Objecting to Objectivism: A Rant about Ayn Rand

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for his running mate has brought to the forefront the philosophies of Russian-born author Ayn Rand (1905-1982).  In her novels and essays, Rand laid out a philosophy she referred to as Objectivism.  Although Ryan is currently attempting to distance himself from Rand specifically due to her atheism and pro-abortion views, in the past he has very publicly embraced her Objectivist ideologies in regards to economics and capitalism.

I originally became intrigued with Ayn Rand’s philosophies about a decade ago, due to the adherence of comic book creator Steve Ditko to her principles.  A brilliant artist, in the early 1960s Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics.  After a falling out with Marvel, he left to work for various other companies, and eventually ventured into self-publishing.   His work took on a more and more Objectivist tinge over the years, culminating in his creation of such uncompromising vigilante crime-fighters as The Question and Mr. A.

Mr. A, by Steve Ditko

Mr. A, by Steve Ditko

I was very curious to learn who this Ayn Rand was, and what her Objectivist philosophies were.  I knew that Rand had written two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  However, each of these was several hundred pages long, and I admit that I did not think I had the patience or stamina to make my way through either book.  So instead I read Rand’s fifty page essay, “For the New Intellectual,” in which she sets down the tenets of Objectivism.

And, I have to say, I was quite awestruck by the sheer pomposity and arrogance with which Rand lays forth her ideas within “For the New Intellectual.”  At times it appears to be less of a foundation for an ideological movement than it does a smug, self-indulgent rant.

Rand offers up a bluntly simplistic summation of the entire history and philosophical outlook of humanity, basically regarding the two driving ideologies since the dawn of time as “Attila” and “the Witch Doctor,” i.e. those who impose an ideological system of belief by force & conquest, and those who impose it through superstition.

Rand seems to regard practically every movement throughout history as having been an aspect of either Attila or the Witch Doctor, or the pair working in complicity with one another.  The first significant worldwide break with either of these forces, in Rand’s view, is capitalism.

Rand lifts up capitalists upon a pedestal, looking upon them as intellectual giants who have helped raise humanity from the mire of pre-industrial times, and who have been rewarded for their noble efforts with nothing more than scorn and derision.

She regards the notion that the entrepreneurs of capitalism have a duty to society as an absurd idea.  Rand regards any form of altruism to be hideously unjust.  On several occasions, she likens society’s expectations of altruism to a primitive culture performing human sacrifices to the gods to bring benefit upon the tribe.  Except that, in her view, modern altruism causes even more suffering and misery.  Why should the capitalist be expected to give up the rewards of his endeavors to society, when he achieved those rewards solely through his superior intellect and driving abilities?

For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand

For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand

Rand’s worldview seems to have been shaped extensively by her early years.  Coming from a middle class Russian family, she witnessed her father losing everything to the Bolsheviks during the rise of the Soviet Union in 1917.  As a result, Rand appears to have developed a pathological hatred of socialism in any way, shape, or form.

As far as she is concerned, a mixed economy of capitalism and socialism will always fail, because any movement towards socialism, no matter how slight, will inevitably result in an economic system being totally subsumed by it.  She regards the natural outcome of socialism to be extreme suffering and misery, as witnessed in such “socialist societies” as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Capitalism, in Rand’s mind, can only work in pure, undiluted form, with absolutely no interference by the government.  As she regards it, “all the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy.”

What Rand completely fails to recognize is that human nature will inevitably corrupt attempts at pure capitalism, just as it does experiments in pure socialism.  Rand seems to think the intellectual giants of capitalism are at a mental pinnacle wherein they will always follow the path of reason, rather than that of irrationality and emotion.  She does not acknowledge that capitalists are just as susceptible to the lures of greed and power as any others.  Her whole underlying premise seems to be that capitalism is intrinsically good, and therefore anyone who practices pure capitalism will do good.

Rand, in denouncing altruism, writes of “man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  But in doing so, she turns a blind eye to the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution who did sacrifice others to themselves in their exploitation of the working class.  Rand sees a vast difference between serfdom and a wage-paying job.  But just because one is given a salary does not automatically mean that one is not still being exploited.  There are different degrees of exploitation.

Speaking of degrees, there is an appalling lack of the appreciation of the complexity of morals in Rand’s philosophy.  She regards ethics and morality as a completely black & white affair, deriding any attempts to recognize other viewpoints and achieve consensus.  She doesn’t seem to appreciate the multicultural nature of the United States.  Compromise and understanding are crucial to holding this nation together.

