Friday, May 15, 2015

The Objectivist Utopia, Part 1

I was in a discussion with a self-described objectivist who regards Ayn Rand's philosophy as the model for creating an ideal society.  I objected that she preaches selfishness and greed, and that leads to undesirable consequences.  He insisted that I don't understand Rand's philosophy, and questioned whether I had even read her books.  I had to admit that I hadn't read them, but I have read plenty about them and about Rand's way of thinking.  He replied that Rand is misunderstood, and if I haven't read her works myself, then I have a distorted view of her objectivism.  That's a fair criticism.

OK, so I read Atlas Shrugged.  My first impression: those who criticize the book as being rather juvenile are quite correct.  The characters are incredibly one-dimensional.  The heroes are intelligent, honest, brave, and competent industrialists.  The antagonists are stupid, incompetent, evil, and above all, "progressive".  The book describes a grim vision of America where the progressives have come to dominate government and the business community, and implement their socialistic policies, much to the determent of the entire economy.  In response, the great industrialists, along with some like-minded engineers and artisans, go on strike by leaving and forming a secret community of their own.  In their private utopia, where they are free of government impediments, they create a small but thriving economy, while the outside world collapses without them to provide their leadership and productivity, and burdened by the disastrous policies of the progressives.

Everything in the book is so ridiculously unrealistic that it could only appeal to a juvenile mind (or a dogmatic objectivist).  It's rather like reading a super-hero comic book, and has a similar level of intellectual depth, although it is very long-winded and serves as a platform for Rand to expound her views.  She creates a false dichotomy between ultra-Marxism and ultra-laisez-faire capitalism.  There is no middle ground.  The laws and policies put in place by the evil progressives are so disastrous that they make the Soviet Union look like a model of economic efficiency and effectiveness.  These policies have immediate and obvious dire consequences, in the form of failed businesses, broken supply chains, and shutdowns of entire segments of the economy.  Yet the progressives are too stupid to see their effects.  They prefer to blame everyone but themselves for the problems they have created.  Meanwhile, the great industrialists are the only ones who are smart enough to understand what's happening.  They quietly retire from society and depart to go on strike.

In Rand's view, there are three types of people: the producers, the moochers, and the looters.  Moochers are those who feel entitled to have their needs met (either through government benefits or by being given jobs that aren't merited) without having to work or produce equal value in exchange.  The looters are those who use the power of government to exploit the producers and take what they haven't earned by force.  They are often industrial leaders who don't have the ability to produce by virtue of their own hard work.  Moochers and looters are parasites upon the producers.

The producers act out of self-interest, which is served primarily by the profit motive.  Profit motive is what drives a robust, healthy economy.  Altruism is bad, apparently because it enables the moochers.  The producers deserve and are entitled to all the money they make, without taxation.  They welcome competition.  They don't engage in price-gouging, collusion, exploitation of their workers, or any kind of unfair business practices, because that would make them looters.  The producers are the good guys.  They are the only element of society that create value, and everyone else benefits from the value created by them.

Government is bad because it impedes the producers (through laws and regulations) and saps their earnings (through taxes).  The only legitimate purposes of government are for national defense, police, and the courts.  In other words, government should exist exclusively for the benefit of the producers, to protect and preserve them and their wealth.  Rand gives government no credit for building the economic infrastructure (utilities, transportation, etc.) that the producers rely upon, for educating the workforce and business leaders that the producers employ, or for sponsoring scientific and technological development that the producers exploit in their products.

There is a striking parallel between Rand's ideal society of laisez-faire capitalism and Marx's socialistic utopia.  Both are based on an unrealistic understanding of human nature.  Marx didn't seem to understand that people need a suitable motivation (i.e. the profit motive) to produce.  Without it, the economy is destined to fail in the long run.  Rand didn't seem to understand that people need behavioral guidelines (in the form of laws and regulations) to keep them from cheating and exploiting others in pursuit of money.  Without these, the economy is destined to fail in the long run.  Marx has the excuse that at the time he developed his economic theories, they were as yet untried.  Rand has no such excuse.  The history of her own adopted republic is replete with cautionary tales of the ill effects of laisez-faire capitalism.  She should have known how harmful it can be.

In part 2 of this review, I will elaborate on the utopian community of the strikers, known as Galt's Gulch, and explain why it couldn't work as described by Rand.

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