Sunday, May 21, 2017

Crimes of Conscience: Antigone and Stealing from the Public Library

The libraries at the University of Texas at Austin shelve 83 volumes by Ayn Rand. Of them, 30 have been stolen. Of those, eight are marked in the catalog as “Missing.” In other words, they left the shelves without being checked out. The others were just not returned by the last borrowers who effectively got away with their crimes.  I identify these facts as evidence of a deeper political problem, first posited 2500 years ago by Sophocles in his drama, Antigone.  More recent, and known well to admirers of the works of Ayn Rand, are the trial scenes from The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  Not so famous, but cutting more deeply into the fabric of law is Ayn Rand’s courtroom drama, Night of January 16th. The question is whether or not you have a duty to obey the law.


It is important to understand, first, that Ayn Rand was opposed to duty.
The meaning of the term “duty” is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest. – “Causality versus Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It?

Obviously, for some admirers of the works of Ayn Rand, the prospect of a free copy of one of her books was stronger than any irrational duty to the public order. However, it is also true that Rand’s dictum above must be placed in its proper context because she was far more eloquent in her condemnation of “looters” and substantially incisive in her praise for their antithesis, the producers.  Moreover, the moral and political aspects of her philosophy of Objectivism were primarily about the positive virtues of production, creation, and active reason, against which are revealed the negative, destructive, and empty actions of the irrational and non-productive.


The essential question here is: “What justifies stealing from the public library?” It leads to a far wider set of questions and actions. I assert that if it is acceptable to steal Atlas Shrugged from the library, then it is acceptable to take a tree from a public park, or a computer from city hall, or the President’s limousine from the White House.  And, ultimately, it would be acceptable to take anything from anyone who accepted any public benefit, whether a social security check, “land bank” payments for not growing crops, sending their children to public schools, or (of course) borrowing books from the public library (and returning them).

Some libertarians claim that it is moral to steal from the library, or any other government entity, because their assets all come from taxation, and taxation is theft. When you steal a library book, you only take back what was yours in the first place. This also applies by extension to stealing back what was yours from any business that benefits from government subsidies, whether General Motors or Tesla, Inc., a local hospital, or the florist whom you spot coming from the library.

Moving right along, for a philosophical Objectivist (or simply an “admirer” of the works of Ayn Rand), such justifications extend to their irrational mystical altruist collectivist neighbors. The theory is that anyone who goes to church or votes for Democrats is fair game, especially when the risks are very low.  Your neighbors who are tax looters or welfare moochers stole from you first; you are just taking back what was yours. If you can get away with it, why not?


Among the many accurate and precise tools of logic that Ayn Rand employed in her expositions was identifying the error of context dropping. In terms of the social consequences of personal morality, it is the error of moral equivalency. It also a powerful tool in Objectivism that moral success begins in metaphysics and epistemology.  So the moral failing of the looter of the library begins with errors in metaphysics and epistemology. Ayn Rand called it “reifying the zero” i.e., attempting to make a “something” out of nothing.  (See “Axiomatic Concepts” in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.) Stealing a copy of Atlas Shrugged from the library is not the moral equivalent of buying one from a bookstore.

The primary concern is not whether the owner of the bookstore sends her children to a government-subsidized daycare center, but where you got the money with which you bought the book.  If you did not buy the book at all, if there was no earned money exchanged, then the failure was yours long antecedent to the gross action of mere acquisition of the book.


It is a perhaps curious fact, revealing the nature of the subject, that generally and historically philosophy is about the individual: you and your place in the universe. Even the weak ones and bad ones attempt some answers to the same question: How do I know what to do? We know many exceptions: Plato’s Republic, the social priesthood of Auguste Comte, Marxism-Leninism, …  But they stand out as exceptions within the 2600-year history of philosophy. Ayn Rand consciously built her philosophy of Objectivism to be the ultimate expression of that discovery: your best experience of your own life.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the heroine was so outraged by the desecration of her brothers’ bodies, whatever their crimes against the city, that she disobeyed the commands of the tyrant Creon, in full acceptance of the consequences. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is prepared to go to prison if fails in his appeal to the creative spirit within each of the jurors.  In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden refuses to hand over his metal and tells the government that he cannot stop their trucks and guns if they come to take it. And he is willing to go to prison rather than to acquiesce in the theft of his property.  In Night of January 16th Karen AndrĂ© has committed or conspired in so many crimes that the play does not even come close to a bill of indictment. She makes no appeal to a higher law or a greater good or a better morality. She does not explain herself at all: no outsider’s opinion is consequential to her.


On the other hand, the hooligan who steals a copy of Atlas Shrugged from the public library makes no public statements, issues no manifesto, and stands not in defiance of authority but slinks away with loot.  It might be informative for a bold privateer to wheel several shelving carts out the door while distributing leaflets condemning the philosophical and economic fallacies of “public goods.” (And when the campus police arrive, he should have a clever cloaking device unless he intends to go to jail for his beliefs.) But that is not the case. Instead, other people whose taxes have paid for goods and services are deprived of the benefit of their bargain by a third party. We call that theft.

"Rand fans" are not the only people given to "crimes of conscience." The Roman republican martyr Cato the Younger (Marcus Porcius Cato, Uticensis) became a symbol for Christians and ultimately republicans of the Enlightenment. But, again, Cato the Younger took his own life rather than submit to Gaius Julius Caesar. It remains that the jihadi who kill themselves while they kill others in suicide attacks claim obedience to a higher law, also. But their actions are not  morally equivalent because the consequences are not morally equivalent.

Do you have a duty to obey the law?
 In the explicit sense identified by Ayn Rand, that a duty is an obligation that supersedes self-interest, you do not. But that begs the question: What is self-interest? Rand devoted herself to answering that question. If you do not understand why productively earning the money with which to buy a book is in your self-interest while the easy pickings of the public library are not, you need to do some reading.  It is a common error in our common education that we want even our “story problems” to be short, when in fact, the most important aspects of living well require more than a slogan to explain.

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