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A VIEW FROM THE PROGRESSIVE SIDE: Ayn Rand's Despised "Altruism" Is Essential to Building a NATION of "Producers."

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The CliffsNotes summary highlights the moral hazards of Marxist theory as Rand represents them in the employee's account.   The summary largely recapitulates the employee's own words.   But it adds this synopsis of a central idea in Rand's thought that is worth keeping in mind:   "Man's life on earth is made possible by virtue of his productivity, not his suffering.   Justice and the ability to live successfully require that productive ability be the standard of determining a man's income, not his needs or pain."  

Ayn Rand's Views: a Progressive Critique.

The dramatic function of John Galt's radio speech in Atlas Shrugged is to call for a strike by the world's "producers," in order to demonstrate their indispensability to the "parasites" who live off their bounty, and to persuade them that the producers will continue in their leadership role only if they are left entirely free to pursue their own personal and commercial interests.  

In addition to its dramatic function, however, the speech also encapsulates a broad spectrum of Ayn Rand's thought, presented loosely in three sections.   These include a discussion of the moral foundations of personal happiness and economic prosperity; analysis of a perceived moral darkness -- the presumption of unearned entitlement -- that threatens economic prosperity; and a discussion of the ideals by which economic prosperity can be achieved and sustained.   In the following pages, I will summarize (in bold face) my understanding of Rand's positions in each of these areas, and offer a "progressive" critique that is, in one instance in particular, surprisingly sympathetic to at least the spirit of her views.   

I have summarized the main points of the Galt/Rand speech with the help of a highly instructive outline developed by David Kelley of The Atlas Society.   It can be found in full at

The Moral Foundations of Human Happiness and Their Connection with Productive Creativity and Economic Success.

Rand's views, as interpreted from the words of John Galt in the first segment of his speech:

The conscious "mind" is to humans what "instinct" is to animals.   Human individuals can therefore only realize their life potential through the use of the mind and its powers of reason.   Any constraints on the free use of the mind result effectively in moral death.  

For Rand, the exercise of reason is only reliable when it operates exclusively on the mind's objective sense perceptions, which capture the true fact-based reality of the world; subjective impressions, by contrast, are always misleading.   It is sense-based reason that leads the individual to the pursuit of rational self-interest, the proper end of which is fair exchange in "trade" with other people.   In seeking this trade, the individual first determines from a true perception of reality what it is he (or she) can best do in the world and how his (or her) particular abilities might be realized in products or services that other people are willing to buy.   Based on this knowledge, the individual creates things or provides services that give meaning to his (or her) life, produce material well-being, and result in earned self-esteem and the emotional happiness that derives from it.   Coincident to these ends, the individual's enterprise also provides jobs for other people and helps advance human possibilities for a higher quality of life.  

Those who live a life based on reason, purpose, achievement, and self-esteem become the natural leaders, or "producers," of the world, and the only ones deserving of "happiness," since they are motivated by the positive impulse of an authentic response to life and provide added value to the world.   Such people are also easily recognized, since their efforts to live an authentic life can only be sustained by constant fidelity to the supporting virtues of rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.  

The Response of a Political Progressive:

Most political progressives, I would think, will find unobjectionable Rand's insistence that the moral integrity of the individual person, founded in his (or her) mind and expressed in the world by the pursuit of rational self-interest, provides a basis for both personal happiness and a functional and prosperous society.   The formula also has inspirational weight as a peculiarly American standard, sounding very Jeffersonian and reflective of the Declaration of Independence.  

There is one point, however, on which my own "progressive" instincts cause me to backtrack.   It is Rand's understanding of the "mind" and the "rational self-interest" that is derived from it.   I will argue that this is the essential point on which the views of most politically progressive thinkers will diverge from hers (and Paul Ryan's).   

For Rand, the mind is the source of human individuality and the life course proper to it, since its reasoning faculty makes possible a true comprehension of reality and the way one fits into it.   This is because that faculty operates on the mental stock one accumulates from sense perceptions of the things and phenomena in the outside world.   For Rand, such "objective" perceptions are the only source of reality.   Subjective feelings that rise to consciousness from the inside of the individual are viewed as distortions of reality.   Rational motivation always follows the mind, never the heart.  

It follows, from Rand's point of view, that the life course to be pursued by an individual in accord with his (or her) "rational self-interest" will be decided entirely by calculation.   For instance, a young person choosing a career path in college might reflect:   "From what I know about myself, I think I'm well suited to scientific work.   My best bet for a career might be something like pharmacological research.   There's a big market for this, since people are always looking for the next wonder drug.   That means lots of exciting challenges, and potentially big payoffs, too."  

Mitt Romney went through just such Rand-like calculations of self-interest before accepting the leadership of Bain Capital, according to a report published by the Huffington Post the day after Romney's convention acceptance speech.   Entitled "Bain Capital Takes Center Stage at Republican Convention," the report includes an excerpt from The Real Romney, a book written by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. The excerpt relates to the authors' interview with Bain & Co. founder Bill Bain, who asked Romney to head Bain Capital. 

In that interview, Bain discloses that Romney was apparently anything but inspired to take on this challenge, which offered an opportunity to test his abilities to do big things.   He put forward a series of misgivings about the professional and financial risks involved, and it was only after each one had been fully accommodated that he was willing to say yes. (See entire article at _n_1844946.html.)   

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Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, Bob has continued his work as a (more...)

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The thinking of Ayn Rand is known to have once bee... by Robert Anschuetz on Thursday, Sep 20, 2012 at 5:55:07 PM
This is  a regressive critique of Ayn Rand an... by Raj Kumar on Friday, Sep 28, 2012 at 2:35:03 AM
buying and watching the DVD "Atlas Shrugged." The ... by Gentry L Rowsey on Friday, Sep 21, 2012 at 9:56:25 AM
Thank you , Robert, for an interesting analysis.&n... by June Genis on Friday, Sep 21, 2012 at 11:50:52 AM
It may be true "the world doesn't owe us a living"... by David McElroy on Friday, Sep 21, 2012 at 12:49:35 PM
and it takes militaristic social policies to induc... by Gentry L Rowsey on Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012 at 2:31:16 PM
Ayn Rand's philosophy advocates the supremacy of i... by Raj Kumar on Friday, Sep 28, 2012 at 2:23:37 AM
This article makes no sense and betrays a complete... by Raj Kumar on Friday, Sep 28, 2012 at 2:04:14 AM
Like most other commentators, this columnist has c... by Raj Kumar on Friday, Sep 28, 2012 at 2:14:05 AM