I originally wrote this post in 2011 when the 2009 financial meltdown was fresh on our minds and the timing also coincided with a resurgence in Ayn Rand’s popularity due mostly to her most popular book, Atlas Shrugged, released as a movie. I think I was also a little more arrogant then, so now I’d say in no way would I ever attempt verbally spar with a brilliant mind like Any Rand’s, but it’s at least fun to take a shot at it!
Ayn Rand’s resurgence in popularity the last few years has mirrored the government’s acquisition of large amounts of debt in ‘saving our country’ from the perils by bailing out the banks. Her popularity previously peaked in the 1950s as a philosopher on moral values as they relate to economic potential.
Wikipedia’s description of Rand says:
“Ayn Rand’s principles of objectivism states that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest, that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in laissez faire capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform man’s widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond emotionally.”
I’ve read two of her most popular books (Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead) which were quite entertaining and convincing in her philosophies. Based on my knowledge from her books and interpretation of the quote above, I think she infers the best system is one where we watch out for ourselves and don’t sacrifice our own self-interest for those of another. In other words, sacrificing our own interest for others (altruism) is bad and will not lead to a more advanced society.
Rand’s views of objectivism are nearly indisputable in a utopia or possibly even a controlled experiment where the wide array of human emotions are limited. However, when it comes to reality, many of her assertions are wrong. Specifically,
1. Altruism (sacrificing our own interest for others) is bad
Altruism is our willingness to put other’s needs before our own. Altruism is crucial to hold our civilization together. Rand argues that altruism is ruining us because it pushes us not to focus on our own rational self-interest. She says it turns us into a welfare and socialist state. However, I argue that without altruism, we would haven’t a state in the first place!
Altruism is important because it builds trust in our society. We must have faith in our fellow man that he will be altruistic and be willing to put others over himself at certain points. This doesn’t mean we must always sacrifice our own needs for other’s needs. Most of our actions will be self-serving either for ourselves or family, but that doesn’t mean all of them should be.
What happens when you know someone won’t sacrifice for you?
The person who always puts their self-interest first will soon reside on an island they mistakenly built through selfishness and lack of trust. There are times in my life when it’s not in my own self-interest to hear a friend’s problems, but if I’m not there for them they’ll find someone else and the friendship will weaken.
2. Faith is bad for us
Next, objectivism rejects faith. Faith is another crucial component of civilization, and I’m not talking only from a religious perspective. We must have faith that our fellow man will not work solely on his self-interests when associating with us. A sales conversion works best when two parties are supporting each other’s mutual interests. If I don’t have faith you’re looking out for me at least partially, I’m not going to buy from you.
Her theory doesn’t take into account that we are emotional beings who are sometimes irrationally driven by our feelings. It’s always going to be that way because only the most enlightened individuals can live beyond that (maybe only monks).
3. Government should only be used to protect our individual rights
Rand also says that the government should only be used as a force to protect our individual rights. At an individual level, this means a police force to protect our rights and at a higher level a government army to protect our country’s rights against other countries. I disagree, because I think the government must have powers outside of simply protecting rights.
One of Rand’s examples is the government shouldn’t take my money away and force me to contribute to roads and infrastructure. She says that in her objective world, the roads would be built by the motivation from someone’s self-interest. For example, a retail complex owner would build a highway straight to his mall to get people to show up.
Theoretically, this sounds okay. However, when you look at what would actually happen, our infrastructure would be a mess. First, we need a central planner to ensure the best highway and road systems are laid out. Next, there would be no reason to maintain roads and highways in poor areas because it wouldn’t feed the self-interest of the person who would have to pay for it.
Rational self-interest will not lead us to the Utopian society that Rand envisions. In a theoretical world it might, but there is a reason being our brother’s keeper has maintained strong civilizations. At some point, most of us need help and can’t rely solely on ourselves to handle every situation.
The great thinker and philosopher Adam Smith explains the importance of a strong national government, not as a monopolistic industry leader, but more for protection and for the facilitation of large public projects. Even if you don’t believe in a strong national government, it’s hard to follow Rand’s oversimplified version of government that only provides protection.
Rational self-interest would lead to a total corporate takeover if the company leader’s values were corrupted – which seems to happen all too often. If not for government regulation, we’d still be working in the Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle, living in an environment full of dangers where humans are sacrificed at the altar of production and leaded fuel and paint become our beverage of choice. We wouldn’t need death panels because a simple lack of an individual’s money would make the ultimate decision if they get the life-saving surgery.
Although I disagree with many of her concepts, as I mentioned in a previous post there’s still a lot of merit in her writing and philosophies. Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead are both really good books that are both enlightening and entertaining. In fact, I do believe in some of her principles and think we’d be in a much better place if we all lived by them. However, as mentioned above, many of these would only work in an utopia.