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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/24/09

Ayn Rand, Greenspan, and the Keep Your Head Tax

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 Ayn Rand’s theories about selfishness have had an impact on our society.   There’s some really bright people that are just enthralled with Ayn’s ideas, such as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and the intellectual conservatives.  To them, Ayn’s ideas represent pure capitalism.  Was Ayn right about society and its obligations?  Was she right about no regulation being the best regulation?  In the interests of keeping this short, I will be concise.  Ayn Rand was wrong about a lot of things.  And as a result, our society is getting a lot of things wrong.

For Ayn, selfishness meant that you should be self respecting, self reliant, ... take care of yourself.  And the way you take care of yourself is: you don’t sacrifice yourself to anybody else, but you don’t expect them to help you either.  And it’s all because, that’s in your self interest.  Ayn loved capitalism because it’s trade, and the market decides the value of the item you’re offering for trade.

The market decides.  And you decide the value of benefits people are offering you for what you’re willing to trade in return.  She loved capitalism because that’s what it’s based on: market.  We’ve seen when capitalism is unregulated it runs into problems because the people making decisions are greedy.  Self-interest run amok.  Consider Alan Greenspan, he’s a disciple of Rand, what he found out was—wow!—the market doesn’t regulate itself.

Why is this?  You have people in positions of power, and they’re not rational in the sense of taking care of their own long term interests, they’re only looking to fill their pockets before the ship sinks. They’ll try to take as much money as they can before it all goes under.  When you have people who are only interested in their own self-interest, their interest is not going to be long term in every case.  Long term it makes sense to have a society that works, but if you’re looking at somebody who says “If I can get five million dollars out of this deal, and end up doing things that in the long term are going to short change the whole society, well, I’m going to have five million dollars, I’m going to be ok!”

They’ve got a short sighted view of what their interest is.  Squirrel it away, and forget about everybody else.  I’m getting benefits.  I don’t need to worry about anybody else.  The point is that even the rich need to worry about a society that’s functional.  Look at the credit market, everything has collapsed and everybody’s hurting.  It’s tough even on the rich, a lot of the services that they used to take so much pleasure in are going out of business.  If our society collapses to a certain extent, we lose order, we lose control of crime, we lose protection from foreign enemies.  If the society collapses, even the rich are going to start hurting eventually. 

No one person can protect themselves from foreign enemies, it takes an army.   The rich person needs a society to be functional.

And the reason they need a society is because it provides benefits that they need in order to make a decent life that they can’t obtain on their own, such as a military.  The rich person needs these things and they can’t produce their own, so they need a good society.  But there are poor people that need the society too, but in a different way.  I agree with Ayn that we have no positive obligation to individuals.  No individual has a duty to help another individual. But society has a duty to help every individual.  That’s the function of a society: to provide for its members the things they need to make decent lives and that they can’t obtain on their own.

That’s why people join together and create societies, to be able to get the benefits that the collective affords, and that the individual can’t get on their own.

Ayn claims society has no duty to help its members.  You don’t take benefits from somebody to give benefits to somebody else without their consent.  Ayn is against unearned benefits.  She sees altruistic societies as giving out earned benefits at the expense of people's rights.

There’s a lot of different forms of altruism, Ayn kind of mishmashes them all together.  There’s the Christian, where you’re supposed to love your enemy.  There’s altruistic systems... every religion has some principle of taking care of your brother.  Rand even classifies welfare systems as altruistic.  She classifies collectives, communism, as altruistic.  She groups so many things together that she kinds of loses the definition of what altruism is.

For Ayn, altruism entails the state is taking property from the rich, and you’re distributing it in ways they don’t consent to.  She sees this as a violation of rights.  She says that altruism has a principle which is in stark contrast to her principle.  And altruism says that what’s good is whatever is of benefit to others.  Her system says that what’s good is whatever is of benefit to you.  So it reverses it.

And altruism says that you should sacrifice yourself in order to benefit others, and she’s saying you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself even if it means you sacrifice a little benefit to yourself and have a big gain to someone else—you shouldn’t do that—you never give away any of your property to help anybody else unless you’re going to get something back.    And anything that’s even a small benefit to you, carries more weight than a large benefit to someone else.  You don’t help people who have permanent conditions like poverty, or lack of education, or chronic illness, you don’t help them. She says at some point it’s not reasonable.  You don’t help people unless there’s some benefit, or potential for them to give you some benefits in return.  This is a strong version of selfishness.

In Ayn’s world, the people who are fit, are going to rise, they’re going to do their job well enough to advance.   She doesn’t see everyone rising, she sees all the fit people rising.  Ayn sees capitalism as creating conditions conducive to the fit people.  She talks about benefits to everyone only in one perspective, and that is, it makes sense to have a society where the rich pay for services that are of indirect benefit to the poor.  And that is, the rich get a military.  The rich pay for a military because they get benefits from it, they pay for a police system because they get benefits from it, and they pay for a court system because they get benefits from it.

Ayn doesn’t have a problem with the poor having the crumbs of that system too, because the rich people need it.  So they need it to be in place and they’re willing to pay for it.  Nobody likes paying for benefits that they don’t actually participate in.  But if there are large wealth imbalances in a society there’s going to be resentments.  And what adds to it is, contrary to Ayn’s claims, people aren’t always in the positions that they deserve to be in.

She claims that what determines the results you get is just effort and talent.  Is this true?  Look at the child labor factories operating in our own country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  You could have a genius who was a hard working kid and is stuck in slave labor conditions for fourteen hours a day... they never get to read, they never get proper nutrition.  They’re a genius, they’re hard working.  And you have another kid who’s born on 5th Avenue and he doesn’t do anything, never works.

Say, he’s got average talents and he’s got average work ethics so he can be productive in Ayn’s eyes.  Even though at best, he’s average, because of his privileged position, he goes to the best schools, gets a good transcript and he has contacts, so he gets onto Wall Street, he gets himself into a cushy job, and he’s making a lot of money.  He becomes an investment banker, he milks capitalism and he finds ways to make money.

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