Friday, May 13, 2011

A rambling diatribe on what Ayn Rand got Wrong (and Right)…

I wonder if Ayn Rand ever read, The Man Without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale. I *know* that too many of today’s generations have not. Pity. Folks could at least read the Wikipedia summary… (All those folks out there - If you aren’t familiar with Hale’s story, go read it, or the rest of this post will make little sense.)

Along those lines, Ayn Rand is sometimes misinterpreted to imply that people *should* have no loyalty to anything except themselves. It’s an incorrect conclusion, but it’s easy to see how some might think that is her point. This explains why Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism reached a popular new height in the Me-Generation 1980’s – it fit nicely with the prevalent mood of the times. The Baby Boomers (of which I am one, albeit on the tail-end) are spectacularly good at practicing what they see as desirable aspects of Objectivism, at least up until the point where they have to directly contribute something to the equation personally.

I would like to take a moment to remind anyone that might read this opinion that – IMHO, a person with no loyalty to anything but his/her own pleasure is NOT a noble hero of individualism, but instead represents a pathetic failure as a human being. Now, to be sure, there is more than one way to be a failure as a human being. An easy identifier is a self-centered narcissist blissfully pursuing the power to make others miserable for their own good. This describes way too many folks in the political arena today.

But where Rand didn’t make things particularly clear was that while it *IS* true that "the business of business is profit," such an attitude is not inherently smart, or useful to the country, although it CAN be. The downside is especially true when “business” is granted the rights of a “citizen” but not the attached responsibility. Yes, Rand didn’t exactly promote such a situation either, but to paraphrase her own words, “you cannot disregard reality”. A key point – citizens, as individuals, have another business, besides whatever actions pay their rent: the ultimate business (duty?) of being a Good Citizen is the welfare of the nation.

The definition of "success" for a business may be an increasing stock price, or increased sales...but the definition of success for a citizen has little/nothing to do with stock prices or corporate income (or personal income). A citizen is a success (as a citizen) by making things better. It does not matter how this happens, as long as it does.

A parent who manages to convey to their children the responsibility of citizenship – specifically, that the world doesn’t revolve around them and their petty desires/emotions *and* that life is NOT “fair” *and* will NOT be “a bowl of cherries – has been able to instill the belief system that, Yes, one does owe something to the society that nurtured them. And before you think I have fallen off my Individualism high-horse, there is a clear and distinct difference between contributing to ‘society’ and taking (stealing) resources from one to ‘give’ to another according to YOUR discretion.

The honest shopkeeper, the honest craftsman, the honest teacher, the honest tradesman, the honest truck-driver… are among those who obey the laws and make roads safer by their driving or make neighborhoods safer by their cooperation; those who volunteer for tasks like ambulance work or mentoring kids or working in food pantries, etc., etc., etc. These are concrete, every-day examples of doing what successful citizens do...they are supporting the social and cultural infrastructure that supports them. It sometimes appears that Rand thought those day-to-day issues would simply take care of themselves – but the Real World is more complex.

So exactly what, you might ask, distinguishes the unsuccessful citizen? Some old-fashioned vices: greed, dishonesty, laziness, selfishness, cruelty, anger, resentment, or – in short - refusal to take responsibility for his/her own acts and their consequences. This is not limited to personal accountability, but extends to anything that degrades the resources of the nation. And that includes deliberate actions ,whether intentional or not, which damage the human resources needed for a healthy society. Please note that this does not imply approval of forcing ANY particular actions upon individuals which - in your opinion - are needed to benefit "the planet". Good Citizenship does not require the slavery of mankind in service to 'lesser creatures' or 'the environment'.

When a construction firm uses substandard materials to build a highway or bridge or apartment building...that's being a bad citizen. And no amount of donations to a political candidate, or university, or any collective group, and no matter what your INTENTIONS may have been - nothing can undo the damage done to the fabric of trust that underlies healthy societies...

When a member of the armed forces uses supplies for personal gain; or fails to learn his/her job and carry out his/her duties with dispatch; or does anything that reflects badly on the service… that's damage done to public trust and/or to the reputation of the nation...

When a policeman or jail guard rapes a prisoner...when a judge rules in favor of a corporation in which he owns stock...when a company fires the employees in its own nation and hires cheaper labor elsewhere...that's damage done to the fabric of the nation. And that's being a Bad Citizen.

This nation was founded with an overt appeal to universal rights of mankind – as endowed by their Creator – which begins with Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. (Note that you are not guaranteed by your Creator that you WILL achieve the tangible benefits of these Rights, only that you have an Opportunity to do so.) And be aware that, by design, Rights are *not* created by Man – an important distinction.

The survival of this nation depended, from its very beginning, upon citizens taking Responsibility, not just Liberty, as one of the rights of mankind. It was so obvious, I believe to the Framers, that this principle was left unsaid. Had the signers of the Declaration been as wedded to the concept of personal liberty as the Far Right (e.g. conservatives) are accused of being today, there would have been no successful Revolution against England.

Those brave men, who pledged their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" to the cause, did not want total freedom for themselves. (Such would lead to anarchy.) They did not demand that others bear the burdens so they could ride in a comfortable coach. (Involuntary financial redistribution is self-destructive.)

