POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

 

In her interview on The Colbert Report, Rand scholar Jennifer Burns identifies three aspects of Rand’s philosophy that she considers vital for understanding its reception by American conservatives:  rationality, selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism.[1]  While conservatives generally like Rand for the latter two, they generally reject her views on rationalism.  For example, Paul Ryan has said that reading Ayn Rand is what inspired him to get into politics, and he requires his staff to read her fiction.  However, he also says that when he read her philosophy, Objectivism, he “of course” rejected it because of its atheism.  In other words, he, and most American conservatives who claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand, treats these three elements of her philosophy as independent modules, to be swapped in and out at will.  In the case of laissez-faire capitalism, this is not true.  Rand’s defense of capitalism is the conclusion of the rest of her philosophy.  Capitalism is the best economic system because it recognizes, affirms and rewards selfishness.  Systems that seek to repress selfishness ultimately destroy nations that adopt them.  Only capitalism, based on selfish striving, can generate the wealth that would be necessary to improve the lives of others.[2]  Anything else is simply criminal robbery of the rich, generating nothing good.[3]  Ultimately, any system other than pure laissez-faire capitalism is simply a step on the road to Stalinism.[4]  Either the individual is completely free of all controls and regulations, or the individual is a slave.  There is no middle ground.

Rand’s faith in capitalism is logically dependent, therefore, on her positive evaluation of selfishness.  This in turn is dependent on her definition of “selfishness” and its link to rationality.  As she writes:

 

            The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

 

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]

 

 

So it is not just any selfishness, but only rational selfishness that Rand upholds.  Furthermore, that is the basis for her rational capitalism.  The rationally selfish person does not desire to exploit anyone.  The worker does not desire to rob the boss; neither does the boss wish to rob the worker.  The rationally selfish banker does not persuade poor people to take out loans they will not be able to repay, simply to get a bigger bonus; the rational banker explains the terms, risks and benefits of the loan and expects the rational customer to take it or not.  In such a rational world, there would be little need of regulations; the free market and the informed consumer would be enough.  And the rationally selfish person takes personal responsibility, which means he or she doesn’t attempt to shift the costs of his or her errors onto others.  Rand would say that applies, for example, to the old person who didn’t plan adequately for retirement; a rationally selfish person would not want Medicare or Social Security.  It would also apply to the millionaire banker who engaged in foolish or criminal trades; he or she would be liable for the losses to those he or she deceived.

As Burns points out, today’s conservatives like Rand for her defense of selfishness and capitalism; and as Weigel points out, politicians often simply grab snippets of quotes to use without regard to their context or true meaning.  And as I said, sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What happens to selfishness when we take rationality out of the equation?  Quite simply, Objectivism collapses into Nietzschean nihilism.  If selfishness is not based on rationality, then it is based on whim; and that is the essence of Nietzsche’s subjectivism.[6]  And the whims of individuals naturally clash, so instead of the free and orderly market of fair traders Rand envisions, we end up with reciprocal robbery and caveat emptor.  And if you introduce religion into Nietzsche, that simply becomes a tactic in the struggle between wills to subjugate one another.  It is the philosophy of the underman, of the failure.

Most American conservatives would say they are not throwing out rationality; they are only adding religion to Rand’s essentially rational philosophy.  In much the same way, I am not killing you; I am just quickly adding an ounce of lead to your heart.  Religion is not rational; both its detractors and its adherents agree to that.  Rationality is what everyone can observe and agree to; it is the objective, the publicly discernable, the factual.  Rationality is the natural; religion is the supernatural.  When Paul Ryan, or any other politician claims to be defending rational selfishness while also defending belief in God, that politician is asserting the right to be irrational, and to set public policy based on whims, fantasies and/or wishful thinking.  You believe, as Ayn Rand did, that a woman should have control over her own body?  You are wrong; God told me that we men have the responsibility to defend the unborn person, which I know to be a person because God told me.  You believe tax money should not be spent to teach creationism because it isn’t rational?  You are wrong; God has told me that the world was created in a totally supernatural and unverifiable way, and I have every right to demand my particular religious belief be taught in public schools.

A fully rational society, like Rand describes, would probably be a pretty nice place to live.  Government would let you live your own life according to your own morals, instead of trying to impose values on you.  You would not be required to take care of the unborn embryo in your body, or the poor person outside your door; you would have every right to choose to do either.  Sellers of goods and services would not try to cheat you, and would freely take responsibility for their own mistakes; so there would be no need for government inspections of meat packing factories or of stock brokerages.

