This is a continuation of my appraisal of Denise Cummings’s PBS article This is what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously.
Cummins cites examples of the bad things that could happen when you adhere to Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
Under "An example from industry," Cummins writes, "In 2008, Sears CEO Eddie Lampert decided to restructure the company according to Rand’s principles." Things didn't go very well for Sears. But how is that a failure attributable to Rand's philosophy? Because Lampert claims to have operated "according to Rand’s principles?" This is nothing more than the fallacy of guilt by association. And it’s not even close to accurate. Rand believed that all individuals, businessmen included, should be free to act on their rational judgement. She never claimed that people automatically do. Rand never claimed that man was infallible. People making bad judgments doesn’t invalidate reason, freedom, capitalism, or Objectivist principles. And rather than cherry-pick only an example of allegedly bad Objectivism in business, why not also give an example of a CEO who successfully applied Objectivism to his business, such as John A. Allison, who guided bank giant BB&T through the financial crisis? (See "Objectivism Teaches Honesty in Business")
What happened with Sears is what happens when people make bad judgments. Rand didn’t argue that acting on one’s judgment automatically leads to good outcomes. She just said people should be free to do so.
Cummins also wrongly equates Objectivism to libertarianism, which she apparently equates to anarchy (no law, no police protection, etc.), citing (if you can believe it) "An example from Honduras" after a coup d’état, in which the new rulers “made the Constitution into a tool for them to get rich.” That's barely worth commenting on, except to observe that Cummins apparently believes that transportation infrastructure wouldn’t get built unless government builds it. Cummins ignores the fact that only a government that has private earnings to tax and private enterprise to hire—a private sector with some significant degree of health—could build anything. She apparently also commits the fallacy of equating an isolated government “privatization” policy—the Honduran government’s turning responsibility for road maintenance over to regulated private companies—with free market capitalism, and with equating capitalism to no police force.
What is worth commenting on in regard to Honduras is this from Cummins:
Yet devotees of Ayn Rand still argue that unregulated self-interest is the American way, that government interference stifles individualism and free trade. One wonders whether these same people would champion the idea of removing all umpires and referees from sporting events. What would mixed martial arts or football or rugby be like, one wonders, without those pesky referees constantly getting in the way of competition and self-interest?
This explains her Honduran example. Cummins can't distinguish between the rule of objective law and regulated markets. The rule of law—that is to say, objective law grounded in individual rights—is an integral part of Objectivist political theory, and of free market capitalism. But rules—referees—are different from regulations that impose controls. In my TOS article "Where Does Valid Law End and Regulation Begin?," I explained "Government regulation is illegitimate because it entails the legal imposition or prohibition of courses of private action in which no actual (or intended) rights-violations are evident."
Regulation should not be confused with rational non-rights violating rules that facilitate orderly interaction, such as traffic laws. Nor should regulation be confused with laws protecting the sanctity of contract, or that outlaw fraud, extortion, and the like, or that provide a court structure for resolving disputes or providing an objective forum for prosecutions. Regulation shouldn’t be confused with police, which steps in when someone assaults you but otherwise leaves you free to think and live. A capitalist society is not a society without umpires and referees. A capitalist government is one that protects rights and maintains order. It is a society with a government that protects its citizens from aggressive force, but does not itself wage aggression. Capitalism is not about who controls, the people or the rich, but of a government that protects equally all individuals’ right to control their own lives. Cummins's either-or choice of government control or no law masquerading as freedom is a false alternative.
She goes on:
Perhaps another way to look at this is to ask why our species of hominid is the only one still in existence on the planet, despite there having been many other hominid species during the course of our own evolution. One explanation is that we were cleverer, more ruthless and more competitive than those who went extinct. But anthropological archaeology tells a different story. Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.
Another paragraph; another straw man. Where in the world does Rand's Objectivist ethics of rational self-interest forbid cooperation or promote ruthlessness? This smear is particularly egregious, given that Rand went to extensive and laborious effort to promote the trader principle, the ultimate in mutually self-interested human cooperation. Once again, Cummins presents a false choice; submission of all to government control or the life of a loner "keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves."
Within the context of property rights, the exchange of knowledge and skills through trade in goods is the economic essence of capitalism. Business, which Rand exalted, is one of the highest forms of human cooperation. So, I don't have a clue to what the hell Cummins is talking about. One thing I'm sure of: cooperation through government compulsion is not cooperation, but a chain gang. Cooperation through self-sacrifice is not cooperation, but exploitation—a master-slave relationship. Real cooperation is based on voluntary association built on self-interested individual choices. There is no room for Rand's concept of benevolent coexistence based on rational self-interest in Cummins's altruistic, statist world.
Even in describing the characters of Atlas Shrugged and their actions, Cummins isn't even in the ballpark:
The hero of her most popular novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” personifies this “highest of animals”: John Galt is a ruthless captain of industry who struggles against stifling government regulations that stand in the way of commerce and profit. In a revolt, he and other captains of industry each close down production of their factories, bringing the world economy to its knees. “You need us more than we need you” is their message.
