Atlas Shrugged Debunked
Did Atlas shrug in response to the economic credit crisis in the fall of 2008? Don’t be too quick to answer. First ponder this question: Do you think there is more contempt and arrogance in the world today than ever before? About the same? Less?
Arrogance, by my definition, is an offensive display of assumed superiority. Of course, to be fair in comparing the present with the past, one would have to revisit Greco-Roman culture and begin with all of the vanity and pretentiousness evinced by a long parade of tyrants throughout history. Arrogance is, after all, a contemptuous expression of differing degrees of power. But for my purposes here, looking back just a half-century or so will do.
In 1957 Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged, a novel that became a perennial best seller, glorifying an ethos of selfishness and creating a cult following. Rand imagined her Nietzschean fictional hero, John Galt, as a human incarnate of absolute competence. The novel speculates about what would happen if one day those extraordinarily capable people holding the world together (the John Galts) simply walked away from their critical career positions, letting the rest of us poor fools perish from confusion and ineptitude. The appearance of selfishness as virtue, a subject of messianic fascination for Rand, is, in my view, precisely analogous to the metastasis of cancer cells, whose single-minded selfish inclinations kill their host and themselves in the process, even as they excel and demonstrate their apparent but fleeting supremacy.
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. It is instead predicated on her romanticized view of what the ideal man would be like. The fact that there were none who met her standards, except in her imaginary world of fiction, never stopped her from pretending otherwise.
In Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, Greg S. Nyquist takes Rand’s philosophy apart, brick by brick, until there is effectively nothing left but the whims of a very arrogant and misanthropic individual who saw herself as the embodiment of reason but whose understanding of human nature was wide off the mark. The fact that so many people take her ideas to heart without thinking through their profound contradictions is breathtaking. Rand was a champion of unfettered capitalism, arguing that it is the only moral means of trade and that government represents evil. Nyquist writes, “To believe that entrepreneurial genius and moral integrity go hand in hand and that only an entrepreneur of lesser ability would ever stoop to seeking government help is to evince a naiveté about human nature so staggering that it can only be accounted for on the basis of wishful thinking.”
In spite of all of the criticism it invites, capitalism has improved the lives of millions of human beings the world over. But capitalism without a safety net is like an infection without an antibiotic.
It’s not that Rand’s work is totally devoid of good ideas. Self-reliance is indeed a worthy aspiration, and I would argue that American identity is to a significant degree ensconced in an Emersonian notion of self-reliance, although it is frequently romanticized to the point of being at odds with the reality of today’s profound interdependence. Capitalism is, after all, as powerful an economic force as has ever existed. In spite of all of the criticism it invites, it has improved the lives of millions of human beings the world over. But capitalism without a safety net is like an infection without an antibiotic . Rand’s disciples champion laissez-faire trade but seem unaware of the appalling poverty that exists in India, possibly the closest example of what free market portends for large populations. If you are unfamiliar with poverty in India, watch the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and keep your eyes on the background to get a glimpse of the largest underclass on the planet.
Capitalism’s harsh side can be vengefully immoral, requiring those who benefit most to look the other way when instead they should shoulder responsibility for holding up a system that their continued success depends on. Atlas didn’t shrug, but Wall Street did recently, and it had little to do with responsibility and everything to do with greed. So, if systemic responsibility is unacknowledged and is not assumed by those who benefit most, it renders the majority of the world’s population not only as invisible but frequently as commodities—a means of eager exploitation by some of the world’s wealthiest people.
In The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal says, “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.” De Waal points to the economic disintegration of 2008 as evidence of a trust-starved system collapsing under the weight of predatory lending and pyramid schemes. The very possibility for becoming financially successful in any country depends upon infrastructure, laws, a judicial system, a transportation system, contractual obligation, and millions of laboring participants whose daily actions make business possible. Total self-reliance is but an ideological aspiration; in practical reality it does not exist because none of us can function without society at large. Rand’s work drips with subtle contempt for people who do not live up to her level of egotistical narcissism, and she ignores the contributions of ordinary citizens whose daily work made her life possible. Her followers believe that selfishness is the moral path to freedom. I think not.
Arrogance Fosters Contempt
Today Rand’s novel still inspires an adolescent, self-absorbed, and self-congratulatory cult-like group of worshipers, seemingly incapable of discerning the irony of referring to their own self-delusion as Objectivism. In the fall of 2007, C-Span featured panels of Randian devotees who reeked of self-assured confidence that they were indeed extraordinary people—privy to special knowledge and a kind of discipline and reasoning that exists beyond the reach of ordinary people. Interestingly enough, the presenters were not exceptional speakers. Most of them were, in fact, mediocre, which ideologically should have prevented them from taking the stage with the likes of John Galt as their ideal spokesman. Moreover, the panel included a former speech writer for Ken Lay of Enron fame, as if this were not an ethical disqualifier.
