The Night Watchman

A Small Beacon in the Night of Unreason
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Objectivists against George Reisman

I find it embarrassing – even painful – to have to defend George Reisman against unjust attacks – particularly when those attacks come from Objectivists. But, in the name of justice, I sometimes have to do it.

Diana Hsieh of NoodleFood fame is running some sort of intermittent campaign against George Reisman, the gist of which is that Reisman is a "rationalist" – i.e. he deduces in a vacuum and is oblivious of context. What are her arguments? Let me look at them. First, from her blog post Fraud or Not?:

Over the past few years, I've heard various Objectivist scholars complain of the heavy rationalism of George Reisman's work.

This is obviously an argument ad verecundiam; it is merely an appeal to the authority of "various (unnamed) Objectivist scholars". But I would say that those "various Objectivist scholars" are in dire need of rationalizations for the way they have treated George Reisman. What better rationalization then than branding him a "rationalist"?

Her second and more substantial argument is that Reisman is a rationalist because he opposes "fractional reserve banking" and wants to ultimately see it outlawed. Well, so do I. So if this makes Reisman a rationalist, it also makes me a rationalist. (My views on this subject you can read in my essay Objectivism and "Austrian" Economics – compatible or not?, so I won’t repeat them here. Scandinavian readers might also consult my essay Varför "fractional reserve banking" bör förbjudas.)

But we must also ask ourselves what is entailed in branding someone a "rationalist". It means that his/her reasoning is somehow detached from reality – it consists of "floating abstractions". But then, if you make such an accusation, you also have to point out exactly where his/her reasoning departs from reality. No attempt to do this has been made with regard to Reisman.

But the thing that triggered Diana Hsieh (and others) seems to be Reisman’s Amazon review of Ayn Rand Answers: The best of Her Q&A (also published on his own blog). I regard this as the least important point, but since it seems to have become a center pin of the attacks on Reisman, let me look at it in some detail.

First, this is what Robert Mayhew wrote in his introduction to Ayn Rand Answers:

I should mention, however, that some (but not much) of my editing aimed to clarify wording that, if left unaltered, might be taken to imply a viewpoint that she explicitly rejected in her written words.

To condense Reisman’s objections to this: "Who is Robert Mayhew to change Ayn Rand’s wordings? Does he understand Ayn Rand’s views better than herself?"

Actually, a mountain has been made out of a mole-hill here. Robert Mayhew has later clarified what sort of editing he wrote about here. Diana Hsieh reports:

When I asked Robert Mayhew about his editing, he told me that he changed the meaning a grand total of about six times -- all and only in cases in which it was very, very clear that Ayn Rand had omitted a word in the course of extemporaneous speaking. To take a hypothetical example, she accidentally said "emotions are tools of cognition" rather than "emotions are not tools of cognition."

In other words: Mayhew’s editing consisted in correcting a few slips of the tongue and/or transcription errors.

But then, why bother to even mention it in the introduction? Or, if mentioned, why not specify that this was the nature of this editing?

Now, George Reisman is being accused of "dropping the context", because he did not take this into account in his criticism. But look: the precondition of dropping a context is that this context is actually known. If you don’t know a context (and nobody cares to inform you about this context), you cannot possibly drop it.

Another quote from Diana Hsieh:

I'm aware of Dr. Reisman's accomplishments in economics, and I respect him for them.

How nice.

Moreover, I cannot think well of him for his longstanding association with the vile Ayn-Rand-hating anarchists of the (terribly mis-named) Von Mises Institute.1

Much as I detest "anarcho-capitalists", and much I detest people who fight against intellectual property rights, I must say that the Mises Institute with regard to Reisman is better than "official Objectivism". They show him some minimal respect and give him some minimal justice. "Official Objectivism" refuses to even mention the existence of his magnum opus, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, much less acknowledge it as the major achievement it really is. (On the other hand, they have no qualms about inviting Brian Simpson to lecture at Objectivist conferences, although Simpson has clearly stated that he is a disciple and admirer of George Reisman.)

But what is the underlying premise here? If it is no longer OK for George Reisman to address Objectivists, it is not OK for him to address anyone at all? Should he just shut up for the rest of his life?

Isn’t it enough that George Reisman and anybody who has the courage to stand up for him have been driven out into the desert? Should we also be forbidden to look for oases?

An even more threadbare argument was made by Adam Reed:

Some of Ayn Rand's marginalia on von Mises are directed to Reisman, and they show that Reisman's difficulties with her epistemology go back a long way. […] I've always had qualms about Reisman's epistemology.

Those marginalia consist of some critical comments on Mises Human Action, pertaining mainly to Mises "philosophical framework". They are critical of Mises and of his epistemology. How can the fact that some of them were directed to George Reisman possibly be construed to mean that Reisman had "difficulties with [Ayn Rand’s] epistemology"? It should be obvious how extremely threadbare this argument actually is.

We don’t even know which of the marginalia were addressed specifically to George Reisman. To quote Mayhew (in a footnote):

A few of Ayn Rand’s marginal comments in Human Action were addressed to the economist and student of Ludwig von Mises, George Reisman. In most cases her comments stand on their own, and the references to Dr. Reisman have been omitted. In this case, however, the comment is not intelligible without it.

And this was the marginal comment that we know was addressed to Reisman:

Mises: The imaginary constructions of praxeology can never be confronted with any experience of things external and can never be appraised from the point of view of such experience. Their function is to serve man in a scrutiny which cannot rely upon his senses.

Rand: George! What other proof do you need? If it weren’t for you, I would drop, then and there, any book containing that sentence.

Obviously, this does not say, much less prove, a single thing about the state of George Reisman’s epistemology or his alleged "difficulties" with Objectivist epistemology. Mr. Reed is engaging in pure speculation.

(An even more threadbare argument has been made by a former friend of mine, who says that George Reisman is motivated by "vanity". (Scandinavian readers: see here and here.) If this is not psychologizing, then what is? At the same time, this former friend often expresses agreement with and even admiration for Reisman as an economist. Scandinavian readers: see here.)

I know this is repetitive, but there are some issues that are blithely ignored (or, in some cases, evaded) by every Objectivist who takes a stand against Reisman:

Well, I could go on and on…

In all fairness, I should say that Diana Hsieh isn’t always this bad. For example, I agree with the criticisms she has leveled against David Kelley and Nathaniel Branden.

But should anyone wonder why I don’t take this up on NoodleFood: Diana Hsieh has forbidden me to ever comment on NoodleFood. This was because of a different issue: I made a couple of critical comments about Michael Huemer. But then, if Michael Huemer (a person who criticizes Objectivism on the basis of complete misrepresentations of it) ranks higher in Diana Hiseh’s hierarchy of values than George Reisman or me – then so be it.

1) Yes, the "Ludwig von Mises Institute" should be renamed the "Murray Rothbard Institute". And the "Ayn Rand Institute" should be renamed the "Leonard Peikoff Institute".

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