Politics is Metaphysics

    I watched Atlas Shrugged last night. Not a great movie. Nevertheless, it was thought-provoking in several ways.

    One might be forgiven for thinking that this movie was about politics. The cameo appearances from political pundits, the focus on government, regulation, and industry, the people who seemed to have supported its creation — all would seem to suggest that this is primarily a piece of political propaganda.

    But it’s not. It’s metaphysical propaganda.

    The core argument of the story — poorly told as it was — is that the essence of mankind is creative work. Further, that creative work can only happen when a person is completely free, and the best way to cultivate creative work is to focus entirely on your own self-interest.

    That last bit is the part I’m most skeptical about, but we’ll come back to that. The main point — that mankind is, in essence, the creative worker — is a metaphysical claim, and all the politics in the story are really peripheral to it.

    It occurs to me that this may be the case with most politics. Most political stories we see are not really about the mechanics of government or the legal system. Most of them are simply proxies for bigger questions that people are already fighting over. And many of these bigger questions ultimately connect up to subjects that border on the metaphysical: Are humans intrinsically good, socialized towards evil? Or are humans intrinsically evil, socialized towards good?

    We’ve fought over these ideas for eons, and are still fighting them today. Only our expressions change.

    I think about this kind of thing when I overhear political arguments that seem overblown or irrelevant to me. I remind myself: these people aren’t fighting about politics, they’re fighting about what it means to be human.

    And given the significance of that subject — to everything from our understanding of the cosmos, to an individual’s ability to get through the workday — I’m not surprised they fight.