But not for history, we might be content to let these people dupe themselves as to their great superiority, do the best we can with our lesser capacities for amusement, and laugh at their foolishness. A cursory review of the record of human events, however, demonstrates that militant arrogance, for whatever reason it occurs, contains the seeds of fascism and the ever-present potential for inhuman actions. Seething arrogance can’t always be contained. It frequently shows itself as contempt that leads to oppression, and if it achieves a cultural critical mass, it will surface as a misanthropic worldview, giving rise to humanity’s worst behavioral instincts.
Far from shrugging, Atlas, I suspect, is cursing with indignation. Not because anything humans do will affect his ability to hold the world in place, but because humans lack the cooperation necessary to achieve a sustainable civilization and are on track to destroy the very habitability of the planet. This goes to the heart of deluded societies who view themselves as superior to others: They think looking out only for themselves is not only all that is practical, but all that is just and all that is required. And yet, any first-year science student can discern that the earth’s sustainability, under the stress of exponential population growth, requires levels of cooperation never before experienced in human history.
If we’ve learned nothing else from anthropology and evolutionary psychology to date, we should recognize the ease with which groups of people can imagine their superiority over every other group. The Nazis thought themselves to be John Galts of the superman Arian variety. Consider the horrific history of colonialism and the frequent reoccurrence of ethnic cleansing. It’s practically impossible to find a nation in the world that does not think their kind hung the moon and that all others are simply too dense to comprehend their worth.
The ubiquity of arrogance in ancient Rome was in no small part the same as it is in America today: so much good fortune for a few citizens, and so much false attribution. Do you recall any credit ever being given to the slaves who built Rome? How often do we acknowledge that African-American slaves in the Deep South long ago enabled the rise of America as an agricultural world power? People whose inheritance catches the breeze of a bull market fancy themselves financial geniuses. Of course, some people do make smart investment decisions for which they are rewarded, but chance plays a much greater role in financial fortune than most people want to believe. As Nassim Taleb shows convincingly in The Black Swan, free markets work not primarily from the skill of participants but by enabling people to be lucky. One true sign of narcissistic delusion manifests in people who imagine that if they had been born in the slums of Bangladesh, they would have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps so effectively that they would indeed be where they are today.
Within every culture, we find ideological foot-soldiers of the status quo, who strive to endear themselves to those in power by parroting the party line, affirming that those in power are indeed deserving of their ascendancy. Powerless to stand up to those who have wealth and control over them personally, these individuals, both men and women, often mask their own resentment toward this disparity of authority by lashing out against those whom their superiors hold in contempt. In a nutshell, their misplaced loyalty and aggression foster a strong feeling of identity by association with persons of power and allow them to simultaneously demonstrate their own strength through their anger. It is a common-sense survival tactic. People who try to become powerful themselves by sucking up are for the most part intelligent and articulate enough to hold an argument in the face of all who question the hierarchy, but they are careful not to delve too far into questioning the ethics of their superiors. They deem serious inquiry into these matters unnecessary by nature of the very identity of the powerful, so they avoid the dissonance altogether. Many of these individuals qualify as Rush Limbaugh’s “ditto-heads.” These sycophantic centurions never investigate anything in a genealogical sense. Instead they resort to name-calling when their shallow, parroted arguments begin to break down under scrutiny.
Kowtowing patriots are antithetical to the likes of Thomas Paine, who challenged authority whenever and wherever it showed signs of corruption. Status quo sycophants are often conversant in history, general science, politics, and psychology, but they do not know enough about any of these subjects to make clinically objective judgments about matters that are complexly intertwined with the hierarchical powers with which they wish to ingratiate themselves. They mistake their own emotions for unadulterated reason. Adam Smith warned about those who try to endear themselves to the rich and powerful as a major cause of corruption. To her credit, Ayn Rand cautioned against a collusion of government and business interests, but her naiveté about human nature was, indeed, astounding.
In light of such gullibility, it should come as no surprise that socialism, far from having been defeated, exists in resplendent style for the John Galt pretenders, whose income allows them the lobbied purchase of government power in the form of subsidies and tax breaks, thereby redistributing income upward from the poor to the rich. David Cay's Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill) documents this political reality in precise detail.
The misguided identity phenomenon of defending the status quo by wannabe sycophants affects both the political left and right, although there is evidence suggesting that conservatives more than liberals are apt to relate to identity groups with a sense of loyalty and blind obedience. The antidemocratic nature that evolves from our Neolithic tribal inclinations is most acute when it surfaces as arrogance. This is precisely what people do when they take up arguments to defend their particular identity (usually political), based not upon the best knowledge and information they can muster, but on the belief that their side is right, even if they are wrong, because, after all, they are who they are.
