Then I went to business school to get my MBA, and the first words I heard in class were "the purpose of a business is to make money." We learned that in order to compete and survive in the business world, you must grow more than your rivals—you have to leverage debt as far as your income will allow so you can buy more advantages over others who are trying to steal your customers. We learned that competition was good—it rooted out waste in the system and freed resources for those who could do it better, faster, and cheaper. Cooperation was collusion and it was illegal. If you weren't doing everything you could to maximise profits, you were failing your fiduciary responsibility and you could be held liable for a breach of trust in running a public company. This was the dream world of Ayn Rand's thoughts taken to their fullest extent. And it was all wrong.
You had to take electives with a dozen crunchy granola types to learn about limits to growth and The Ecology of Commerce. You had to seek out indie documentaries about The Corporation to see why its behaviour mimicked those of psychopaths. You had to go visit small, local businesses to find Companies that Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. You had to read about The Jungle of unbridled capitalism at the turn of the 20th century that literally ground immigrants into dust. You had to listen to Joel Salatin talk about how faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper, was a poor food product of our mechanistic, Greco-Roman, western, reductionist, linear, fragmented, compartmentalised, disconnected, democratised, individualised, parts-oriented thought process. And you had to read much more about evolution and biology to see the immense picture of life that truly selfish businessmen are only just a tiny virus within. Once I did all that though, Rand's rational self-interest became the most irrational thing I had heard. Now when I read her thoughts on capitalism and ethics, she sounds like a two year old throwing a temper tantrum. Me, me, me, me!
Businessmen are the one group that distinguishes capitalism and the American way of life from the totalitarian statism that is swallowing the rest of the world. All the other social groups—workers, farmers, professional men, scientists, soldiers—exist under dictatorships, even though they exist in chains, in terror, in misery, and in progressive self-destruction. But there is no such group as businessmen under a dictatorship. Their place is taken by armed thugs: by bureaucrats and commissars. Businessmen are the symbol of a free society—the symbol of America.
America's abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes.
What do you do when a puppy insists on taking food off your plate? You use a physical barrier of some sort to stop its selfish instincts. What must you do with dogs to get them used to playing well with others, learning to read body language, and respecting the wishes of others? You socialise them. Do you give toddlers freedom to take whatever they want? What is one of the main benefits for children with public schooling vs. home schooling? The opportunity to have one's social skills corrected by a group of peers. Is this any different than the way we should treat billionaires or other Ayn-Rand-styled libertarian individualists who selfishly take for themselves to the detriment of societies, ecologies, and future generations? Ayn Rand talks a big game about the importance of "rational self-interest," but how rational is it to advocate a self as if it were an island? It might make no sense to compel cooperation with competitive wolves (and Russian ones at that), but the answer is not to become a lone wolf. Even actual wolves know this. The answer is to stop those mavericks from hurting the pack. Teach them about the African proverb "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Working together is difficult, and it is always tempting to go fast and go alone, but that is a short path. Do the hard work of building consensus and cooperation about the right things to do. Future generations will thank you. As we thank those who have done so before us.
In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgments, convictions, and interests dictate.
Up to a point! When science and reason show a path to be harmful to others, then individuals are not free to follow their judgments or convictions down those paths. We recognise this universally with physical violence. Why do some not recognise it with fiscal, social, or environmental violence? This choice between the self and others is often a difficult one, but we must remain committed to discussing the choice as a specific decision, not as a default answer one way or the other.
Remember also that the smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
When the common good of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals.
Yes! But we are animals. And we do make individual sacrifices for the rational benefit of others over the long-term. Ayn came from a country that literally sacrificed lives, but that isn't the only option available along the continuum of cooperation.
Capitalism has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth. The evidence is incontrovertible. The contrast between West and East Berlin is the latest demonstration, like a laboratory experiment for all to see. Yet those who are loudest in proclaiming their desire to eliminate poverty are loudest in denouncing capitalism. Man’s well-being is not their goal.
The same can now be said of socialism over capitalism. The evidence on all the important metrics shows the Scandinavian, New Zealand, Canadian, and Japanese models all outperform the United States. This is what is now incontrovertible. Will any of Ayn Rand's acolytes follow her emphasis on reason and accept this fact? It's unlikely, since that would fly in the face of their own personal gain. My, how subjective the facts can be for an objectivist. Let's get on with my analysis of Rand and her survival among the fittest philosophers before I turn this diatribe into a John Galt's speech.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982 CE) was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She continues to have a popular following, as well as a growing influence among scholars and academics. Rand’s political ideas have been especially influential among libertarians and conservatives. In 1991, a survey asked Book-of-the-Month club members what the most influential book in the respondent's life was. After the Bible, Rand's Atlas Shrugged was the second most popular choice.
In metaphysics, Rand supported philosophical realism and atheism, and opposed anything she regarded as mysticism or supernaturalism. Rejecting faith as antithetical to reason, Rand rejected organized religion. Yes. Nice to see this surviving among philosophers.
In epistemology, she considered all knowledge to be based on sense perception, the validity of which she considered axiomatic, and reason, which she described as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses.” She rejected all claims of non-perceptual or a priori knowledge, including instinct, intuition, revelation, or any form of just knowing. Yes. Keeping alive this great tradition.
