Capitalism’s minuses

The Thinker by Rodin

This just in: former TV conservative crybaby Glenn Beck is going Galt, John Galt, that is. Galt is the central character in Ayn Rand’s seminal novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Through Galt, Rand fully articulated her philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the virtue of complete, unfettered Laissez-faire capitalism. It is capitalism freed from the burdens of tariffs, subsidies, monopolies and annoying government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Beck wants to build “Independence, USA” where its citizens can go completely Galt all the time. No taxes ever. Anyhow, it’s not necessarily cheap to Go Galt. Beck estimates he needs about two billion dollars to create Independence, USA. Presumably to construct his capitalist utopia he won’t invite a bunch of capitalists to create the machinery he will need on site. But anyhow when it’s all done, the citizens of Independence, USA will be a completely self-enclosed market. People will make stuff that other citizens will buy. Perhaps they will have their own currency. It’s unclear what governmental mechanisms they will have, if any. Laissez-faire capitalism is not exactly the same thing as no government, but presumably it would be a very austere government, far more austere than the State of Florida after several years of Rick Scott as Governor. That’s pretty damned austere.

Also presumably the city will operate more like its own country, since it won’t want anything to do with state and federal laws. There will be no annoying consumer protection laws and no warranties expressed or implied on anything sold. If your next door neighbor wants to turn his house into a smelter and spew out dangerous carcinogens in your general direction, well, more power to him. You are, of course, free to buy your own anti-pollution devices (presumably made only in Independence) to encase your house so you don’t have to breathe the pollution coming from next door. I don’t know if they will have a sheriff in Independence, but maybe not. So perhaps you can express your displeasure the old fashioned way, and load up your semiautomatic assault rifle and empty it into your neighbor’s house. He, of course, is free to wear only bulletproof clothing and encase his house in steel to deter assaults. You, of course, are free to up the ante, buy yourself a bazooka and wreak your unhappiness that way. Presumably since all residents share the same values about capitalism, there will be only brotherly love and no onerous taxes.

My guess is Independence, USA will never get built, but who knows? Beck can use more income to finance his vision, but the Koch brothers have plenty of it and might put up the two billion dollars. If it gets built, Independence, USA will doubtless become the center of capitalism worldwide. It will become the ultimate enterprise zone.

A friend of mine commutes regularly to China for her small business. She reports that contrary to reports that China is a communist country, it is already a lot like Independence, USA only they have gone nationwide. The truth is that China has pretty much ditched communism and is now a capitalist utopia. The state and the Communist Party pretty much exist to ensure capitalism remains free and unfettered. Freed of archaic concepts like religion, China has become a money-grubbing entrepreneurial heaven. She reports that the acquisition of wealth is pretty much the only thing on the mind of the Chinese. They get together to compare how fancy their Rolex watches are.

One thing she has noticed in particular is that the Chinese (or at least the Chinese businessmen she works with) don’t understand ethics. You might as well try to explain nuclear physics to them. They just don’t get why anyone would want to do anything ethical. They will happily do everything possible, legal or illegal, to allow a competitor to fail and for themselves to prosper without even a tiny qualm. This is hardly news. Even we self-absorbed Americans have read press reports about how copyright law is meaningless within China. DVDs and software are pirated, copied and sold for whatever they can get for them. Famous brand names are cheaply imitated and passed off as branded items. The idea of sales territories seems to not exist. Her company supposedly has sales territories within China where only one distributor is supposed to distribute her product, but of course these territories are widely ignored by their various sales agents.

While lots of people are getting richer in China, there have been a few undesirable effects. For example, there is the rampant air pollution in major cities. Lately it’s been so bad that no one in Beijing goes outdoors without wearing a facemask. So I am betting if Independence, USA ever gets built it will devolve quickly into a place that looks a lot like Beijing. It’s not a hard inference to make since this is pretty much how it has gone everywhere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, at least until government said “Enough!” Capitalism is all about making money and increasing your personal standard of living. The cost is borne by those not skilled, agile or moneyed enough to make the transition. Capitalism without regulation also ensures the land will get raped. This should not be news but just in case you don’t get it, maybe it’s time to reread Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”. I’m guessing Brother Beck hasn’t.

While there are undeniable virtues to capitalism, there are many ugly sides as well. Perhaps its ugliest side is that it strips us of our humanity and appreciation of the connections between each other. In China, dog-eat-dog capitalism means you cannot expect a consistent set of rules because the government will be largely hands off. There is also no religion to speak of, so there is nothing to ground you, and no set of moral standards to use to measure your behavior. There is no reason to care at all about your neighbor, or your community, or your neighbor’s future, unless you can profit from them. It’s all about me, not about we.

Capitalism is simply an amoral system to help facilitate the acquisition of wealth that has the benefit of allowing for the broad distribution of goods and services at reasonably low prices. If there is one thing it is not, it is not a philosophy of living. Here is where Ayn Rand, John Galt and Glenn Beck fall off their moral railings. They don’t get this. Ayn Rand constructed a whole philosophy of life around capitalism, as if it were the shiny city on the hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. (Independence, USA is literally that city, in Beck’s eyes.) In their eyes, capitalism has become a church, and its cathedral is the inside of a bank vault. They assume that capitalism had a meaning greater than what it is: a meta-meaning. It does not. The consequences of unchecked capitalism though are easy enough to see: the collapse of our moral fiber, the heightening of self-interest over shared interest and the natural tendency to rape the land of resources and the people of their connectedness. It destroys trust and integrity and makes ethics obsolete. It dehumanizes us and turns us from people into profit centers.

There was a time in my living memory where you went to work for a company for life. A company was an extended family. You were a valued worker and were nurtured. You were cared for and your earned loyalty was given back in the form of intimate concern about the company and meeting its goals. Money was put aside into a pension fund so that you could live comfortably in old age. It was paternalistic. Companies reflected the values of the society in which they thrived. Over time, companies changed their values from human-centered to profit-centered. Pensions died. You became a worker, not a strategic asset. Your pension became a 401(k). You became mere a cog in a bigger wheel. You became disposable, something to be used and thrown out when no longer needed.

Sorry Brothers Beck, Galt and Sister Rand. Capitalism is not a utopia. It has its virtues and it has its weaknesses, but unrestrained it will suck the soul out of the society it exists within. It will either use you up as cheap labor or it will crush you spiritually as you acquire wealth. You will have become a slave to profit, loss and wealth and bereft of the values that connect us and enrich us.

Death by Objectivism

The Thinker by Rodin

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.