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

By       Message Robert Anschuetz     Permalink
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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.  

Would current "entitlement" programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid exist in America if they weren't essential?   These programs are in fact needed to provide support to millions of deserving citizens whose retirement, job loss, illness, or old-age dependency render them unable to meet their needs on their own.   Because the programs also help maintain the social order, they have found a lasting place in American society, despite the rigid opposition of political forces upholding traditional economic individualism.  

The federal government also assumes responsibility for public projects in the common interest.   As society's only entity with the necessary breadth of perspective and investment capital, it initiates and provides seed money, loans, or full funding for projects designed to create an economic and social infrastructure in which private enterprise can flourish and the people can thrive.   Representative activities include the building and repair of roads, bridges, dams, and schools, research and development of advanced technology and renewable energy sources, and maintenance of a national park system.  

In addition, the federal government funds a broad spectrum of "discretionary" programs intended to provide a floor of economic opportunity under all segments of society. Examples include Pell Grants and low-interest loans for college tuition, training for "jobs of the future," and food, housing, and health benefits.   Ayn Rand describes such programs as "altruism," which she perceives as invariably pernicious.   To the liberal or "progressive" mind, however, they are more likely to reflect "common decency."   They arise from a call to conscience that should move any representative government in command of great resources and powers of enforcement to help those of its citizens who have little or none of either.  

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There can be little argument that government programs ranging from the G.I. Bill to food stamps have increased both economic opportunity and personal security for millions of Americans.   Yet, Rand sees in these programs only the potential for havoc.   In the John Galt speech, she takes the extreme view -- in the context of the very modest scope of "welfare" in America -- that both the public's expectation of "altruism" and the government's delivery of it impose tax and cost burdens on the nation's producers that threaten to annihilate their entrepreneurial freedom, resources, and motivation for innovation and growth.   She clearly believes that government investment and private enterprise relate to each other inversely, each side growing or declining as the other declines or grows.  

As evidence against this notion, however, one can point to the fact that American enterprise continued to flourish and its leaders to prosper for more than seven decades after the institution of Roosevelt's New Deal -- before it was constrained by the overreaching of the high rollers of the financial industry in 2008.   It is of course true that if all income were taxed at 100% to pay for government investments, no one would create a business or work for one; but it is also true that if there were no taxes at all, modern society as we know it would collapse.   Most unbiased Americans will surely agree that every society needs both entrepreneurial growth and public investment to remain prosperous and provide a decent foundation of opportunity and security for all its citizens. The trick is to find the proper balance between them.  

In further rebuttal to Rand's representations in the John Galt speech, I think it can also be argued that no evidence exists to suggest that the great majority of Americans, despite government "altruism," have ever preferred to live off the industry of others rather than by their own hands and mind.   In no other people in the world, in fact, are self-reliance and "rugged individualism" more deeply ingrained, and those traits continue to motivate Americans to the present day -- even when, for many, opportunities to validate them have become increasingly scarce.

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The profound frustration ensuing from the disappointed will to work may, in fact, well explain the emergence of the Tea Party and the extreme anti-government sentiments expressed by many other Americans.   It is interesting to note that much of this hostility is caused not by the fear of government domination, but by government's failure to help ordinary people.   It is widely reported, for example, that many Americans, both liberal and conservative, are especially angry with the government for its actions following the 2008 financial meltdown.   At that critical juncture, it bestowed upwards of a trillion -- and, by some reports, trillions -- of taxpayer dollars on the Wall Street banks responsible for the calamity, while failing to do anything meaningful to help ordinary Americans withstand the loss of homes, retirement income, and jobs.

The government's failure to help the many millions of Americans hurt or crushed by the Wall Street crash makes it clear that it does not have, as Rand suggests in the Galt speech, any "vocation" to rule the masses by reducing them to complete dependence.   Neither, of course, has the government ever made any effort, as Rand suggests it might, to persuade its citizens that, in direct contradiction of both experience and conventional belief, trust in the evidence of the individual mind rests not on reason, but on "faith"; nor has it ever preached that only collective opinion is scientific and capable of objective knowledge.  

Rand's fears that religion must by its nature violate the integrity of the individual human mind have proved similarly unfounded.   It is true that some fundamentalist voices in the wide spectrum of American Judeo-Christian religious tradition have expressed theological, scientific, and political opinions that are intellectually dubious.   As far as I know, however, no church or synagogue has ever asked its adherents -- at least outside the context of a pro-life position on abortion -- to sacrifice for the sake of others the right to pursue their own achievement and happiness.   In America, in fact, the mainstream Protestant churches, which are shaped more closely to secular values than religious ones, strongly support economic individualism based precisely on the pursuit of rational self-interest.   

Is the Free-Market System Self-Regulating?

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

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In the conclusion of Galt's speech, Rand insists that America was founded on the principles of reason and individualism.   It must remain a defender of those principles, and its natural offshoot, the right to private property.   Property rights are central to all rights, because property is created by man's reason and labor, the only two true expressions of his humanity.   This being so, the only proper function of government is to protect property and other rights, by means of the police, armed forces, and the courts.  

America cannot maintain the primacy of reason and individualism, and the rights of property, if it condones the opposing principle of altruism.   Even a little interference by the state, in the form of taxes or regulations intended to fund initiatives aimed at the general welfare, erodes independence of thought and hinders men's ability to express their rational self-interest in creative enterprise.   The same is true of infections of moral guilt based on religious teachings.   At bottom, such interference must ultimately be destructive of mind and the affirmation of life that is rooted in it.   John Galt's "producers" have gone "on strike" in order to avenge the indigenous spirit of America and regain support for its ideals.

Maintaining those ideals is essential to America's prosperity and happiness.   Its "producers" require unfettered freedom to bring their ideas to fruition and to attain the full reward of their achievements in the fair exchange of trade.   Hindering that freedom and the rational outcomes of free-market competition will create a society in which competing groups will resort to brutality and plunder to win control of the government and the power to extort wealth they have done nothing to earn.   Such chaos will reflect, on the national scale, the brutal conflict among workers at the collapsing Twentieth Century Motor Company.   There, attainment of reward by merit had been replaced by unearned privilege based on the corrupt favoritism of groups wielding power. 

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In retirement, Bob Anschuetz has applied his long career experience as an industrial writer and copy editor to helping authors meet publishing standards for both online articles and full-length books. In work as a volunteer editor for OpEdNews, (more...)

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