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Ayn Rand and Individualism

Ayn Rand has remained influential in the United States since her death in 1982. Her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, considered her magnum opus, in the words of Wikipedia, "...received largely negative reviews after its 1957 publication but achieved enduring popularity and consistent sales in the following decades."

Wikipedia writes:

Although she rejected the labels "conservative" and "libertarian," Rand has had continuing influence on right-wing politics and libertarianism.

Ayn Rand disliked collectivism. While in her early teens in Russia the Bolsheviks confiscated her father's pharmacy, no doubt creating hardship for her family. She was one of those who had to endure the burden of being labelled a member of a bourgeois family. She acquired a disgust for the Soviet Union's socialism and the altruism on which she thought collectivism was based. She acquired a respect for independent thinking, imagination and intelligence against mass mediocrity, conformism and bureaucratic authority. Her hero in Atlas Shrugged is a capitalist, John Galt, a man of initiative and drive, a prime mover, a creator and an individualist – the villain among communists.

In 1926, at the age of 21 or so, Ayn Rand visited relatives in the United States and stayed. On a scale between collectivism on the far left and an extreme individualism on the far right) Ayn Rand went completely to individualism – no middle ground, no compromise, no so-called balance. In a television interview in 1959, Mike Wallace asked her whether she believed that government had "no right to tax" or whether there should be welfare legislation or unemployment compensation. She responded that she was "opposed to all forms of control," and that she was for an "absolute laissez faire, free, unregulated economy."

Her position of freedom of speech and the freedom to disseminate one's points of view were the same as any liberal, and similar to liberals she said she believed that in our democracy people had no right to vote away individual rights. At issue was exactly what those rights are. She was opposed any limitation on the right of individuals to their wealth and property.

In her essay "Government Financing in a Free Society," she wrote:

In a fully free society, taxation – or, to be exact, payment for governmental services – would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government – the police, the armed forces, the law courts – are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.

Regarding welfare states, with their taxation and wealth distribution, Rand invoked a "slippery slope" argument. She told Wallace (in 1959) that "we are moving toward disaster until and unless all those welfare-state conceptions have been reversed and rejected, because precisely we can, we are, moving toward complete collectivism or socialism, a system under which everybody is enslaved to everybody."

Slippery slope arguments assume that people cannot or will not choose between extremes. It's a form of absolutistic thinking. Rand's 1959 prediction was wrong. The Soviet-style collectivism she feared and abhorred has been fading to non-existence. In welfare states like Germany, Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and Japan, people have been electing not only Social Democrats but also what for them are conservatives. These countries have populations that draw from experience and shift along middle ground between absolute collectivism and free enterprise. The states have been functioning reasonably well.

Rand assumed that the best of all economic worlds is created by business owners alone deciding divisions of wealth – as little as they can pay given the supply and demand of the labor market, and no minimum wage law, no progressive taxation or labor union demands – nothing to counter the ability of those with more money to accumulate more wealth faster than others. Hostile to democracy, the influence of wealth in politics didn't bother her. She and her followers have opposed legislation – government intervention – limiting that influence.

Ayn Rand bundled her views into a philosophical system she called Objectivism. Her epistemology ignored religious assumptions. She was godless. Her Objectivism embodied moral purpose as the pursuit of one's own happiness – rational self-interest – and it held that the only social system consistent with this morality is a free market absolutism.

Some of her critics have believed in a morality that includes more than pursuit of self-centered wealth accumulation. Rand saw a difference between kindness and altruism. Charity is kindness, but organizing one's direction in life with others in mind was altruism. She wrote:

The man who attempts to live for others [the altruist] is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive [not altruistic?] and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality -- the man who lives to serve others -- is the slave.

Not exactly Einstein's, "Only a life lived for others is a life worth living."

We live somewhere between self-interest and devotion to others. Adam Smith's view of people in the market place motivated by self-interest has merit, while Rand takes the issue of self-interest versus association with others to an absurd extreme. Many of us combine being useful to others and self-interest.

(YouTube: the Wallace interview: part 1, part 2.)

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