Over at The Atlas Society’s website, Phil Coates and I are discussing the delay over the publication of Will Thomas and David Kelley’s Logical Structure of Objectivism. Despite the mutual exasperation on display in the discussion, I think it’s an important discussion to have.
Coates wonders what’s taking Thomas and Kelley so long to publish the book. My answer has two or three parts, depending on how you count them: (1) they’re not ready to publish because the book is itself not ready for publication; (2) since TAS’s institutional priorities aren’t primarily focused on the production of academic or scholarly work, one can’t expect them to revise the manuscript in an expeditious manner. (3) Further, it makes no sense to publish a book prematurely, in the full awareness of the fact that it’s not the best book you could produce.
I’ve heard versions of Coates’s complaint for many years now, and in a certain version, I’ve made it myself. But I think Coates’s particular version of the complaint exhibits what Ayn Rand called the desire for effects without causes. The complaint is that TAS scholars aren’t producing enough scholarship, or aren’t producing it fast enough. Having made this complaint, the complainant fails to ask the following questions: What are the optimal conditions for the production of scholarship? Are they instantiated at TAS? If not, why not? Having failed to ask or answer these questions, he nonetheless persists in making the complaint.
A thought experiment: Imagine an organization with a relatively small staff and relatively small budget. Now suppose that, in response to demands by the organization’s own clientele, its principal decision-makers burden its staff with the task of effectuating several competing projects, some scholarly/academic, some not. And suppose that scholarly/academic work is decidedly not the first priority on the list. Indeed, no one can clearly say what priority it has, mostly because the clientele is itself not sure what priority it ought to have. The clientele wants scholarship/academic work, but it wants other things as well, in no particular order; basically, it wants everything at once. The organization insists, however, on making the production of scholarship one goal among several other competing goals (competing, that is, for labor-time). Along comes a complaint about the insufficient quantity or inadequate quality of the scholarship that the organization’s staff has produced or failed to produce.
Question: Is this complaint really a fair one if the complainant fails to grant that the outcome is a predictable consequence of the organization’s response to consumer demand? Answer: no.
We could, I suppose, challenge the relative passivity of the organization’s response to consumer demand. Perhaps (in a formulation I’ve heard over and over) TAS should be the Howard Roark of Objectivist organizations, flouting the wishes of its own would-be clientele, and “having clients in order to build.” It need not passively respond to what its would-be clients want, but should shape what they ought to want. There’s something right about that, but also something extremely unrealistic—a failure to grasp the distinction between the requirements of fiction and the demands of non-fictional life. The connection between the two is not as direct as many Objectivists think.
Not to belabor the obvious, but The Fountainhead is fiction. In it, Howard Roark does hard time in a rock quarry, meets his future wife there, has sex with her, gets a job offer elsewhere—and quits, leaving the future wife in the lurch for several hundred pages (a plot device which, along with the circumstances of the sex itself, was not intended as dating advice, but is sometimes taken that way). He doesn’t face the prospect of working in a rock quarry for the rest of his life, and you probably couldn’t write a successful novel in which he did.
Now imagine a Byronic Fountainhead in which Roark, Dominique,* Wynand, and Co. are all ultimately destroyed by Toohey, and Roark’s last dilemma (on p. 695, still in the quarry) consists in whether or not to accept a state disability check for the herniated vertebral disc that he’s suffered at the worksite. Would you read it? I don’t think so. (“Howard Roark screamed. The epidural injection had hit a nerve, and the anesthesia had ceased to work. But that was the least of his problems. He wondered how he would pay for all of this medical care. His job at the quarry didn’t come with health insurance, and …” Etc.) Could you bear to watch the movie? Probably not. But could it happen? Sure. In real life, we might applaud Howard Roark’s decision to leave architecture for the quarry, but our judgment would also have to be balanced against the tragedy that would occur if he stayed in the quarry for the rest of his life. I don’t mean, of course, that in a case like that we would counsel the violation of integrity in the name of amoral expediency. I mean that we’d be obliged to conceive of integrity from the outset so that it didn’t in cases like this lead to tragedy. (I’ve used the example of integrity here, but the same basic point applies to lying, theft, etc.)
Before we conclusively offer the “Howard Roark prescription” for TAS, we ought first to consider the economic climate in which it operates and the options it faces. TAS responds relatively passively to consumer demand because it operates in a climate where its rival, ARI, has a monopoly on access to the consumers (mostly because ARI has a monopoly over the name “Ayn Rand,” and can market itself via its access to Rand’s books). Further, TAS needs revenue: without paying consumers, it makes no money, and without money, the organization ceases to exist. A person who really took the “Howard Roark” interpretation seriously—while granting my etiological point about consumer demand—would have to conclude that if the right kind of consumers didn’t exist, TAS should itself cease to exist. He would also have to think that many of its staff should be consigned to work in the equivalent of rock quarries for the rest of their lives. Thus David Kelley, now for various reasons unemployable as a college or university professor—and out of favor among libertarian think-tanks—ought to disestablish TAS, and throw in the towel as a public intellectual. There are (this view continues) plenty of jobs out there; he could become a plumber, a high school English teacher, a middle manager at a medical billing firm, or the owner of a 7-11 (among other things). That’s a possible view to take, but I wonder whether it’s really compatible with the Objectivist conception of the identity of the moral and the practical. It sounds to me more like a Byronic or Quixotic bifurcation of the two.
My aim here is not primarily to defend TAS (I have no official position in the organization, and have just recently started interacting with it after 16 years’ absence), but to insist on the proper application of the principle of causality to the case at hand. I have no problem with complaints about TAS per se. There are criticisms to be made. But complaints and criticisms have to be integrated with the relevant causal and deliberatively relevant facts. From that perspective, shouldn’t part of the “where’s the scholarship?” complaint—in fact, a huge part of the complaint—be laid at the door of TAS’s clientele (or at least some of them)? If they haven’t asked themselves about the conditions under which scholarship or academic work is produced, can they expect it magically to be produced regardless of the existence or non-existence of the relevant conditions? And if they are the reason why the optimal conditions don’t exist, can they justifiably blame TAS staff for not being optimal producers of scholarship…under conditions that are obviously suboptimal for its production? My answers: yes, no, no. But, as usual, make up your own mind.
P.S. I think I owe the “Sistine Chapel” anecdote in my exchange with Coates to Roderick Long, who suggested that I use it when people asked whether my dissertation was “done yet.” It took me twelve years to finish my dissertation, from the acceptance of the proposal to the granting of the degree. The Sistine Chapel line often came in handy, even if my dissertation ended up looking more like a competently painted shed than Michaelangelo’s masterpiece. To borrow a line, “no presumption of stature” was intended by my use of it. I doubt that any was inferred, either.
*I originally wrote “Dagny.” Thanks to Will Thomas for spotting the error.
P.S, May 22, 2013: The Atlas Society’s Director of Programs, Will Thomas, adds this postscript to our discussion:
TAS has launched a new Frank W. Bubb memorial fund for Scholarship. It’s purpose is to fund academic work, research, and scholarships. Contributors interested in work like LSO can contribute to the fund to enable that kind of work.