Arrogance comes easily for people who do not presume they need to learn about the ways of the world to know that what they know is right and just. I know this firsthand, as I was somewhat enamored with Atlas Shrugged when I read it in my younger years. Like all of those who are fundamentally ignorant but loyal, I was most adamant in my opinions when I knew the least about what I was speaking of. Unfortunately, this is the reason young men will kill others without compunction when they perceive their kin are threatened, regardless of whether or not they are on the ethical side of the issue. Identity trumps all other considerations in such cases, and only rarely—as with the actions of war criminals—are such examples ever subject to public scrutiny. Atlas Shrugged is a powerful treatise for the world’s ideological freshmen and sophomores, and it’s not surprising that those whose egos are larger than their imagination and curiosity remain forever freshmen and sophomores after having been seduced by the book’s theme.
Without deliberation, sophomoric sycophants, who are themselves without real power, profess to know who is worthy of employment, who is unworthy of medical care, and which countries should be given or denied foreign aid. One cannot help but wonder at the ubiquity of the toxic egos that so often accompany good fortune, causing people to think that they have earned their station in life while most everyone else is undeserving. How do people who study so little know so much? Where does the arrogance come from that causes some people to be so sure of their gut feelings that they don’t see the need to examine evidence of any kind that takes issue with their own cursory certitude of global morality, especially when it comes to matters that suggest their own group’s self-evident superiority?
No doubt, capitalism is a powerful force. But it can also be antithetical to democracy, especially when privileged people believe themselves to be the only folks worthy of a say in what matters.
Regrettably, it’s easy to answer the above questions. The history of human beings on the earth is one in which only a hair’s-breadth instant of our social experience resembles the kind of world we live in today. For most of our existence we were hunter-gatherers living in small groups. The familial size of these groups was enough to garner cooperation in ways that led members to identify with one another within the group to the degree that issues of whether or not one deserved enough equity to live didn’t even need to be asked. Still, it was wise to be very wary of strangers. Today, because we are so dramatically different from so many other groups, our diversity fosters a surplus of suspicion and contempt that makes it possible for egotistical narcissists to easily adopt a self-justifying stance in which another’s misery is always preferable to their own mild discomfort. Thus, the stage is set for assumed superiority. We relate to our respective groups with loyalties based upon the unspoken assumption that their identity will trump most other reasons for uniqueness, period.
Young men and women grow up in every culture with a willingness to protect their group without regard for any reason other than the fact that this is, after all, their group. Of course many of us would view it as a character flaw if they didn’t hold that belief, but this kind of loyalty has to be examined constantly for there to be any hope of moral objectivity. For Rand’s followers to call themselves Objectivists is equivalent to a sharp stick in the eye of humanity. Their Objectivism is self-admiration on steroids; it amounts to the very embodiment and celebration of narcissism.
Two decades of research in neuroscience have removed all doubt that reason and self-interest exist in a hand-in-glove relationship. More often that not, we respond emotionally when we perceive that our self-interest is at stake, precisely as Ayn Rand did, lashing out whenever her views were challenged. Science tells us we often relate when we think we are reasoning. The very notion of self-interest rests in emotional subjectivism that, without a great deal of introspection, serves as an obstacle to reason. Not to mention the ubiquitous prevalence of self-deception when emotional matters are in play. In discussions about economics, the unacknowledged reality that seldom receives public attention is that, when all is said and done, most of the things we value near the end of our lives have very little to do with the notion of profit.
The Dark Side of Capitalism
Ayn Rand’s followers prize capitalism as the arrow of virtue because they identify with it, regardless of whether or not they actually qualify as successful capitalists. That they are on the same side as the powerful is comforting. It gives them a borrowed sense of identity and a sense of security, albeit a false one, since the powerful will step on them without compunction if they deem it necessary. No doubt, capitalism is a powerful force. But it can also be antithetical to democracy, especially when privileged people believe themselves to be the only folks worthy of a say in what matters. Nor does it matter to Randian disciples that crony capitalism is antithetical to equal opportunity. People deluded to the point of viewing themselves as naturally superior don’t really believe in equal opportunity to begin with.
One thing, though, that does ring true in the John Galt fantasy is that the world is suffering egregious incompetence. The irony is that this is due in large part to the ill-informed decisions of people who think themselves superior at the outset. With fanatical fervor, neoconservatives and supply-side zealots, regardless of what they think of Ayn Rand (and there have long been ideological differences between Libertarians and Objectivists), have internalized the idea that they live and breathe virtue and that lower and lower taxes will enable them to put the world on a track for sustained excellence. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, himself an admitted Ayn Rand disciple who used to be part of Rand’s inner circle, twiddled his thumbs while his compatriots’ greed made a shambles out of the home mortgage industry. Greenspan clearly had the power to influence if not stem the deplorable tide of corruption, and his excuse of having been the casualty of unstoppable global forces is true to form. It’s indeed typical that people who view themselves as being extraordinarily competent and powerful seem incapable of accepting personal responsibility when things go awry. As far as most will go when things fall apart, is to say, “Mistakes were made.” More recently Greenspan threw up his hands by admitting that some of his fundamental beliefs undergirding his economic philosophy were simply wrong.
