I was driving on an icy freeway across a frozen Midwestern state when I heard commentator Paul Harvey over the airwaves. His bold staccato voice punctuated the air as he told of a woman and her son waiting for a husband who never arrived on a cold day in New York. The father had left the family, and as the son grew up, he became a famous entertainer. Years later the son starred and produced a show that allowed him to bring his mother and father back together each week. After breaking to talk about the wonders of Maxwell House Coffee, Mr. Harvey told the rest of the story. The young man was Jackie Gleason who famously recreated his Brooklyn family life every week as people sat in front of their television sets to watch The Honeymooners. His own father had left his mother when Gleason was very young. Gleason was able to recreate his mother and father in their Brooklyn Tenement through the characters of Ralph and Alice Kramden. No matter how angry and frustrated the couple became they ended each show with Ralph saying to Alice “baby you’re the greatest, Gleason’s way of reconciling the dissolution of his parent’s marriage.
I have been thinking a lot about a book I read many years ago. Recent events have made me think more retrospectively. Last week I had read that many of today’s conservatives would need to change their philosophy of free enterprise given the state of our economy. I have long believed that there exists a finite amount of debt that society could assume and hence a limit to economic growth. I have been proven wrong, as I now know that investment traders found ways to leverage very risky mortgage securities thousands of times over. I recall that the book advocated the absence of any government regulation with regard to businesses and businesspersons. It is easy to see the influence of the writer today. Advocates use the same themes that were echoed in the book. Businesses forced to comply through the power of a gun, individual rights, and man’s absolute dominion over the earth are repeated in almost every publication and newsletter released by those who adhere to the principles of the book.
The writer of that novel that by now many have deduced is an influential writer named Ayn Rand. Rand’s family was deeply scarred by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia that led to the formation of the Soviet Union and the take over of all private business interests by the government. Her family business a pharmacy was subsumed under the state. Deeply troubled by the trauma she had witnessed, Rand was convinced that businesses needed absolute control over their interests and that any regulation was deeply reminiscent of life in a communist country.
Her devoted followers use terms such as socialism or collectivism to describe any effort to regulate business. What many of us term capitalism to Rand was a mixture of socialism and true unfettered capitalism. To them businesspersons always dealt with each other honestly in a mutual exchange of goods and services. Those who are dishonest will be revealed by the market, and their ill-gotten gains will not prove lasting. They point to Adam Smith whose 1776 writing The Wealth of Nations claimed that the markets influenced by many millions of decisions were impossible and foolish to attempt to control. Mr. Smith further noted that the market would always move in positive directions, read produce growth and wealth as if led by an invisible hand. Given that, the market will always produce good intentions efforts to regulate the market could only lead to frustration for the people most responsible for the success of the market the business people who lead our major corporations.
The book Atlas Shrugged, posited that the movers and shakers would one day become fed up with the endless “shackles” of government regulations and themselves go on strike. All men of talent would abdicate their commitment to making the world a better place. In their stead men of lesser ambition, indecision, with no sense of responsibility would now run these businesses into the ground. The book reads like a superhero novel, the courageous and charismatic leaders of businesses finally succumb to ridiculous pressure by governmental types that Rand labeled “looters”.
The heroes wait until complete destruction is assured and then return to show the foolish the error of the ways of regulation. Looters were anyone who did not produce and whose sole existence and income was subject to the “minds of men”, the leaders of business. Persons labeled as looters in the book are such agencies such as today’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) among others. The Ayn Rand institute notes that government has two roles to protect against theft from looters and moochers, and to provide for national defense. Get out of our way, is their unofficial motto.
To the followers of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, people who populate the offices of these programs are looters who derive their income from unconstitutional taxation of business. Efforts to regulate lead to destruction of wealth and income. To Rand there is no nobler cause than enriching oneself through love of one’s work and the resultant monetary gain. A moral and just man uses his mind to develop creatively and these talents produce goods and services that should be traded for the best value.
In many ways, the world that Ayn Rand created in such novels as The Fountainhead, and Alas Shrugged and much later, her advocating of self-interest and selfishness appear to be her way of remaking her Jackie Gleason moment. That is to say, that she rallies against such concepts as collectivism and government regulation of businesses in much the same way as her own family’s business and lifestyle was violently overrun by the Bolsheviks. It is safe to say that when Rand was still alive the fear of communism was at its height. The phrase “better dead than red” was prominently rolling off the lips of every conservative from John Birch to Archie Bunker. Rand created a fairy tale world just like Jackie Gleason. The only problem is that everyone who enjoyed “The Honeymooners” knew that it was a work of fiction. Those who sing the praises of Ayn Rand’s novels and her belief in the selfish nature of man refuse to see the fiction in her work.
Intelligent people have written ad infinitum some may even go so far as to say ad nauseum about the wonders of true unfettered capitalism. Those at the Ayn Rand Institute, Capitalism Magazine, and a host of other Rand influenced people swear to the allegiance of the following statement: “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” This statement may be the epitome of selfishness; ironically, to Objectivists this is a complement. Rand leaves herself open to Orwell speak when she equates selfishness with morality. Remember that George Orwell rallying against doublespeak noted that “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength”.
