The Horrors of an Ayn Rand World: Why We Must Fight for America's Soul
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Ayn Rand Nation: the Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, by Gary Weiss. Click here for a copy of the book.
The whole damned history of the world is a story of the struggle between the selfish and the unselfish! . . . All the bad around us is bred by selfishness. Sometimes selfishness even gets to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. Then it’s called Fascism.
—Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday
There is no real doubt what an Objectivist America would mean. We may not be around to see it, but it’s likely we’ll be here for its earliest manifestations. They may have already arrived.
The shape of a future Objectivist world has been a matter of public record for the past half century, since Ayn Rand, the Brandens, Alan Greenspan, and other Objectivist theoreticians began to set down their views in Objectivist newsletters. When he casually defended repeal of child labor laws in the debate with Miles Rapoport, Yaron Brook [President of the Ayn Rand Institute] was merely repeating long- established Objectivist doctrine, summarized by Leonard Peikoff as “Government is inherently negative.” It is a worldview that has been static through the decades, its tenets reiterated endlessly by Rand and her apostles:
No government except the police, courts of law, and the armed services.
No regulation of anything by any government.
No Medicare or Medicaid.
No Social Security.
No public schools.
No public hospitals.
No public anything, in fact. Just individuals, each looking out for himself, not asking for help or giving help to anyone.
An Objectivist America would be a dark age of unhindered free enterprise, far more primitive and Darwinian than anything seen before. Objectivists know this. What perhaps they do not always appreciate, given their less than fanatical approach to reality, is what turning back the clock would mean. Or perhaps they do not care.
When Alan Greenspan spoke out against building codes, he knew perfectly well what a lack of adequate building and fire codes would mean. Fifteen years before his birth, 146 people, mostly young women, were burned alive or leaped to their death from the fire at the Triangle Waist Factory just east of Washington Square Park in New York City. There was no requirement for employers to provide a safe workplace, so none was provided. Triangle’s owners crammed their employees into crowded workspaces without proper exits, and inadequate fire codes meant that the fire stairways were insufficient. The result was that dozens of workers’ corpses piled on the sidewalk on March 25, 1911. Anywhere in the world where building codes are inadequate or absent, the result is always the same: Dead people.
In an Objectivist world, the reset button would be pushed on government services that we take for granted. They would not be cut back, not reduced -- they would vanish. In an Objectivist world, roads would go unplowed in the snows of winter, and bridges would fall as the government withdrew from the business of maintaining them -- unless some private citizen would find it in his rational self-interest to voluntarily take up the slack by scraping off the rust and replacing frayed cables. Public parks and land, from the tiniest vest-pocket patch of green to vast expanses of the West, would be sold off to the newly liberated megacorporations. Airplane traffic would be grounded unless a profit-making capitalist found it in his own selfish interests to fund the air traffic control system. If it could be made profitable, fine. If not, tough luck. The market had spoken. The Coast Guard would stay in port while storm- tossed mariners drown lustily as they did in days of yore. Fires would rage in the remnants of silent forests, vegetation and wildlife no longer protected by rangers and coercive environmental laws, swept clean of timber, their streams polluted in a rational, self-interested manner by bold, imaginative entrepreneurs.
With industry no longer restrained by carbon-emission standards, the earth would bake in self-generated heat, ice cap melting would accelerate, extreme weather would become even more commonplace, and seacoasts would sink beneath the waves. Communities ravaged by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes would be left to fend for themselves, no longer burdening the conscience of a selfish, guilt-free world.
The poor and elderly, freed from dependence on character-destroying, government-subsidized medical care, would die as bravely and in as generous quantities as in the romantic novels of a bygone era.
Minimum wage laws would come to an end, providing factory owners and high- tech startups alike with a pool of cheap labor competitive with any fourth-world kleptocracy.
All laws protecting consumers would be erased from the statute books.
Mass transit would grind to a halt in the big cities as municipal subsidies come to an end.
Corporations would no longer be enslaved by antitrust laws, so monopolies and globe-spanning, price-fixing cartels would flourish. The number of publicly held corporations would be reduced to a manageable, noncompetitive few. Big Pharma would manufacture drugs without adequate testing for safety and efficacy—deterred only by concern for their reputation, as described by Greenspan in 1963. Except that with competition reduced by mergers and legal price-fixing, the market would be a feeble substitute for even the FDA.
