Column: What Ayn Rand got wrong about human nature
In a previous Making Sen$e article, I described the disastrous outcomes of two real-world attempts to implement Ayn Rand’s principles. Among the over 1,300 comments on the article were complaints from Rand’s followers that her views had been misrepresented. These complaints primarily objected to my assertion that Rand celebrated unbridled self-interest. As one reader wrote:
Rand’s good people do care about others. They do not care to be forced to give away the fruits of their invested time to others, but they are delighted to trade what they produce to others and delighted to see those trades improve the lives of others.
Such objections are without merit.
Human beings are social beings whose societies must depend on its members to look beyond their own immediate self-interest in order to function, as Rand herself acknowledged in “The Ayn Rand Letter”:
Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men; living in a human society is his proper way of life — but only on certain conditions. Man is not a lone wolf and he is not a social animal. He is a contractual animal. He has to plan his life long-range, make his own choices, and deal with other men by voluntary agreement (and he has to be able to rely on their observance of the agreements they entered). The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination.
Despite embracing sociality, Rand saw more evil than good in this kind of interdependence between people. As she wrote in “The Fountainhead,” “The choice is independence or dependence. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.”
Perhaps the key to understanding this contradiction lies in a journal entry in which she writes, “Selfishness does not mean only to do things for one’s self. One may do things, affecting others, for his own pleasure and benefit. This is not immoral, but the highest of morality.”
Seen in this light, altruistic acts are sanctioned insofar as they bring pleasure or other benefit to the giver, who has no moral obligation to offer help to those who are suffering. This sentiment is expressed more fully in “The Virtue of Selfishness”:
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental — as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence — and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.
In other words, me before you — first and always.
Rand notoriously loathed and demonized altruism. In her 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, she claimed that altruism was not only immoral, but impossible.
Rand’s distrust of altruism was rooted in her early experience living under Soviet rule. She was born as Alysa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father was a pharmacist, and her family was comfortably middle class. During the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, her father’s pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets. She witnessed up close and personal the subjugation of the Russian populace to Soviet communism, which put the rights of the state above the rights of the individual. She was appalled by the strong-arm tactics used by the Soviet state to suppress free speech, to terminate property rights and to force other countries to submit to Soviet rule.
In her understanding, the justification for this kind of violent suppression was a misguided belief in altruism and the collectivist forms of government that it purportedly spawned. In her writings, there is no appreciable distinction between socialism and Soviet communism. Her main concern was the abolition of property and production rights, which she believed were the hallmarks of any form of socialism.
In a column titled, “Fascist New Frontier,” she wrote, “The main characteristic of socialism (and of communism) is public ownership of the means of production, and, therefore, the abolition of private property.”
She felt that a free country should be vigilant in monitoring the introduction of social programs that would lead to a welfare state. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” she claimed:
The basic and crucial political issue of our age is: capitalism versus socialism, or freedom versus statism… The goal of the “liberals” — as it emerges from the record of the past decades — was to smuggle this country into welfare statism by means of single, concrete, specific measures, enlarging the power of the government a step at a time, never permitting these steps to be summed up into principles, never permitting their direction to be identified or the basic issue to be named. Thus statism was to come, not by vote or by violence, but by slow rot — by a long process of evasion and epistemological corruption, leading to a fait accompli. (The goal of the “conservatives” was only to retard that process.)
It should come as no surprise that she was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was active in the blacklisting of actors and screenwriters who were either members of the American Communist party or deemed to be sympathetic to communism.
In “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” she particularly directly ties socialism of any kind to altruism:
The socialists had a certain kind of logic on their side: if the collective sacrifice of all to all is the moral ideal, then they wanted to establish this ideal in practice, here and on this earth. The arguments that socialism would not and could not work, did not stop them: neither has altruism ever worked, but this has not caused men to stop and question it. Only reason can ask such questions…
So let us ask the question: Has socialism ever worked? The Prosperity Index measures over 100 countries on 89 economic analysis variables. The top 10 countries on this index in 2015 were Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Finland and Ireland. (The United States ranked 11th). What do these countries have in common? They all incorporate generous social programs with capitalist democracies. They confer generous welfare benefits through the redistribution of wealth, yet civil liberties are abundant, and there are few restrictions on the flow of capital or of labor. So it seems that countries that incorporate social programs into their socioeconomic policies do in fact thrive.
So how did Rand go so badly wrong? The answer, I believe, lies in her belief that altruism of necessity leads to exploitation and ultimately the destruction of the self:
As to altruism — it has never been alive. It is the poison of death in the blood of Western civilization, and men survived it only to the extent to which they neither believed nor practiced it… Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice — which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction — which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as the standard of the good.