Read between the lines of cultural criticism today, and you will find a growing consensus from the political left, right, and center that America’s middle class is on a fast track to the bottom. Income inequality is off the charts. Our reputation as a nation of enviable integrity has been all but destroyed by the actions of the 2001-2009 Bush Administration. The world over, every avenue of human endeavor with regard to the biological health of the planet portends doom. And yet, there are still folks among us who are so smug and deluded in their self-serving certitude, they are convinced that nothing serves the future better than their own unbridled self-interest.
History is crystal clear that capitalism and government collusion is an unholy alliance and that without constant vigilance, corruption and oppressive policies are inevitable. Ayn Rand’s idealized, superior fictional businesspersons abhorred government subsidies, which in the real world of business shows that Atlas Shrugged is at best naïve and at worst a work of fantasy that stretches credulity. If our laws allow for oppressive business practices, such as obscene interest rates for credit cards, then, in effect, oppression is franchised for the unethical.
Abraham Maslow once reasoned that if the only tool you have is a hammer then everything begins to look like a nail. In similar fashion, if the only human consideration that runs through one’s head is one’s own ego-centered self-interest, then henceforth everything in the known universe is bound by nature to revolve around oneself. If, like a cymbal struck with a drummer’s stick, one’s head reverberates with nothing but self-inclinations, then it’s easy to imagine oneself going through life with answers that escape everyone else. If you simply see to your own needs and wants with enough self-justifying force, then the rest of the world will be pulled kicking and screaming to their own good in the wake of your generous efforts. Or so you believe.
As Jeff Walker demonstrates in his book Ayn Rand Cult, Rand did not walk her talk. Her biography illustrates that she thought rules did not apply to her. She was a tyrant who demanded political correctness and ruled her group of admirers with an iron fist, many of whom she did not respect. She was generous with vicious derision for those who dared question the legitimacy of her whim-driven philosophy. She declared herself to be an equal to Aristotle, and yet, as Walker shows in detail, she was incapable of arguing beginner philosophy without sophomoric blunder. Rand’s Objectivism is a fundamental misreading of Darwinism and a colossal misunderstanding of the broad anthropological and psychological requirements for human existence. By Rand’s measure, cancer cells emulate perfection. Rand’s followers view themselves as fervently rational, even as they rely on adolescent emotions to sustain their imagined superiority. They decry the breakdown of family values, championing unfettered consumerism without discerning a connection that the worship of the business ethos, in which trillions of dollars are spent to over-inflate desire, has a negative psychological effect on the very things they pretend to revere.
That’s what cancer is: single-mindedness with a blatant disregard for consequences. If overly ambitious cells kill their host, so what? If greedy fishermen deplete their fishery to the point of extinction, what’s the big deal as long as they are employed? If entrepreneurs foul the air and poison water in the pursuit of profit but are successful in providing jobs, what’s the problem? If Wall Street’s best and brightest mortgage the future with worthless paper, why the fuss? Are they not still deemed winners worthy of extraordinary bonuses?
Capitalism without regard for consequences is cancerous; if profit is the only thing that matters, as Rand claimed in a forty-page opus to selfishness in Atlas Shrugged, then to Atlas humans are just another form of temporary malignancy, to be endured for a time, shrugged off and forgotten.
Capitalism without regard for consequences is cancerous; if profit is the only thing that matters, as Rand claimed in a forty-page opus to selfishness in Atlas Shrugged, then to Atlas humans are just another form of temporary malignancy, to be endured for a time, shrugged off and forgotten. Complain though, to those who view themselves by nature of their ideology as the only real Americans, as Objectivists do, and they are quick to say it’s all about freedom. They are half right. Capitalism minus thoughtful intelligence is freedom from responsibility. Objectivism is responsibility at the cell level only—too bad about the dead host, not to mention the inevitable suicide for the aggressor cells. Too bad we have reached a point in history where the very fate of the planet depends upon heretofore unheard of levels of cooperation both locally and globally, but selfishness is where it’s at, say Rand’s sycophants. And if one dares object to the Objectivists, then one is at best an un-American, tree-hugging socialist and, at worst, the very incarnation of evil. The good side of capitalism results in sustainable equity; the bad side in sophomoric idealists lacking the thoughtfulness needed to become responsible adults in a complicated world.
No, Atlas has not shrugged to get the incompetents off his back. Instead, he wails in frustration that the weight of narcissism never lessens but rises exponentially in spite of the growth of knowledge in the science of human behavior. There is indeed something exceptional about people who think of themselves as untainted examples of pure reason. What’s so extraordinary is their sophistication at disguising their narcissism as objective self-interest when it really amounts to grandiose self-delusion.
