Is Objectivism dead? Objectivism, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a philosophy created and articulated by the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, who died in New York City in 1982 at the age of 77. I became acquainted with the philosophy in my early adult years when I read her novel, The Fountainhead. It told the story of a brilliant but eccentric architect named Howard Roark. Much like Number 6 in The Prisoner, Roark lived life on his own terms. He would not compromise with this encroaching thing called the real world. I have to admit that for a while I liked the novel and the character, although Roark was so preachy he would put most ministers to shame.
I purchased but never finished Rand’s most seminal work: Atlas Shrugged. Not that I did not try. I plodded through it for several hundred pages then gave up. To call it a novel was charitable. Instead, it was a philosophical screed, which detailed Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. If Howard Roark was excessively preachy, John Galt was an Objectivist supernova. I suspect most readers were like me and simply could not find the patience to endure its 1368 pages. However, a few key intellectuals of the 20th century did make it through the novel and absorbed it whole cloth. Sadly for America, two of them turned out to be prominent economists. One was Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics. The other and far more important one was Alan Greenspan, who until a few years ago was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and very possibly the most influential monetary guru on the planet. Markets trembled with every nuanced word that came out of Greenspan’s mouth.
I can see the appeal of Ayn Rand and Objectivism with certain economists. Economists by nature are enamored by numbers are less enamored with squishy artifacts like religion. Rand, an atheist, gave voice to the secular capitalists of the world. They latched onto her key idea, immortalized in the words of the fictional Gordon Gekko and spoken by the actor Michael Douglas in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, “Greed is good”. The “greed is good” mantra, formally sanctioned by President Reagan in the 1980s has been the philosophical cornerstone of the last few decades. Its unchecked version called Objectivism has now been proven bankrupt, much like many of us Americans.
In short, Objectivism became something of a sanction to charge forward with the reckless accumulation of wealth by all means, fair and foul. It is a “Me First” philosophy that really could care less about anyone other than “Me”. According to Wikipedia:
Objectivism holds: that reality exists independent of consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation; that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform man’s widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond.
As a practical matter then, Objectivism is individuality gone amok, i.e. without boundaries. It does not care about the consequences of extreme selfishness. Embracing pure capitalism is more important than minor things like whether as a consequence we also wreck the planet, or impoverish whole other classes of people.
As we watch our economic house of cards dissolve I am also seeing, in part, the pure philosophy of Objectivism, articulated in policies by its rabid followers, proven utterly and catastrophically incorrect. This is to the detriment of nearly everyone, including Objectivists. For at its core Objectivism is in denial about the way things actually are ordered. It is in denial that we really are all connected to each other, and that what affects you in fact really does affect me, everyone else, the planet and even the universe. In fact, consciousness does change reality and when it does, it affects everyone else who lives because we too are inextricably tied to reality. Consciousness and reality are not wholly separate domains, as Rand postulates, but intimately connected. If you mess too much with reality by trying to change the way nature ordered it, the consequences can be dramatic and not very pretty. See it in global warming. See it today, for example, in Las Vegas neighborhoods where you can drive through neighborhoods where most of the houses on the street are in foreclosure.
Wall Street barons, worshipping the almighty dollar, emboldened by extreme forms of laissez-faire capitalism promoted relentlessly through the monetary policies of Alan Greenspan and by the Bush Administration, promoted policies that took our money and effectively threw it down rat holes. With a pure (or close to it) laissez-faire capitalism, where new financial instruments could be created without government intervention, all the predictable things happened. We were caught in our own greed and were purposely mindless of the cost our unchecked greed and unregulated financial instruments would have on the economy. In particular, extreme capitalists like Alan Greenspan, through policies like making money artificially cheap to borrow, created a financial chasm. We were encouraged to overextend our financial lives, living in the moment and remain largely heedless to the long-term consequences of our actions.
Fortunately for me, it did not take me more than a few years of pondering before I realized that Objectivism was unworkable. Little did I know though that this philosophy would gain critical traction among an elite number of economists who could actually put it into practice on a large scale. It turns out that when this is implemented the philosophy, rather than enabling self-actualization, has the effect of moving much of our national wealth to better-run countries overseas. Before Ronald Reagan was elected, the United States was the largest creditor nation. Now, we are by far the world’s largest debtor nation.
Our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was recently in China. She deliberately downplayed our concerns about their miserable human rights record, but did speak up about the need for China to keep buying our U.S. Treasury bills. They have cash that we need to execute our economic recovery plan.
Atlas Shrugged should go on the shelf with the other lunatic books like Das Kapital and Mein Kampf that have proven unworkable and destructive to humanity and the world. Communism does not work. Fascism by Aryans does not work. The extreme capitalism articulated in Atlas Shrugged does not work either. Objectivists should never again be allowed to control the levers of our financial system.
Ayn Rand died surrounded by admirers with a big dollar sign above her bed. I kid you not. This devotion to unbridled selfishness even on her deathbed helped inspire men like Alan Greenspan. Instead, her life ultimately proves how meaningless the obsessive pursuit of self-interest actually is. It destroys rather than helps us see the connections between each other. It is the vitality of these connections between us that builds the kind of wealth that matters: peace, tolerance, mutual understanding, healthy relationships, harmony and love. These are the true measures of a healthy world and a healthy person, not the number of dollars in your bank account.