Of course, Rand seems pretty well dismissive of any non-US society, and her statements occasionally contain rather racist undertones.  She refers to America as “the greatest, freest country on Earth” and despairs that “our wealth should be given away to the savages of Asia and Africa, with apologies for the fact that we have produced it while they haven’t.”  She also writes “Americans have known how to erect a superlative material achievement in the midst of an untouched wilderness, against the resistance of savage tribes.”

I think that Rand’s ideology is especially dangerous in this day and age.  America cannot survive on its own.  The world is now more connected than ever.  There are great inequities in wealth not just throughout the world, but within the United States itself, and these have inevitably resulted in anger and violence.  Some of this has exacerbated by the de-regulation of the financial industry and the increased return to a laissez-faire approach to capitalism during the Bush/Cheney years.

If we hope to bring peace and security to our nation, we need to stop being greedy, and become more altruistic.  A self-centered view like Rand’s will only result in placing us in opposition to and isolation from the rest of the globe.  It will also result in even further growing economic & social inequalities within the United States itself, and a widening of the already-gaping divide between the ultra-wealth and the remaining 99% of the population.  And that is something that will inevitably destroy us.

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The Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare

Like many Americans, I was genuinely surprised when it was announced yesterday that the Supreme Court of the United States had, by a vote of 5 to 4, upheld in full President Barack Obama’s expansive overhaul of health care coverage.  Conventional wisdom had predicted that the Court would likely find the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, un-Constitutional.  In particular, it was expected that the individual mandate, requiring that all Americans obtain health coverage or pay a penalty, would be struck down.

What was even more surprising was the identity of the deciding, “swing” vote.  Expectations had been that if Obamacare was upheld, it would be by a narrow 5 to 4 margin, which indeed was the case.  However, it was not Justice Anthony Kennedy who joined the Court’s liberal wing in the decision.  Rather, it was the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.

Supporters of Obamacare in front of the Supreme Court

To say that Roberts’ decision was surprising would be an understatement.  This is the first time ever since he was appointed to the Supreme Court by George W. Bush in 2006 that Roberts has ever sided with the liberal half in a 5 to 4 decision.  There has been much speculation as to Roberts’ motives.  A possibility lies in the public perception of the Court by the general public over the past dozen years.

Beginning with Bush v. Gore in 2000, and continuing with such high profile, controversial cases as at the Citizens United decision that overturned the McCain-Feingold Act, the Court has made a number of decisions along what appeared to be very political lines.  The court has often been split right down the middle between four liberal and four conservative Justices, with the deciding vote often cast by the moderate Kennedy.  This has led to many to regard the Court as having become overly politicized, as well as ideologically polarized.  Confidence in the Court among many has markedly decreased.

It is quite possible that Chief Justice Roberts has looked upon the declining credibility of the Supreme Court, and that this was one of the major motivating factors in his decision to vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act.  In writing the majority opinion, Roberts solidly framed the Court’s decision solely on its Constitutionality, refusing to make any observations as to the sensibility of the Act, stating “it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom.”  By his actions, Roberts may have been attempting to demonstrate that the Court is still capable of dispassionate analysis of an issue, rendering decisions on purely legal grounds, rather than political considerations.

It occurred to me that Roberts may very well have taken this course to preserve the integrity of the Court while, at the same time, privately hoping that in the November elections Mitt Romney and the Republicans will gain control of the White House and Congress, and subsequently overturn Obamacare via legislative means.  In other words, perhaps Roberts is attempting to have his cake and eat it too.  I certainly don’t want to ascribe any perfidious motives to Roberts’ actions, but it is always difficult to determine what goes through the minds of politicians.  I doubt we will ever know the full reasoning behind Roberts’ decision unless some decades from now, retired from the Court, he chooses to write his memoirs.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

In any case, I really do not want to spend too much time focusing on John Roberts’ motivations.  I think it more important to offer up a few thoughts on Obamacare.

Right up front, I will admit that the Affordable Care Act is imperfect.  There is much about it that can be improved.  But, however flawed it is, Obamacare is better than nothing.  It promises to offer coverage to millions of Americans who are currently uninsured.  We live in one of the richest nations in the world, yet so many of our citizens have absolutely no health coverage, no safety net in the event of a medical emergency.  To me, that is unthinkable.

Many have argued that the individual mandate is an unfair burden, a massive government intrusion upon personal rights to force someone to either buy medical insurance or pay a fee, just to help total strangers.  Well, I have news for you: we already do that for other services.  They are known as the police and fire departments.  The majority of us in our lives will, hopefully, not be a victim of a crime or have our house catch on fire.  But we pay taxes to fund the police and firefighters so that when a crime or a fire does occur, there will be resources to respond to that crisis.  It is unthinkable to imagine that only those who can afford to pay for police or fire protection should receive it; that would be the worst kind of selfish Social Darwinism.  So then why should our fellow citizens be deprived of an equally important protection, namely health care coverage?  Are we really so petty & cruel that we would sit back and watch the poor and unemployed suffer & die from medical conditions that can be treated?