Securities laws and stock market regulations would be eliminated.
Corporations would operate in secret if they so desired, or with only selective, cursory disclosures to their investors and customers. Only outright fraud would be prosecuted; otherwise the public— a concept no longer recognized as valid— would be on its own.
Insider trading, now legal, would become the norm. Wall Street now would truly be a sucker’s game. “Let the buyer beware” would replace the fifty state regulators and the SEC.
Income taxes would end, so the lowest-paid, ten-cent-an-hour, non-OSHA-supervised factory workers would enjoy wages taxed at the same rate—zero—as their billionaire bosses in distant cities and foreign lands. Dynasties of American royalty would arise, as fortunes pass from generation to generation, untaxed.
Nonprofit organizations, apart from those serving the egos and social calendars of the self-indulging rich, would see their funding dry up as government support vanished. The super-wealthy, having repudiated their “giving pledge,” would now enjoy their riches without guilt, no longer motivated to share their billions with the poor. Philanthropy would be an obsolete relic of discarded moral codes and forgotten history.
Such is the Ayn Rand vision of paradise: an America that would resemble the lands from which our ancestors emigrated, altruism confined to ignored, fringe texts, grinding poverty and starvation coexisting alongside the opulence of the wealthy. Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York would become like Cairo and Calcutta, with walled enclaves protecting the wealthy from the malnourished, uneducated masses outside.
Yaron Brook was right. What’s at stake is not a political issue, but a moral, philosophical issue. In large numbers, Americans have, sometimes unwittingly, abandoned the moral code upon which they were raised. They have done so because of a master storyteller.
Ayn Rand’s stories of noble steel barons, fierce railroad magnates and sniveling government bureaucrats formed the basis of her ideology. It is a compelling narrative, and Oliver Stone’s abortive approach to The Fountainhead suggests a remedy to the Rand narrative: a counternarrative—one that celebrates a creator with a conscience; government not as a Soviet gun but as a builder, a benefactor. It is an optimistic vision, born in an America of hope and not a Russia of despair and privation. This counter-narrative can recognize the merit of individuality and self- interest, while rejecting her celebration of the darker impulses— greed and selfishness.
That kind of thinking is required to meet the challenge presented by Rand and her ideas, as they spread from libertarian and Objectivist think tanks to the Tea Party to Congress and, perhaps, the White House.
Those of us who oppose Rand’s vision of radical capitalism need to read Rand and understand the flaws in her assumptions and illogic of her vision, just as people during the Cold War studied Communism so as to more effectively oppose it. Having read and understood her books and essays, one is in a better position to identify and then to respond to the right’s extremist agenda, and to recognize her ideology when it becomes manifest in society.
We need to understand the basis of her morality, not just its origins but where it doesn’t originate—the three great monotheistic religions, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the other writings and actions of the Founding Fathers. The words “capitalism,” “markets,” and “free enterprise” appear in none of the founding documents of America. The natural enemies of Ayn Rand are not only Lenin and Roosevelt but Jefferson, Rousseau, and Paine. The Founders were not defenders of oligarchy and selfishness. They sacrificed. They were altruists, and proud of it.
My Objectivist friends are right that morality needs to become part of the national dialogue. However we feel about Rand, we need to ponder her views and think more philosophically. We need to evaluate our own core values, and understand the moral foundations of the social programs and government agencies that are targeted by the right. Why do we pay for medical care of the poor and elderly? Why do we regulate business? Why do we pave roads and maintain parks and build public schools? Why do we subsidize public radio, mass transit, family planning clinics, and a host of other programs that don’t always benefit ourselves?We may conclude that we shouldn’t do any of those things. Or we may conclude that we cherish those institutions and will sustain them, not because of the clout of special interest groups and the senior vote, not because we can do it if the Democrats control both houses of Congress, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s right if we hold a different concept of right and wrong than Objectivists and their allies on the right. It’s a question of fundamental moral values, as defined by our national and religious traditions—or by Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
We need to choose—our heritage or Ayn Rand.
Click here for a copy of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul