I would like to respond to a recent comment by The Write Wing, posted underneath his article, “A Tale of Two Republicans”. I have decided to write this as a separate article, because I think that this comment, as well as the ideology that it touts, describe one of the most fundamental philosophical divisions of our time. Many people, regardless of party affiliation, routinely use the logic underlying this comment to justify a variety of policies and platforms without considering the basic social effects of its ideology. I think that unless this division is resolved, violence and imperialism will continue to reign as legitimate methods of action. With that said, here is the comment by The Write Wing:
“I am an objectivist. Atlas Shrugged is my favorite book. This is what I believe. Self-sufficiency is what get people out of the bed every day to go to work and produce something. Too much redistribution causes laziness.”
Objectivism is a totalizing philosophy of human existence composed by the literary giant Ayn Rand. Rand did not approve of the history of philosophy and thus endeavored to create, from the ground up, a new understanding of reality. This new view of reality centered around an “Objectivist epistemology” and the moral/ethical framework of “rational self-interest.” Given these insights, which I will detail below, Rand concluded that unfettered free-market capitalism is the only moral system of political, economic, and social structure. I think that there are glaring errors and misjudgments in both the “Objectivist epistemology” and the morality of “rational self-interest” that make any understanding of free-market capitalism as panacea completely defunct. To understand why Objectivism is such a critically flawed system, we must logically detail Rand’s argument and understand how each part feeds into the next.
A Brief History of Objectivism
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What knowledge is, how human beings construct it, and what constitutes legitimate knowledge compose perhaps the greatest and longest running philosophical dialogue in history. Plato, Kant, Hume, Berkeley, Foucault, Derrida – indeed, anyone deserving of the title philosopher over the last two millennia – have all weighed in on the questions of epistemology. Rand’s primary epistemological contention was that there is an objective order to reality apart from our consciousness. As such, there is truth about the universe that we inhabit, but it is obscured to us by the complications of perception. What we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch confuse us into believing, what Rand called, “illusions”, or misconceptions about reality. These misconceptions occur because the mind/consciousness/ego exists apart from the reality that it attempts to know.
People can, however, overcome these “illusions” by unquestionably embracing “reason”. With a focused mind, you can, according to Rand, know all of the Objective Truth of the universe through entirely “rational” thought. For Rand, the purpose of existence is not to think about philosophy, to build a government or community, or to have peace and stability. Instead, the only goal is an individual one – to unravel the mysteries of perception to receive the Objective Truth. Whatever you need to do to achieve that, for that is true happiness in Rand’s eyes, is considered “rational self-interest.” For Rand, therefore, there is no such thing as altruism – the helping of an other for his/her sake and not your own. There is only the realization that by helping them you are helping yourself to receive the Truth. Rand would argue that environmental destruction should be solved by the realization of people that it is in their own rational self-interest to stop others from creating CO2, because you can’t learn about truth when the oceans eat your city.
With this understanding of rational self-interest, Rand left the world of epistemology and entered the world of political thought. Rand believed very strongly that the only system of governance that could ensure this paradigm of rational self-interest was unfettered free-market, or laissez-faire, capitalism. In other words, the only system of governance that could permit her “rational self-interest” to exist is free-market capitalism. (This is extremely important, because it highlights precisely what all of this free-market capitalism is enabling.) She thought that by leaving governmental or legal regulation out of the political, economic, and social picture, people could finally be free to discover the Objective Truth through reasoned thought. Indeed, most people know of Objectivism because of its strong defense of free-market capitalism. It is critical to note, however, that Objectivism is a very different animal that just an advocacy of free markets.
The Moral and Economic Disaster of Objectivism
Rand’s literary flow can be alluring at times – who wouldn’t want to ensure that everyone can receive the Objective Truth? That being said, here are what I consider to be the biggest problems with Rand’s ideas.
(1) Objectivism’s belief in “Objective Knowledge” i.e. Truth is otherizing and violent, because it privileges Knowledge over Being.
There is no access point to transhistorical, transcendent truth. The Jews claim they had this access point through Moses, the Christians claim they had it through Jesus, the Muslims claim they had it through Mohammed, and the Objectivists claim they had it through Rand. Just because someone wrote a text saying that something is unequivocally true does not make it unequivocally true. Rand attempts to argue, like all of the monotheistic religions she attempts to destroy, that there is “Objective Truth” in the universe, like her unquestioned acceptance of free-market capitalism. No, there is not – there is only knowledge through time; otherwise known as history. Knowledge is always relative to society: its language, its culture, its everything. What was truth in Alexandrian Egypt is not necessarily truth in contemporary New York. This position is known as epistemological relativism and it holds that all knowledge is socially constructed. I am strongly inclined to agree. You may disagree, but that proves my point about ideology claiming access to truth. We can all disagree about the fundamental nature of everything and that should be okay. Objectivism, to the contrary, like all proselytizing faiths and belief structures, says that this is not okay. There is Truth and you can know it and the Way and the Light is Capitalism. These kinds of totalizing statements, while engaging in ideological exactitude, promote the intolerance and violence that result in real world suffering. People first, ideology second. As the Dalai Lama says, the best religion is also the simplest: practice kindness.
