I am writing this essay because some right wing individuals claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand’s philosophy (The Guardian). I also want to put forward the idea that socialism and capitalism are not exclusive systems. In fact pure examples of either political system are few if any.
I will not discuss communism because I do not think this system works unless implemented in a small community where everyone knows everyone else (e.g. early Christian groups). The idea of all material goods being shared among a commune does not sound anything like the governments that call themselves communist (e.g. China and North Korea).
I will state up front, that I am not a follower of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. I was when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Her philosophy influenced me to go to graduate school at a private university. However, I think her philosophy is often represented in an oversimplified manner. I also think she had some valid points that need to be repeated. So in this essay I will present what I think her philosophy boils down to in my own words, not hers.
Ayn Rand’s History
A few key facts from Ayn’s early life will illuminate how she came to her beliefs taken from Wikipedia. She was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in the Russian Empire in 1905. She lived through the Russian Revolution and the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. Her families property was confiscated by the state for the “common good.” They fled to the Crimean Peninsula to escape the Red Russians which did not work out in the long run.
She did benefit from the revolution opening up universities to women. There she fell in love with philosophy. In particular she loved Aristotle, Plato, and Nietzsche. As a former member of the bourgeoise she was purged from university before she could graduate. However, foreign students protested and she was one of those allowed to complete her education and graduate.
There are theories as to where her professional name came from, but no proof exists. It is just Ayn Rand as far as I am concerned.
Socialism is supposed to be motivated by the greatest good for the greatest number. Socialism could be characterized as an altruistic approach to society. I would argue that the USSR was not really socialist, but that was their brand. Therefore, she would have had a very negative view of altruism and socialism based on her personal history.
She acquired a love of logic from Aristotle and Plato. From Nietzsche she would pick up glorification of the individual.
The name of her philosophy reflects her love of logic. There is no room for subjectivism in logic. Logic is supposed to be like mathematics and not dependent on the individual. Logic is objective. What follows is my reimagining of her philosophy. She presented these thoughts in reverse order.
Thesis 1: Altruism is evil.
Actually, Ayn’s belief could probably be better summed up as the actions intended to benefit another person are bad, because of unintended consequences. The motivation for this from her own history should be clear. If we accept that the USSR was altruistic then it resulted in much evil in her personal history. She said that when you give something for nothing it actually diminished the recipient by reducing their self sufficiency. This argument is used by many right wingers even though they may not have heard of Ayn Rand. This is why far right politicians oppose any form of social welfare.
Thesis 2: Self-interest is good.
This is essentially the antithesis of Thesis 1. Actions motivated by benefiting another are bad. This is not to say that all self-interested actions are good. She believed that all good actions are derived from self-interest. There are actually many examples where actions motivated by self-interest are good for others. It is very clear the Edison was motivated by self-interest. However, we all benefit from the light bulbs, recording devices, motion pictures, alkaline batteries, etc. The current forms of those technologies are very different, but he started them or at least popularized them Tesla gave us alternating current, induction motors, polyphase electrical systems (for example 3 phase power used in industry), etc. Modern day examples from Zuckerberg, Bezos and Musk and everything in between could also be included. In my opinion, the concept that self-interest as a motivation is always evil is just as invalid as the notion that altruistic motivation is always good.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who use Thesis 2 to justify their rape and pillage approach to business, politics and life in general. The art of their deals is just thuggery.
Others use Thesis 1 to justify opposition to social services. Giving someone something for nothing does not encourage them to be self-sufficient. This thesis can also be used to oppose universal health care. I believe there is an undercurrent of social Darwinism to both these positions. Let the poor die and weed out the weak in our population.
Valid Points from Objectivism
First, let me talk about how the blanket praise for altruism and condemnation for selfishness are false.
Altruism can be bad
Not all altruism has a good outcome. There is an assumption that if one’s motives are not selfish the action will be good. That is not the case. In fact there is a name for bad outcomes, pathological altruism (Killing with Kindness).
My favorite example is the Christian Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What could go wrong? Well one Christian belief is that only Christians and observant Jews will go to heaven. Everybody else will go to hell. If you believe that, and you encounter a non-Christian, then any action would be justified to convert the non-Christian. Your actions are for their benefit. War, torture, destruction of cultural sites and objects are all tools that have been used to accomplish this goal. Examples: the several Crusades, the Inquisitions, conquests in Central and South America, and enslavement of heathens in Africa.
Another example is the movement to ban glyphosate, an herbicide found in Roundup among others. It has a low chance of causing cancer. In fact it is lower than most herbicides. So banning it would result in using more dangerous chemicals. This and three other examples are discussed here.
I think most of us would agree that some but not all altruism is good. Ayn Rand just went too far by branding all altruism as bad.
Selfishness can be good
The example that I found in many articles is that if you don’t look after your own health and welfare, you cannot do anyone else much good. Destroying yourself does not help anyone and it hurts you. Taking care of yourself is a selfish act but not bad. When the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling of the airplane, put yours on first.
A couple of examples I mentioned earlier follow.
When Edison’s lab invented his light bulbs his goal was to make a lot of money for himself. Edison was not known for charity or altruism. However, the world benefited from this cheaper source of light which replaced candles and gas lamps.
When Tesla invented alternating current, electrical transmission over long distances became much more efficient. It made Edison’s light bulbs even cheaper to run. It allowed for simpler, more efficient motors. Tesla was not known for charity or altruism either.
So not all selfish acts are bad. Some selfish acts are good.
Learnings from objectivism
I won’t go through the logical foundations of objectivism. You can find a summary in Wikipedia, which was a source for much of this section Many commentators don’t even believe that some of her conclusions come from her proposed logic.
Why many politicians become corrupt:
Rand had an explanation for why politicians can become corrupt. Many politicians say they went into politics to serve the common good (i.e. altruism). Rand pointed out that there is rarely a common good. A bill passed by a politician will hopefully benefit some people, but others are either not affected or even hurt by the bill.
After a politician begins to realize that most actions result in mixed outcomes they may begin to think the nice businessman, lobbyist or other influencer who took them to play golf, paid for a stay at a resort, gave them a private jet ride, or gave them a big donation deserves to get the benefits of their next action. If only some people are rewarded by your actions, why not reward your benefactors?
Rand believed that those acting for the common good are always going to become corrupt for this and other reasons. I prefer to think that the disillusionment from acting for the common good leads to the above trap. Many politicians fall into this trap.
Capital punishment should be banned:
Rand did not believe in capital punishment. She did not believe capital punishment morally justified. Because of the possibility of convicting the wrong person one should never risk taking the life of an innocent person. If someone is imprisoned falsely they can be financially compensated if the verdict is overthrown. If they are dead there is no compensation possible.
Anarchy is not a good form of government:
Even though Rand opposed many government functions, she did believe some functions were essential. Among these are the police, military, courts, and lawmakers.
Even though she believed in laissez-faire capitalism, she did believe they needed to be regulated by laws and courts. My analogy is to a sports game. The laws are the rules, and the courts are the referees. A game without laws and referees is a gang fight.
Ayn Rand Was Not a Libertarian
Although many people think that Rand was the founder of libertarianism, this is not true. Libertarians like Rand Paul take inspiration from Rand’s writings. However, as mentioned in the last section, she believed that some government was essential and did not go as far as modern libertarians who try to limit all government.
If you doubt this you can look as some of her quotes here. I love that she called libertarians “hippies of the right.”
Rand was a deep thinker but prejudiced by her own experience with the Russian Revolution. In my opinion, her greatest contribution was the observation that selfish acts can result in good for many other people, and some altruistic acts result in bad outcomes for the people that one intended to help.