiat's distinction between what is seen and what is not seen. The government creates a make-work program that employs a certain number of people. These people are seen. But money for the program is raised from taxes, which are taken from the private sector, which reduces the capital available to create private employment. The jobs that are destroyed in this manner are not seen. We cannot point to the specific people who are deprived of work. To grasp the destructive character of government intervention—in this case and countless others—one must think in terms of principles. To those who do not think conceptually, only what is seen is real, and they will always provide a ready market for politicians selling intervention.
They will also provide a market for politicians selling redistribution. Resentment against the rich always focuses on corporate CEOs, investment bankers, stock and commodity traders, and others who earn large amounts of money by so-called "paper transactions." The work performed by such people is highly abstract and the value they create is not tangible. To understand their productive achievements, and the relationship between what they do and what they earn, one has to think in principles. It is significant in this respect that such resentment is seldom directed against sports stars like Michael Jordan, who earned more last year than all but a handful of businessmen. The value created by sports superstars (and entertainers, etc.) is tangible, concrete, highly individual.
Lord Acton once said that the true friends of liberty in any age have been few. I believe he was right, and I believe the reason is that the capacity to think in terms of principles has always been rare. The trend in our own age is certainly not positive, from the children who are never taught the cognitive skills of conceptual thinking, to the adolescents who are taught to form political convictions by instant empathy, to the voters to whom the mixed economy and the welfare state are unquestionable givens, like gravity or death.
Those of us who care about liberty, and all the values it makes possible, need to be concerned about this crucial precondition. Our liberties will be secure only when people are capable of grasping the principle of rights, when they understand that wealth is not a pie to be divided and passed around the table, and when the notion of addressing world hunger by eating rice on the floor is too goofy even for Hollywood.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.
David Kelley founded The Atlas Society in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.
Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.
Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.
Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.
His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.
An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.
“Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.
The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.
“Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989
“Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987
“The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986
“The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.
"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.