The inherent violence of the ideology of Objectivism a.k.a. any privileged Truth-claim comes about because it privileges knowledge above being. What you know, as an Objectivist, is more important than what you are. What they know, as an Objectivist, is more important than what they are. When this kind of identity-politicking occurs, it almost inevitably result in violence, because the Other person becomes a threat to your knowledge-claim (See: All structured religion, ever.) This is what Rand simply does not realize – if two people are Objectivists and they have two competing knowledge claims, they have the “rational self-interest” to eradicate each other’s idea by eradicating each other. Rand ties this all to happiness, but that is bullshit. Happiness, like knowledge, is entirely relative. I am perfectly happy not endorsing free-market capitalism, but my knowledge-claim is a threat to the Objective Truth of Objectivism. Therefore, in order to “ensure individual rights”, my knowledge-claim should be destroyed with “reason”. But reason led me to my claim as well, not just Rand’s. That’s the funny thing about “reason” and “rationality” – they are tools for our minds like a paintbrush is a tool for an artist. We may both have paintbrushes, but that doesn’t mean we are going to paint the same painting. Telling another person that their artwork is “wrong” is essentially what Objectivism is asking you to do. By the way, does this sound familiar? It should. Think President of the United States from 2000 to 2008.
(2) People are not rational most of the time; therefore, a device created to rely on rational self-interest is not a good governing principle.
A variety of “behavioral economics” literature has become very popular recently, most notably the book “Freakonomics”. I find the field of behavioral economics pretty amusing, because it acts under the guise of free-market capitalism while simultaneously rejecting everything it stands for. Let me explain. The primary assumption of free-market capitalism is that people act rationally in a self-interested way to secure their desires. Empirically, however, this is clearly not the case. People do not know what is best for them most of the time, and sometimes when they do, they still act differently. This is not “Freakonomics” – this is society. Economists are finally realizing that “the invisible hand of the market” is just as stupid as any human institution. There are tons of market-failures, but most notable are the tragedy of the commons and greed/Lehman Brothers. The tragedy of the commons, a situation in which a common area becomes destroyed through use by all and care by none, describes the atmosphere, the oceans, rivers, and pretty much anything else that can’t be easily monetized. If you can’t invest in it, free-market capitalism cannot save it. Free-market capitalists would respond in favor of privatizing the ocean and the air. That would fail as well and its simple to understand why. There are people who don’t give a shit about being rationally self-interested, they’re just self-interested. Those people make free-market capitalism not work. There have to be protections for the commons that go beyond the market and into the world of law. Yes, regulation is always better than unfettered markets, because the law at least recognizes that “rational self-interest” is a fallacy and a myth.
(3) Altruism is Real
This one is probably the worst, but it in many ways feeds on the claims of otherization and violence from Problem #1. Rand straight up denies that altruism exists. WHAT? I promise you that when I give a homeless person a sandwich, that in no way whatsoever helps me. Rand would say that it helps my self-esteem and my community, but that’s not always the case. What about Doctor Mudd, who assisted John Wilkes Booth? That was neither helpful for him or his community, but an act in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath – an altruistic document. It all ties back into Rand’s privileging of knowledge over being. For Rand, even though you can help someone substantively, that is trumped by the fact I “cheated” and felt good about it. That argument demonstrates a poor understanding of causality and there are millions of examples to the contrary. If the markets cannot factor in either the supply of or demand for altruism, it has no hope as a governance mechanism.
Some Concluding Remarks
The effects of the free-market are certainly up for debate and I’m not going to claim to know everything about capitalism. There are an infinite number of forms for capitalism to take on – we all need to use money – and whatever you want to call the version that is substantively best for everyone, that is what I endorse. That being said, I wanted to make it clear that Objectivism is to Capitalism what any Monotheism is to God. It isn’t an argument, it’s a religion. Rand, Greenspan, and their various disciples were/are extremists and look where it has gotten us. The me-first thinking of Rand is echoing everywhere in our society, from foreign policy to economics. Reagan started the deregulation program, Bush finished it – and who can say that Ayn Rand isn’t just a little bit to blame.