Rand was not alone in her concern about the risk for exploitation inherent in altruism. Evolutionary biologists grappled with the problem as well. Altruism was problematic for evolutionary biologists precisely because it seems to hamper individual survival. According to gene-centric views of evolution, such as Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene,” altruism shouldn’t exist.
Altruism means benefiting the survival and reproductive success of another individual while imposing a cost on your own. Altruism could survive when conferred on genetic relatives because your shared genes would benefit from your altruistic investment. But your genes receive no benefit from altruism invested in unrelated individuals and may in fact hamper your own survival.
Now, Rand is correct when she describes how altruism can lead to exploitation in “Moral Inflation”:
Even though altruism declares that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it does not work that way in practice. The givers are never blessed; the more they give, the more is demanded of them; complaints, reproaches and insults are the only response they get for practicing altruism’s virtues (or for their actual virtues).
By Rand’s reasoning, because altruism exposes the individual to exploitation, selfishness is the best protection. Evolutionary biologists, on the other hand, carefully investigated (and mathematically modeled) the conditions under which altruism works and when it fails. For unrelated individuals, the most influential theory is that of reciprocal altruism, proposed by influential evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers in 1971. In simple terms, the theory states “I will help you if you agree to help me.” If the recipient honors the contract by reciprocating, the survival chances of both parties increase. This is virtually identical to Rand’s concept of social contracts. In “The Virtue of Selfishness,” she writes, “In a free society, men are not forced to deal with one another. They do so only by voluntary agreement and, when a time element is involved, by contract.”
The problem is that while a given individual can benefit from cooperating, he or she can usually do better by reneging. In that case, the recipient gets all the benefits, while the altruist suffers all the costs. The end result is that altruists go extinct. But Trivers showed that altruists can survive if one simple condition is satisfied: Those who fail to reciprocate must be punished through exclusion from subsequent cooperative ventures. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
In contrast, Rand believed that the primary role of government was to arbitrate and enforce such contracts. From the “The Virtue of Selfishness”:
If a contract is broken by the arbitrary decision of one man, it may cause a disastrous financial injury to the other… This leads to one of the most important and most complex functions of the government: to the function of an arbiter who settles disputes among men according to objective laws.
In other words, Rand clearly expected government to play a role in maintaining fairness in market transactions, a cornerstone of laissez-faire capitalism:
When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Does laissez-faire work? The American and global economies are still reeling from one of its greatest failures: the 2008 economic meltdown. Alan Greenspan, an admirer of Objectivism and contributor to the 1986 re-issue of “The Virtue of Selfishness,” served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. His is disdain for regulation is frequently cited as one of the major causes of the junk mortgage crisis, which in 2008, brought about the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. In a congressional hearing, he admitted that he had made a mistake in assuming that financial firms could regulate themselves.
Critics of laissez-faire emerged from the beginning, and included such luminaries as Thorstein Veblen, John Commons, Clarence E. Ayres and John Maynard Keynes of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1885, economists opposed to laissez-faire formed the American Economics Association. Critics of laissez-faire argue that it creates poverty traps that cannot be escaped through free choice, monopoly power that emerges naturally in the market and allows businesses to exploit consumers and exploitation of the working class that pushes wages down to subsistence and compels laborers to work in harsh and unsafe conditions. These conditions are very much on the public mind today, as is apparent from the strong showing Senator Bernie Sanders is enjoying in the 2016 Presidential primary elections with his decidedly socialist political platform.
Yet incarnations of John Galt continue to dominate economic policy. CNBC’s Rick Santelli, a Rand fan, recently declared that, “we are now living in an Atlas Shrugged world” in which “those that made the trains run on time” are getting “fed up.” He suggested shutting down Wall Street and energy companies for a day to see how people like it. Like Galt, he appears to believe that workers need people like him more than people like him need workers.
Back in 2011, Senator Elizabeth Warren eloquently countered such sentiments:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody… You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
The take-home point is this: The annals of history show that even if one is talented enough to create enormous wealth, monopolizing that wealth for oneself is a dangerous course of action. Or as billionaire Nick Hanauer puts it, “Beware, fellow plutocrats: The pitchforks are coming.” Wealth is never created in a social vacuum. You may have the genius to design a better mousetrap, but you will inevitably depend on the work of others to implement and distribute your produce and the income of others to enable them to buy your product. The auto industry needs more than a few billionaires to buy their cars in order to stay in business. The finance industry needs employees with surplus income to buy their investment products. Put simply, wealth must be distributed to keep the wheels of commerce turning.