Conservatives have been expressing appreciation lately for the ideas of Ayn Rand. Rand was a second-rate novelist with an axe to grind. Her family had lost everything in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and she purely hated communism. Her mature work (using the word “mature” loosely) is a concerted, conscious attempt to define a personal philosophy that is the antithesis of communism. She called her philosophy objectivism.
Objectivism is a blight. Stripped of its trappings, it amounts to little more than unbridled greed and a license for cruelty. But since it has become somewhat trendy, we might profitably spend a few minutes examining it.
Here is a brief explanation of objectivism, which Rand wrote in 1962 (as quoted on aynrand.org):
- Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
- Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
- The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Let’s look at these points one by one.
The first point would seem, at first glance, unarguable. The physical universe is what it is. But without going overboard in the direction of post-modernism (a territory I try to steer clear of), it seems clear that two reasonable people may disagree about the meaning or importance of a given fact. Let’s suppose, for instance, that you and I are both reading a very long novel — perhaps Atlas Shrugged. You may feel that it’s far too long and dull, while I may be enjoying it so much that I wish it were longer. The central fact (the number of pages in the book) is the same for each of us, but there is no objective standard by which we can judge whether the book is too long, too short, or just right. That would be a subjective judgment. And subjective judgments are not always irrelevant in human affairs, as that example shows.
The second point reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and the human brain. Reason is far from being our only, or even our primary, means of perceiving reality — at least, provided we define “reason” as being a conscious application of logic. If we define “reason” as consisting of anything and everything that happens in a person’s head, then the proposition is true but pointless.
Most perceptions occur (that is, they’re constructed) in the brain well before reason gets a chance to chip in with its two cents’ worth. And once perceptions have occurred, the emotions in almost every case do far more to guide our actions than reason. Not infrequently with regrettable results, but none the less inevitably for that. It’s very difficult, if you think about it for more than 30 seconds, to imagine what a human being would be like who was guided entirely by reason — that is, who was devoid of emotion or whose emotions, if present, never had any influence on behavior. This is not how human beings are made.
The third point ignores the fact that most forms of human happiness are arrived at through human interaction — and not infrequently, through human interaction that takes the form of sacrifice. Consider the parent of a small child. The parent, unless very rich, will quite often need to sacrifice his or her own needs in order to see to the needs of the child. Rand is explicitly telling us that the parent is under no obligation to do anything of the sort. The parent who is guided strictly by objectivist principles is entirely free to let his or her child starve to death if buying food would be inconvenient. Ayn Rand sees no problem with this.
If you think I’m exaggerating, read her point three again. There is no clause in point three that makes an exception for the small and helpless.
Her fourth point may seem sensible at first glance, but only if you’re extremely naive and are unwilling to contemplate the complex realities of human economic behavior. In reality, laissez-faire capitalism leads inevitably to massive and preventable human suffering. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in brief:
There are often imbalances in a free market. If I own the only steel mill in the city, I can charge whatever ruinous price I like for steel. If you want to build an office building or a railway, you will have no choice but to pay the price I demand. I can enrich myself beyond all measure at your expense. You will then, perhaps, pass the cost on to your customers, who will have to choose between riding the train (expensive, as you’ve raised the price of tickets) and buying food for their children. My greed will cause suffering for thousands of people.
If I own a steel mill and I’m hiring workers, and you approach me and apply for work, are we negotiating as equals? Clearly not. Once again, I’m in possession of a scarce resource (employment) and can dictate the terms. If I want to pay all of my employees less in order to make enough profit to buy myself a yacht, how much choice do my employees have? I own the only steel mill in town. If they’re skilled mill workers, they can work for me or not work at all. In order for negotiations over employment to be a bit more fair and balanced, the mill workers will need to form a union. But of course, conservatives hate unions. Why? Because if the workers unite, the capitalists can’t get away with being quite so greedy and cruel.
Rand doesn’t bother to define “criminals,” and this is a slippery point as well. Let’s suppose my steel mill is spewing pollutants into the air from its smokestacks. Let’s suppose that the folks who live downwind from the mill are experiencing unusually high levels of cancer and other ailments. Am I a criminal? Only if laws have been passed defining pollution as a crime. Otherwise, not. And as we all know only too well, the factory owner has enough money to bribe legislators to write weak laws (or repeal existing laws). If charged with violations of pollution laws, the factory owner can hire smart lawyers and keep the case tied up in court for years, while people continue to get sick.
That’s laissez-faire capitalism in action.
We might also wonder about the idea that the government should play no role in regulating the economy. Granted, our own government does a spectacularly bad job of this — but is the principle flawed, or only its execution? Let’s suppose, for example, that a cabal of banks is making dubious loans in an overheated housing market and then selling the loans to other institutions by misrepresenting their worth. Let’s suppose that at some point the system collapses like a house of cards and the value of residential real estate drops precipitously. Suddenly, millions of people are saddled with mortgages that are more than their homes are worth. They begin to default. Banks are suddenly in crisis because they own billions of dollars in bad loans. The pool of capital for financing new business investments dries up. The economy sheds hundreds of thousands or millions of jobs. Millions of people are hurting — there are more homeless, more mothers feeding their children inadequate diets, more people without insurance crowding hospital emergency rooms, and so on.
I know this is a far-fetched scenario. It could never happen in the real world … could it? But if it did ever happen, Ayn Rand’s position is quite clear: It’s none of the government’s business. The government should butt out. No regulation of banks, no stimulus funds to get the economy back on track. If people are starving as a result of economic forces beyond their control, let them eat gravel.
In sum, the fountainhead of objectivism, Rand herself, understood neither human cognitive functioning, nor the nature of happiness, nor the realities of economics, nor the causes of human suffering. She was a bitter, hate-filled woman who peddled a twisted philosophy of greed and cruelty.
And conservatives idolize her. Kinda makes you wonder what’s wrong with them, doesn’t it? Are they just greedy and stupid, or do they secretly relish the knowledge that they’re causing enormous suffering?