Nature and the patron saint of Objectivism

February 27, 2017

 Alis Rosenbaum was born in Russia in 1905, and fled to the United States after the Communist Revolution. In the US, she appropriated her typewriter’s name—Rand—and composed the hefty libertarian fable, The Fountainhead.

 

Other books and essays followed. Atlas Shrugged, in which “doers” go on strike, is her most widely read novel. Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” and sometimes wore a dollar sign on a chain around her neck.


Objectivists believe the world exists independently of our awareness and that the evidence of our senses is correct. Individual happiness is the proper human pursuit, and capitalism is the system most congenial to that.


Rand’s dollar sign was quasi-religious, signifying the rightness of a value-for-value exchange. She has become a saint to Americans who believe that people are waiting for lower taxes before going to work and that protecting society from the externalized costs of business is wrong.


Whole Earth Catalog described Atlas Shrugged as “rare gold in this preposterous novel.” But finding that rare gold in Rand’s amphetamine-fueled logorrhea is a chore. And if her fiction is tedious, her essays are impenetrable.

 

Granted, designing a system for equitably distributing wealth while accounting for all the contingencies is impossibly complicated. Commerce, Rand believed, must be constrained as little as possible. She agreed with 18th century moral philosopher Adam Smith that “individual ambition serves the common good.”


Emergence is a biological phenomenon that Rand would claim is evident in her ideal economy. Larger, more complex systems arise from the interaction of smaller, simpler ones. This is evident among social insects. Swarming bees choose hive locations by sending out individuals to explore randomly and return when they have found a site. At the hive, the explorers spin, or “dance.” The better the discovered site, the longer they dance.


But Rand couldn’t have known about emergence, and probably would have understood it only within the context of her own arguments. She comes off as a smirking debate-club sadist. She invented horrible, unavoidable fates even for characters who merely tried to keep the sinking collectivist ship afloat.


Objectivism can look like moral cover for thieves who want to scold the rest of us and become the central authority. Success becomes positive feedback in which wealth leads to more wealth, allowing the successful to patronize politicians and wage price wars against small rivals.


There’s a tendency for humans to find ways to short circuit nature and to underestimate the remote havoc we create. Part of this is blindness towards complexity. This is why it’s hard for some people to appreciate the dangers of extinction and overused resources or the reality of climate change. Even slow economic growth is exponential, meaning it accelerates and is ultimately unsustainable.


Business externalizes some of its costs, meaning that it doesn’t pay for damages to the environment, human health, or community. Society has debts to the descendants of slaves and people who surrendered a continent and a way of life at gunpoint. Lectures about individual rights and achievement ring hollow on conquered land.


There’s a debt, also, to families and communities who invest in industries that leave them stranded. If we reject the welfare state, the abrupt withdrawal of subsidies doesn’t give people a chance to adapt to responsibility.


An Objectivist economic strategy sounds like nature, but one of the ways that those complex things came about was by surviving, while things that worked less well perished. That’s a cold way to treat other humans.


Rand said government should be limited to protecting people’s ability to build things, to maintaining police and national defense. There are threats to business that are hard to see and easy to deny. Society should defend against them.

 

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