Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ayn Rand: The Good and the Bad

Ayn Rand remains one of the most significant figures in the ant-Statism movements of the past century.  Her books produced much thought-provoking discussions such as the purpose of man and the reasons for living.  In politics, she helped to articulate the non-aggression principle but her philosophies dealt with much more than the political realm.  She was probably one of the first atheists to create a moral system entirely independent of religion and the State, a challenging feat to say the least.

But her moral philosophy was often rejected by constitutional conservatives and mainstream conservatives, despite their agreements with much of her political philosophy.  This is because Rand emphasized selfishness, which has a thoroughly negative connotation in our culture.  Ayn Rand, however, recognized something that I think many of us forget: that selfishness is neither a virtue or a vice any more so than self-sacrifice is a virtue or a vice.  She held up selfishness as a virtue herself, but the reality is that man must act in both ways at certain times.

What most moralist fail to realize is that while Ayn Rand said that man must “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” they forget that she also rejected the notion of man making others sacrifice for them.  In other words, while we were free to act as we saw fit, it was immoral to make others sacrifice for you.  She never had high regard for hedonism and felt that man must strive to be the best he could be.

However, her moral worldview was largely flawed when it came to its origins and who would be the judge of moral infractions.  In her first interview with Johnny Carson, she was asked where her moral worldview came from and she mentioned that it would come from the “philosophers”, some enigmatic group of people who have been raised to highest position of power in order to direct the actions of man.  In admitting this, she highlighted a few flaws in her own logic.

Firstly, if man is flawed and morality is needed, then a group of men working to discern or judge the correct course of action could also be flawed.  Indeed, this is exactly what happened when Ayn Rand started to expel various members of her group for moral infractions, such as Nathaniel Brandon.  But what happens when all of them are corrupt?  What happens when everyone who is supposed to uphold justice instead show partiality to favored groups.  A large part of the problem with the government today is that we’ve taken the biggest blowhard assholes among us and raised them up to positions of power.  These men and women, who occupy both political and bureaucratic positions, represent the worst our society has to offer.

Secondly, her philosophy hinges on the belief that man is naturally rational, as do many of the anti-Statist Utopians.  Unfortunately, man is by no means naturally rational and instead operates on impulse by default.  The whole point of rational actions is that we have achieved an ability to behave separate from the animals.

I think her atheism clouded her philosophy a bit, but I do not hold that against her.  Many Christians have gotten so much wrong in their own way, the greatest evidence of which in moderns times is the lack of men attending church while women do just about everything there.

While I find Objectivism fascinating, at the same time, I cannot whole-heartedly agree with every aspect of it.  The whole notion that man can exist as an individual, while a noble ideal, is at the end of the day merely an ideal.  There is no practical reason to believe that everyone wants to be an individual and go his own way because so many people are perfectly willing to outsource their beliefs and choices to the authority of others.  Milgram’s experiment proved that people are perfectly willing to do horrible things so long as there is a higher authority who will take the blame.

I have no solutions and I applaud people like Ayn Rand for at least attempting to provide some.  And while I believe that these solutions are flawed, there is something to them if they have not been tried.  Communism, for example, has been show to be a failed theory in practice, with the large body count wrought by applying its principles.  Socialism has clearly failed in that we are finally seeing the end of the welfare state.  Corporatism is proving to be a failure as well with the various banking collapses and bailouts.

Perhaps in this century, we can try limited government with the free market addressing the vast majority of issues that face us.  Maybe it will be Objectivism, maybe not, but I think it is high time that we at least consider and debate some of these ideas because clearly, whatever we are doing now is not working.

Of course, given that either Willard Romney or Barack Soetoro will be President of the United States in 2013, I have no high hopes of these considerations being taken seriously any time soon.