Ayn Rand herself concedes that the pursuit of rational self-interest is entirely "selfish." The individual pursuing it seeks gains that benefit him (or her), not anyone else. This "selfishness," however, Rand argues, can in fact generate a wider scope of benefit. If everyone were to correctly assess, and then purposefully pursue, his (or her) own self-interest as an individual in society, the result would be a system of "trade," of free exchange of value, in which everyone could be successful and respectful of everyone else.
I think one can reasonably ask, however: "Even if it is granted that it is only by reasoned calculation that I can choose a career in the world that best supports my self-interest, what is it that impels me in the first place to use the powers of my mind for that purpose? Since those powers originate in sense perceptions, might I not just as well take any job that comes along and direct my mental powers not to purposeful reasoning, but to an appreciation of the beauty around me and the pleasures of the flesh?" In Camus's early novel The Stranger, his protagonist, "Meursault," memorably does just this.
My own sense is -- and it may be a common sense among political progressives -- that some non-mental, or sub-conscious, power in the human psyche is necessary to turn one's conscious mind, and its reasoning faculty, to the specific task of defining a life course that can make the most of one's best abilities. I think I've actually experienced such a power myself. It seems to me an instinct, and therefore a drive natural to all humans, that urges the individual to give constructive expression to his (or her) inborn creative talents and capacity for insight.
Though no reference to any such instinct will be found in the work of Ayn Rand, it may be that just such a force first moved her to assess the possibilities of the monumental life challenge she would later accept: that of propagating through her writing ideas in which she tenaciously believed, but which she must have known would have little currency in an America comfortable with the values of the New Deal. Ironically, that same instinct may have moved the personally privileged Franklin Roosevelt, as President, to disregard the values of his own social class and promote government policies that, in a dramatic reversal from the past, were designed to help meet the material needs of masses of ordinary people. I find it hard to believe that mere rational calculations of self-interest and available opportunities to achieve it could have motivated such original undertakings.
The notion of a power in the human psyche that drives the individual to seek ways to fulfill his (or her) own inborn capacities in the world is by no means a new one. It is implicit in Plato's myth of Er, which concludes the last book of The Republic. In recent times, it became a focal point in the intriguing work of the American psychologist James Hillman. In his seminal book, The Soul's Code (1997), Hillman dubbed this power, after its ancient Greek origins, the "Daemon." The concept was critical to his elaboration of "the acorn theory" -- the idea that every human being is born with a seed of potential that has a natural urge for fruition, regardless of the environment in which it grows.
In what follows, I'll adopt Hillman's descriptive and convenient term to signify the human instinct I've referenced here: the power that moves the individual to seek to translate inborn creative talents and capacity for insight into productive achievement in the world. It seems to me that this "daemon" is behind the work of all creative and pioneering leaders. They would include the very inventors, artists, and businessmen whom Rand's protagonist John Galt encourages to "go on strike" in order to demonstrate that, together, they constitute the indispensable "Motor of the World" -- a title playing off his own invention of the "World Motor."
Assuming that the daemon is in fact a life-building instinct in every human psyche, separate from the ego-based "mind" and conscious will, I think it is at the root of two essential differences between the views of political progressives and those of Ayn Rand.
The first difference involves Rand's conviction that an individual's pursuit of a career based on rational calculations of self-interest ends necessarily by adding positive value to the world. This is because Rand assumes, in line with present-day Republican orthodoxy, that all producers recognize the consequences of a failure to produce value for trade: They will lose out in the marketplace and be forced out of their business or profession.
It seems self-evident, however, that, in the real world, career choices made rationally in the individual's own self-interest can also lead to outcomes that, while favorable for the individual, are adverse to the interests of society. This was of course vividly demonstrated in the financial crash of 2008, brought on by analytical wizards on Wall Street who had achieved extraordinary financial success for many years by deceptive practices they knew posed heavy risks both to immediate customers and the economy as a whole. Moreover, following the crash, those who were most responsible for it -- those who by conscious manipulation had destroyed, not produced, value for their customers --were not only not thrown out of the game, but instead given the same generous bonuses they would have received as a reward for positive outcomes.
This is where the power of the daemon makes a difference. In contrast to the purely rational, and thus ego-based, pursuit of self-interest, which can produce negative as well as positive outcomes, a life course driven by the instinctual power of the daemon leads necessarily to positive ends. This is because, as an impersonal force of nature resident in the human psyche, it moves the individual, in its own interest, to creative achievement that has positive value for the common good.
The daemon is the driving force behind writers, artists, research scientists, inventors, physicians, space explorers, and baseball heroes. It can inspire both an Ayn Rand who warns against the threat to individual freedom posed by an expansive and activist government, and a Martin Luther King, Jr., an exponent of non-violence, who, in the interest of human justice, put his life at risk to bring change that would force people to treat others decently, if they weren't willing to do so on their own.
The power of the daemon is of course most evident in heroes who risk everything to help achieve an outcome they believe to be of great moral value. But it operates, too, in individuals with more modest abilities and aspirations. It urges all of us to pursue, both in personal life and in any line of productive work, a purpose by which we can add value to the world and earn our own small share of self-esteem and happiness.
It should be not be overlooked, of course, that even daemon-driven lives require the conscious participation of the individuals who lead them, since only they can make the choices, and provide the direction, needed to achieve and nurture the particular forms in which their inborn potential can find expression. That navigational skill would seem to require the same heroic virtues Ayn Rand associates with her vaunted "producers": namely, rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.
I think an additional virtue may also be necessary. It is implicit in Ayn Rand's understanding of "independence," which for her means the individual's refusal to succumb to any power that would impede his (or her) pursuit of rational self-interest. For the progressive, however, "independence" has a significantly different meaning. It is the refusal to yield to any power that would suppress the pursuit of moral ends.
Both Rand and progressives place great importance on the freedom of the individual to develop his (or her) talents and play a meaningful role in the world. Progressives, however, are sensitive to the reality that not all individuals will find a clear path to that goal, and that many will need special help to find their way.
The willingness to provide that help depends on still another instinct in the human psyche that is also unrecognized in the ego-oriented, rational psychology of Ayn Rand. It is the capacity for empathy -- the disposition to respond to other people's needs, whether or not they meet Rand's criterion of having earned that goodwill by some previous act of parallel value. True "empathy" is not tied to an exchange of value. It is what drives you to give the panhandler on the street the change in your pocket, not because you think he will use it as start-up money to build a more purposeful life, but because your own life-building instinct bonds you to a fellow human being.