In many ways, we are a more moral society today than we have ever been. We have, though, beaten the notion of self-interest nearly to death. We still endure the same arguments, changing the names and players, but the dilemma always reverts to the inherent good or ill thought to reside in the implied virtue of unfettered capitalism, as if there really were such a thing. Stated more simply, citizen versus consumer means you versus you or me versus me. It’s a paradox, a double-edged sword: making things better and worse for us at the same time. Low price equals a bargain; low wages equal a raw deal. But for the fact that our culture is predicated on consumers, and not on citizens per se, we might be able to conclude that some of the most important things in life cannot be left to economics. A nation that cannot enlist enough goodwill to see that those at the bottom economically receive adequate healthcare without the majority whining about freeloaders is a nation too weak intellectually to sustain itself long-term and too morally deficient to lay claim to any purpose other than greed.
We grow up eager to believe that the world revolves around us, and we perceive erroneously that whatever actions we take as individuals serve as proof of our deservedness. If we receive the gift of a bicycle, we are inclined to believe that pedaling demonstrates we’ve earned it. Those who perform their jobs poorly are often the most vociferous about the lack of initiative of the unemployed. The notion that our uninhibited self-interest is the Holy Grail upon which the world depends for meaningful sustenance is intoxicating to minds insufficiently developed to see the absurdity of an ideology modeled on malignancy.
Louis Brandeis once said something to the effect that we can have a nation with most of its wealth in the hands of a few, or we can have democracy, but we can’t have both. By far the most disappointing aspect of the American middle class is that so many have so little regard for people less fortunate than themselves. More than one-fifth of the world’s population lives in wretched poverty, yet for the most part, to Americans at-large, these people are invisible. Still, there is a catch. As the undeveloped nations of the world increasingly live by slave wages, Americans without political and economic power and equity find their own compensation for work in slow-motion freefall. Simply stated, if we see ourselves as consumers first and citizens second, we set our own course for serfdom.
Government As the Embodiment of Evil
Just before the home mortgage meltdown began in 2008, American income demographics were rapidly approaching the rates of inequality experienced in the 1920s. Now the disparity may be even worse because too many of those without much to lose have lost it all. America’s middle class is not the work of an army of John Galts; it’s a practical third-base society put in place by progressive tax policies after the economy hit bottom in the 1930s. It has been unraveling since the 1970s as supply-side zealots advocated the elimination of a social safety net under the misguided notion that triples and home runs are all they themselves are capable of hitting.
To gain power, politicians often play to our worst instincts with regard to social class by pitting one group against another. Through demagoguery Ronald Reagan vilified government, even as he expanded his administration exponentially, and even as he was the head of government. Were it not so pitiful and predicable, we might consider it an act of genius on the part of the financial elite to turn those near the bottom economic rungs of society against their own government—government being perhaps the only hope they might have of gaining financial equity through fair wages and just labor practices. Worse still, is the ease with which politicians change the subject to issues like what horrors gay marriage might bring, or runaway flag burning.
We don’t have universal healthcare in this country because of a surplus of contempt resulting from ethnocentric and class differences. Had it not been for the hatred of African-Americans by bigots in the South, we would have had universal healthcare under Harry Truman. There was a great feeling of togetherness from having lived through a shared wartime sacrifice. The South wanted universal healthcare, but not if it meant black people were going to get it too.
When I hear people whine about class warfare in discussions on economic inequality, I say it’s class warfare all right, and it’s being waged by John Galt pretenders, who confuse their own ignorance with virtue, their own intentions with competence, and whose egotism dressed up as superiority is as undeserved as it is phony. These folks brought us derivatives and financial paper based upon more and more distancing instruments until the genealogy of ownership has to be unraveled by attorneys, who themselves can find no one responsible when the house of cards collapses of the weight of its own illegitimacy. As for those who react with shock at the suggestion that to criticize such actions begets notions of class warfare, one would have to wonder if they are completely ignorant of our dreaded history of class divisiveness.
America’s third-base middle class was a purposeful effort. John Galt didn’t do it. Progressive tax policies enacted with the surplus of goodwill left over from the war effort in the 1940s led the way. The GI Bill enabled thousands of returning soldiers to go to college and made possible the purchase of affordable homes. Millions of average people with good work habits and purposeful goals made real what would come to be known as the American Dream. Historians often remind us that all nations crumble in time, and more often than not arrogance and contempt are major contributors to what brings them down. We are not suffering today from the overindulgence of the poor, but from the excess greed of John Galt pretenders. Looting corporations from the top down is viewed as a Wall Street entitlement by the participants. The question that I find haunting is how the general public became so dull witted as to accept the view that executive pay at five hundred, a thousand, or fifteen hundred times or greater than that of an hourly worker is anything but felony theft.
