Drawbacks to Objectivism as public policy

Published by marco on

The interview Obama and the Road Ahead by Douglas Brinkley (Rolling Stone) is generally softball and sycophantic. It wouldn’t be worth of noting except that it included a supposed broadside by Barack Obama against Ayn Rand. As usual, those with their panties in a bunch cited it completely out of context. This is a shame, because the broader point is more interesting. It’s not like Obama just slammed Ayn Rand for the hell of it; he actual gave a relatively good justification for why it’s a bad idea to put pure objectivists in charge of public policy.

Here’s the question, as posed.

“What do you think Paul Ryan’s obsession with [Ayn Rand’s] work would mean if he were vice president?”

As you can see, Brinkley is 100% in Obama’s camp, designating Ryan’s self-proclaimed adherence to objectivist principles as “an obsession”. The first thing Obama does is to diplomatically deflect the part of the question where he’s asked to interpret Ryan’s beliefs.

“Well, you’d have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him.”

Obama does, however, go on to express his own opinion of Objectivism.

“Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a “you’re on your own” society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.”

This is a pretty objective answer (pardon the pun) and one that I’m sure many people could stand behind. The philosophy is quite primitive, especially as presented by Ayn Rand, who spent thousands of pages shoehorning her egotistical philosophy into every possible life situation. The most painful parts are the literally hundreds of pages of musing on how all altruism can be stripped out of love and transmogrified to an expression of egotism. Even ignoring all of the parts that are patently ridiculous, the parts about the giants of industry being plagued by moochers also glosses over a lot of detail in order to make her case more cut-and-dried than it really is. It’s all pretty ham-handed.

Obama went on to explain that the Republican party of today has changed considerably from the party that it once was—and that it still tries to claim to be.

“[…] You look at Abraham Lincoln: He very much believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. […] But he also understood that there’s some things we do better together. That we make investments in our infrastructure and railroads and canals and land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, because that provides us all with an opportunity to fulfill our potential, and we’ll all be better off as a consequence. […] That view of life – as one in which we’re all connected, as opposed to all isolated and looking out only for ourselves – that’s a view that has made America great […]”

This is not an opinion that should raise any hackles. If Mitt Romney gave exactly this answer—to be honest, he probably has, at one time or another—no-one in the Republican party would think twice in gushing their undying support for a leader with such a measured vision.

So what’s the big deal? Obama’s opinion of Ayn Rand is the kind of measured opinion one should have. She is lauded and heralded by people who’ve really only ever read her thesis—and no others. And let’s be honest: most of those proudly waving their objectivist flags never in a million years made it through any of her books. And certainly not the John Galt speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged. Not without nodding off several dozen times. I warrant most simply take it on faith that her books are good and leave it at that.

If she’s the only philosopher you’ve ever read and understood, then your world-view will naturally be a bit lopsided. I’ve read three of her books: Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (listed in order or publication and I read them in the reverse order, actually), but it was quite a long time ago. I was quite a fan at the time I read them and devoured them. I can remember them relatively well, and, in fairness, detractors tend to misrepresent the plot and characters of the books—especially Atlas Shrugged.

The typical description of Objectivism is as follows:

The Lunatics Who Made a Religion Out of Greed and Wrecked the Economy by Matt Taibbi (AlterNet)

“On the other side of the debate were the people who argued Goldman wasn’t guilty of anything except being “too smart” and really, really good at making money. This side of the argument was based almost entirely on the Randian belief system, under which the leaders of Goldman Sachs appear not as the cheap swindlers they look like to me, but idealized heroes, the saviors of society.

“In the Randian ethos, called Objectivism, the only real morality is self-interest, and society is divided into groups who are efficiently self-interested (i.e. the rich) and the “parasites” and “moochers” who wish to take their earnings through taxes, which are an unjust use of force in Randian politics.”

This is a description of how current Randians—the people I referred to above who have likely not even read her books—think Objectivism applies to the 21st-century U.S. It is a fair characterization of that quite-pervasive attitude but not a fair description of the books. Even a cursory reading of Atlas Shrugged must surely reveal the loathing and contempt that Rand had for the faux-industrialists like Dagny Taggart’s brother, James. This means that those who champion all the rich as Hank-Reardon–like heroes are utterly deluded. In fact, proponents of the novels who actually understood them should be shouting for prosecution of the financial industry from every mountaintop. A pure financier and private-equity guy like Mitt Romney is a James Taggart much more than he is a Roark, a Reardon or a Galt.

My enchantment with Rand wore off after a few years of trying to solve every problem in the world with the hammer of Objectivism. I was helped by a few patient friends in this regard and I am grateful to them for it. For a so-called philosophy that claims rationality as its basis, its proponents and arguments are remarkably resistant to facts and reality. Many of its proponents are also deeply offended because, after they’ve spent all of this time slogging through Rand’s enormous volumes—finally applying themselves to learning something—they are extremely loath to question it and throw it all over board simply because it doesn’t apply to any kind of life worth living. That would mean that they had wasted their time, in their view. This is, of course, not true in any sense of the word for those who understand that learning and understanding involves many cul de sacs.

That is, I believe, what Obama is saying. He slipped and forgot that he is running for President in a deeply anti-intellectual country, the inhabitants of which do not realize that Rand’s egoistic fairy-tales are just that—and nothing more. They are no more a plan for society than The Lord of the Rings.


#1 − John Galt caused the shutdown


From Who is responsible for the US shutdown? The same idiots responsible for the 2008 meltdown by Slavoj Žižek (The Guardian)

“[…] sales of her opus Atlas Shrugged exploded. According to some reports, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged – the creative capitalists themselves going on strike – is coming to pass in the form of a populist right. However, this misreads the situation: what is effectively taking place today is almost the exact opposite. Most of the bailout money is going precisely to the Randian “titans”, the bankers who failed in their “creative” schemes and thereby brought about the financial meltdown. It is not the “creative geniuses” who are now helping ordinary people, it is the ordinary people who are helping the failed “creative geniuses”. (Emphasis added.)

“John Galt, the central character in Atlas Shrugged, is not named until near the end of the novel. Before his identity is revealed, the question is repeatedly asked, “Who is John Galt”. Now we know precisely who he is: John Galt is the idiot responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown, and for the ongoing federal government shutdown in the US.”