In Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher I make the case not only that Ayn Rand was an egotist and an amphetamine addict, but also that her philosophy, when squared with the reality of human behavior, flies in the face of scientific evidence about how our minds work. Objectivism is not just wrong; it’s dangerously wrong because it undermines ethical human relations by presupposing we are something we are not, and that we act in ways that we don’t. Just ask Alan Greenspan.
Capitalism has improved, and continues to improve, the lives of millions of people. But a philosophy based entirely on one arbitrary aspect of economics—and taken to extreme as if it were the only part of life that really counts—is patently absurd and morally bankrupt to boot. To assume, as many Rand devotees do, that theirs is the only path to a proper society (precisely because they are so mistaken about human psychology), is tantamount to patients writing prescriptions for doctors. Worse, it’s an example of narcissists defining etiquette, ethics, and morality itself.
That we have individuals elected to public office who consider themselves Ayn Rand followers, not to mention the bastion of Rand devotees on Wall Street, is prima facie evidence for explaining the economic mess we are in. Recent history makes this clear: There are no John Galts, and thus perfection in business ethics by superior individuals is a daydream.
Moreover, the working poor near the bottom of the economic ladder are not parasites. Indeed, the goods and services they provide make life tenable for those of us who are more fortunate, for without a bottom, there is no middle, and without a middle, no top. We grow up being accustomed to inequality legally enforced by those with the political influence to keep their economic advantage, and we mistake the resulting injustice for the state of nature.
Each economic layer of society represents an enormous asset of humanity—each is made up of individual human beings who deserve a fair chance at a good life, and that includes a living wage, no matter what kind of work they do. They deserve a society that is not rigged by the winners to keep wages low and avoid competition. Jobs that do not include a living wage are tasks better left undone. Rand disciples pretend to worship the idea of competition, but our history of economics proves beyond doubt that, whenever the opportunity for competition presents itself, they will use lobbyists to ensure legislation to avoid it.
Parasites live off the efforts of others who actually do the work, precisely in keeping with the way the Wall Street financial industry operates. Instead of actually creating wealth, Wall Street’s real contribution of late can best be described as looting.
House of Representatives Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan would seem by most acceptable standards to be an educated adult, and yet, according to a recent Newsweek article, he isan “Ayn Rand nut.” The article by Jonathan Chait described Rand herself as “kind of a politicized L. Ron Hubbard,” which I can’t top.
Do you suppose Congressman Ryan knows anything at all about human psychology? Don’t people in positions of power bear some responsibility for keeping up with what cutting-edge research is revealing about human behavior? How could anyone with access to the discoveries in psychology and neuroscience in the last two decades view Ayn Rand as anything but a radically mistaken, narcissistic zealot whose psychological profile bears many striking similarities to that of a sociopath?
Read the Key Symptoms of Psychopathy in Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us and compare them with the profiles of Rand in the books by her former devotees who describe her personality. Her contempt for those who did not live up to her own level of egotistical narcissism was legendary, and the evidence that she did not walk her own talk is glaring.
Here is an excerpt from Existential Aspirations: “Randian philosophy, known as Objectivism, is seductive in its appeal to young minds. When a rush of adolescent hormones encounters an ideology that makes biologically self-centered and narcissistic inclinations seem glorious, critical thinking stops and notions of superiority blossom. It is enthralling to think that your innermost ambition represents the pinnacle of human morality. Yet Rand’s philosophy is utopian in the extreme and utterly devoid of sound argument.” That is, if one takes seriously the recent research about human behavior.
In Existential Aspirations, I quote primatologist Frans de Waal, who says in The Age of Empathy: “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that make life worthwhile.” Indeed, Objectivism represents a deep void or absence of the qualities that make us human; it’s an ideology of advantage by those who expect to have and keep an advantage, not by their deeds necessarily, but by the very nature of their self-assumed superiority. Hang around with some Objectivists for a while and this will become crystal clear.
Through a narcissistic lens, Rand acolytes celebrate a kind of rationale and motivation that does not exist except in a theory thoroughly discredited by research. If science has revealed anything about human behavior in recent years, it is the absurdity of Rand’s fundamental assertion that we are primarily creatures of reason. We are anything but, and Objectivism is anything but objective.
Think about this: If we were primarily creatures of reason, would the world be in the shape it’s in today? And if self-interest and personal profit is the pinnacle of virtue, as Rand said it is, then why are some of our most successful capitalists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett devoting their remaining years to giving their fortunes away? Why is the nonprofit sector of our economy nearly $2 trillion and is growing exponentially?
Paul Ryan is said to require his staff to read Atlas Shrugged. It’s little wonder his budget proposal is skewed in favor of those under the Randian spell. It also helps explain the manufactured illusion in his budget of offering to turn over Medicare to the private insurance industry while arguing that it will still remain viable. They don’t care if it works. To Objectivists, something like Medicare is unworthy of concern, given that it lacks a profit motive. For them, looking out for people is thought to be a socialist plot.