If Atlas shrugs at all these days, it’s likely from disgust over the grand display of aggressive arrogance presented as virtue by individuals who think themselves superior for no better reason than they think it so and who share this view with others willing to reciprocate the notion. To answer the frequent question in Rand’s novel, “Who is John Galt?” in light of twenty-first-century economics, future historians will likely recall that in our time he was a greed-driven fool. In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine observed that while avarice may keep one from being poor, it is likely to make one too timorous to be wealthy. To my mind, it seems a fair warning of the kind of sentiment that keeps a country from achieving true greatness.
Had it not been for the hatred of African-Americans by bigots in the South, we would have had universal healthcare under Harry Truman.
In late December of 2008, in a television interview, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski referred to host Joe Scarborough’s knowledge of the foreign policy matter under discussion at the time as stunningly superficial. Stunningly superficial is a near perfect description of the whole government-is-the-enemy rhetoric of the past three decades. And what more needs to be said of individuals who champion democracy as patriots and then in their next breath despise the very process that makes it possible? These are the people who do everything in their power to dismantle government and then use its diminished capacity as proof that it should have been eliminated in the first place. It’s the same mentality that warrants creating an educational system too expensive to ensure everyone a good education and then holds uneducated people’s lack of knowledge against them as evidence that they did not deserve to be educated. It’s the same shallow reasoning that enables thoughtless people to imagine the whole world exists simply to acknowledge the virtue that they exude without effort and that every other group on the planet is missing by genetic design. It’s classic partisan conservatism, Karl Rove-brand, immoral, intellectually bankrupt, and stunningly superficial.
Actually, there may be something interesting at play here. In her fascinating book Evil Genes, Barbara Oakley describes a particular personality type as Machiavellian: a person whose narcissism combines with subtle cognitive and emotional disturbances in a way that makes him believe that achieving his own desires, and his alone, is a “genuinely beneficial—even altruistic—activity.” It’s Objectivism personified, and it fits to a tee the current-day blather of conservative talk radio.
“You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving,” said the late Baptist minister Adrian Rogers, along with such hot air as, “You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.” People like Rogers, who defend rampant inequality by spouting this kind of stunningly superficial nonsense, seem oblivious to the expectation of prerogative that Wall Street insiders demonstrate with a level of privileged entitlement unknown to the poor. After the recent irresponsible bonus-grabbing behavior of Wall Street executives, whose companies were bailed out by taxpayers’ money, we should never use the word entitlement pejoratively again with regard to the poor; the rich have reclaimed it.
In 1969, in An Essay on Liberation, philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote, “The entire realm of competitive performances and standardized fun, all the symbols of status, prestige, power, of advertised virility and charm, of commercialized beauty–this entire realm kills in its citizens the very disposition, the organs, for the alternative: freedom without exploitation.” One can only wonder what Marcuse would think of today’s reality television as it thrives on public humiliation for profit. It would seem to have indeed become standardized fun.
Saul Bellow once said that people learn to hate the very things that make their lives possible. Every time I mention his assertion, people take strong exception to it. But why then do so many people hate the government? The governmental actions set in motion by Roosevelt’s New Deal indeed had a multiplier effect on the American economy—making widespread home ownership possible through the creation of the Federal Housing Authority and yielding an upward thrust that sustained a rising middle class for nearly three decades. Then the politicians who leveraged their appeal by alarming their constituents that those less deserving than themselves were about to get an undeserved break managed to generate enough critical mass of contempt to begin the process of dismantling the American Dream under the government-is-the-enemy banner. How can a nation proud of the “We the people” foundation for its very existence see the government as them and not us? “We the people” is an opening declaration that the government is not the enemy, and it’s long past time for Americans to wake up and stop listening to the dogmatists who claim it is.
A government bureaucrat between you and your healthcare is touted as an unimaginable horror by those oblivious to the reality that a government employee focused on following rules as they are set forth by public policy is not to be dreaded nearly as much as a private health insurance representative whose profit is jeopardized by your medical treatment. Contrary to Randian ideology, healthcare to most people proves to be more important than money, especially late in life. Private health insurance, however, works against individuals: In that industry, the profit motive is a constant threat to adequate medical care, as demonstrated by an unrelenting effort to deny claims by whatever means are available, and regardless of how far the insurer has to go to find exceptions to the rule of law. Moreover, the administrative bureaucracy of the private health insurance industry is far greater and more expensive than that provided by government, with Social Security and Medicare serving as unambiguous examples.
