Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Triumph of Ethics over Practicality: A Tale of Two Cities

My title this month—the triumph of ethics over practicality—is sarcastic because I believe, as Ayn Rand taught, that the moral is the practical. My reference is to the continued unquestioned acceptance and dominance of altruism as the equivalent of ethics. And just as unquestioned, the premise that self-interest is bad.

The two cities are Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. About a year ago, a month apart, both were hit with devastating tornadoes. A year later Joplin is thriving, largely revived and rebuilt. Tuscaloosa, on the other hand, still has undemolished ruins, vacant lots, and businesses awaiting permit approvals to rebuild.

This is an old story, of course: West vs. East Germany, South vs. North Korea, the US vs. the USSR. Why is the lesson never learned that capitalism works and socialism—central planning of any kind, including urban planning—does not? The answer once again is ethics, especially the primacy of altruism.

The pursuit of profit, the alleged reasoning goes, especially in an emergency situation such as the aftermath of a tornado, is unconscionably selfish and self-evidently harmful. This requires careful thought and planning by experts who know what is best for the public, those poor distraught victims. “It is our duty to serve,” the urban planners and other do-gooding bureaucrats rush in to say, “and serve we will.”

To be more explicit, the reasoning continues, egoism is evil and self-sacrifice is noble, the public servant being the most noble of all. All work and effort is expended for the sake of others, often at great personal sacrifice. This largesse is manifested, as Ayn Rand scathingly pointed out, in “the most wasteful, useless and meaningless activity of all: the building of public monuments” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 89). Monument builders in return expect gratitude and prestige from their constituents, a form of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

The public monument of these two cities is Tuscaloosa, a “showpiece,” as the city’s recovery plan states, of  “state-of-the-art urban planning,” with “unique neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable,” anchored by “village centers”—and unfinished, one year later. The Tuscaloosa plan, however, the Wall Street Journal comments, “never mentions protecting property rights.” It’s the monument that counts, the “state-of-the-art” plan.

That is because a public monument is always presented as “a munificent gift to the victims whose forced labor or extorted money had paid for it,” (Virtue, p. 89). In the case of Tuscaloosa the “forced labor and extorted money” was taxation, construction moratoria, and restrictions and regulations that increased the cost of doing business by thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rights were irrelevant.

Joplin, on the other hand, took the free market route by suspending licensing and zoning regulations and allowing home and business owners to make their own decisions as to when and how they were going to rebuild. No monuments were built in Joplin.

What underlies the monument building mentality, whether it was construction of the pyramids in ancient Egypt or a military arch in the local park, is a theory of human nature. Egoism assumes that human beings are capable, resilient, self-directing and self-controlling. Altruism assumes that we are weak, inept, and in need of leadership from the more knowing and competent others, a ruling elite. It is not surprising then that a self-responsibility theory of human nature underlies egoism and capitalism. A theory of dependence underlies altruism and socialism in all of its variants. It is what underlies the theory of external control psychology.

The monument builder is the one who vocally preaches self-sacrifice and in the end collects the sacrifices. The monument builder is a public servant who thinks of him- or herself as doing very important work. Practicality is irrelevant. Ethics—the ethics of altruism—is paramount. Thus, monument building becomes self-congratulatory but it often lacks external praise, as from one’s constituents who might not always see the builder’s work as “very important” or appreciate the builder’s “sacrifices” that have been made.

The need to build more monuments becomes significant. More “forced labor and extorted money”—in today’s parlance, increased taxes, more regulations, and elaborate public works programs—become required.

The monument building mentality quite simply is that of a dictator.

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