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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       (Page 7 of 8 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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The Special Issue of Rand's Neglect of "Empathy."

As we saw earlier, the second segment of the Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged makes Rand's case for a creeping morality of "guilt and death" in America that threatens to undermine its free and prosperous capitalist society. It can do so by destroying the will of its "producers" to continue to develop new products of value that generate wealth, create new employment opportunities, and enhance the society's quality of life.

In the Galt speech, Rand points to three elements of the "guilt and death" phenomenon that account for its demoralizing impact. The first is the proclivity of the masses to neglect their obligation to earn a living by creating value in the world, in favor of extorting unearned support from the successful "producers." The second element is the intervention of the state in behalf of the undeserving masses, for the purpose of making them dependent and gaining dominance over them. And the third is the religious emphasis on the moral value of self-sacrifice, which reinforces the presumption of the undeserving that the producers must support them with the rewards of their own achievement.

I've tried to show that Rand is mistaken in presuming the reality of this syndrome, as it is certainly not in evidence in today's American free-enterprise system. Yet, it seems to me that her underlying belief in the moral corruption of millions of ordinary people can only result from the absence in her own makeup of a capacity for empathy, an instinct to see things from "the other guy's" point of view that, at the personal level, at least, motivates most people as strongly as their own self-interest.

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An empathetic regard for people who are not "successful," in Rand's material terms, must surely prompt the realization that most are not thereby undeserving. They too are driven by the instinct to fulfill their creative potential, and, as Americans, also by strong cultural biases to individualism, industry, and self-sufficiency.

Most people who fail to achieve economic independence have been blocked by obstacles not of their making. Undoubtedly, the largest of these in America at present is a lack of job opportunities, caused by systemic problems in the economy over which the individual has no control. Many individuals, too, are simply victims of circumstances that have hindered or even destroyed their personal initiative. From the progressive point of view, it is precisely these realities that validate a society that is based not only on the principle of economic freedom, but also on the willingness of its citizens to help one another in the broader context of "community." A good example of such help is displayed by neighbors who work in building projects for Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity.

The disposition to "community," inspired by the instinct for empathy, is an important human trait. Yet, it is qualified by a limitation that reflects one of Rand's own principles: Because the successful pursuit of one's rational self-interest and happiness depends on total freedom from other obligations, every individual has the moral right to refuse any call to meet the needs of other people. For Rand, this "right of refusal" is an absolute, which few others will accept without caveat. Yet, even progressives must recognize that one can hardly pursue a successful career in the world, while also working in an effective way to achieve meaningful social reforms.

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It is precisely for this reason that support for "community" must be met in large part by government. Only government has the authority and wherewithal to plan and fund the creation of needed social programs, or initiate public projects that will generate jobs and improve the quality of civic life. Yet, it is important to remember that, while government must play the active role in building community, it will do so, in a democracy, only with the active support of ordinary people engaged primarily in living their own lives. It is "we the people" who must help create, and then motivate, progressive government at all levels.

Ayn Rand's ideas do not particularly comport with democratic activism, but we can be sure she would object strenuously to the "interference" on business caused by the imposition of taxes to help pay for public investments in "community." Her concerns, however, are undoubtedly overblown. They are once more theoretical, rather than real. Both the history and continuing reality of American politics make it highly unlikely that any conceivable net taxation on business -- especially on corporations -- will ever be so high as to actually cripple individual initiative or business growth.

Rand is also wrong in her more abstract opposition to what she calls "altruism" -- i.e. the bestowal of any benefit, including support for government programs derived from taxation, which has not been earned on the basis of a free exchange in trade. This misplaced aversion seems to spring in part from the myopia of her "objectivist," or rigidly sense-based, perception of reality. That way of seeing things leads to a purely brain- or ego-centered conception of self-interest that shuts out the body's own natural sense of connection, or -- again -- empathy, with other people. The result is an exaggerated fear for the integrity of one's own individuality, which is perceived as constantly threatened by the demands of other people.

