Sunday, March 22, 2015

Monstrous Ideas: How Ayn Rand's Pernicious Philosophy Allowed Conservatives to Destroy the US

by Nomad

No philosopher stirs the conservative heart like Ayn Rand. Yet, her warped philosophy of selfishness and the glorification of greed is today a major cause of the American malaise.

Back in 1979, Phil Donahue interviewed Ayn Rand, a person who was later to become "a major inspiration for the Tea Party movement."
If, for that reason alone, the oft-quoted Rand deserves a little of our attention. The interview came at a key moment in American political history, It was when the American voter rejected Carter and instead chose the conservative Ronald Reagan to lead us on a new path. 
In 1966, Ronald Reagan was, in fact, a fan and had written in a personal letter, "Am an admirer of Ayn Rand."

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905, Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum was a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and a philosopher beloved by the free-market conservatives. Her brand of philosopher was called Objectivism. Among its other tenets. this philosophic system supports the idea that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness (rational self-interest).  Thinking of others is something that should be avoided. It is, she said, a dangerous thing to do.
No wonder it became a founding principle of the conservative movement. 

Here is that interview.

Although it doesn't take a lot of cleverness to spot her flawed use of logic to arrive at her pronouncements, what is fascinating is how influential her ideas became by those who never bothered to examine or question them.

The Rand Technique
Indeed, her conclusions run counter to common sense and common humanity. For example, without much in the way of evidence- even theoretical- she makes blanket declarations like:
Self-sacrifice is the cause of all of the problems in the world.
It is said with such conviction that few people seemed to question it. That's been part of the Rand seduction. 
It was her technique to say bold things which defy logic. Say it again and again with the proper conviction and have as many people applaud as you can find. That technique is today's conservative sole salvation. 

And yet, why should that  this idea that self- sacrifice be the origin of all of the world's problem be true in any sense? The opposite is closer to the truth. Is it really so impossible to see that it is selfishness and the disregard of the needs of others is the cause of the problems in the world. 
Take another Rand quote:
Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think.
You see? It sounds good but only if you don't think too deeply about it. It is a very broad statement, after all. What about inherited wealth? What about wealth that is stolen from others? What about wealth that comes from the backs of other men's labor who are paid at less than a living wage? What about wealth that comes from resources that have been purposely restricted or hoarded? 
When we see pharma companies selling life-saving medications for a thousand dollars per pill, it is difficult to put much faith in the Rand's ideas. 

Wealth may be a product of thinking, that's true. Selfish. amoral and inhumane thinking.

Part of Rand's attraction is that she just seemed so so committed  to her ideas.  It is easy to believe there must be some truth in what she is saying. As the German leaders in the 1930s learned, the more brazen the lie, the more likely the public is to believe it. 

That's the amazing part too. It's not that she said such utter nonsense.  It's that so many people accepted her declarations without question. Moreover, it's stunning how eager so many people were to ditch truths that have always been a part of all social culture,
Ideas that sustained our inclusive civilization for centuries suddenly mean nothing to them.

Ignoring History, Morality and Tradition
The word "altruism" is generally defined as the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. It is the opposite of selfishness. 

In 1975, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson in his book Sociobiology, theorized that certain types of social behaviors— including altruism—are often genetically programmed into a species to help them survive. We know that altruism has long been considered a virtue in many cultures regardless of their local faiths or traditions. 

Take Christianity. In the Catholic church,  when one compares the seven deadly sins to the seven virtues, it is pretty clear that being selfless, thinking of others first, ranks as a very good thing. 

Ayn Rand's philosophy clearly cannot be reconciled with the long established tenets of the Christian faith. It is essentially anti-Christian. Author Gore Vidal called Rand's viewpoint "nearly perfect in its immorality." 
That Christians are called to care for the most vulnerable of God’s people was, to Rand, manifest proof that the religion has nothing constructive to add to human life: After all, in her philosophy, “superiors” have no moral obligations to those weaker or more vulnerable than they. According to Rand, the Christian moral imperative to serve the needy is a “monstrous idea.”
American analytic philosopher, Jay Wesley Richards writes:
Rand was a staunch defender of capitalism, but also an anti-Christian atheist who argued that capitalism was based on greed. Greed, for Rand, is good. But if Rand is right, then Christians can’t be capitalists, because greed is a sin. Fortunately, Rand was wrong.
In condemning altruism, Rand turns this altruism as virtue idea on its head. 
Every dictatorship is based on altruism.
Where is the support for that statement?
Hitler or Mussolini, as Rand well knew, could be described with many terms, but never were either of them described as an altruist leaders. Nor were Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein were never thought of selfless individuals. Helping their fellow man didn't seem a high priority with either of them. 

Rand seems to be completely naive (and that's putting it charitably) to the deadly allure of power for its own sake.
She seems unaware of what raw power can to do to some people. Somehow she blames altruism, instead of lust for supreme control.  

