Sunday, December 9, 2012

Randian Objectivism: Justification For Selfishness At All Costs Or Legitimate Philosophy?

Many people are at least somewhat familiar with Russian-born author and Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982), or at the very least her two most famous novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, respectively. The former was turned into a two-part movie series recently, but did not fare very well at the box office. Both are very well known, and very criticized, pieces of literature dealing with man's primary nature as being of self-interest that are frequently stifled and stymied by government regulation and "interference." I will not go chapter and verse into Objectivism itself herein, mostly because I trust you as the reader to educate yourself and I do not want to be accused of putting my own slant on the definition. Go ahead, read up for yourself here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand)

To Ayn Rand enthusiasts, the phrase "Who is John Galt?"carries a certain significance and conveys, as Rand did, a certain frustration with meddlesome government regulations, with supposed intrusions into people's lives by the welfare state, or something similar. The notion, postulated by Rand, is that creators create, and that government regulations are naturally directly opposed to such efforts, and seek only to capture them and exploit them to feed the machine of collectivism and statism. A man's invention is not his to sell, market or profit from; nay, it belongs to society itself and will be managed by the government for the enrichment of everyone. The notion that gave birth to the plot of Atlas Shrugged was fairly simple: Rand thought, what if all these "prime movers," the wealthy businessmen, the inventors of widgets, the creative folks of the world that just want profit from their ideas, all "went on strike" and held back their talents from the rest of us? What kind of world would result from this? The novel itself seeks to explore and answer this question. Its dystopian, Depression Era-like setting and Gilded Age robber baron type characters seem to convey a certain bloodlessness on both sides of society's spectrum are all meant to convey Rand's central notion: leave the creators and inventors of products alone to profit from their creation with impunity, lest society itself crumble.

Obviously, especially today in light of a new financial collapse and a predictable era of austerity, "fiscal cliffs," and ballooning debt in America and Europe, notions like Rand's are once again front and center as the debate over government's role in our lives rages on. Those who seek to simply slash the debt correctly point out that the US federal government is simply doing too much and has become a Leviathan that simply takes in large amounts of revenue and debt, and pushes out a disproportionate amount of that same money in public programs, bureaucracy and defense spending, among others. They say this is a reason to slash and burn, although some have left defense spending off the table. The other side is just as predictable, calling for higher taxes and less deductions. Feed the beast, as it were.

You know what I think though? The debate, as it is being framed in the US Congress and the media, is a complete and total crock of shit that misses what I see as the central problem entirely. The central problem is that, in light of most wealth in the country being controlled by a smaller and smaller minority of the country's population, what we're seeing is the super-rich interests and fiefdoms, with their lobbyist cronies that by and large are former members of the government who have jumped over to the private sector leading the charge, concentrating their power and making sure that government, above all, is there to let them continue accumulating wealth and power with impunity. Why are we discussing slashing social programs with a record number of people starving or in poverty in the US, when the government still sends out billions in subsidies to big agriculture consortiums like Monsanto, or billions to oil and natural gas companies that are already rolling around in record profits, or billions more to big defense contractors or big pharma? Have you noticed that neitherside seems particularly interested in slashing defense all that much, or even cancelling gigantic wastes of money like the F-35 program that has missed so many deadlines and cost ceilings that it passed "boondoggle" status over a decade ago? Why is it that subsidies to giant corporate interests are never on the table when talk of slashing budgets comes up? Ask yourself that and then ask yourself why five or six large corporations control all of the media we consume in this country. One question begs another and so on.

What does this have to do with Randian philosophy, you ask? The truth is, the sort of world Rand envisioned is very contextual and it would behoove people who espouse her philosophies today to remember the sort of world that existed at the time she wrote her novels and came up with her philosophies of Objectivism. The facts of today are simple: people do not need to contribute anything unique to "society" or create something useful to become stupidly rich and powerful. Being rich and powerful, today, does not mean the person in question is smart, unique, clever or innovative in any way. With the proliferation of internet-based day trading and the evolution of the modern Wall Street Casino, people can now simply exploit a simple mathematic algorithm and make millions with a few clicks of a mouse. The collapse of 2008 should show us without a doubt that fake wealth created by mathematic wonks who know how to exploit a bloated profit machine holds no inherent value, and just because some of these jerks knew when to bail out before the house of cards collapsed does not make them modern-day "John Galts." The point is, there are so manyrich people these days, people that were simply lucky to have gotten into and then out of an upward economic trend at the right times, that the very notion of rich=smart or rich=innovative is as antiquated as hand-cranked record players or the Pony Express. Simply put, our world of today is not the world Rand knew, and in my opinion that should change many of her notions when they are applied to modern society.