There is a psychologically revealing parallel to this fear among religious people who oppose gay marriage and believe that those who support it are undermining both the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the American family. The right of such people to uphold and pursue traditional heterosexual marriage and the family life that derives from it remains, of course, entirely open to them. Yet, their own belief system, and the sense of self-identity connected with it, are apparently so fragile that they insist that society as a whole affirm their beliefs as an exclusive norm. What this implies, for me, is a total absence of connection to others at a deeper human level that can override culturally-based differences in life-style.

Perhaps, in an analogous way, Rand's "producers" might believe that the unsuccessful "non-producers" in society represent a challenge to their own sense of earned privilege. The "losers" create an uncomfortable sense of guilt in the "winners," who, in many cases, must suspect that their own success is both over-valued and over-rewarded. Often, products and services that have not been developed to meet real human needs (though John Galt's "World Motor" apparently has) nevertheless achieve commercial success through a venal appeal to vanity that has been thoroughly vetted by marketing experts. In such cases, it would not be surprising if the producers, aware that they have not earned their success by adding a new source of value in the world, should seek affirmation of their worth by denigrating society's unsuccessful "others." This might well be the reason why John Galt in his speech demonizes the non-producers as "parasites" who seek unearned benefits through programs that are funded in part by taxes gleaned from the bounty of the producers' own vision and labor.

As still another clue to Rand's lack of empathy, the Galt speech suggests no disposition at all to factor into the success of society's vaunted "producers" the necessary role played by ordinary workers in creating the conditions that make building a business possible. This was of course a point made by no other than President Obama in a campaign speech, which was subsequently skewered both by the Republican presidential campaign and, at its nominating convention, by the flaunting of the banner "We Built It." Nevertheless, the truth of Obama's point is self-evident. You don't have to be a "progressive" to recognize that, while businesses are formed and led by risk-taking entrepreneurs, and are both necessary to society and deserving of reward, they take root within a pre-existing infrastructure created by other people. To be successful, businesses also require a workforce that, in spite of its departmentalized roles, aspires to more than a personal paycheck and contributes creatively to the company's growth. No business can be successful without employees that take pride in their work, are dedicated to making the best product possible, and are themselves invested in their employer's profitability.

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Among a spectrum of contrasting views, the "progressive" perspective differs most fundamentally from that of Ayn Rand in the belief that all human individuals are endowed from birth with an instinct to bring to material fruition a unique set of talents and capacity for insight that are often identified as "God-given potential." In most cases, those who succeed in realizing this potential do not also achieve stature or wealth -- which, in any case, are inconsequential compared to the human fulfillment obtained. They recognize in that fulfillment, however, that they have been driven by a power that is instinctual within themselves, and so must also be present in others.

Because this creative power is divorced from the ego and universal, it does not kindle a sense of "competition" with others, at least none that is directed toward the harsh outcomes of winning and losing. Instead, it evokes an emotion opposite to competitiveness. This is again empathy, the instinct already discussed as the impulse to help meet the needs of other people. Here, that same impulse has the narrower focus of helping others fulfill their own need to give meaningful expression to their inborn creative potential. This empathetic aspiration serves a purpose that is much broader than Ayn Rand's concept of a "selfish" pursuit of material self-interest, based on the rational judgments of the ego-based mind. It may not yield the grand outcomes achieved by her calculating and driven "producers." Yet, those who succeed, and help others succeed, in applying their inborn talents to create new value in the world are, regardless of the station or wealth they achieve, humanity's genuine "winners."

Of course, in this imperfect world, there will be many who pursue, but fail to reach, the goal of making their unique potential real in the world. Yet, like those whose talents have made a mark, they too are "winners" in a fundamental human sense: they have continued to follow the call of their creative gifts and to support the right of others to do the same. In any work or circumstance, such people are conditioned to maintain their self-respect, stay self-reliant, and resist conforming to the demands of others who would use them to meet selfish ends. Such individuals could never become the degraded "parasites" Rand depicts in her story of the collapse of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Those unfortunates are the manipulated victims of an elite few who, though capable of great technical and management skills, and the production of revolutionary new products, lack the capacity for empathy that can redeem the value of every human life.

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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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