The core ethos of what’s left of the once honorable tradition of conservatism has been mindlessly misconstrued and ideologically abused by people who admire success but don’t come close to understanding the human psychology of achievement. The only thing those who champion hard-right dogma can come up with these days to justify the “anything business wants has to be okay” mantra rests on an infatuation with carrot-and-stick motivation. They rely on a B. F. Skinner behaviorist-theory holdover, characterized most often as incentive—incentive—incentive, as if nothing in an economic sense can occur without it, ever. Strange, though, that the John Galt wannabes who are most strident in making this claim seem to skip over it entirely when it comes to raising the minimum wage as a greater incentive to work for poor people.
Millions of our citizens accept as plain old common sense the view that everything people do in life is directly dependent upon financial incentive. And yet, they couldn’t be more wrong. Financial incentive is important in many ways, and it is indeed a strong motivator. But it is not now, nor has it ever been, an acceptable blanket explanation for human behavior. Moreover, in spite of a perpetual chorus of warnings about the deleterious effects of high taxes on the growth of the economy, there is virtually no evidence that such has ever occurred. A significant percentage of our citizens thrive on meaningful work, helping in myriad ways others who are unable to help themselves. Literally hundreds of thousands of individuals—doctors, nurses, social workers, and clergy—embrace their careers, with monetary compensation being secondary to the satisfaction derived from offering much-needed services to their fellow citizens. Millions do their utmost to perform their jobs to the very best of their ability, with complete disregard for those who get by with mediocre performance, regardless of their level of compensation.
I began working in my early teens in the 1950s. It was possible then for nearly any able-bodied white male adult to gain employment in many low-skilled occupations and still earn enough to support a family, even if his wife didn’t work, and in most cases wives did not. The top income bracket in those days was in the 90th percentile (too high to my thinking), but people still got rich, and many look back on those days as a time when people really put in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Indeed, the civil rights of women and minorities notwithstanding, those years are celebrated as a glorious past, a time that conservatives lament, oblivious to how it squares with the absurdity of the incentive mantra they never tire of chanting, and not realizing that people who never act without a financial benefit are in a very real sense morally bankrupt. This is not surprising, however, because people who buy in whole-cloth to adolescent ideas like Objectivism behave as if their new-found knowledge is a possession. As a possession it must not be altered, but rather reinforced; it must be protected and guarded. Thus, if their own success depends upon oppression for echelons of working poor who are economically beneath them, then it must therefore be righteous and most likely even ordained. Where is the morality in that?
Conservatism Gone Awry
Born in 1889, my grandfather was a staunch conservative and one of the most honorable men that I have ever encountered. When I grew to know him during the 1950s, conservatism was associated with frugality, fiscal responsibility, and a stoic resolve to do the right thing in one’s work and personal life. Liberalism, on the other hand, seemed to incur an extraordinary level of animosity, born of the friction of class divisiveness and the virulent strain of bigotry still present in the south. With ever-increasing animus, it incurred an association with bleeding-heart compassion and excessive government spending. Come forward to the present, and the divisiveness is still with us, but conservatism is experiencing a schizophrenic identity crisis. For contemporary conservatives, lower taxes are considered more important than the deficit, which translates (whether one approves of the spending or not) to being more important than paying your bills. Indeed, the cry for lower taxes drowns out everything else, as if the only real virtue in life is mysteriously associated with cheap. Moreover, an anti-intellectual posture demonstrated by a steady succession of ill-prepared candidates for public office has resulted in conservatism being increasingly associated with ignorance and egotism--traits for which my fair home city of Wasilla, Alaska, has become infamous.
Nowhere is the residue of Ayn Randian arrogance more prominently demonstrated than on talk radio. Conservative radio hosts view themselves as the voice of reason, frequently making the point that they are successful while liberal radio shows are not. They are indeed correct, but deeply deluded as to why. Conservative radio is successful not because it is based on reason—precisely the opposite. Right-wing rhetoric is hot-button speech steeped in us versus them emotion that links metaphorically to existential dread. It’s really worse than dread, because it’s seeded in the phenomenon of mistrust that causes us to fear the other when uncertainty becomes increasingly intolerable. Conservative talk radio depends upon tribalistic contempt and the kind of vitriol that leads to ridicule and name-calling, which at times barely hide a racist subtext going all the way back to the Deep South and the pre-Civil Rights era.
Many talk-radio hosts are successful because they raise the ire of ignorant people. These talented narcissists perform emotional theater. They should not be confused with patriots. Common ground is their enemy because the kind of social harmony that yields credence to “We the people” dissipates public anxiety and thereby reduces their listening audience.
They raise the ire of ignorant people. These talented narcissists perform emotional theater. They should not be confused with patriots.