For me, access to health insurance has a very personal significance.  I was born with a severe medical condition, and had to have open heart surgery when I was one year old.  If my parents had not possessed health insurance that covered me, I would probably not have received that life-saving treatment.  In addition, in the last ten years I have twice developed cancer, and on both occasions I had to undergo surgery.  Each time this occurred when I was unemployed.  The first time I was fortunately covered under COBRA, which was continuing my insurance from my previous employment.  The second time, I was lucky enough that my parents were able to afford to pay for me to have insurance, albeit at a rather costly monthly premium rate.  If on either of those occasions I had not possessed insurance, well, I don’t know what would have happened.  And the thing is, I am only 36 years old.  I have no idea what other future health problems I might experience.  So I am extremely cognizant of just how crucial it is to possess health insurance.

Watching as Mitt Romney promises to completely eliminate Obamacare if elected President, I am disgusted.  First of all, Romney a hypocrite.  As governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law something very similar to the Affordable Care Act, complete with an individual mandate.  Sorry, but simply I do not buy his excuse that Massachusetts’ law was one that would only work on a state level, and only for that specific state.  It seems to me that the only reason he opposes the Affordable Care Act is because Obama signed it into law.  Second, Romney has not offered any alternatives to the Affordable Care Act.  On the contrary, he proposes to severely cut Medicaid.  Obviously Romney is quite happy to see things remain as they are, to have millions of Americans remain uninsured.  For that reason, and many others, I will not be voting for him.

I am very relieved that the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act.  But, at the same time, I am nervous about what will take place in the next several months.  I hope that Obamacare did not survive a Constitutional challenge only to be slain by legislative reversal.

What the Richard Grenell affair tells us about the GOP

Time to once again venture back into the murky, controversial world of politics.

I think that there are a lot of reasons for the current deplorable condition of American politics.  As I’ve mentioned before, one of the main reasons for this is the increased polarization of ideologies.  While there is plenty of blame to place at the feet of both parties, I personally feel that the lion’s share is due to the actions of the Republicans.  President Obama, despite declarations by his opponents that he is an ultra-liberal radical socialist, is actually pretty much in the middle of the road.  He has shown on numerous occasions that he is open to compromise.  It is really the Republican leadership and their key supporters who keep drifting to the far right of the ideological spectrum.  This is especially evident in the events of the last few weeks that have taken place within Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

In his quest to become the next President, Romney has attempted to promote himself as a moderate, while at the same time courting the support of the conservative elements of the Republican Party.  In other words, he is trying to play both sides of the fence.  But, as can be seen in the case of Richard Grenell, this is an untenable position.

Who is Richard Grenell?  He is a Republican, a political strategist, a former spokesman to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s presidency.  He was hired to be the foreign policy & national security spokesman for the Romney campaign.

Oh, yes, did I mention that Richard Grenell is also openly gay, and that he has spoken out in support of same sex marriage?

The day after Grenell’s appointment, Bryan Fischer of the ultra-conservative American Family Association was quoted on Twitter as saying “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.”  Numerous other harsh criticisms from other figures in the Republican Party and the Religious Right followed on from this.

Despite all of Grenell’s knowledge & years of experience, and his endorsement by other former members of the Bush administration, the fact that he is homosexual and he believes in gay marriage is the defining characteristic of the man in the eyes of a significant portion of the Republican Party.  That Romney would appoint Grenell to his campaign was proof to them that their Presidential nominee was nowhere near “conservative” enough.

In reaction to this firestorm, Grenell was reportedly marginalized by the Romney campaign, shuffled off to the side, his expertise not called upon.  After only three weeks, an understandable frustrated Grenell resigned.  Romney’s camp claimed that they attempted to dissuade Grenell from departing, but the fact that they offered such a tepid defense of him in the proceeding weeks rather undermines their supposed loyalty.

The Grenell affair vividly illustrates just how extremist and myopic elements of the Republican Party have become.  This type of inflexible ideological stance has pervaded so many aspects of their platform.  They are no longer willing to compromise on most major issues.  They publicly embrace intolerance.  In this atmosphere, any sort of effective governing is going to be a near-impossible task.

I am not saying that all Republicans are like this.  Unfortunately, those aforementioned ultra-conservative elements are the most influential and vocal, continually dragging the entire Party further and further to the right.  The result is a political climate where the leaders and policymakers of half the government are almost completely out of touch with the moderate, mainstream beliefs held by most Americans.