Dismal Science and Cold Equations

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Many years ago I watched a made-for-TV movie called The Cold Equations. I found it extremely compelling, and apparently I wasn’t alone. It was based on a short story with the same title written by Tom Godwin in the 1950s. In 1970 the Science Fiction Writers of America gave it an award for being one of the best science fiction short stories written before 1965, and it was included in the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

This acclaimed short story is technically simple but morally tough. A young woman named Marilyn stows away aboard a spacecraft headed to a planet where her brother is staying. The ship is ferrying much-needed medicine to a colony of explorers on another continent, who will certainly die if the cargo doesn’t arrive. The pilot, Barton, discovers the stowaway because the ship is slightly too heavy, and no longer has the fuel to survive the journey unless it sheds that weight.

The ship is highly optimized for making rapid journeys, and extremely spartan. There really are no other options. Marilyn must be removed from the ship or else it will crash. This is hard for both her and Barton to accept. She thought she would just need to pay a fine. She had no idea how severe the consequences would be for ignoring all the warnings she had to pass in order to climb aboard.

If you have a soul, this scenario presents a vicious conundrum. Barton tries, but there is nothing he can do. She must go. Marilyn writes a few letters to family, has one last tearful conversation with her brother, accepts her fate, and is ejected from the airlock, leaving Barton to grieve in silence.

For years I’ve had this short story stocked in the back of my mind as a cautionary fable about mother nature’s lack of mercy. How pressing your luck without counting the cost can end up costing you dearly. I didn’t think this story needed defending until I saw Cory Doctorow’s commentary. He protests that everything in the short story seems specifically dialed to force Marilyn’s death. He argues that this is too arbitrary and cruel. It’s true that Godwin’s editor, science fiction luminary John W. Campbell, kept sending the story back until it had the ending it was finally published with. Godwin actually kept dreaming up clever solutions that allowed the characters to survive.

But I don’t think that makes the story as it was published less legitimate, poignant, or constructive. Many of our best stories involve the hero beating the odds using brains and grit, and that’s good. Once in a while, though, I think it’s also good to ponder the fact that sometimes no amount clever heroics will stop the oncoming train. One message of The Cold Equations is that it matters how you handle certain death. Barton would have thrown Marilyn out the airlock without hesitation or regret if she were a grown man, a criminal who had known full well what he was doing. But when he discovers an adolescent girl who made a naïve mistake, he was overwhelmed by a desire to help her. He violates protocol to request help, and gives her every spare moment he can afford so she can come to terms with her impending death, and say her goodbyes.

Doctorow claims that the story is poor science fiction for not including all the safeguards that surely would exist in a world of sprawling interstellar colonies. He says the story’s world is fraught with poor choices in starship design and mission planning in order to create the situation the characters end up in. Maybe it is, but isn’t it true that bad planning can turn the unexpected into a catastrophe? I would disagree that it’s bad planning, because the story exhaustively describes just how razor-thin the margins are out at the frontier. Doctorow says the real world is never so devoid of options, but on that count he’s wrong. For we lucky souls born in the industrialized world, by historical standards we are up to our eyeballs in wealth. Options abound. But for those at the edges, for people far outside the walls of civilization, life itself is a tightrope walk between costly mistakes on one side and capricious chance on the other.

I disagree with Doctorow that the science fiction writer’s job is necessarily to “notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution.” This is a good thing to aspire to, but not every good and useful fable has to serve such a grandiose purpose. I could argue that Godwin fulfills this mission in The Cold Equations. He sees the possibility of starships, anticipates interstellar colonization, and goes on to predict that not even these fantastic technologies will abolish scarcity.

Cory Doctorow’s complaint about The Cold Equations reminds me very much of how opponents of classical liberal economics attack its use of pure reason. Terms like “dismal science” or “bloodless abstractions” get thrown at economics to accuse it of lacking heart, of presuming to file the rough edges off of organic human affairs to fit them into a Procrustean bed of abstract concepts and equations.

Not true! Or at least, this is not so within the Austrian school. (I could go on at length about how the mainstream, Keynesian economists are worse than astrologers and give their profession a bad name) For the Austrian, everything has to do with choice. Human beings try to achieve their ends using scarce means, and the whole body of economic knowledge flows from that axiom. The natural sciences tell us what is physically possible; economics explores the tradeoffs people make within those constraints. Any judgments about the rightness or wrongness of those tradeoffs is the domain of ethics.

