Sunday, August 12, 2007

Objectivism? Aw, Chestnuts

A large number of Libertarian Party members are Objectivists, which for simplicity's sake we'll define as followers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

One of the fundamental principles behind Objectivism is that, given a totally free (read: anarchist) society, all individuals will act on rational and enlightened self-interest. Thus there would be no need for a government agency to protect people from themselves. After all, the fundamental premise of self-interest is keeping peace with your fellow man so that they, in turn, will keep peace with you.

This is horseshit. There is no such thing as either rational or enlightened self-interest- at least not as a universal human trait. In fact, human beings will, on average, choose whatever option brings them the greatest advantage immediately, and to hell with the consequences. Allowed to run to its natural conclusion, we have conditions like Somalia- where murder, looting, rapine, and rule through terror are business as usual.

Of course, there's a less extreme and more interesting example than Somalia- closer to home, too. That example is the fate of the American chestnut.

Once upon a time American chestnuts were common snack food- as witness a certain Christmas song, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." American chestnut wood was a fairly common furniture material, popular for its hardness and grain, similar to oak- only less susceptible to rot and decay. However, since at the turn of the century about 25% of all trees growing on or along the Appalachian Mountain range were chestnuts, the wood was easy to come by, so supply and demand balanced out.

Then, in 1904, a fungal blight began to appear on chestnut trees. The fungus was traced to Asian chestnut trees imported to the greater New York City area. The fungus expanded at a rate of fifty miles per year. There was no cure or effective treatment. Quarantine proved impossible. Destroying the trees and replanting proved ineffective. Before too long it was blatantly obvious that, due to the imported fungus, the native American chestnut was headed to the brink of extinction.

This was by no means the first experience mankind, or even Americans, had with blights. For thousands of years farmers have bred food crops to be blight-resistant. The knowledge was there, present and available. All it took was rational enlightened self-interest to come forward and say, "Wow! One of the most important trees we have is in deep, deep trouble! We need to preserve the ones we have left, see which survive the blight, and begin breeding for resistance, or else we won't have any chestnut trees tomorrow."

But, since there is no such thing as rational enlightened self-interest, that didn't happen.

Instead, greedy short-sighted self-interest said, "Wow! With this blight, chestnut wood is getting really valuable! Quick! We've gotta harvest all the chestnut wood we can lay hands on now before it runs out and rake in the cash!"

And so, instead of conservation, there was an orgy of logging, killing off trees which might have survived otherwise, destroying the genetic secrets that might have produced a blight-resistant American chestnut.

Today, where there were billions of chestnut trees growing wild in the eastern United States, now there are hundreds- possibly less than a hundred. Many of the surviving trees aren't the original trees- they're shoots coming up from the stump of a tree killed by loggers or the blight. Those trees tend to be sterile either due to immaturity (the shoots often get killed by the blight) or stress. Some projects are in the works to finally create a blight-free chestnut, but most of these involve hybrids with the Asian chestnut. Chestnut wood is virtually impossible to obtain, to the extent that even worm-ridden old chestnut furniture brings top dollar. Chestnuts for roasting at Christmastime have to be imported from Europe or Asia. We're reaping the fruits- or rather, reaping the absence of fruits- brought about by unfettered self-interest.

No, government action isn't any better than private inaction. The same morons whose "self-interest" has all but doomed the chestnut tree are elected to government- because those morons are [b]all of us.[/b] Government is necessary, though, to work as a brake- to curb the power of the individual.

You see, concentration of power [b]anywhere[/b] is a bad thing- concentration in a government, in a religion, in a particular individual, or in individuals as a group. Restrictions on power curb the ability of self-interest- which is seldom if ever enlightened or rational- and allow long-term concern and selflessness an opportunity to act instead. Those opportunities are even rarer than long-term concern and selflessness- and they shouldn't be wasted.

In the meantime, you can blame "rational self-interest" for the fact that you will never enjoy Kentucky Fried Dodo. From all reports, it was [b]much[/b] better than chicken.

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