These were the predominate slogans of Big Brother in the novel 1984. Why then should one be so generous as to believe that the captains of the industry produce wealth by conducting honest trades of goods for services? Again, this type of thinking is akin to giving corporate businesspersons superhero status. I read one article in which the writer insisted that we need more people like Dagny Taggart the protagonist of the novel, who if she were a banker, would have told the government “to hell with your bailout”. The author of the article insisted that the government had forced banks to appear and sign statements thus taking away their rights. The reality is a little less super hero and more like incompetency. Banks were heavily leveraged with near worthless sub-prime mortgage securities repackaged as AAA bonds the highest bond rating. No one forced banks to purchase these bonds; they did this because they were making tremendous amounts of money courtesy of deregulation. Now holding billions of dollars of vastly overvalued holdings, they had a choice. Without government help, the banks would have failed.
In the super hero world of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, banks failed because of too much government regulation. They remark that the greatest era of wealth building in our country coincided with a time of minimal regulations, the late 19th century. More on this ideal later. Apparently, these conservative, rather libertarians would have had banks say to government, “we will not take your bailout, and we believe it was government’s reckless policies that led us to the brink. We have a better idea, we do not want your money, we are strong enough to rebuild after the economy collapses”. This of course is the reality in the book Atlas Shrugged. Their cry for corporations to act suddenly like the protagonist of a novel is like expecting Super Man to defeat Al Qaeda capturing Osama Bin Laden and defeating the evil Jihadists preserving the world and fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. They would be wise to remember that Dagney Taggert like Superman could perform these feats of strength because they were fictitious characters in a novel.
In the real world, they are moral people and immoral people who earn money, just as there are moral and immoral people in all lifestyles. I am not ready to trust that the market is always moral and self- correcting.
I have one word for those would embrace a free market without any regulations…Thalidomide. In the late fifties and early sixties pregnant women who suffered from morning sickness were prescribed a medication known as Thalidomide. The medication was freely available for use in countries other than the US. In the United States, a pharmacologist named Frances Oldham Kelsey had doubts about the medication. Kelsey worked for the regulatory agency the Food and Drug Administration. Thanks to her efforts, that drug was not prescribed in great numbers to Americans. Over 10,000 children were born without fully formed limbs. Some were missing arms, some legs; vestigial limbs resembling flippers were frequently noted in many cases.
It is a testament to the strength of the human will and spirit that these children have lived very productive lives. Nonetheless, they should not have needed to adapt had there existed greater regulations examining the use of the medication. This is but one example of the power and necessity of regulation. The “minds of men” and reason do not always work to the mutual benefit of all. I could list many more examples but this case is illustrative of how regulations benefit man. Free market advocates would argue that such a drug would quickly be taken off the market. However, they do not consider that unlike thalidomide some effects of unfettered decisions are not readily apparent until many years after the product comes to market. Does profit always benefit man?
Now for the rest of the story as Paul Harvey would have informed us. Objectivists claim that if only business leaders could have unfettered access to produce and trade as they pleased, then the world would begin to appreciate the wonders of true capitalism. Then and only then can one begin to understand that selfishness is a truly moral principle. They make no apologies for the apparent contradiction of arguing that a “me first” attitude is a just position to take. To them an apparent contradiction is a misunderstanding of one’s premises. If self-interest appears immoral one only need to reexamine the premise of morality and presto-chango selfishness is revealed to be the greatest of moral tenets since it serves the greatest of agents… man.
Those who work tirelessly at the Ayn Rand institute and their minions of acolytes believe that the book is of such quality that it should be a guiding principle in everyone’s life. They encourage impressionable adolescents to read and follow without question the words of their cause. They have posted contests on their website encouraging adolescents to write about the key points of the novel. Upon remarking the assignment, one would note the conspicuous absence of any true academic pursuit. They never ask the student to compare and contrast the key points; rather just regurgitate the facts in one’s own words. This is akin to writing about what makes our country so great for a fourth of July essay.
The philosophy of Objectivism as explained in Ayn Rand Institute material contains many failsafe propositions to defend against any questions or detractors. One of the most frequent is that apparent contradictions are not really, what they seem. Secondly, whenever someone gives examples of a fallacy in Objectivism they are attacked as not presenting the whole picture. Many advocates will claim that detractors are arguing Ad Hominen; that true advocates of Objectivism would not behave in the manner of the example. This is what advocates would say about the above Thalidomide history. They would claim that discussions regarding problems such as Thalidomide or the falling of the economy are deliberate attacks, employing agents such as the manufacturers of Thalidomide or the Investment bankers against true believers of objectivism. The problem is how one determines a true believer from a dishonest person.
Lastly, advocates of Objectivism who argue passionately for a free market, without any regulation, explain that whenever the market produces undesired results that the issue is government regulations. The harm surely must have come from the government overly regulating business. This is the equivalent of stating that if a tiger in a cage at a zoo attacks a passerby that person had not experienced a true tiger since it was regulated by a cage. In light of the recent events on Wall Street, I would rather not experience true unfettered capitalism without the protection of the cage.