Friday, December 13, 2013

Ayn Rand, Objectivism, Capitalism and Psychopathy

I wrote an article a long time ago comparing Ayn Rand's moral and economic philosophy, Objectivism, with the psychological disorder, psychopathy. The main tenets of her philosophy were explained in her own words in an interview she had after the publication of her magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged".

It's worth remembering that Ayn Rand was a Russian Jew, born in St Petersburg the first decade of the Twentieth Century, albeit to a non-practising family. She was in her early teens when she experienced her father's business being appropriated by the Bolsheviks, which clearly had a very strong influence on her ideas about government and society. After completing university in the Soviet Union, she took an opportunity to go to the USA, and never came back.

The lunatics take over the asylum

Rand's ideas are integral to anyone who understands what free market Capitalism is, as well as understanding what the justifications are by those who pursue its ideas with such vigour. Anyone involved in finance and economics, either at the corporate or academic level, needs to have an understanding of - and more importantly, be an adherent to - its principles and ideology. If you are not a laissez-faire Capitalist in today's world, you cannot succeed in finance or economics, let alone business.

This is all the more shocking considering how the financial crisis dealt the biggest possible blow to the idea of unregulated free markets. The crisis happened because there was no effective government regulation, and that the banking sector had become dominated by giants that were "too big to fail"; this was what Rand had said should have been impossible under a laissez-faire system. The government had done precisely what the banks had told them to - what all the most distinguished economists had told them to do - and the system had collapsed in on itself as a result of their "wisdom".
If the orthodoxy of any other system - science, for example - had received such a blow to its legitimacy, it would have caused a radical reworking of their approach. In economics, however, no such worries seem to exist. The economists and financial "experts" continue as if nothing had happened, giving governments the same advice as before. The UK is suffering from the same kind of madness in government.

Rand's ideas were not new when they were first published, but prior to that, only a small number of economists and other oddballs took the idea of laissez-faire Capitalism as something that had a serious place in the world. They had been expressed before the Second World War through the "Austrian School" of economics, and after the Second World War, in the "Chicago School". It was Rand who turned an economic theory into a moral code for living.

A "Randian" perspective on living

Rand's interviewer from the clip I mentioned earlier takes a (not surprisingly) sceptical view of her ideas when she expresses them; for one thing, they go against almost every moral code known to man. She summarises her philosophy into a few main points.

Rand calls her philosophy "Objectivism" because it is a philosophy that takes its moral code not from using religious or social values (which are therefore subjective), but from the perspective solely of the individual (who is therefore "objective"). A person's moral code, according to Rand, can only be decided by what is in his or her best interests - or other words, what is convenient.
Following from this, it is against a person's interests to help someone else selflessly, because the man helping gets nothing in return for his efforts; it might also be mentioned that it makes the man receiving dependent on someone else. Looking at it from this perspective, Rand considers altruism to be evil, the opposite to what social norms tell us.

As Rand says, this attitude is based on man as a rational being: doing things based on his rational mind, and avoiding actions which are illogical (i.e. not convenient to his interests).

At around this point in the above interview that the interviewer asks Rand about "love". What about "love"? Should a man not help another out of "love"? Rand's answer is that "love" in the interviewer's (and mankind's) understanding of the word is self-defeating: one can only "love" another person for their achievements; loving a person simply for being a human being, so Rand thinks, is ludicrous, because how can you "love" someone who you don't know?

What Rand's philosophy postulates is a social network of interactions based on mutual convenience, and that it is rational that all human interactions be based on this primary principle.

(Any "Star Trek" fans might be familiar with this perspective: the character Spock, at one point in the original series, introduced his Vulcan wife to the crew. It was in this episode that the viewer was educated about the "logic" behind the marriage of two people who are without emotion)

A cynic might also recognize the same thinking in "marriages of convenience" today. But in Rand's thinking, all marriages and human interactions must be rationally so. Otherwise, why demean yourself to something that is inconvenient?

The philosophy of a psychopath

Rand's philosophy focuses on the meaning of freedom. In it, a person is free to do as he or she likes, as long as it does not impinge on the freedom of others. This is how law and order is maintained in such a society, and that the only function a government has is to maintain basic law and order and the justice system.
Government should not therefore raise any taxes that are not agreed by the consent of all people taxed. As a person's wit and wealth is his primary means of survival (only means of survival), it is not the government's role to dictate how a person spends his wealth.
As people are therefore rational, it follows that in a laissez-faire society, the free market will provide all goods and services possible, and that no-one would be unemployed or in a job they didn't like if they didn't choose it. Besides, it would be irrational to help those less fortunate than yourself for no reason and for not benefit to yourself.
Lastly, Rand's philosophy refutes the idea of democracy, seeing it as nothing more than majoritarianism. In a free society, one larger group cannot dictate to another. By this logic, "interest groups" as such couldn't possibly exist, let alone "parties". As Rand sees it, this is going back to the first principles of the "Founding Fathers".

An "Objectivist" world sounds a lot like an anarchist one (which Rand personally despised); the caveat that Rand always made against this accusation is the role of law and order and government's monopoly on the use of force. But having had Rand's philosophy largely put into practice for the last thirty years, we know the real results: a heavenly bliss for those at the top of society, and a version of hell for those at the bottom.

I've written many times before about the attributes of psychopaths. When you look at the behaviour that Rand's perspective encourages (even celebrates) - selfishness, lack of empathy towards others, being motivated by convenience - it mirrors some of the key attributes of psychopathy. The only thing that separates Rand's philosophy from being a "manual for psychopaths" is the respect for others' freedom and the need for basic law and order.
But that separation can easily be blurred. When do a company's actions cross the line towards impinging on others' "freedom"? Or an individual's? Such a society could easily make "people of ill intent" simply become more Machiavellian and cunning in order to impinge on others' freedoms indirectly, in a way not immediately obvious. From companies that get around regulations, to people who find loopholes to avoid paying tax, these things happen everywhere, everyday. 

Rand's theory of "Objectivism" is clearly atheistic by nature; her views on Capitalism and turning society's moral code on its head certainly would bring out accusations from the clergy that she was nothing more than a female "Antichrist", or a servant of Lucifer himself. I've made such (tongue-in cheek) comments myself before.

Rand lived until 1982, so that she saw the first beginnings of her philosophy put into practice by Reagan and Thatcher.
It is the rest of us who have had to deal with the results of her philosophy, as it continues to rule us like a vampire that will not die, even after being intellectually "killed" by the financial crisis. The principles of her philosophy, if anything, seem to become more refined with age; given a second wind with the calls for "austerity", as the "Tea Party" in The USA take Rand's ideas to levels even Reagan didn't dare to tread, and in The UK, the Chancellor George Osborne and PM David Cameron try to out-do Thatcher at her own game.

Like Rand before them turning society's moral code on its head, today's adherents to her philosophy use counter-intuitive arguments for their policies: the "trickle-down" theory; Osborne in The UK blaming the "welfare state" for the financial crisis; the Tea Party in The USA blaming "entitlements" and "socialized medicine".

Like Rand before them, her disciples today use the sweet words of freedom to implement ideas that cause poverty and inequality.

Like the Lucifer of The Bible, Rand and her followers manipulate humanity and seduce us with talk of our own magnificence as individuals, and how evil "government" is (our modern-day "God" of The Bible). Much of this biblical symbolism is described, in a very allegorical sense, by Rand herself in the pages of her most famous work, "Atlas Shrugged".

But some people like government; like how some people like God. They both require faith to survive.

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