However, we do not live in this rational utopia, and it is unlikely that we ever shall.  First, it is clear to any unbiased observer that “rational” individuals by Rand’s standards are as rare as warm winter days in Wisconsin.  When people defend the right to be “selfish,” they are rarely if ever defending the right to be rational; more usually, they are defending the right to promote their own self-interests at the expense (or at least disregard) of others.  What for Rand is a principle of social harmony (like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Spinoza’s confidence that rational people’s interests won’t really conflict) becomes, for many of Rand’s self-professed disciples, something more like Callicles’ notion that the superior man should live as a wolf among sheep, using his wits and strength to exploit others at will.  Rand complains that this is a distorted meaning of “selfishness,” foisted on us by the preachers of “altruism” (primarily Christianity).  She admits that her definition of “selfishness” is not the usual one, although she argues that hers is more correct.[7]  In reality, it has more in common with Kant’s definition of autonomy than it does with what we commonly think of as “selfish;” Rand comes close to quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative herself.[8]  But neither Kant nor Rand would have any room for the voice of God overruling natural reason, universal logic and the normal laws of causality.  To be “selfish,” or “self-directed” as Kant would put it, is to trust reason and reason alone, not any outside authority and least of all a supernatural one.  And it is to desire that oneself should be judged by those same standards, and to be willing to condemn oneself if one fails to live up to them.  Very, very few are willing to abide by the strictures of rationality, or even capable of putting their own desires and prejudices aside long enough to try.

Second, since American conservatives continue to let God into the conversation, there is no rational way to resolve conflicts.  The same Bible that is used to justify persecuting homosexuals or banning abortion also denounces  greed and selfishness.  “He who has two shirts must give to him who has none.”  Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures put severe limits on what one can do with one’s own property, in the interest of protecting the poor.  Every Bible passage that can be used to argue that the poor are lazy and/or dishonest can be countered by one that claims the poor are God’s special children, victims of oppression by the rich, and/or unfortunate brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help.  If anything, the number of Bible passages on the liberal end swamps the conservative side, which is why Rand rejected Christianity as an irrational, mystical attack on selfishness for the sake of “altruism” and the self-sacrifice/suicide of the individual.

When politicians claim to be arguing in favor of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, they are generally either self-deceived or lying.  That is a problem because Rand minus rationality is not “Rand Lite;” it is nihilism.  Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the others do not offer us Ayn Rand improved by the blessing of Jesus; they offer us mere subjectivism, irrational whims and the clash of will-to-power with will-to-power, disguised as religious prophecy and moral crusade.  It is no wonder that our politics today consists almost entirely of point-scoring, excoriating Them for doing something We praised last week, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, circular reasoning and every other logical fallacy ever cataloged.  We have to rely on emotional manipulation and subterfuge, when we have lost faith in rationality and facts to lead us to solutions that all or even most can share.


[2] Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York:  Penguin Group USA, Inc. 1964) p. 97

[3] “Collectivized Ethics,” pp. 95-6.

[4] “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 100-101

[5] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34

[6] “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33

[7] “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

[8] “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30

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3 Responses to “POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)”

  1. Heather Says:

    YES YES AND A THOUSAND TIMES YES! In my limited and unauthoritative knowledge of philosophy, even I can see how the cognitive dissonance at the base of contemporary conservative thinking has turned their philosophy in on itself into something that it should not be. Christians voting for conservative values shouldn’t be voting for selfishness, but they are and they are creating a philosophical vacuum where once there was a legitimate defense of conservatism. Now there is merely philosophical paradox. I don’t understand, and I am saddened that so many have been misled, but as you have tangentially shown, this “patchwork philosophy” is also a result of the anxiety in the era, especially in the conservative movement. It seems to me that anything which sounds like it props up their beliefs is thrown into the philosophical stew, without proper vetting or discourse (“smart people” are not a part of this movement, after all). Although one of the most liberal people I know (but not one of the most liberal I’ve ever known), I do at least try to see conservatives’ point of view, and I do think that often times they have legitimate points that need to be listened to. My question though, is can we now take parts of what they are saying as useful, without taking the whole, and will that hold up the philosophical litmus test. Personally, I think that it could, seeing as Rand was one person with one philosophy, but conservatism is millions of people with millions of variants (therein lies the problem with their interpretation of Rand, I suppose). I would hate to be guilty of the same untenable philosophical stew, but I also am religiously bound (I feel) to look for the good in everyone, and thus feel compelled to try to see politics from other view points.

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