Grégoire Canlorbe is a French intellectual entrepreneur. He currently resides in Paris. He interviewed me for The Foundation for Economic Education. Excerpt below:
Grégoire Canlorbe: According to me, the underlying force that makes Ayn Rand’s heroes so addictive is power. They are in the railroad industry, a 130-year-old business built by the ingenuity and hard work of thousands. But they perceive themselves as the pilots of the entire system, self-made people who are giving society its hidden muscles. They have no clue that they are piloting a legacy and that they owe what they are to the work of a mob of others, not just to themselves. That’s how they are able to deceive themselves into radical individualism. So Rand’s philosophy is about self-deception in the name of raw power and at its heart is Rand’s lust for power over others, over a growing mass of followers.
Power and influence are two human needs deeply intertwined. Metaphorically speaking, we are built as modules in a collective brain, i.e., a collective information-processing machine. Power and influence are two of the most important passions, passions that churn the information exchange of the system into overdrive; or into under-drive if one person takes over and exerts totalitarian power. Ultimately, Ayn Rand was a totalitarian icon, an intellectual Stalin.
What would be your counterattack?
Stephen Hicks: Your question raises two major issues: Who gets credit for what in collaborative enterprises, and what is the nature of power?
Clearly we form social organizations because we think we can achieve more by working together. Sometimes we work together by jointly exerting effort on a single thing — e.g., as when a number of together will lift a heavy log that none of them could lift individually. And sometimes we work together by first dividing of labor into specialties and then, by means of managers who develop systems, coordinating the outputs of those specialties—e.g., any assembly line.
So the individualist will affirm the value of the social, but insist upon two sub-points.
One is that the effort involved is individual. Each individual who helps lift the log must individually commit the effort, as must each individual on the assembly line. And what’s true for simple muscular effort is true for the cognitive effort that is of fundamental importance for human life. Every original thought is an individual one, achieved by individual effort, and even when we learn from each other we have to exert individual effort. There is great value in cognitive networks, but each individual in the network adds value only to the extent that he or she thinks.
My reading of Rand is that she was exquisitely sensitive to this point. Her great heroine, the railroad executive Dagny, reverently acknowledges her debt to her grandfather, Nathaniel, the founder of the railroad, and she expresses appreciation for all of those in the company — line-workers, engineers, office administrators, executive assistants — who help make the incredibly complex railroad system function.
The second sub-point is that not all individuals in a collaborative project add value equally. For example, the individual on the assembly line who has been taught to attach the widget to the framister — he is adding value to the product by doing so efficiently. But he does not add as much value as the person who designed the assembly line in the first place. The person who designed the system could attach widgets to framisters, but often the person who attaches widgets to framisters could not design a system.
Abilities are individualized and unequal, and the value-added of those abilities is also individualized and unequal.
How we measure the differing degrees of value-added and decide who gets how much money, praise, or fame—that is complicated. But that’s what we each try to do when exercising our individual judgments about each other and, more impersonally, what markets try to do in determining salaries and other prices.
Now, about power. Power is essential to human life and comes in many forms: muscular, intellectual, moral, economic, political, and so on. But there is a very clear distinction between:
- Someone with a strong desire for knowledge and wealth — and who insists that individuals should earn their own and exchange with others only by voluntary means — that is, free minds in open discussion and debate and free markets of production and trade; and
- Someone with a strong desire to impose a belief system upon others and to censor conflicting beliefs by means of political power — that is, by the thought police — and who forces others to work on collectivized projects and then confiscates their product — again by means of political power.
That’s the difference between Rand and Stalin.
Here is a PDF of the full interview.