Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Ayn Rand's Dishonest Critics-2

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s congressional testimony last week continues to produce fodder for attacks on Ayn Rand and Objectivism. The attacks are designed to discredit her philosophy and ideas through guilt-by-association. Greenspan is well known as having been close to Ms. Rand during the 1960s and 1970s, although I don’t know of any evidence that he ever considered himself an Objectivist. If he ever did, he abandoned those beliefs long ago.

Nonetheless, an objective assessment of Greenspan’s actions as Fed chairman and how they relate to Ayn Rand is not a concern of the critics. The goal is to discredit Objectivism and bury it once and for all. But any short-term damage notwithstanding, this effort will be futile longer term. Rational ideas don’t die. Like an underground river that breaks through to the surface in unpredictable places, Objectivist ideas will continue to penetrate the culture and build on its already significant strength.

Bill Moyers, on his recent PBS program Bill Moyers’ Journal, follows the script to the letter. In his opening comments prior to the start of his interview with left-leaning economist James K. Galbraith, Moyers launches into a distorted attack on Ayn Rand, focussed on her ethics of what he calls “radical self-interest”. It is this that is the primary subject of my rebuttal, which I posted on his comments page.

In the wake of the financial crisis, a rush is on to convict capitalism. As I have been writing and will continue to write, it is logically impossible to blame free market capitalism for the implosion of a rigidly controlled and regulated industry. But what I find interesting here is the fact that of all of the pro-free market thinkers, it is Ayn Rand that gets the brunt of the assault. I have long believed that vocal attacks on Ayn Rand’s ideas will escalate in parallel with the ascendance of her influence in the culture. Her sudden prominence as a target of the Left wing attack machine is a good indication that her ideas have now reached the point where they are perceived as a long-term threat to their statist designs on America.

To be sure, there has been some positive (toward Rand), or at least balanced, commentary. But the mere fact of her appearance as a prime whipping dog of the anti-capitalist assault is proof of the growing strength of her ideas in the culture, in my view. Mr. Moyers seems to agree, referring to Rand as “the author of two of the most influential books of my generation THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED, both timeless best-sellers.”

Here are the relevant remarks of Mr. Moyers, followed by my response:


Watching Alan Greenspan testify before Congress this week, I tried, I tried very hard not to keep thinking of Ayn Rand. I failed.

The philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand was Alan Greenspan's ideological guru, his intellectual mentor. She was also one of the most amazing fantasists of the last century, the author of two of the most influential books of my generation THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED, both timeless best-sellers.

Rand was a hedonist, an exponent of radical self-interest, who so believed in unfettered, unbridled capitalism that she advocated the abolition of all state regulations except those dealing with crime. In the gospel according to Rand, the business community was constantly beleaguered by evil forces practicing, are you ready for this? Altruism! Yes, the unselfish regard for the welfare of others was a menace to greed, and Rand would have none of it.

Alan Greenspan met her as a much younger man in New York and, like so many blossoming capitalists, was smitten. He has since downplayed her influence on him, but as Chairman of the Fed for nearly 19 years he seemed quite Rand-like as he watched Wall Street run wild. Yesterday, like an old warrior still in a fog after his armies have been routed from the field of battle, he expressed shock at how his ideology has failed him. He didn't see it coming, he told the House Oversight Committee. The extent of the meltdown is, "Much broader than anything that I could have imagined," a "Once-in-a-century credit tsunami." The wondrous glories of a free market with no need of pesky oversight had somehow gone wrong. Now you tell us.


There is no question that Greenspan was influenced by Rand. But he is not in any way representative of her or of her philosophy of Objectivism, as anyone who has fully studied her work knows. If he ever was an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, he certainly hasn’t been one in a very long time. If he were, he never would have taken the job of Fed Chairman, which is essentially a monetary dictator. A “free market” regulator is a logical impossibility. Taking that job completely disqualifies him from any valid connection with Rand’s ideas.

In short, Ayn Rand is being made a victim of guilt-by-association. Why her? Greenspan was undoubtedly influenced by many thinkers. There is only one reason to single out Rand…the power of her ideas and her philosophy of Objectivism. Objectivism offers the only comprehensive, moral defense of free market capitalism and of America’s founding principles of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and each individual’s pursuit of his own welfare and happiness. In other words, Objectivism is the foremost threat to statists of every variety. Therefor, Objectivism must be discredited at all costs…at the cost of honesty, objectivity, fairness, or rational analysis.

Greenspan is being set up as the perfect straw man.

Importantly, though, it is telling that Mr. Moyers starts out by attacking Rand’s Objectivist ethics, and for good reason. The Leftist Mr. Moyers seems to be in agreement with Ms. Rand on at least one key point…ideas move human history, and morality is the most powerful force in the field of ideas. Her discovery of rational self-interest as the proper code of ethics for people to live by is indeed radical and is, in fact, the moral foundation of free market capitalism.

