Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reservation for Mr. Galt.

Randian objectivist philosophy is like a finely tailored, Harris tweed jacket in Miami in July: Many people find it attractive. Some folks will even try it on. But almost no one manages to wear it for long.

Maybe that's why it has taken more than 63 years for anyone to manage making a film of "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand's 1,400-page objectivist manifesto, literary doorstop and paean to triumphant self-actualization. The trailer looks nifty -- lots of hats and nighttime cityscapes to please the Hopper fans among us. I'll certainly be sure to see this.* If it's a poor movie, it will still provide a fetishistic thrill to Randian (not to say randy) devotees of muscular capitalism, what with all the speeding trains and industrial sparks. If it's a good movie, and attracts an audience beyond a self-selecting group of Rand acolytes, it will also serve to expose many to Rand's ideas for the first time. Good movie or poor, you certainly can expect to hear her name dropped into more cable news debates and op-ed pieces by people who really haven't any idea what the mysterious Mr. Galt was selling.

I'm afraid my dedication to my own happiness is insufficiently singular to ever be a good objectivist.  My own worldview is wrapped in and grows from my Christianity. So I part company from Ayn and her brood right about the time her protagonist says, "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." (Rand's own obsessive approach to romance makes it difficult to imagine that declaration coming from her mouth, instead of Mr. Galt's.) I understand the concept well enough. I can grasp how rational self interest, universally exercised by everyone, always, is supposed to benefit everyone, everywhere. But tell that to my little boy when an important business event conflicts with a nice day for fishing. You tell him, because I won't.

At bottom, I think Rand's philosophy is untenable because it is predicated on an imagined world where ruthless, unalloyed self-interest is both possible and desirable, when, in fact, such a world would be impracticable and sad. Despite the facile way in which folks from all across the American political spectrum like to invoke it, and despite Rand's evidently genuine love of America,** Randian objectivism is by no means itself an American value system. Instead, the rugged individualism, love of liberty, and dedication to personal responsibility that are central to the best of American character all are rightly understood to exist in a context of sacrifice and service to others. Will Kane stands alone in that street not to glorify himself, and certainly not to serve any self-interest, but rather to fulfill his duty to others.

I also have to wonder how the filmmakers are going to deal with the massively anachronistic "government versus the brave industrialist" skeleton upon which the flesh of the "Atlas Shrugged" is layered. If you aren't already nodding your head, take a minute to Google "Citigroup stimulus," or "Koch Industries campaign contributions," or "procurement revolving door."*** What exactly does a modern iteration of the story do with billions in TARP funds, or no-bid government contracts?**** My guess is, it shrugs them off.

* Extra points to the marketing folks for having the movie open on Tax Day.

** "I can say—not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic roots—that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world."

*** That you can also search "George Soros campaign contributions," or "SEIU political influence," for similar results strengthens, rather than weakens, my argument.

**** Although the bailout did cause a surge in sales of the book.


  1. Excellent critique! My issue with Rand's objectivism is that it ignores the social contract. We are all, to some extent, our brothers' keepers.

  2. I just wrote a long, detailed reply and when attempting to preview it, was rewarded with an error message, and unceremoniously returned to this [now blank] box. Swell.

    My reading of Miss Rand is that the extent to which we are our brother's keepers is for us each to choose. As a Christian, I support the practice of helping the truly helpless (and as a Christian, I'd never qualify as an objectivist, since I associate with those she called "the mystics"). She resented the guilt trip foisted on the industrious by the self-righteous, whether citizens or agents of the government. She was a staunch advocate of individual freedom and choice, not the monolithic black-hearted witch she is often painted in caricature.

    I certainly appreciate the need for our return to something closer to real markets and commerce that aren’t manipulated, perverted and distorted by politicians playing favorites. That no form of political economy provides a higher standard of living than capitalism isn’t theory, it’s empirical fact.

    Miss Rand was incredibly prescient. Her binary taxonomy of society (producers on one hand, looters on the other) is often derided for its harshness. But the fact is that we are perilously close to a tipping point in this country, where more than 50% of the population pays no taxes whatsoever. What lies in store for us when that 50+% elects [even more] politicians whose primary obligation isn’t to the Constitution and guaranteeing “….the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness” but rather seizing ever-increasing amounts of wealth from the industrious and re-distributing it to members of our burgeoning entitlement society who have done nothing to earn it?

    On a lighter note, I can’t wait for the movie. “Atlas Shrugged” is a hugely entertaining story. Real feminists will appreciate the story a strong, determined woman, but the pseudo-feminists of NOW and their ilk will sneer at a woman not caught up in the liberal party line of victimization and complaint. I hope that the first segment is as good as the trailers promise, and that the other two make it to the screen.

    Always enjoy your blog posts, amigo.

  3. Well, Buck mostly saved me the trouble. I'll go one further though...

    The "help your fellow man" aspect of Christianity is where my belief in that system falls apart. Just as you cannot be a true Objectivist because of your Christian beliefs, I cannot support a faith that REQUIRES me to feed and clothe those that won't feed and clothe themselves, nor one within which most pursue that endeavor out of fear for their own well-being (or soul) moreso than any actual concern for their fellow man.

    In my brief experience on this planet I have met precious few who did not dig their own holes. There are exceptions (stray dogs and children, I suppose) but I believe that 99% of "charity" is flawed. Go back and visit a Habitat house 5 years later. Trashed, or sold, or mortgaged for crack. Look at Haiti, an entire country who's only industry is charity. Watch how much more quickly Japan recovers from a far worse disaster than Haiti will.

    WE created Haiti by failing to allow them to fail. The welfare state in this country is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the current economy, there is already research to support the idea that people don't really get industrious and look for jobs or alternate sources of income until the unemployment checks run out. IMHO "charity" is a pox on the individual who is the target, and is motivated by nothing more than personal interest.

    Which, then, even in the best of circumstances means that charity is actually in line with Objectivist ideals because it is in fact self-serving and not about the recipient at all.

    Rand, IMHO, realized this, and was a realist. If one has to be told by a structured belief system to help someone TRULY in need, and only helps those who's need the charity system creates to begin with in order to save one's eternal soul, then they ARE an Objectivist because both of these things are for their own sake. and the good news is that the best way to help someone that truly needs it is to give them a way to help you. At the end of the movie Dutch, Ed O'Neil's character doesn't give the guy who gave them a ride home a $50, or a meal, he tells him to call the office on Monday so he can get a JOB.

  4. Great commments by all. Bruce Lee had some advice for martial arts trainees that applies just as well to political "isms".... "Retain what is useful, discard the rest". I can get behind individualism, free markets, and opposing any sort of imposed collectivism. Her self-centered personal amorality, I can do without.

    I think the concept of Rational Self-Interest has practical limitations. For example, public safety: What if a fireman decides rushing into an inferno isn't in HIS self-interest? Who will fight the fire then?