Did she even read the novel? In the novel, the world is being brought to its knees by the regulatory welfare state gone wild, not Galt's "captains of industry," whom he seeks to rescue before they can be destroyed. Cummins fails to mention that many corrupt captains of industry are villains in the novel, conspiring with government officials to gain favors at the expense of honorable producers. Galt is not even close to being a "captain of industry." He is an inventor of a revolutionary new product, but forgoes the fame and fortune that his invention could bring him—not to mention the chance to build a giant company—to lead a rebellion of honest producers against the advancing dictatorship. In the spirit of the America's Founding Fathers, Galt gives it all up, pledging his life, fortune, and sacred honor to the cause of liberty and justice he selfishly cherished more than anything.
Cummins also cites Rand's Journals:
The fly in the ointment of Rand’s philosophical “objectivism” is the plain fact that humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers. These “prosocial tendencies” were problematic for Rand, because such behavior obviously mitigates against “natural” self-interest and therefore should not exist. She resolved this contradiction by claiming that humans are born as tabula rasa, a blank slate, (as many of her time believed) and prosocial tendencies, particularly altruism, are “diseases” imposed on us by society, insidious lies that cause us to betray biological reality. For example, in her journal entry dated May 9, 1934, Rand mused:
For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?
Rand's journals, of course, are not a part of her final philosophy, just part of the progression of Rand's thought. Note that Rand wrote those words in 1934, long before her mature philosophy was presented in Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. That aside, isn't this the essence of Cummins's critique; a collectivist opposed to individualism? Rand ultimately rejected the notion of a "social instinct," or any instinct (which she defines as an automatic form of knowledge). But she most emphatically did not reject cooperation or social harmony or a societal existence. Though not a "tendency," but a choice, cooperation is inherent in how Rand saw man—not as a social animal in the collectivist sense (the subordination of the individual to the group), but as a contractual animal, which implies socially cooperative individualism.
Contractual relationships, meant more broadly than strictly economic terms, does not imply any anti-social premise. Rather, it’s Rand’s way of identifying the proper form of social organization, one based on rational selfishness—trade, voluntary consent, mutual benefit, the absence of physical force, liberty, individualism, political freedom—as opposed to altruism—exploitation, sacrifice and profiteers on sacrifice, coercion, collectivism, political tyranny.
In conclusion, Cummins seems to pull it all together:
When people behave in ways that violate the axioms of rational choice, they are not behaving foolishly. They are giving researchers a glimpse of the prosocial tendencies that made it possible for our species to survive and thrive… then and today.
Keep in mind the state of most of that survival, when men allegedly violated “the axioms of rational choice.” If man really had a biologically programmed altruistic instinct, it didn’t work—not if human progress and well-being is your standard of value. That Cummins seems to value primitive “altruistic” tribalism over modern selfish capitalism is quite interesting. Draw your own conclusions from that.
In the end, overcoming that alleged “instinct”—and what Rand termed “the tribal premise”—in favor of individualism paved the way for progress. After thousands of years of stagnation, man began his progress toward civilized, progressive society—casting off tribalism and moving toward individualism—culminating in the explosion of progress and individual freedom born of the Enlightenment discovery of individual rights of the past 250 years. Is this progress the target of Cummins's article—and her unjust attack on Ayn Rand? Your guess is as good as mine. But remember that progress is dependent on reason. To the extent man abandons reason, progress reverses. So when Cummins asserts that to “violate the axioms of rational choice” s not “foolish,” what is she saying? That acting on moral “instinct” ot “tendencies”—i.e., whim—is acceptable? How does one decide when to act on whim and when to choose rationally? On still more whim? Is Cummins attacking reason? That would go a long way to explaining the virulence of her uniformed attack on one of history's great champions of reason.
One thing is for sure: The remnants of and/or reemergence of the tribal premise and its altruistic foundation threatens the human progress resulting from the Enlightenment values of reason, individualism, and rights-protecting government. What must be understood is that Rand did not cobble together her ethics regardless of the facts of reality. She identified the rational egoist ethics that underpinned man’s progress since the Enlightenment by observing it in action, logically validating it by reference to the facts of man’s nature. If man is to continue to survive in a civilized way, it will be in no small part thanks to Rand’s ethical contributions.
At the beginning of her article, Cummins wonders “why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow.” Perhaps if Cummins actually studied Objectivism and honestly and objectively (no pun intended) absorbed it, she wouldn’t have to ask that question. But that’s what happens when you don’t take Ayn Rand seriously. Or perhaps do, and fear she’s right.
PBS Columnist vs. Ayn Rand: Is Altruism Biological?—Michael Hurd
Response to Cummins on Rand at PBS—Ben Bayer @ The Ayn Rand Society