Ayn Rand – a famous author and philosopher who wrote Atlas Shrugged, sometimes compared to The Bible for today’s world, and strongly revered by Conservatives and Libertarians – was dedicated a documentary titled “Ayn Rand: In her own words.”
She was born and raised in Russia during severe times – of political and economic instability, and a value system of common good which she would later criticize in her writings and speeches.
This documentary provokes some reflections about life in general – or in other words to rethink our value system, the definitions of selfishness and altruism, the role of government in our lives, and other related questions. According to her, altruism is bad and selfishness is good in that the former makes hard working people worse off, while the latter promotes growth of our society. Ayn Rand supports her views by portraying the Bolshevik and the Nazi regimes as ones based on altruism, and capitalism as one based on selfishness. Comparing the two totalitarian regimes on the one side and capitalism on the other side, the conclusion is that, contrary to what we have to a larger extent been taught at K-12 level and in college at some classes – self-interest, and not self-devotion, appears to be the better approach for our society – and by our society I mean the entire human society.
Ayn Rand can be seen on the documentary as having supported her argument by saying that whoever is altruist in essence wants to be the state – and that such people should never be elected in office implying that they would apparently be directing their country toward socialism, national socialism, communism, fascism and any totalitarian and altruistic order. I paraphrased her words.
One question immediately comes to mind when hearing these views – if selfishness is so much better than altruism, then why would we ever care to help a friend or a beloved one. Such kind of a question was asked to her in an interview, and Ayn Rand clarified that she does not disapprove of helping each other when we want to, but when we are willing to do that at our own expense – meaning when we sacrifice our happiness to make someone else happy.
While I largely (but not completely) agree with her on that, I was interested in understanding whether she draws any line in her philosophy when it comes to whom to help – something that I couldn’t detect when watching the documentary. In particular – I am entirely willing to sacrifice my happiness for the happiness of my relatives because these are the people I care about the most. And later in life I will be willing to sacrifice some of my happiness (for example, being compelled to quit a hobby) for the happiness of my wife and kids because when the family that I would hopefully be making is happy – I will be happier than living a carefree and comparatively easy life of a bachelor, which is a comparatively more selfish approach. Does this make me an ethical altruist whom Ayn Rand would be despising if she were alive? Do I want to be the state in case I become the head of a state? Making my family happy is what I predict will be defining me, and making my relatives happy is what always defines me. And, as I implied above, that may include making personal sacrifices.
There is also the question of truth having been raised by Ayn Rand – namely that there is only one truth to every question, that truth is never in the middle or that it’s debatable. This is a very interesting view that I am inclined to agree with on the premise that just because we cannot explain a certain situation doesn’t mean that there are no factors that we can’t see that have empirically had an impact on a certain outcome.
However, I disagree with her on taxation. Her negative views on taxation have been demonstrated by some scholars (not scholars of her works) to appear unrealistic. The quote on that link is what the documentary also shows that she said during an interview. However, Ayn Rand apparently disregards the free-rider problem in the case of public goods, even though there is also evidence in support of her philosophy. “Demonstrably need” doesn’t necessarily lead to disclosing (be it directly or indirectly) how much an individual is able and willing to pay for “the police, the armed forces, the law courts.” Depending on how much person A knows that person B is willing to pay on a certain good, person A might end up lying about his or her own willingness to pay – in that they would demonstrate lower willingness to pay than they actually would. This situation especially holds in a society based on selfishness which includes maximizing profits and minimizing costs. One of the reasons for the occurrence of the current economic crisis comes exactly from asymmetric information. And asymmetric information is likely to occur in every kind of society.
I am looking forward to getting more acquainted with what Ayn Rand’s stances are. She is truly a remarkable philosopher of our time.