Needs to Adapt
Rand's aesthetics defined art as a "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments.” According to Rand, art allows philosophical concepts to be presented in a concrete form that can be easily grasped, thereby fulfilling a need of human consciousness. As a writer, the art form Rand focused on most closely was literature, where she considered Romanticism to be the approach that most accurately reflected the existence of human free will. She described her own approach to literature as "romantic realism.” A very robust definition of art and description of its purpose. Unfortunately, Rand’s particular metaphysical value judgments were flawed, as we will see below. Also, her view of romanticism that called on artists to inspire the world with only positive examples of mankind removes the half of art that inspires the world through portraits of what it has done wrong. To find the right path in life, we must understand both sides of good and evil, we must be able to motivate ourselves using both attraction and avoidance.
In ethics, Rand argued for rational egoism (rational self-interest), as the guiding moral principle. She said the individual should "exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” She referred to egoism as "the virtue of selfishness" in her book of that title, in which she presented her solution to the is-ought problem by describing a meta-ethical theory that based morality in the needs of "man's survival qua man.” Rand ignores the evolution of the individual within the species, and the evolution of the species within life in general. The is-ought problem is solved by life’s survival qua life. This implies a completely different set of ethics revolving around the long-term balance of competition and cooperation.
Rand's political views, reflected in both her fiction and her theoretical work, emphasize individual rights (including property rights) and laissez-faire capitalism, enforced by a constitutionally limited government. She was a fierce opponent of all forms of collectivism and statism, including fascism, communism, socialism, and the welfare state, and she promoted ethical egoism while rejecting the ethic of altruism. Rand rightly rejected the fascism, communism, and socialism she grew up with. At best, they were corrupt attempts at creating societies where 100% cooperation was the goal. At worst, they were brutal dictatorships murdering and stealing from their citizens for their own selfish benefit. Her confused response of advocating extreme competition and freedom from all state control or social support was running in the right direction but going much too far. The answer is in the middle, balancing cooperation with competition and designing the state, the economy, and society in such a way as to optimize this balance.
She remarked that in the history of philosophy she could only recommend "three A's - Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.” Among the philosophers Rand held in particular disdain was Immanuel Kant, whom she referred to as a "monster" and "the most evil man in history.” Rand was strongly opposed to the view that reason is unable to know reality "as it is in itself," which she ascribed to Kant. She considered her philosophy to be the "exact opposite" of Kant's on "every fundamental issue.” Objectivist philosophers George Walsh and Fred Seddon both argue that Rand misinterpreted Kant. In particular, Walsh argues that both philosophers adhere to many of the same basic positions, and that Rand exaggerated her differences with Kant. Walsh says that for many critics, Rand's writing on Kant is "ignorant and unworthy of discussion.” More evidence of Rand’s lazy reasoning. Aquinas should have been quite an object of scorn for Rand, and she clearly misunderstood Kant. If you want to create an enduring philosophical system, you must do your homework...
Rand started from a rational place, but her experience and education didn't take her rationales far enough. She and her followers have caused much suffering in the world because of this with their callous insistence on policies that drive ever higher income inequalities. Should we cut Rand some slack on this? Her own words would say no.
Pity for the guilty is treason to the innocent.
But even the most guilty were once innocent. Taking a longer term view of any crime, we see the genes and cultures that heavily influenced the criminal, and we can resolve to correct the systemic imbalances that may have led to the eventual harm. This type of pity isn't soft on crime, it's focused on preventing future harm to both victims and perpetrators. A brief biography of Rand's early years in Russia easily explains the longer term reasons why she came to her position.
From a young age, "Rand found school unchallenging, and said she began writing screenplays at the age of eight and novels at the age of ten. At the prestigious Stoiunina Gymnasium, her closest friend was Vladimir Nabokov's younger sister, Olga. The two girls shared an intense interest in politics and would engage in debates: while Nabokova defended constitutional monarchy, Rand supported republican ideals. She was twelve at the time of the February Revolution of 1917, during which she favored Alexander Kerensky over Tsar Nicholas II. The subsequent October Revolution and the rule of the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin disrupted the comfortable life the family had previously enjoyed. Her father’s business was confiscated and the family displaced. They fled to the Crimean Peninsula, which was initially under control of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. After graduating from high school in the Crimea at 16, Rand returned with her family to Petrograd (as Saint Petersburg was renamed at that time), where they faced desperate conditions, on occasion nearly starving. After the Russian Revolution, universities were opened to women, allowing Rand to be in the first group of women to enroll at Petrograd State University, where, at the age of only 16, she began her studies in the department of social pedagogy, majoring in history. Along with many other "bourgeois" students, Rand was purged from the university shortly before graduating. However, after complaints from a group of visiting foreign scientists, many of the purged students were allowed to complete their work and graduate, which Rand did in October 1924. In the fall of 1925, Rand was granted a visa to visit American relatives. She departed on January 17, 1926. When she arrived in New York City on February 19, 1926, she was so impressed with the skyline of Manhattan that she cried what she later called "tears of splendor" and resolved to stay in America."
Is it any wonder she ended up with a hatred and aversion to any form of collectivism? Still, begrudgingly acknowledged some role for others in her life.
I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire.
And likewise, I shall choose those aspects of Ayn Rand that please me—her purpose driven life, her atheism, her attempts to use reason—and walk away from the rest.