The Selfishness of Ayn Rand

Posted on 2012 May 27


If I even mention the name “Ayn Rand”, I am pilloried by left wingers, who despise Rand’s contempt for progressivism. I also get to be scolded by conservatives, who disdain Rand’s atheism. Uttering her name is like mentioning Voldemort — “DON’T SAY THAT NAME!!”

One reason Rand gets bad press is because she was prickly and confrontational — not really a nice person. As well, she advocated a rational form of selfishness — which, to many, sounds like an excuse to ride roughshod over others — and she campaigned against what she termed “altruism”, which makes her sound like Scrooge or the Grinch. But we condemn her wrongly if we think she advocated meanness to others.

She didn’t. She could be snobby and obnoxious about her anti-altruism beliefs. She despised the many libertarians who took up her cause, claiming they stole all her ideas. I did an independent study on her in college; she was a piece of work, to be sure. But her points about altruism were thought provoking: that (a) people who propose that we sacrifice to others are often the self-serving beneficiaries of that very sacrifice; and that (b) the private (read: “selfish”) pursuits of individuals tend, in the aggregate, to create the general improvements in prosperity that altruism can’t achieve. This latter is a version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, which creates wealth for everyone out of the simple, one-at-a-time transactions between shoemaker and barber, teacher and farmer, computer coder and junk-food dispenser, etc.

The modern, technical viewpoint is that general prosperity is an unexpected “emergent property” of lower-level activity, a surprise benefit of the daily transactions between people. Individuals pursuing their own interests aren’t bad after all; their interactions tend to add value to the society as a whole, whether intended or not.

The notion that the rich should subsidize the rest of us (and, especially, the poor) through their taxes is a vexing topic. It’s true only if you believe that the purpose of humans is to help others, and on this point Rand demurred stridently. She pointed out that the wealthy (like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, etc.) already make massive contributions simply by having scaled up their businesses into world-class operations that offer good, affordable products and services that benefit masses of people.

I should point out that the greatest charitable organizations are founded by the super-rich. The well-to-do park most of their gains in investments, which helps to create jobs. And the wealthy at home spend much of their money locally, where it sustains the community. To add to their tax burden simply takes that money away and puts it in the hands of faraway strangers who offer nothing in return.

Her notion that the rich shouldn’t pay taxes is an argument that really could be made for anyone successful enough to fill out a return and attach a check to it. All taxpayers — with less money after April 15 — buy fewer goods and services. Taxpayers are effectively penalized for working, while all recipients of free entitlements are effectively rewarded for doing nothing. Charity is one thing, but wholesale, chronic government payouts is quite another. This is the debacle that Rand warns us about.

It’s easy to envy the rich and even easier to blame them for our troubles, as if they were holding the poor underwater like puppies, waiting for them to stop moving. But we focus on their money when there’s much more at stake in life, and the duties to our fellow citizens become blurred. For example, a young, handsome surfer dude works part-time at a low-paying job, lives on the beach, and has many female suitors, while a man in a wheelchair with no social life writes code and makes $150,000 per year. Two very different lifestyles with very different payoffs: between them, who owes what to whom?

Whatever we decide, if we pillory the wealthy, we punish the very enterprise we encouraged in the first place. In other words, we “kill the golden goose” — and that goose lies within each of us. We don’t want to discourage ourselves from creating good things for others, but we do so if our incidental wealth — which we might otherwise use for our families and communities — gets taxed away to pay for bailouts of Wall Street fat cats or opportunistic oil wars in the Middle East, to say nothing of welfare queens. This big-government tax thing can bite us in the butt.

Brain researchers have found that, when people discuss politics, their pre-frontal rational lobes shut down, while their emotional centers (“Damn you!”) and conflict-resolution centers (“Get the bad people!”) work at full tilt. Keep this in mind next time you lean back at dinner and ask, “So, who’s gonna win the election?”

If we can, we should think twice before we get angry and start hating entire classes of people, like the wealthy or the immigrant poor. Our inner caveman gets deeply riled by the actions of people who don’t belong to our favored group, and we’re tempted to lash out at them. The Left wants to pull down the rich, whose status and power they find irksome; the Right wants to straightjacket the poor, whose subversive, pluralistic sexual practices and drug use and sympathy for things foreign might roil the cultural waters and wash the elite overboard. Each side becomes more polarized and militant, hoping once and for all to purge the society of their enemies’ activities. Rational thought has nothing to do with it. It’s tribal; it’s group-think.

At the end of that road lies Hitler and Pol Pot and Stalin’s purges and the massacres in central Africa. It feels so satisfying to be indignant and self-righteous, except that these attitudes fail in the modern, crowded urban world. Our crusades blow back on our own neighborhoods. It’s part of why libertarians — whose beliefs descend in large part from Rand — insist that violence and aggression should be reserved strictly for self defense.

Ayn Rand, nevertheless, was angry and defiant. But perhaps she did it for effect. She crusaded against altruism the way Richard Dawkins militates against religion. (I wonder how long the two of them would have lasted in a debate. “Atheism? Stipulated … Altruism? Let the battle begin!”) It’s a pity her very effectiveness as a rabble-rouser might also have polarized her audience and interfered with getting her points across. And she does have good points: she defends intelligence and freedom and creativity against over-regulation and guilt-tripping. She says, in effect, “It is we, not the government, who fulfill the purpose of human life. The government must serve us, not the other way around.”

We may need to look past her confrontational stridency to appreciate the usefulness of her ideas. Though she could be heated, we must keep our cool — keep our reason intact — if we are to explore her ideas properly. And if we use our reason, we honor her challenge to put that ability at the forefront of the human adventure.

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UPDATE: Rand’s philosophy: great ideas, off-putting style