At the broader level of national politics, this same instinct is what moves the "haves" in society to help elect, and then support with their tax dollars and energies, a government committed to helping the "have-nots." Many millions of Americans are today held back by the manifold obstacles of poor education, joblessness, crime-ridden neighborhoods, broken homes, and the like. These victims of society will not be helped by Ayn Rand's insistence that individuals be free to determine and achieve their own self-interest. Only the social support programs and public investments backed by progressive political leaders can help clear the roadbocks that keep so many Americans from enjoying productive lives. Empathy urges us to want for others the same opportunity we enjoy ourselves to add value to the world and feel good about ourselves for doing so. And it is only in following through on that instinct that we live a fully human life.
The Corrupting Morality of "Guilt and Death."
Rand's views, as interpreted from the words of John Galt in the second segment of his speech:
A fundamental principle in Rand's thought is that society's "producers," operating in accordance with their own rational self-interest, must be left totally free from outside interference in pursuing both the objectives and rewards of their enterprise. Without such freedom, the necessary focus and drive needed to make the venture a success are distracted, to the detriment both of the producer and employees, and of customers who would gain from the value of the thing or service produced.
The "interference" on society's producers that Rand has in mind takes many of the same forms about which businesses have always complained: added costs, such as union wages, mandated employee benefits, and taxes; and government regulations, which can be both costly and detrimental to productivity. In the Galt speech, however, Rand also posits a far darker interference, a malignancy that afflicts the very heart of the producer's creative integrity and morale. Two insidious powers, Rand claims, threaten the freedom of those who rationally pursue their self-interest through meaningful achievement and material success. One is the "muscle" (the police power) of the state, which seeks to gain the allegiance of society's masses -- and so its control over them -- by forcing society's producers to share their bounty with them. The other is the "mysticism" of religion, which requires that the individual surrender his pursuit of rational self-interest to the higher demand of self-sacrifice in the name of an unknown God.
The repressive powers of the state and religion grow out of the moral weakness of the many in society who do not seek to earn their own way by creating value for others. Instead, Rand argues, the indifferent masses, society's "parasites," take the larcenous view -- reinforced by the state, which seeks to dominate them -- that it is their right to have their needs met by those who are productive.
In challenging the morality of this view, Rand asks: If the "producers" must act to benefit others, how can it be right for others to accept benefits they have not earned? The moral onus is completely one-sided. Even more insidiously, those who accept benefits without giving value in exchange degrade the role of those who have produced the value. They elevate failure, weakness, need, incompetence, suffering, vice, and irrationality at the expense of success, strength, wealth, ability, joy, virtue, and rationality.
Rand believes that "altruism," giving to others without expecting anything in return, is only rational, and thus moral, when the beneficiaries can reasonably be thought to have previously earned it. Absent this qualification, altruism sets the standards of a false morality that is in opposition to the requirements of living. It deprives the individuals who receive it of the practical guidance implicit in moral certainty, and removes from them the motivation to be a producer of value in life, which is the only source of personal dignity, self-esteem, and happiness.
Rand notes further that many of society's "parasites" recognize the moral damage done to them as recipients of unearned "altruism." Even so, they are not motivated to reject it, since they no longer link their sense of self-esteem to their own achievement, but find it instead in cooperation with the collective will. That conformity makes it easy for those who exercise power in the state to maintain control of the masses. Their domination is made even more secure by the state's successful promotion of the idea that trust in the individual mind rests not on reason, but on "faith." In buying into this idea, the masses readily accept the corollary notion that it is collective opinion alone that is scientific and capable of objective knowledge.
The autonomy of the individual is further undermined by agents Rand identifies as the "mystics" of religious faith. Like the enforcers of state power, the "mystics" also posit a more reliable source of knowledge than the mind: in their case, the providence of an unseen "God." Rand rejects this idea on its face, since it defies her "law of identity." This is the notion that the mind can only reason from data it amasses through the senses. Since the senses can only perceive things in the objective, physical world, nothing outside that world lends itself to comprehension.
Rand also inveighs against the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, which demands adherence to a pernicious "doctrine of sacrifice" that requires individuals to surrender the independence of their own mind (which is identical to the "self," in Rand's framework of ideas). In complying with this doctrine, individuals give up their right to the action society deems the most "selfish": namely, the pursuit of personal achievement and happiness, as it is guided by one's own judgment.
Rand argues that it is quickly obvious, however, that the "doctrine of sacrifice," which she also dubs the "morality of death" (i.e. to the individual mind), creates an insoluble paradox. Society's non-producers, held in dependency by the state and brainwashed by the doctrines of the church, in fact have no "independence of mind" to sacrifice. Instead, they must rely for what life they have on the sacrifice of those rational few who do continue to seek achievement and happiness by producing things of value. This is true, also, of the irrational "musclemen" of the state and the "mystics" of religion, who can only retain their own position and power through the continued consent and aid of the men of reason and ability.
What is especially galling to John Galt in his speech, and to Rand as his creator, is that both the people and their rulers, even in their abject dependency, deny the producers the respect they deserve and the freedom they require to fully realize their goals and reap the rewards they have earned. In Rand's view as expressed through John Galt, the ultimate objective of the "morality of death" is to extend the moral guilt already accepted by the masses to the relatively few men and women motivated by reason, ability, and the desire for achievement. The producers recognize, however, that if they themselves were to give up the pursuit of their own achievement and happiness, that self-denial would also deprive the undeserving of the very wealth and products of value they require to meet their needs. It is in recognition of this reality that John Galt has called a strike of the producers of the world. They will demonstrate to the "parasites" and government "looters" of the collective order that it is they whose values must change if the "World Motor" is not to be disabled. Only if the producers are allowed to create value through an unhindered pursuit of their rational self-interest will the world continue to function.
The Response of a Political Progressive:
Surely, we can agree with Ayn Rand that American society needs, and should encourage, individuals who are willing to invest their energies and risk their security to pursue personal goals of creativity and achievement. Such "producers" -- as Rand illustrates with John Galt -- help move the world forward and create constructive work for others that provides them both with income and the means to satisfy their own need for self-esteem and happiness.
Most progressives recognize, however, that a good society rests on more than the freedom to build a business or make a living. To reference one of Ayn Rand's own defining terms, any "objective" view of society must surely include the many people who do not, or cannot, find either success or material security in America's system of free enterprise. They include not only those who, for a variety of reasons, fail to live their lives responsibly, but the millions who do and still come up short.