A Response to Ayn Rand
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
(THE DAVINCI-CHARLOTTESVILLE) - Ayn Rand might be right. But the last chance to find out has been gone for tens of thousands of years, and the next one will hopefully only be in the distant, distant future. Rand, and her philosophy of Objectivism, as I understand it, propose the following: a reevaluation of the morals by which people live, the institution of rational egoism, and the transition to a purely capitalist, laissez-faire economy free of any substantial government involvement.
Rand states that the current morality is that “[Man’s] moral duty is to help others” as a “sacrificial animal”, – a being forced to be concerned with the wellbeing of others. She postulates that the morality by which one should live is to only pursue one’s own happiness; by acting rationally, one maximizes self-interest (rational egoism) and happiness is the end goal and result. Each person must achieve this on their own, without impugning on the freedoms of others; namely, without unselfish aid (“aid for sake of others”) from other people. While she doesn’t state her opinion on the idea of having religion, she makes it pretty clear that the present religions propagate the current morality, and therefore would necessarily be immoral under her philosophy. Rand also proposes that there be a separation of economy and state, in order to bring about a society of laissez-faire capitalism. In such a society, she says, the sole purpose of government is to protect the members of the society from being subjected to an external force.
As long as Objectivism is only a philosophy, we cannot know its empirical validity. And, as I said before, it is thousands of years too late for Objectivism to arise naturally, and the cost of transitioning now would be expensive beyond compare – economically and ethically. For starters, the assumptions Ayn makes for her philosophy – that humans will always act rationally, and, more importantly, that everyone acting in their own self interest will be to the benefit of all – have hardly been substantiated in practice, to say the least. This inherently makes supporting an Objectivist society very difficult.
Secondly, the cost of a transition to such a society would be enormous. Objectivism would mean leaving every person living off a government paycheck, or pension, disability or unemployment benefit, or some form of social security in the lurch. It would spell the end of our America’s military as we know it today (I don’t envision anyone covering the $700 billion bill each year). All the projects that governments undertake – infrastructure, baseline quality regulations, disaster relief – would be left to the altruism of private individuals. I don’t envision a society whose defining principle is fewer altruistic people assembling to ensure an even distribution of those projects and the opportunities they provide. Actually, I think that Ayn Rand more or less stated outright that this wouldn’t happen. The result of Objectivism would be economic natural selection of those who could support themselves against the rigorous optimization process of unregulated capitalism, and a sloughing off of the businesses and people who couldn’t.
Lastly, on a deeper level, I don’t think that under our current conceptions of government we can separate the economy and the state. They are simply too intertwined. The purpose of governments is to regulate power (and specifically to use power to level the playing field), and they arose because humans began to trade and barter goods. Money engenders power, and a system will arise that manipulates that power. While Ayn may be right, that without a government there would be no monopolies or recessions, every economy that has arisen was subject to some degree of government involvement, which gives us very little evidence as to how well a pure capitalist system would fare.
The other important thing to consider is that government, like technology or anything that controls power, is a double-edged sword – it can be used to harm just as much as it can be used to help. With everyone acting to maximize their self-interest, I see no way to avoid a select few beginning to wield that power over the majority of the people. Based on a summary of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s novel, I feel that an Objectivist society would simply be a plutocracy from the onset. Even if an economy without a state was spontaneously created, sooner or later the power vacuum would be filled. Those who replace great leaders have a notorious habit of failing to preserve the empires their predecessors created, and an Objectivist society would be no different.