In The Cold Equations, we have a situation where the means to achieve a highly desired end (the survival of Marilyn) come at too high a cost. Doctorow claims that the story is calibrated such that Marilyn’s survival is impossible, but that’s not quite right. There is one means available by which both people on the space ship might survive: they could jettison the vaccines, breaking the law and dooming the team of explorers. That they barely consider this option is an important ethical feature of the story. In my view, it isn’t a matter of strict utilitarianism, weighing six lives against one and choosing to save the larger number. It’s a matter of justice, steep as it may be. The explorers had done nothing wrong. Marilyn, on the other hand, was solely responsible for the dire situation. She disobeyed warnings. She broke the law. She trespassed. If the definition of justice is every person getting his or her due, then the outcome of The Cold Equations is just.

Sadly, the world is filled with such harsh realities. The virtue in this story is not just in the characters’ actions, but in the attitude of dignity they both maintained in accepting the demands of justice. Barton refused to be cruel, and mourned her death at the end. Marilyn did not try to eke out a few more hours of life at everyone else’s expense. Within a populous, developed society, alternatives are everywhere. We are surrounded by others who might possibly take mercy on us, even if we authored our own misfortune. But this story happens way out at the edges, away from civilization, almost totally alone, where collective human action is unavailable and the merciless laws of nature dominate. The question one faces in reading this story is: When removed from civilization, would you remain so civilized?

Why We Need a Martian Frontier

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Elon Musk’s lofty goal of colonizing Mars seems hard to achieve and impossible to economically justify. What will those million people do on Mars once they get there? Wouldn’t the Martians be forever dependent on Earth? The Martian surface is a harsher climate than Antarctica, and the handful of human settlements there are nowhere close to self-sustaining. If it weren’t for the curiosity of government science bureaus, no humans would be there at all. So why Mars?

If your frame of reference is centered on Earth, then there’s little for us on Mars. But plant some people there who intend to make a life for themselves, bless them with enough of an initial investment that they can sustain themselves, and the equation changes. Suddenly, everything under that wispy carbon dioxide envelope becomes a potential resource.

Unlike Elon Musk, I’m not much concerned about using Mars as an insurance policy against extinction events on Earth. Those problems seem unlikely and even if they were to happen, the odds of total extinction are mighty low. In my opinion, the human spirit is the single most important reason to go. Not just for how inspiring the project will be, or the joy people will get in surmounting the technical challenges, but for how it will affect the people who go, and the generations who come after them.

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Perspective. You can get it at the frontier.

Some of us just need to get away. In the midst of a large, developed and affluent civilization, it’s easy to take for granted the things that brought us such wealth. It’s even easier to mistake mere luxuries for necessities. This could be why great societies tend to begin in relative deprivation. Their strong character propels them to prominence, but at their peak, avarice and decadence set in. The people forget what was truly important, and so they decline and fall.

Right now, it seems the entire Western world is in the throes of that latter stage. People of different political persuasions will express it in different ways, but they all feel it. Some kind of moral crisis is afoot. Something deep inside us cries out for renewal. Our movies are increasingly filled with superheroes, yet our real-world leaders seem to be getting less super and less heroic all the time.

There may not be an easy way out of this predicament if we remain trapped with each other on one planet. Those who want to opt out of the madness have nowhere to flee. Those who want radical change are forced to struggle against an inescapable and irresistible status quo.

But give them the option of building their vision from scratch out where no man has gone before, and two things happen:

First, the existence of an alternative causes people to weigh the options. Enduring your present conditions can seem intolerable if you’re comparing them to a Nirvana that doesn’t exist. Compare them to living free in a deadly freeze-dried desert you can never come home from, and the calculus changes.

Second, the frontier serves as a stringent proving ground, where good ideas have the room to create immense prosperity, and truly stupid ideas are punished swiftly by nature. According to the journal of William Bradford (entry 163), The settlers at Plymouth tried at first to abolish property and hold all things in common. Very idealistic, but the result was confusion, resentment, idleness, and ultimately starvation for many in the colony. This was Ludwig von Mises’ calculation problem played out in fast-forward. The result came so fast because the colonists had so little to start with. Mars will provide a similar clarity.