Objectivism, in my view, is primarily a "fuck you, got mine" philosophy that completely ignores things like economic inequalities, racism and oppression of minorities, biased law enforcement and prison policy, and unequal access to education. It relies on a "just world fallacy" that simply assumes that each person, regardless of race or economic class, is born into this world with an exact equal chance at success, with an equal upbringing with the same exact access to all the tools a successful person might use to become successful. It, in my opinion, ignores many key questions, some of which were discussed in a recent Malcom Gladwell book called Outliers. Ask yourself this: would Bill Gates have been the richest man in America if he were not born and raised in Seattle? What if he never went to the Lakeside private school, or what if he had not been able to get so many programming hours under his belt at the exact right time to apply them to his later innovations? The book explores many of these questions, and how "luck of the draw" had just as much to do with a certain person's success as skills, talent and hard work did. Can one exist without the other? Rand says yes. Gladwell, for one, says no.  Simply put, the opportunity to be successful, in some people's cases, was placed right in front of them, ready for the taking.  Does it make them smart that they took the chances they were given or does it simply make them lucky, or both?  These are the central questions behind the notion of "You didn't build that."

Let us also look at the issue of race and success. "But Joe," you might say, "plenty of African Americans are successful and for Christ's sake, the President is black!" True. But these are the lucky few and are not indicative of an overall trend. The numbers do not lie and the numbers say that African Americans and Latinos, to name two groups, are marginalized, segregated, disproportionately imprisoned, disproportionately policed, and basically locked into a cycle of poverty and crime that is nearly impossible to escape. The schools that serve these groups are broken and are intentionally left to rot, and in many cases are simply turned into "school to prison pipelines" that feed the private prison industry. No, seriously, it'strue. Is it simply the fault of someone raised under such circumstances when they do not somehow become rich and successful as adults later in life? Did they simply not work hard enough? Or were they simply products of their environment, just as children of rich and successful people are products of theirs? Ask yourself: how did Tagg Romney, for one, establish his own successful investment firm? Could it be his massive trust fund and his super-rich father staking him at the beginning? Maybe.

In closing, I just want to point out that while I am obviously not a Randian, I am also not a complete Communist either. I do believe in people working hard, on people earning their own living if they are physically able to and have the means to, and I do not believe in a government that does much more than it absolutely has to. However, for me that "has to" list includes giving everyone in this country tax-funded healthcare at no direct cost to all citizens of this country per the French model, includes giving aid to those physically or mentally unable to care for themselves, includes helping those who are demonstrably and chronically poor better their situation and care for themselves, etc. It includes programs to ensure no child goes hungry in this country. It includes a military that can defend against aggressors but not one so large it makes the US look like an empire across the globe for the sole purpose of enriching Raytheon and Halliburton as it does now. It includes funding education in a way that is equal and gives kids the tools they need to succeed. It even includes a healthy and vibrant space program that helps the cause of education along by giving kids something to aspire to and work towards. It would not include giant subsidies to big agriculture, big pharma, big oil or big anything else. You believe in the free market? Stop sending your lobbyists to Washington to have them pick winners and losers.

We have problems, but having a government that does nothing, to me, does nothing to solve any of these problems. Rand had it all wrong, and acknowledging that humans have a predisposition towards selfish hedonism does not mean we need to encourage such behaviors in society at large. We should want to do better.



  1. I take that concept of unequal opportunities WAY further than you do. Much like the modern rich you say owe a lot to luck or having been born into opportunity; most of the industrialists and robber-barons of the 19th century also were given their initial opportunities by inherited wealth and nepotism. However, this problem was not created by some mythical past paradigm of free markets and individualism, but by past forms of collectivism such as theocracy, Feudalism, and Mercantilism. A more monopolistic collectivism in the form of the mega-State makes this problem worse, not better, for 2 reasons. First, just like religion and other earlier forms, it is expected to bring peace, prosperity and equality; but really ends up co-opted by the powerful and manipulative to create imaginary wealth, for-profit war, and ever-greater inequality - EXACTLY the things you spend the latter half of your post bitching about. The second is that such a system stifles creativity and the incentive to produce; not by means of handouts and mooching, but because that co-optation and fake wealth-creation it enables makes it unprofitable to do anything actually beneficial and productive. The government eventually steps into productive roles when co-optation has completely destroyed the market's capacity to address them - but this is inefficient and opens the door to co-optation in more domains as well as some free-loading, but the free-loading isn't the central problem. Such a system is unsustainable and eventually collapses on itself, exactly as we're witnessing. You have yet to offer any sort of viable means of addressing these intractable problems that you concede exist. All you have are your emotional convictions that human nature "should" be different - convictions that are thoroughly inconsequential and will not change it.

    NOW HERE'S THE KICKER - NOT A WORD OF THAT FALLS BACK ON RAND. My influences are economists Ludvig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbart, Thomas Sowell; political scientists Victor Magagna, David Mares, Chris Den Hartog, John Keegan; psychologists Abraham Maslow, Stanley Milgram, Carl Rogers. I've held my views based on THEIR work long before I was ever introduced to Rand. When I read her - I found we do agree on a lot, but she articulates it poorly and her fiction is god-awful. Bash Rand all you want, but stop convincing yourself that makes a counter-argument to all those scientists. You're thrashing the shitty writing style of a kooky philosopher, nothing more.

  2. I want to be clear that I was not attacking you personally with this post, merely criticising an ideology. You seemed in your reply to think I pointed my post directly at you and that's not the case. I merely wanted to point out the unrealistic nature of many of Rand's ideas. --Joe