But Mr. Moyers deliberately fails to define her concept of self-interest, leaving his audience to accept a false premise. What he doesn’t tell you is that Rand utterly rejected the conventional definition of selfishness… that of a person who achieves his aims by taking advantage of others through dishonesty or trampling their rights, etc. Rand considered such people evil. Many of the villains in her novels, some of whom are businessmen, are people of such character. A good key to Rand’s concept of selfishness is provided in this brief definition from the book “Ayn Rand Answers”:

What do you mean by “selfishness”?

I mean the pursuit of one’s rational self-interest. I mean that the central purpose of one’s life is to achieve one’s own happiness, not to sacrifice oneself to others or others to oneself. “Selfishness” means to live by the judgement of one’s own mind and to live by one’s own productive effort, without forcing anything on others.


A similar distortion is in Mr. Moyers’ equating altruism with “regard for the welfare of others” and attributing that package-deal to her. In her refutation of altruism, Rand took pains to show that the two concepts are in fact mutually exclusive. She said (from The Ayn Rand Lexicon);

The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible.



Exposing the true nature of altruism, she went on to say;

Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice? Is the moral purpose of those who are good, self-immolation for the sake of those who are evil?

Rand rejected altruism precisely because it leads to predatory behavior, rather than benevolence and mutual respect. Altruism means self-sacrifice, which sets up a moral inversion…the unearned as a virtue, and the earned as a vice. Since, according to altruism, the moral consists not of achieving but of sacrificing personal values…then it necessarily follows that it is moral to be the recipient of the sacrifices of others, since one did not earn it. To keep what one has earned is selfish and thus immoral, according to altruism. The logical consequence of altruism is seen all around us…in the form of the growing entitlement mentality engulfing this country. Anyone with a “regard for the welfare of others” would never demand that they sacrifice their values, and no one possessing integrity would sacrifice their own. ("Sacrifice” is defined by Rand as “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.” This does not preclude charity or extending a helping hand to others, if the recipient is worthy according to one’s own hierarchy of values, one can afford it, and it is done out of a sense of good will, rather than as a moral command to “put others above self”.)

Worse yet, altruism is the moral base and justification of socialism and all forms of tyranny. It is the tool of the power-luster. And this gets to the heart of the matter. It is no accident that Barack Obama’s campaign rests on the morality of altruism (“We are all our brothers’…and our sisters’…keeper”). The battle between socialism and capitalism, or collectivism and individualism, is primarily a moral one. Is the individual subordinate to “society”? Or does he have a right to exist for his own sake? If self-sacrifice for the sake of others (altruism) is the standard of morality, then socialism is the moral social system. If the achievement of values for one’s own well-being (rational self-interest) is the standard, then capitalism is the moral social system. Anti-capitalists know this. Capitalism’s defenders…from Smith to Von Mises to Friedman…have not yet figured this out…with the exception of Ayn Rand. This may explain Mr. Moyers’ attacking her ethics. In any event, a country of rational people who selfishly demand their right to their own lives and freedom is what socialists (or their watered-down cousins, the welfare statists) fear most. This is the real motive behind the outbreak of anti-Rand, anti-Objectivist attacks, in my view.

Ethics is a complex subject, and requires much more discussion than is presented here. But, let me just say this. The radicalness, and great virtue, of Rand’s ethics is that it discards both altruism (self-sacrifice for the sake of others), and the conventional concept of selfishness (sacrificing of others for one’s own sake). Rand’s rational self-interest is a non-predatory, non-exploitative, rights-respecting moral code that discards the primitive dogma of human sacrifice altogether and, thus, clears the way for a benevolent human interaction based upon mutual respect. Her twin discoveries of rational self-interest…a new concept of egoism which is derived from man’s nature and the factual requirements of his survival…and of the true, evil nature of altruism stands as one of the greatest of philosophic achievements.

Mr. Moyers can be forgiven, perhaps, for getting it wrong on the Objectivist ethics. The view of selfishness as always evil and altruism as the good has deep roots, and Rand’s challenge to that dogma takes tremendous cognitive effort and reflection. But the tip-off that proves Mr. Moyers’ dishonesty is his discription of Rand as an advocate of hedonism. It doesn’t take much research to discover that she explicitly rejected hedonism as inimical to a person’s rational self-interest, which can only be determined by a process of reason within a long-term context.

A long line of economic thinkers has proven the practical ability of free market capitalism to enable tremendous increases in man’s material well-being. Yet capitalism continues to wither under the big-government assault. Ayn Rand found the key to this disparity…capitalism’s need for a moral sanction. Anyone interested in rolling back the growth of the predatory welfare state in America must be ready to make not just the practical case for capitalism, but the moral case as well. In this regard, I recommend discarding the misrepresentations of Rand’s ethics, as well as preconceived notions of selfishness and altruism. Make your own objective assessment by reading the Ayn Rand novels mentioned by Mr. Moyers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, followed by these three non-fiction books:

The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics…the Virtuous Egoist, by Tara Smith

Loving Life…the Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It, by Craig Bittle

1 comment:

tomywomy said...

Nice entry. Too many people get away with making outrageously incorrect statements like "objectivism espoused greed", dropping the context of rational self-interest and instead substituting an "anything goes" assertion. Those who read your entry and are honest will at least doubt such claims.