Finally, the colonization campaign itself is going to give us a new generation of truly admirable heroes. I was born long after the original space race reached its apex in 1969, but the Apollo astronauts were some of the most interesting men who ever lived. Even though the program was started as a stunt to intimidate the Soviets, it did have the side effect of inspiring Americans with a sense of pride, it gave them heroes in the form of the astronauts and the engineers who sent them. There are heroic figures from sports, business, war and politics, but our pioneers into space press at every limit imposed on us by nature, all at once, bringing the hopes of the entire species with them.

Penn Jillette once wrote about the experience of watching the Space Shuttle launch:

This is a real explosion and it’s controlled and it’s doing nothing but good and it makes your unbuttoned shirt flap around your arms. It’s beyond sound, it’s wind. It’s a man-made hurricane. It’s a baseball bat in the chest. It’s so loud. It’s so loud you can’t even call it loud. You start cheering. You start yelling. You start crying. You are yelling from the depth of your little lizard brain. You’re yelling because stinkin’ animals have done this. You know the alligators are cheering and the birds and the Good Sams and every living thing on the planet is cheering. We’re all cheering together because Earth animals are going into space. You can feel your throat getting raw, but you can’t hear yourself scream because the shuttle is so stinkin’ goddamn loud. The ground shakes and it’s loud. Warfare could be louder, but this is the loudest totally good thing you will ever hear. The loudest good thing you will ever feel.

We need Mars because we need a place for mankind’s best and brightest to shine again. We seem to have lost sight of just how much we’re capable of. A new frontier will reveal it again.

Things Libertarianism Is Not, Part 2: The Cult of Ayn Rand

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There’s no getting around it. Ayn Rand has long served as the punching bag for anti-libertarian polemics. People who see the state as the fount of human cooperation tend to cast their opposition as on the side of “greed,” “hate,” and cold-hearted selfishness. If Ayn Rand isn’t the most frequently-used symbolic anchor for that smear, I don’t know what is.

According to these folks, Ayn Rand authored the modern libertarian movement, and her defining characteristics always come out of a grab-bag of antonyms for camaraderie, compassion, or cooperation.

Ayn Rand is the rebel queen of [libertarians’] icy kingdom, villifying empathy and solidarity.

— David Mascriota, AlterNet

Furthermore, they say, libertarians venerate this titan of misanthropy with a religious fervor. Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. It is holy writ. Their fondness for her literature can only be explained as cultish brainwashing.

Ayn Rand is the patron saint of the libertarian Right. Her writings are quoted in a quasi-religious manner by American reactionaries, cited like Biblical codices that offer profound answers to all of life’s complex problems (namely, just “Free the Market”).

— Ben Norton, Salon

Since we can take for granted that Ayn Rand’s vision for the world is a dystopian hellscape where selling orphans’ kidneys is permissible so long as profit is involved, we can use her name to damn any innovations that threaten our own preconceptions. If an entrepreneurial outfit dares to benefit workers or consumers on their own terms without our permission, well, that’s got to be brutal Ayn Rand worship.

[Uber] is Ayn Rand’s brutal, irrational and primitive philosophy in its purest form: altruism is evil, and self-interest is the only true heroism.

— Richard Eskow, Salon

After all, approving of the counter-intuitive virtues of the marketplace amounts to socioeconomic Darwinism. Libertarians believe, as Ayn Rand surely did, that if you make less money you’re a lesser being.

The core of Ayn Rand’s view, incorporated into many of the policies of Dr. Paul and certain (but not all) Tea Party believers, is that the poor are poor because they are inferior, that workers are jobless because they are inferior.

— Brent Budowski, The Hill

She’s basically a Ferengi.

Ayn Rand in her native garb.

Ayn Rand in her native garb.

Now, I swear I’m not trying to make up a strawman here. I know there are folks out there who disagree with Rand and libertarians both and can coherently describe what they disagree with. I’ve spoken to some of them. But those people don’t conflate the two before damning both as morally bankrupt. For the polemicists I’m talking about today, the argument boils down a chain of three points:

  1. Ayn Rand taught that greed and selfishness were virtues.
  2. Libertarians follow Ayn Rand.
  3. Therefore, libertarians hold that greed and selfishness are virtues.

The followup conclusion, of course, is that this makes libertarians Bad People, so nothing further is required to refute them on whatever the subject at hand might be.

I don’t know why so many writers do this. Maybe they genuinely believe that dumping on Ayn Rand successfully delivers a knockout blow to economic liberalism. Maybe they have read so little about the ideas they attack that this is the only name they know. Maybe something else is going on. Regardless, this argument is just plain wrong.

Ayn Rand did not teach that greed and selfishness were virtues… at least not in the way you’re thinking

Let’s take a look at Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, a book she titled provocatively on purpose. Rather than an apologetic for stomping on corpses for your own gain, it is an attempt to confront the way people think about self-interest.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).

In other words, “selfishness” in common usage carries a morally charged image, but the word as technically defined represents a different, more specific idea: the mere concern for one’s own interests. We should not automatically assign a moral value to that concern without knowing what interests exactly, or how they’re being pursued.

She defines the “ethics of altruism” as an ethics where someone’s actions are judged not on their merits, but on who they supposedly benefited. She argues that this makes for a poor understanding of morality. People give a free pass to atrocities if they were supposedly self-sacrificing, and dismiss someone’s honorable behavior if it was for their own benefit.

Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.

Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. Thefirst thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.

Her point was that pursuing one’s own interests can be virtuous. But that wasn’t all. She argued the corollary is equally true: Being virtuous can be in your own interest!

She sought to put an end to the belief that virtue and the self are always at odds. What incentive does anyone have to be honest, honorable, diligent, or loyal if that always means harming yourself for someone else’s benefit? She wanted to show that the virtues and self-interest are not mutually exclusive. To think that they are actually discourages good living, according to Ayn Rand.

You may hold a different view, but she’s not the monster you were told she was.

Ayn Rand never thought of herself as a libertarian

Ayn Rand despised the movement that took the label “libertarian” back in the 1960s and 70s, with special contempt aimed at the Libertarian Party. Here are some of her own words:

All kinds of people today call themselves “libertarians,” especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies, except that they’re anarchists instead of collectivists. But of course, anarchists are collectivists. Capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet they want to combine capitalism and anarchism. That is worse than anything the New Left has proposed. It’s a mockery of philosophy and ideology. They sling slogans and try to ride on two bandwagons. They want to be hippies, but don’t want to preach collectivism, because those jobs are already taken. But anarchism is a logical outgrowth of the anti-intellectual side of collectivism. I could deal with a Marxist with a greater chance of reaching some kind of understanding, and with much greater respect. The anarchist is the scum of the intellectual world of the left, which has given them up. So the right picks up another leftist discard. That’s the Libertarian movement.

Or how about that time someone asked her why she had such a beef with the libertarians?

Because Libertarians are a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people: they plagiarize my ideas when that fits their purpose, and they denounce me in a more vicious manner than any communist publication, when that fits their purpose. They are lower than any pragmatists, and what they hold against Objectivism is morality. They’d like to have an amoral political program.

To make a long story short, she did not like libertarians very much and considered them wrong in the most fundamental way.

Libertarians don’t (all) think of themselves as Randians

I found that the one who coined “anarcho-capitalism” (which could be considered the radical wing of American libertarianism) was a man by the name of J. Michael Oliver, who started out as an Objectivist. He wrote The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism. I don’t know if he was a hippie but his argument, like that of Robert P. Murphy in Chaos Theory, is that the economics of Objectivists is generally right but needs to be extended into their politics to be logically consistent. That is, we don’t even need the minimal state to provide police and courts. It is possible — even preferable — to build these institutions in the marketplace, instead of a state monopoly. Rand clearly disagreed, but there you have it.

Ayn Rand is not the key figure of modern libertarianism. She insisted on a particular brand of conservative politics and as far as I can tell, never budged. The libertarians on the other hand, were agnostic about the particulars of governing a just society, willing to leave most or all of those decisions and value judgments up to individuals so long as no one was using violence that was not purely defensive.

The title of Founding Libertarian can more accurately be placed on Murray N. Rothbard. Rothbard was a mind-bogglingly prolific philosopher, economist and historian. He is the only one to have written a book on the Panic of 1819, and his history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty, has no rival. In The Ethics of Liberty he talks about human rights, the proper use of force, and many other topics in an attempt to show a coherent and complete libertarian ethics and politics. His essay, Anatomy of the State, describes the libertarian view of the state — which is markedly different from Ayn Rand’s.

Many libertarians enjoy her books and admire her contributions to philosophy, but the relationship was entirely one-way. The High Priestess of Libertarianism she is not.