Rand's Strange Denial of Monopolies
Rand might be excused if her philosophy had remained merely a thought experiment. However when applied as a political philosophy, it became the basis of dangerous and unenlightened policy.   
Her absolute faith in the free market system negates the very idea that at some point, monopolies are formed, not for profits, but for power and protection. Her lack of understanding of the very size of modern day corporation and the power they weld.  

We only need to look at the reasons for  the high costs of and sub-standard service of Internet service providers in the US to confirm this. How much lobbying went into attempting to prevent Net Neutrality?

Corporations do form monopolies and once they do, they tend to use every political device than can find, legal or illegal, to protect those monopolies, even to the point of undermining the democratic process itself.

According to Rand, the market forces will eventually destroy the monopoly because the public decides what it will accept. Is that correct? or should we simply take her word for it.

In fact, the history of the 19th century with the trusts and the special interests had already disproved what Rand was saying. Monopolies coupled with political power became self-sustaining. Even the democratic institutions were under threat. When they came to an end, it was no as a result of natural forces. 

Without the intervention of Big Government to break up the railroads and the other trusts, these monopolies would have eventually been allowed to set prices as they wished, destroy the environment and risk the health and lives of both the public and the worker. The laws would have literally meant nothing to them.

The president invoked the Sherman Antitrust Act as a tool to bring the runaway corporations into line. Clearly no other entity except the government, with the three branches united, had the authority and the power to thwart the power grab from the greedy and the unelected.
In his administration’s first trust-busting case, his attorney general filed suit against the Northern Securities Company, a railroad holding company, for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, which had not been successfully used against monopolies since its passage in 1890. After this case, though, the Act became an extremely important tool for government regulation of corporations. In 1904, the Supreme Court ordered that the Northern Securities Company be dissolved, a decision that launched a series of antitrust suits. In all, the Roosevelt administration filed forty-three trust-busting suits.

To believe Rand requires us to ignore much of the American history. That her ideas are not summarily rejected by millions is a sign of how ignorant so many Americans are of their own history.

That wouldn't have surprised Thomas Jefferson who wrote: 
“The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,”
It's no wonder that Republican governors consistently propose deep spending cuts for higher education.

The Evolution of Misguided Ideas
Some of the ideas Ayn Rand expressed in the Donahue interview must inspire your average capitalist minded libertarian.
Republican Paul Ryan could hardly be more of a fan. Paul Ryan has said that Rand was “the reason I got into public service.”

In 2005, Paul Ryan spoke of Rand and the effect of her philosophy on him:
“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are … It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
We hear echoes of her ideas in other libertarian-conservatives. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) says Ayn Rand had a major influence on him, and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an even bigger fan.  
To his credit Ron Paul did say that Ayn Rand's ideas about Christianity and religion in general "seemed to be so cold."  
That, and that alone, seems to be his only objection. 

A Salon article points out other problems that libertarians should be considering:
The denial of the collective interest and communal bond, as much as libertarians like to pose as trailblazers, is not the road less traveled, but the highway in gridlock. Competitive individualism, and the perversion of personal responsibility to mean social irresponsibility, is what allows for America to limp behind the rest of the developed world in providing for the poor and creating social services for the general population.
According to her many critics, few writers have had a greater impact at making us become a less caring nation than Ms. Rand. Her ideas have attached themselves with a death grip on the Republican party.
These shallow and self-destructive ideas, some would say, are responsible for what President Carter warned about in his famous 1979 warning to the American public. 

Giving in to Our Evil Nature
Blanket statements that, for example.governments are by their nature evil, have their appeal to the petulant voters who feel put upon by social programs that, for instance, feed hungry children. In the end, aren't governments only as good or effective or compassionate as we make them? Aren't governments merely a reflection of our own values?

Other Rand ideas are equally dangerous. As she tells Donahue in the interview, we should thank oil companies for the service they give us, not try to punish them with taxes or regulate them to hold them down. We have plenty of evidence what happens to our environment and to our economy when corporations are unregulated. We have seen who pays the price and who pockets the revenue.
*   *   *
By their political maneuverings, the Koch brothers and their ilk have shown precisely how misguided and dangerous Rand's thinking was. 

We have allowed a well-diversified and highly-profitable industry to evolve into a  source of large-scale political corruption. That Koch brothers political manipulation, which Rand denied even existed, includes writing legislation to its benefit, to phony grassroots tax-exempt organizations, slanted think-tanks and for-pay studies and experts for hire. Their techniques have included falsified polls to build an illusion of popular consensus. It even included the corruption of  Supreme Court justices. In spite of all these encroachments, there appears to be nobody willing to "Roosevelt" them. 

Here we are now, facing an upcoming presidential election in which the Koch brothers will easily outspend both political parties combined. In their determination to purchase the American political system, they appear determined to not to stop until all democratic institutions are under their control.

This brings us to another Rand quote which applies to the Koch brothers and all who follow the Ayn Rand creed.
The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.
If alive today Teddy Roosevelt -and our wise great grandfathers- would have a ready answer. However they would also ask whether there was actually anybody left in America up to the task.