The Framers, as I see it, were familiar with, and based their concept of citizenship on, an ancient understanding of citizenship: that courage, fortitude, integrity, temperance, sound judgment and other similar traits were all desirable virtues which, if held by all citizens, would knit together a culture that could not only survive, but yield a better country and a better lifestyle for all. They knew enough of human nature to know that no nation – at that time - had yet achieved such a citizenry. That knew it might be unlikely for such a society to always exist indefinitely in future, even with the best of intentions. But they also knew it was a goal worth trying to achieve. They knew it would take a huge sacrifice. First their own personal sacrifice, which they were willing to make, and then (in succeeding generations) more of the same. They knew that risking one's physical life in combat or a dangerous public service is NOT the only sacrifice necessary to make and preserve a sound nation. Any successful society depends on Contributors, not just the Takers.

This was one of the things Rand got Right… a society which elevates those who TAKE, while demonizing those who MAKE, is doomed to Fail. There are those who make the tools and those who use them, those who bear and support and teach and train the young who will carry on the work as adults. Society must benefit all of them – not just those at the top; not just those at the bottom; not just capitalists; not just labor; not just those who skim off a profit from the work of others; not just those with legislative responsibilities and duties…

Yes, a large and complex society needs a complex social and financial structure to support it. But a structure which deliberately (despite the best of Intentions) increases the gap between rich and poor, a society that ignores or devalues the contributions of the poor and middle-class, a society which criminalizes the successes of upper class - is a society that creates bad citizens by its very structure. This is where we find ourselves today.

When a rich man, like Ken Lay of Enron, can claim that he has suffered more than the low-level employees of the company because he's lost more money – when such folks can spend pre-sentencing time at a luxurious home in Aspen with his family, while a poor man will spend his pre-sentencing time in jail: the system is obviously creating bad citizens.

When a person with no visible means of support - who has squandered the opportunities they have had - is legally given a manufactured “Right” to collect and receive financial gains based upon the efforts and hard work of others: the system is creating bad citizens.

When a President's wife publicly announces that she and her husband have suffered more from the war than anyone else and then retire to a cushy central Texas ranch; while brain-injured and amputee vets and their families suffer in ‘different ways’: we have an excellent example of citizenship failure right at the top. When a subsequent President proclaims that he and his followers can do whatever they want to whoever they want, because “we won”: we have a crisis of petty vindictiveness ruling the roost… It’s not about particular parties or ideologies; it’s a problem of attitude. To paraphrase the comic/movie line, “with great power and wealth should come great responsibility and accountability.”

Ayn Rand got quite a few things right… she got some things wrong… and she has some that straddle the fence. For example, “Civilization is … and some that the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” But Rand fails to consider that No Man Is An Island. It's the balance between individual liberty and civic responsibility that is so difficult. And it MUST be an exact balance, for to ignore or favor one side over the other will certainly lead to destruction.

And – IMHO - she’s absolutely correct with, “A government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.” And also, “Government ‘help’ to business is just as disastrous as government persecution… the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.” A bit extreme perhaps, but observed evidence from the Real World supports here position, unfortunately. I suspect this is due to Results, not Intentions of those responsible.

With the real world conflict with Rand’s views, there is a strong tendency to disregard *all* of her philosophy as being “unworkable”. That’s an overstatement: the principles therein haven’t even been tried. There *is* a distinct difference from what Rand proposes and what has been used (and failed) in the Real World. One must admit, she has some good points. But blind adherence to Objectivism is just as wrong as blind acceptance of Collectivism. The key word here is… BLIND.

Rand is correct when stating, “…it only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.” Rand’s solution, “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” doesn’t go far enough, only because it fails to consider the duties and responsibilities of True Citizenship. She does rebound nicely with, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

* * * * *

Whew. That’s all for now: I’ll be posting further along these lines…

- Steve


  1. Very nice post. Lots of things in there to chew over. I'm impressed at how, by being honest, you left yourself vulnerable to some pretty devastating counter-arguments. But since we pride ourselves in searching for common ground, I'm going to do my chewing and see how much of what you have said reflects the political values we share. I think it is a great deal.

  2. This was a hard post to write and even harder to condense... There are many things left unsaid here; fodder for future posts, I suppose.

    It has always been clear you and I share many values/views. But we usually have differences of opinion on the mechanisms of how best to achieve such lofty goals. Such is the purpose of the dialectic...

    And, yes, I recognize what may be seen as vulnerability to counter-arguments. When making them - as I am sure you happen - be careful as you examine what IS or IS NOT a "Right" - Here be (hidden) dragons, my friend.

    Hint: That glorious, wonderful Jeffersonian text reads: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." There are several key phrases in there which *appear* to lead to what some might call vulnerabilities. But if you it read carefully and within the context of wording of the times in which it was first written - there isn't as much wiggle room as one might think.

    Unless, of course, one falls into the trap of trying to re-define the Declaration as a "living document" with a constantly changing, variable and even multiple meanings - all of which change according to the whims of the moment. A dangerous path.

    I look forward to your continuing analysis.

    - Steve