That which we mistrust, we abhor. It’s unfortunate but a glaring reality that our primitive inclination against otherness brings those who rail against others closer together. And in times of great uncertainty, it is soothing to have someone to blame, as anxiety ratchets up to higher and higher levels, because if nothing else it changes the subject. Looked at in this way, it’s almost become a daily ritual in which angry people (ditto-heads in particular) tune in to programs that depend upon derision to rail against scapegoats. People who let a buffoon like Limbaugh think for them often experience a fondness for a kind of psychological fundamentalism that breeds a fanatic affection for groupthink while it forbids critical inquiry with a vengeance. People of this ilk sometimes become what Eric Hoffer called true believers, sheltering themselves against any and all facts and information that pose a threat to their restricted worldview while holding on to the notion that tolerance is a sign of weakness and that generosity is as well. In time they begin to view everyone who is not like them as evil.
Throughout American history there has never been a shortage of selfless people who give more to society than they receive: they volunteer in military service, soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, senior centers, relief efforts, and myriad institutions that make life bearable for millions of people. If you want to see examples, take a walk through Arlington National Cemetery. What do you think the fallen heroes buried there, who were demonstrably not overly concerned with their own self-interest, would have to say about their descendants dying from a lack of affordable healthcare? Those who think some ethnic minorities don’t deserve citizenship need to read the names on the Vietnam War Memorial. Moreover, a question critical to the very core of morality needs to be asked: If there is not enough goodwill inherent in being an American that would keep an American from dying for lack of affordable healthcare, then why bother with patriotism, and what in heaven’s name is there to be proud and boastful about in being an American?
Socialism is not an evil word in and of itself any more than capitalism is. The ism of the former gives power to the group and that of the latter to the individual. Every nation that aspires to a high quality of life for its citizens requires a measure of both. During the taming of the American frontier, settlers never would have survived had there not been a sense of unheralded cooperation in neighbor helping neighbor. Their actions were socialistic but are celebrated today by conservatives as the epitome of rugged individualism.
The most destructive aspect of the Ayn Randian delusion is the scorn and derision it invites aimed at people the devotees describe as do-gooders, as if such individuals are the scourge of humanity—these devious people, for example, who do sinister things like helping terminally ill patients die comfortably. Are the American service men and women who have given their lives and those who continue to die on the battlefield do-gooders? Did they consider self-interest the only virtue worthy of emulation? It is deeply ironic that so many people proud to call themselves Americans live in constant fear that other citizens deemed unworthy of the title are going to get something for nothing and that it is going to happen at their expense, while hundreds of thousands of service men and women give all they have to give without regard to the one-sidedness of their sacrifice.
In recent months Ayn Rand mania has resurfaced with new books and essays about her legacy. Her juvenile appeal still overshadows the absurd contradictions upon which her ideology is based. Little attention is given the fact that she was an emotionally driven romantic who prized fiction-based rationality, or that she based her beliefs on a world of fantasy that included government death-ray machines, or that she was an amphetamine addict, or that the force of her personality is credited more than the weight of her ideas for her ability to win arguments, or that she denied the very existence of human instincts.
Rand based her whole ideological philosophy on the naïve premise that man is a purely rational animal, and yet the past two decades of neuroscience reveal that we are nothing of the sort. Moreover, the perniciousness beneath her appeal is lost on those who don’t comprehend the reality, explained in Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, of the emotional relief that comes from associating oneself with a creed that is thought to be so complete that it absolves one eternally from further learning. For them, if questions arise, all one has to do is find out what Ayn Rand said about the matter.
If I have learned anything in my many years of study it is this: If you haven’t worked very hard, and I do mean hard, to get beyond the superficial appearances of whatever subject you are dealing with, then chances are very high that your opinions on the matter are seriously out of sync with reality. Once you realize that the whole world of homo sapiens relates primarily through shallow cultural assumptions that are indeed stunningly superficial, it is little wonder that we kill one another in wars in which the persons doing the fighting often don’t even know the reasons for the conflict. When you add a little Ayn Randian nonsense about the virtue of selfishness, which really amounts to a kind of ignorance based narcissistic arrogance, and spew it forth out of the mouths of contemptuous radio hosts, fearful people—especially those who don’t read newspapers, magazines, or books—will come together intuitively thinking of themselves as John Galts, whose earthly destiny is to save the world through their own moral superiority—a superiority that escapes most everyone else but comes to them naturally.
From this milieu have emerged Wall Street executives who view themselves as Objectivists or, by proxy, Masters of the Universe. These types have internalized such a strong sense of entitlement that if their companies are failing and their stock is falling and the government has to bail them out, then it is still blasphemy to withhold their bonuses, astronomical salaries, and stock options because only they can multiply wealth. It’s as if we have learned virtually nothing about the ubiquity of arrogance and the many guises of narcissism in the past two thousand years of recorded history.
It’s enough to make Atlas weep.
Charles Hayes is the author of September University, a call to action to Americans past middle age. Hayes believes that wisdom evolves from real life experience. Those who acquire it "have an obligation to do their best to pass it on," he says. "Our children's future still depends on the experiential wisdom of aging citizens."
September University contains a remarkable suite of reasons to discover new meaning and purpose in the last chapters of life.