Ken, not Atlas, Shrugged
My sister thinks it is notable that I had a “lukewarm” reaction to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Usually, she explains, most readers either love her work and have a political epiphany, or they hate Rand’s ideas with a passion. My response: yeah it was a good novel, but I am not convinced of the merit of her ideas.
The novel basically depicts a society that is growing intellectually and technologically lazy – taking for granted all of mankind’s achievements to the point of even shrugging away such minor problems as trains being derailed as “inevitable”. It ends with John Galt recruting the world’s intellectual talent into joining a self-imposed exile where they would rebuild society in their own interest.
From this book and others by Ayn Rand, I see the development of three ways of thinking: objectivism, Randian philosophy, and libertarianism. Not all of these are bad, per se, but they all do have their weaknesses (as much as their opponent philosophies do).
The first of these, Objectivism, seems to be the root of the other two, and thus may share some of the poor reputation of the others. At its core, Objectivism is merely a rejection of “faith” and a firm belief in reason and the senses. One can be an Objectivist without subscribing to the other two philosophies. In fact, many secular, atheist, and even agnostic individuals share this common philosophy – that subjectivity is not reality and that everything in the universe has a rational, logical explanation. The problem there is not everything is as rational as we’d like – even in the movie Contact, Jodie Foster’s belief in life beyond Earth is a form of faith in the as-yet-unexplained. And human beings are hardly a wholly rational species – including those who espouse the Objectivist philosophy.
The Randian philosophy is often described as a form of “rational selfishness” and thus is panned by many of its critics as an unacceptably individual sense of morality. Whereas Kantian Ethics is rooted in a “sense” of duty, bound by the belief that only universally acceptable and universally possible actions are the moral ones, Rand’s ideology places reason and self-interest at the center of what constitutes moral actions. This has deep implications, given the uncanny ability of humans to rationalize just about anything. One could, for example, believe that you should only conserve household energy if it results in more money in your pocket for other purposes – never mind the larger interest in slowing our global consumption of natural resources.
Neither Kant nor Rand are perfect philosophies, and we shouldn’t accept that they are the only ones available. Indeed, the “small-government” movement behind conservatism today is in trouble precisely because is neglected the rational side of Rand’s selfishness and has become too random, too short-term, and too contradictory of a governing model, allowing corruption and moral scandals to dominate while the politicians become little more than broken records when comments on policy. Likewise, modern liberalism has become too focused on the inherent “moral” quality of selflessness, to the point of making volunteerism mandatory in public high schools, pushing targeted tax hikes to balance budgets, and supporting a foreign policy that makes many developing nations dependent on the power and economic strength of the United States – rather than letting them develop on their own.
Fortunately for Objectivists and Randians, conservatism isn’t their model for public policy. Libertarianism is a much better fit for their philosophy. It’s a simple idea – get the government out of everything except the most basic national needs, like defense and immigration. Many elements of the libertarian approach intrigues me – like a flat tax on income (if we have to have one at all) – but my biggest problem is with the transition (a flat tax right now would amount to either a tax hike on the poor or added government debt just to pay for a tax cut for the rich). It also seems to ignore the very real reality that simply saying “everyone should take care of themselves” won’t make it happen – and many of the darkest social ills of the past few centuries were the result of a lack of government intervention, not because of it.
Government has a role, and we should expect that the community help pay for it. Sure, we can cut wasteful spending, and we could provide more constructive ways for achieving the aims government is now responsible for. But public debate on this is no where need ready to make the full leap to a libertarian nation.
My sister is smart enough to know the limits of the libertarian approach, and why those who support the ideology need to think in incremental steps and in how to shape the debate. I just hope she understands my “lukewarm” response to Ayn Rand and my “wishywashy moderate” ideology isn’t a lack of passion behind the ideas – but a full recognition of the weaknesses on both sides of most political and philosophical debates.