Ayn Rand: The Banality of Greed

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November 11, 2011 in Culture & Media

Original photo: Phyllis Cerf

People in our apartment building don’t have to guess the shape of my and my wife’s politics. A weathered NO WAR sign stands in front of our doorway and on one wall there’s a flag with an image of planet Earth, taken from space, on a blue field that’s hung there since 9/11. Hard to miss. So I was taken aback when a three-page printout from an NPR interview was anonymously placed under our doormat. The interview was with a self-described “venture capitalist” and fellow at a libertarian think tank.

This promoter of Ayn Rand’s philosophy argued that it was venture capitalists like himself who create jobs, not government. Like most of Rand’s ideas this is about half right. Actually, in this case, a third right. Ernesto Sirolli, who has probably helped more depressed areas of the globe produce jobs than any community developer alive, says it takes three elements to start a business: someone passionate about a dream, the skills to make it happen, and, almost incidentally, money to get it started. Three legs, not one, as Rand would have claimed — the kind of partial truth that permeates her philosophy.

Her latter-day spokesman went on to argue that because capital alone creates jobs, he should not pay taxes or suffer government regulation. Regs and taxes amount to “punishment” for developing jobs. That’s another Ayn Rand notion. Since capital creates jobs, it should be unfettered. No individual capitalist should be required to contribute to the welfare of society as a whole. Capitalists give just by the nature of how they became rich.

Rand went further: Wealthy individuals push economic progress forward through their greed in a magical network of invisible interactions. In her book of essays The Virtue of Selfishness, she puts a twist on Adam Smith’s famous notion of the “Invisible Hand” (a phrase he used  ironically in his classic economic theory, Wealth of Nations).  For her, the greed of individuals moves the economy ahead as rich people make choices based on their own private self-interest. It occurs mysteriously, and no one can see it happen – but trust her, greed works for us.

Of course greed plays a role in how the economy evolves, but Rand’s philosophy teaches that Greed is Good. Greed exclusively makes good things happen, and if bad things occur to people because wealthy people act out of greed, well, nothing should be done about it. Certainly government should not intervene, but no one else should either. In her book of essays, she attacks altruism – acting on behalf of another person without regard for one’s self-interest – as itself evil. For Rand any gesture of love towards another holds back progress. She believes that selfishness rules the universe.

The only role for government in her philosophy is to protect the wealth of the rich and their right to act selfishly.  Rand’s radical libertarianism would shrink government to the size of an army or police department that would provide stability and protect property, eriod. No roads, no schools, no rules.

How a philosophy that substitutes greed for love and selfishness for mutual aid fits in an America founded on the Declaration of Independence’s “inalienable rights” and the Constitution’s call to “promote the general welfare” remains a mystery to me. But Rand’s philosophy now threatens the very core of the democratic experiment when it makes individual wealth the only sign of a nation’s health. So when you hear that kind of half-truth, recognize it as Ayn Rand’s legacy. Against her shredding of our common commitments, we must stand together.

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Rev. Jim Conn
Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was...
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  • Abby Arnold

    The anonymous person who left the article was probably that selfish anti-poor person NPR radio host who lives across the street from you.

  • http://www.cal-pacmfsa.org Theresa Basile

    Great stuff Jim, thanks! I read a lot of Ayn Rand a long time ago, and discussing what disturbed me about her with teachers – nuns, actually, this was in high school. Found her ideas challenging at that age, and was struggling to refute what seemed to be the powerful logic of her thinking. Amazing how differently her philosophy appears now! with the hindsight of life experience, including more strongly developed faith values that I’ve had the chance to test, the power of compassion and selflessness so overwhelmingly trump the cold logic of her world view.

    If we could just get our political leaders to understand where real power lies.

  • Jamesd

    Jim Conn, as usual, spots the black hole in capitalism. Nothing matters but greed and narcissism the very darkest matter of our society. We’d sell mother earth’s last good dress for a little more convenience in our daily lives.

  • Slyboox

    Being born out of a love-based community, the fountainhead legacy struck me as some sort of strange oppositional cult. I chose never to delve, though her books circulated profusely in my college years. She seems to have ascertained some strategically informed but fundamentally warped notion of “goodness”.
    Thanks for giving it a rundown; gives me the relief that I didn’t miss out on ANYTHING by not reading her.
    –Tav

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=739925545 Daniel Goodwin

    Ayn Rand highlights a problem with our current system of taxation. The progressive tax basically forces the wealthy to be fair and altruistic by the force of the law. We know that many of the problems we face today in our economy would be solved if the “job-creators” would pay their employees a better wage, and if they willingly contributed to things like civic improvements and education, but they don’t. We know that without money and resources going into these things that our economy and society in general will just get progressively worse, so as a consequence, we must take the money from those who have it.

    But there’s an obvious problem with this. Even if it’s for the most noble of causes, I don’t particularly appreciate anyone forcing me to do anything, or taking anything from me. And it’s the same with the wealthy. So long as we continue to force them to be fair and altruistic, they’re eventually going to push back, and they’ve been pushing back for a long time now.

    Ayn Rand’s philosophy emerged as a consequence of having her entire life taken away from her by “the government” for the “revolution” when she was a young child, and from watching her father struggle with the fact that his life’s hard work had suddenly amounted to nothing. I completely disagree with her philosophy, but it isn’t difficult to understand why she feels the way she does.

    So the question that I’m struggling with, and that I’ve been struggling with for a while, is how do we convinced the “job-creators” that fairness and altruism are in their best interest, as well as the interest of society, so we don’t have to keep forcing them to be good people?

    • http://www.cal-pacmfsa.org Theresa Basile

      I would not call paying taxes “altruism” and requiring taxes is not requiring altruistic action by anyone, which would be giving without regard for oneself. More like “enlightened self-interest,” if we’re educated enough to understand that those taxes create a safer and better society for us all to live in.

      Fairness, yes. Our sense of fairness is fundamental to our way of allocation tax burdens, for paying 15% for someone making just enough for life’s essentials is a much greater burden than paying 35% of an income that is far more than needed for those essentials. The latter person still comes out way ahead of the former, financially.

      Most important is the concept that capital is the greatest element to contribute to a business and it deserves the overwhelming return for its investment. Without the other elements described in Jim’s blog, not to mention the contributions of the workers, mid-level management, all the infrastructure of a society that makes the business possible, capital isn’t going to accomplish much.

  • Andy

    I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that he enjoyed paying his taxes because he thought of it as buying civilization. Seems to me that this is one fundamental point that Rand and her flinty-eyed libertarian offspring tend to miss: taxes are supposed to buy services and infrastructure that make trade and for that matter civilization possible. There’s always room to talk about whether those taxes are properly spent. But why on earth would Rand’s (or Rick Perry’s, or Herman Cain’s, or Mitt Romney’s) “job creators” invest their hard earned capital in any kind of business if that business lacked an infrastructure in which to operate? Business needs the backing of a standardized set of weights and measures (Bureau of Standards), a set of guidelines to insure that commerce is fairly conducted (trade agreements), recourse if it is not (civil courts, criminal courts, justice system), transport for goods and services (FAA, Dept of Transportation), and all of the other services that make trade possible.

    I suppose the job creators could each build their own private transportation networks, hire their own security services, individually source their own raw materials in a completely unfettered free market, create factories devoid of any job-killing safety regulations, come up with their own system of weights and measures, construct their own markets outside of any system of regulated exchange, and just let the invisible hand sort it all out…

    Oh, wait: international drug cartels have already pioneered this bold experiment in free market economics, and we’d all have to admit that’s working really well.

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