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Ayn Rand could have learned from the Arizona firefighters

It’s worth pondering that the 19 firefighters who died Sunday battling a huge wildfire near Prescott, Arizona, presumably were motivated by something other than rational self-interest. Like the first-responders to 9/11 and other emergencies, and members of the armed forces, they put themselves in harm’s way (or chose a job that did so) because they wanted to serve.

Economics, and much of public policy and political strategy, assume that people are motivated by self-interest, that the definition of acting rationally is to maximize what you want for yourself, and that other values – service, duty, allegiance to others, morality, and shared ideals – are either irrelevant or negligible.

Ayn Rand, the philosophical guru of the modern Republican Party, popularized this view of human nature. In her world, selfishness is the only honest and justifiable motive. By looking out for Number One, we accomplish everything that’s necessary. Economist Milton Friedman extended the logic: The magic of the marketplace can be relied on to allocate resources to their highest and best uses. Anything “public” is suspect.

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