There are some things in life that do not warrant a profit. Medical insurance is one of them. Profit comes at the expense of care, period. Even the majority of us with a middle-class income and private health insurance are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. That’s because the co-pay or the outright denial of claims (both subject to insurance-friendly legislation via the work of lobbyists) is for most families a budget slayer that can easily surpass the amount of their home mortgage.
Imagine using insurance vouchers to replace Medicare coverage as Paul Ryan advocates. Then ask yourself what kind of premiums would be required to cover people in the last few chapters of life and still make a profit. Rest assured, profit will come first. Imagine what the co-pay would have to be to ensure an expected return on investment. How convoluted would the policy have to be to provide the illusion of security so that only the seriously ill would comprehend the ruse, as is the case today with most standard insurance policies?
Should we not expect more from our political representatives than a willingness to embrace the lunatic fringe of political philosophy without so much as an acknowledgment of the studies that show such work to be the delusional ranting of a very unstable individual, who based her complete philosophy of life on what she thought the ideal man should be like and who, because of the fact that there were and are no such men, still plunged ahead undeterred? Watch the movie Inside Job and then ask yourself, where were the John Galts? Where are they now? Indeed, where were they ever?
One of the most insidious things about Objectivism is that deep at its core is a seething but thinly disguised (sometimes blatantly open) contempt for anyone and everyone not on board with the self-interest is the only thing that matters fantasy. This undermines those things that we need a public sector for, like a government strong enough and fair-minded enough to show an equal concern for all of its citizens, regardless of whether they maintain their own lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
The human species comprises a vast array of attributes, talents, and emotions. We are not responsible for who our parents were and hence our genetic legacy. Thus, we aren’t responsible for our innate talents, although we are accountable for developing those talents we do possess. But first and foremost, we should be responsible for educating ourselves beyond the practicality of falling victim to a cult and being swallowed whole by flawed ideas that appeal to our adolescent desires. It doesn’t take a serious academic effort to determine that Objectivism is nonsense, but one does have to think beyond hearsay and Fox News.
The distance between ourselves and those whom we perceive as the other exists as a psychosomatic crevice. We fill this fissure with a range of emotions from love and admiration to contempt and hatred. The goodwill of the former requires that we know enough about others or have enough experience with them to appreciate their humanity. Objectivists see little value in a liberal education because they believe they are the only important people on the planet and all of the other poor fools are by nature inferior.
Objectivism is especially appealing to people whose worldview is limited to the familiarity of their sole ethnocentric group, social class, or nation state. In other words, if it’s not about them, it’s unimportant. But worse, far worse, is the exalted esteem that Rand disciples believe exists only within their own ranks. This smugness leads to a malignant strain of contempt for others, especially when
they get together and ramp up their self-aggrandizing rhetoric about their own self-delusional rugged individualism.
At the center of American politics lies a fundamental difference in how one defines the notion of human dignity. The idea that one’s feelings and aspirations are all that counts in life nullifies Immanuel Kant’s view that all the lives of all human beings matter and that we should treat our fellow human beings not as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves. In Randian ideology, Martin Buber’s I-Thou becomes I-it, and contempt and hatred are not far behind.
Listen to Rand disciples when they speak of people who wait tables and flip burgers in restaurants. They can barely contain their derision. Yet these people’s services add quality to all of our lives, and those who provide these services do so for the most part without receiving an adequate income. Moreover, their lack of sufficient income has much more to do with their political disadvantage than with the actual worth of their labor.
An unfortunate psychological result of group affiliation is that it’s possible to cede oneself to one’s group in a way that seems to absolve one of personal responsibility. In his insightful book Human Dignity, George Kateb puts it like this: “To be affiliated with one’s whole self is to welcome docility, to endorse the thought that one’s possibilities are exhausted, perhaps from birth, and that one cannot change or be changed; all that one can do is play a part and at most make the part one’s own by small differences of attitude or conduct.”
But here is the kicker: hitch a castle-in-the-sky ride by association with the crème de la crème of humanity, as Rand followers view themselves, and you can revel vicariously in the limelight of your more successful associates and even in the scorching, radiant light of Rand herself. And if you can’t achieve success on your own, no worries, because you are already home, so to speak, with a group who will allow your aspirations to serve as a stand-in for actual accomplishment for as long as you pretend. Moreover, it’s easier to find out what Rand had to say on all matters of importance than it is to think for oneself, and it provides a good cover for one’s docility of thought. Objectivists are always ready with an Ayn Rand quote, fully expecting it to settle any argument.
At the core of Rand’s philosophy is a psychopathic contempt for the kind of people who constitute the majority of Americans. The fact that a budget prepared by one of her disciples sanctions a war against poor people should not be a surprise. That more people can’t see Ryan’s budget for what it is, should be. That this man is viewed by many people as a great candidate for president of the United States runs directly counter to the thoughtfulness necessary to sustain a viable democracy. We desperately need a political philosophy that takes into account the way we are, not an adolescent fantasy that thrives on contempt.