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Thursday, February 7, 2013

3 Lessons from Ayn Rand...?

There is an opinion piece over at Fox about how wonderful Ayn Rand is on this, her birthday.

Before I point out the difficulties with these "3 crucial lessons," I want to say a few things about my own views.

First of all, I hate large, intrusive governments. I think that the very first level of government is one's own governing of oneself. I like a free-enterprise economic system, which is not precisely the same thing as capitalism. And if capitalism gets chagrined at people who oppose it, it has to face the reality that it does, in fact, give opponents something important to oppose.

Secondly, just because of the things I just said, that does not mean I thereby embrace the diametrically opposite extreme. Error is found on both extremes. If communism is evil, that does not mean that unbridled capitalism is good.

Now, onto some of the difficulties with the article at Fox.

The author says:
As she explained in 1961, the businessman is the great liberator who, in the short span of a century and a half, has released men from bondage to their physical needs, has released them from the terrible drudgery of an eighteen-hour workday of manual labor for their barest subsistence, has released them from famines, from pestilences, from the stagnant hopelessness and terror in which most of mankind had lived in all the pre-capitalist centuries.
Wait a minute. If we're not working 18-hour days, us and our kids with us, it isn't due to those wonderful businessmen. Unfortunately, it IS largely due to governmental intervention and labor unions. Now, having said that, I am no fan of labor unions insofar as they overstep their purposes for just wages and working conditions, and use coercion to get unfairly favorable wages and so on. Nor am I a fan of overly burdensome regulations and restrictions. On the other hand, these entities exist precisely because BUSINESSMEN were very, shall we say, reluctant to provide cushy, 7-hr workdays in safe workplaces with wages high enough to let our kids continue in school through high school. 

I grant that it is business that proves doing so can be nonetheless profitable - but don't you think those profits are way less than they could be with 18-hr workdays for cruddy wages and and all that? Of course they are. And businesses just "gave" us cushy jobs out of the goodness of their hearts, because they could? I don't think so.

Furthermore, a lot of those advances, which came from science, were invented or developed by people with a good mind for science who didn't give a whit about business. I grant that these inventions were brought to market by businessmen and the world is definitely a better place in the ways named on account of it. But businessmen ALONE, as BUSINESSMEN, would be hard-pressed to make such a difference. Left on their own, without a good scientist or altruistic (an evil word in the world of Rand) inventor to help, we get cheesy, rip-offs. I'll give you an example. Why does a new printer cost like $50, with all its electronics and features and abilities and components, and a new batch of ink comprising less than a teaspoon of each color that you can't use in any other device cost $65? Don't you ever wonder why the amount of ink you get is not mentioned on the package? You'd be PISSED, that's why. If you buy the printer, you need THEIR ink. Yeah, yeah, yeah, without businessmen, I wouldn't be printing at all for $115, I get that. I really do. But what am I supposed to do, be STUPID? Roll over, like the liberals want us to do? In true Ayn Rand fashion, I vote my money, and unless a name-brand business proves their VALUE for my dollar, I buy generic.

The authors go on to talk about the value of the profit motive. I basically agree, but with some nuance. The profit motive is ideally tempered by a desire also to treat people well. Profit motive alone, while it can do the good things the author mentions, also can make businessmen into heartless exploiters who do not wish to pay fair wages or take on the added cost of making better products. Now, there is the role of competition in all this, and I get that. But if business wants to minimize intrusive regulations, then it has to regulate itself, not through rules, but through virtue, through the habitual disposition to do what is right. If the profit motive is the highest "good" and "right" in business - and not the safety and happiness of employees and the satisfaction and safety of customers because they're all HUMANS who have a RELATIONSHIP with the business - then these other goods take a back seat. These other goods, instead, ought to be primary, with profit taking a back seat. This does NOT mean that businesses should lose money - hey, I LIKE the idea that businesses generate wealth, I GET IT - but what's missing here is the human experience that WEALTH as a DRIVER drives people to harming others in order to get it. First, be a good human being towards others, and then make your profit in that context. Ayn Rand's selfishness-as-virtue is just the flip side of communism and just as bad.

The third lesson is "run from anyone trumpeting the 'Public Good'". Hmmm. Well, run from me then. Oh, and let me run from Ayn Rand. LIBERTY is an highly important COMMON GOOD, and the authors' arguments defend liberty, and capitalism, and the profit motive precisely as common goods, whether  they realize that's what they're doing or not. But this is how you know they're missing the mark. 

Their basic points are true insofar as they reflect the fact that liberals have basically hijacked the notion of the common good. But Ayn Rand is wrong. We are not merely a bunch of individuals, and society is not a mere abstraction. We are conceived and born and raised in RELATIONS. We cannot exist without them. Relations are real. We need them. "I" need my neighbors to be "doing well," whatever that means. For one, I "LIKE" them. For another, "I" benefit from it. For a third, there are some things we need to pull together on. It was a labor union - Solidarity - that beat communism in Poland. This is why we need at least some government. Why we need a police department, for instance, and a defense department. If it is true the notion of the common good has been hijacked by people who abuse the term, is it the "common good" that we should run from, or those who have hijacked and abused it? Point out the abuse and reclaim the notion of the common good - for the common good! Indeed, if conservatives are ever to get the upper hand, that is something they must do. 

Anyway, I used to like Ayn Rand. When I was 20. When I first voted for a presidential candidate and voted for Reagan. Haven't voted for a Democrat, EVER. 

But by the time I was oh, 21 or 22, I realized her philosophy is simply defective. It is the equal and opposite extreme, and therefore an equal and opposite error, to liberalism.

Insofar as we are dominated - lorded over - by liberalism, I understand the reaction that compels some people to embrace Ayn Rand. And if we have to lean towards one error or the other, I would lean towards the error of Ayn Rand.

But why do we have to lean towards error at all?

Happy Birthday, Ayn Rand. I will say this in her favor: Her characterizations of the communists who take over everything in Atlas Shrugged is spot-on. But her characterization of the capitalists.... right out of her fantasies, them.

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