By Nikola Milanovic, published March, 2010
Determining one’s political, social, and economic beliefs, if done right, is a difficult affair, and one that many Stanford students undoubtedly grapple with. In my own pursuit for developing the best outlook on life, I came across the peculiar philosophy of an author named Ayn Rand as a sophomore in high school. Her ideas, entitled “Objectivism,” have enjoyed a recent intellectual resurgence on Stanford’s campus. This movement brings to mind my own trajectory as an objectivist, which began with scholarly infatuation but ended with bitterly realistic rejection. Rand’s principles are, like so many doctrines, attractive on paper but inapplicable to the real, modern world.
Objectivism strives to provide a comprehensive answer to questions of metaphysics, politics, morality, and epistemology. This article is not an effort to unravel the rationale behind the philosophy. Instead, it is a comprehensive look at what the objectivist viewpoint means in everyday life. How does Rand’s philosophy play out in practice? The central tenet of the movement is that there is a non-subjective reality that can be accessed through reason, and that when we access it, it becomes clear that rational pursuit of self-interest is the best way to lead one’s life. Based on Rand’s aggrandizement of self-interest, her followers believe in libertarian politics, centered around capitalism and the rights of the individual.
The world is in a period of economic recession. Inequality is a pervasive fact for the international community. Systematic discrimination, unjust wars, and insurmountable barriers to opportunity still impact many people. It’s these facts that make objectivism an unrealistic worldview. The objectivist standpoints on universal healthcare, government welfare programs, progressive or redistributive taxation, and economic stimuli are all the same: they contend that these programs are unjust. But in a country where businesses are declaring bankruptcy, homes are foreclosing at alarming rates, and people are falling below the poverty line and into the unemployment line, can objectivism be a rationally ethical view? One that doesn’t violate our intuitions about morality? The answer is no, it can’t be.
Rand’s intellectual roots can be traced back to Adam Smith, the famous 18th century economist who championed self-interest. The prevailing system before Smith was feudalism, which is now universally abhorred because it held that entitlements were God-given. In feudalism, some people were born into luxury while others were born into poverty, and this was seen to be the natural, and therefore right, order of things. Much like the insurmountable caste system that creates a birthright hierarchy of some over others, feudalism arbitrarily justified inequalities due solely to coincidence of birth.
Smith, rebelling against the feudal mindset, argued that through capitalism order, self-interest, and personal liberty could all coexist. Markets are amazing man-made institutions in that they provide incentives to maintain order. For instance, if I try to cheat people by charging an exorbitant amount for something I produce, other vendors will enter the market with lower prices, and I will be punished by losing customers. Markets also allow for personal liberty; I can buy from who I want, and am not tied to one creed or a single employer. In this way, markets eliminate hierarchies by creating horizontal, instead of vertical relationships; I am not dependent on any one vendor, just as they aren’t dependent on any one customer. Smith, like Rand, argued that this was all possible because people pursue their own rational self-interest. This pursuit harmonizes liberty and order by bringing people into a network of anonymous, mutually beneficial exchanges.
This is the central concept of objectivism: reciprocal self-interest creates a motivation that allows us to avoid depending on altruism (in the words of economist Albert Hirschman). For example, if I had to depend on a doctor’s beneficence to receive a life-saving treatment, I might be out of luck. But because the capitalist system allows me to pay him (in his interest) in exchange for the treatment (in my interest), we both win.
Smith, though Rand’s intellectual heirs all idolize him, came to different conclusions than the founder of objectivism. He did not support laissez-faire capitalism or even mention it in his writings because he realized that markets could create dependency and subordination due to the equivalency of money to power. Smith, in his utilitarian analysis of capitalism, understood that markets engender inequality to an extent that is bad for society, and that they create an inflexibility of options in which people lose their equality of opportunity based on the conditions they’re born into or the paths they take. For this reason, he (unlike the libertarian objectivists) supported some government intervention in the economy.
The reason Rand’s viewpoint is so dangerously misguided in the modern world is because it rests on the faulty underlying assumption that the state people are born into is justified. In his paper, Altruism in Philosophical and Ethical Traditions, Will Kymlicka argues that people today are seen by the Western world as free and equal, and that they therefore deserve equality of opportunity. This being the case, any inequalities that result in the world should be due to people’s own choices and decisions. Like Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence, certain beliefs are held to be true: “that all men are created equal” with the rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But these rights are meaningless in the objectivist’s world. Without the opportunity or tools to improve their social position, a right to the pursuit of happiness is hollow to people disadvantaged by inequality.
Kymlicka holds that people’s fates should be determined by their choices, not by the circumstances that they are born or thrust into. This is not how the world works, however. Consider four people: one born in a war-torn region of Africa, one born into a poor family in inner-city New York, one born into a middle-class home in Florida, and one born into wealth in Beverly Hills. These people all have the same right to pursue their own happiness, but they are not born equal. They lack equality of opportunity. This inequality is not the result of their decisions, but is instead the result of systematic injustice. To deny that this is injustice would be to deny that people should be born with equal opportunity.
This is what objectivists ignore: that pursuit of our rational self-interest is meaningless if we are born without tools to pursue it. A popular philosopher in the objectivist tradition, Robert Nozick, equated tax to theft because he considered it an unjustified sequestration of money, the same as a robber stealing one’s wallet at gunpoint. Famed economist Milton Friedman agreed in his classification of such taxes as charity through violence. But this, like objectivism, assumes that the conditions we are born into are justified, exactly what feudalism assumed centuries ago.
The fact of the matter is that our birthright entitlements are not justified. I was born into an upper-middle class family, but this wasn’t my right. So how can I get upset when some of the taxes I pay go to support the poor autoworker in Detroit or the luckless homeowner in East Palo Alto? If people are born in worse situations than I am, it’s luck of the draw, but not a justified luck of the draw. The reason they were born with less opportunity than I is because of systematic, institutional injustices that exist in our society and create inherent inequality. That is why policies like redistributive taxation, government-funded education, and unemployment insurance are justified: they serve to level the uneven playing field we are born into.
I loved objectivist libertarianism because it made me feel comfortable about my privilege. I read just about all of Rand’s work and attended seminars on her philosophy. It was easy to accept my abundance of opportunity as a right, but it didn’t quiet a nagging thought in the back of my head: I shouldn’t feel so deserving of being privileged. Like Kymlicka assesses, it’s easy to accept gross inequalities without batting an eye when they are viewed as natural. Objectivists accept them the same way feudalists accepted serfdom, the way Sharia law accepts the subjugation of women, the way India accepted castes. Viewed as the natural order of things, objectivism justifies inequalities that are the result of systematic injustice in how our societies and economies are organized today.
Rand sought to defend inequalities that were not the result of merit, providing no fairness in the available processes of acquiring property or the resultant distribution. In her best-known collection of essays, The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand affirmed that compassion is a vice, selfishness a virtue, and that good people should not respond altruistically to others’ predicaments. This doctrine only makes sense to those who believe the inequality of birthright to be naturally justified.
Objectivism is a good way to make yourself feel intellectually comfortable with being born into privilege. It is a reassuring self-justification for many that they shouldn’t feel insecure about their luck. Maybe they should. Inequality is a natural fact of life, but it’s one that can be reduced and marginalized by the right political and economic systems. We need to pursue these systems, instead of ignoring inequality the way objectivism would have us do.
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[...] Originally @ Stanford Progressive [...]
Have to say – thanks unbelievably for this blog!!
Not often you find a good site which isn’t just full of spam nowerdays
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