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Value Judgments, Ideology, and Writing Editorials

There’s an interesting methodological difference between Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) op-eds and the usual ones you read by non-Objectivists (and boy, there sure are a lot of non-Objectivists around, aren’t there?).

I can best illustrate the difference by a kind of lampoon. Suppose a Congressional leader had proposed taxing people on their IQ’s–with the more intelligent paying a higher rate. Now contrast how an ARI op-ed would sound, vs. one by a regular op-ed writer who also opposes this idea.

The ARI op-ed would go a little something like this …

Senator X’s proposal to tax individuals based on their intelligence is not only an attack on individual rights–it is a direct and outrageous assault on the base of individual rights–and man’s very survival–the rational faculty. The faculty of reason is what separates us from the animals. It is man’s reasoning mind that brought us out of the cave and produced the unparalleled standard of living that the civilized world today enjoys. Human intelligence is the source of all the values that keep us alive–but this is what Senator X would punish with a crushing load of taxation.

Now here is my version of your typical op-ed written in opposition to this proposal.

Taxation schemes offer a wide playground for policy wonks to tinker with fiscal policy in hopes of fine-tuning the American economy or realizing their visions of a better, more just society–visions that inevitably raise some groups’ hackles. In a diverse society such as our is, or aspires to be, it is difficult to find a consensus for any one ethos and its fiscal implementation. Senator X may find it difficult to assemble such a consensus for his advisor’s latest pet notion: a tax on IQ.

Already, the United Taxpayers Association has raised concerns about whether such a proposal would run afoul of the anti-discrimination laws that are on the books, and other groups are determined to fight the proposal, arguing that it will hurt the economy rather than help it, as Senator X has maintained. At this point in time, it is difficult to predict what the long-range effects of so sweeping a re-orientation in tax policy would be. Some observers have suggested that Senator X’s proposal may be nothing more than a cynical public relations ploy, not expected to actually become law. As evidence, they point to the fact that Senator X’s political clout has been waning rapidly since his recent feud with Democratic leadership over ….

The essential that I’m trying to convey with these examples is that the typical op-ed strives mightily to avoid looking like it is partisan. It tries to present itself as “neutral,” merely raising questions of whether or not the proposal will succeed, whether other people (besides the author of the op-ed) think it’s a bad idea, whether there are secret motives behind the proposal, etc.

I diagnose this syndrome as the belief that making a value-judgment renders one non-objective. It is actually wider than value-judgments as such: making any kind of philosophical case brands one, in their minds, as an “ideologue.”

Thus, one has to wade through much verbiage, floating abstractions, and metaphor to find out what the author actually thinks–if anything. The author tries to present himself as “above the fray”–and hence superior to the mere combatants. That is usually combined with the ad Hominem suggestion that secret motives, having to do with power-plays, are at work. This again makes the writer seem superior to the direct combatants, who may not even realize the “hidden agenda” that is at work, supposedly.

This modern trend is not restricted to the left. Viginia Postrel, editor of Reason magazine, is expert at it.

The father of this approach is Kant. He is the one who sold the intellectuals on the idea that personal value-judgments equal subjectivity. And he is the creator of the idea that one’s real motives are hidden from one’s conscious mind: his doctrine of the noumenal self which has the real motives vs. the phenomenal self which has the rationalizations. Plus, of course, Kant’s switch of the objective with the collectively subjective lies behind the idea that reporting on what various groups believe, amounts to objectivity. In a Kantian universe, there is no room for such a thing as making a sound, logical case for a point of view.

The net result, as you have no doubt observed, is the obfuscation of all basic issues. And, as Ayn Rand identified, “When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are *not* clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

This is why Ayn Rand Institute op-eds are crucially important for their clarity, directness, and fundamentality–as well as for the content of the principles they present to the world.

– The above was an email from Harry Binswanger’s List, and is reprinted here by permission. The Harry Binswanger List (HBL) is an email list for Objectivists, moderated by Dr. Binswanger, for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. The HBL is $10 per month or $100 per year; a free one-month trial is available at: http://www.hblist.com/