by Matthew Record
“I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong, pass a law and do something about it.” — Milton Friedman
Objectivism is the philosophy developed and espoused over time by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and fleshed out through a series of newsletters and lectures in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.Rand, Leonard Peikoff and others in her braintrust offer a tantalizingly simple modality for understanding political systems, sociology and indeed, the epistemological nature of mankind’s mind. Quietly but with a presence that announces itself more and more forcefully each year, we are living the heyday of Rand’s intellectual influence. Objectivism has come to the fore throughout the conservative movement since the ’80s in general and through the recent rise of Libertarianism as a political economic force, in particular. Rand’s followers most famously include Alan Greenspan but also Justice Clarence Thomas, Presidential Candidate Ron Paul and Congressional fiscal disciplinarian Paul Ryan.
What’s interesting to note is the fact that, if I had to guess, some, perhaps even many objectivists would bristle at the implication that their beliefs have a tangible association to politics in today’s society. The objectivist outlook sees itself as set apart from the traditional liberal-conservative nomenclature used in America and even sees itself as separate from the more holistically realized two-dimensional political compass.
Right and left, authoritarian, communism, fascism: all of these have these systems of beliefs – normally perceived as quite varied – could be neatly subsumed under the title “collectivism.” Basically, all systems of governance, all innovations except Capitalism, were simply ways to deny individual men the right to exercise their most important franchise: rationality.
According to the Ayn Rand institute:
“Rationality is man’s basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Man–every man–is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”
In many ways, learning about objectivism is like trying to study a religious dogma. There are a set of axioms from which all manner of judgments – regarding art, social programs, even the nature of reality itself – are derived. On top of the explanations, there are numerous defenders on forums and within the movement itself digging in their heels in preparation for retaliation against the somewhat inchoate but ever-growing legion of critics. There is even an effusively written review of the famously panned film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged which closes with the breathless summary: “This adaptation can’t be ignored. It is way too good. It is going to turbocharge the debate over Rand’s vision of capitalism as a moral ideal. Whether you love the novel or hate it, Atlas Shrugged Part I is a must-see film.”
I find the comparison to religious dogma, particularly to evangelical Christianity, apt for several reasons. In general, people don’t tend to have an automatic recall of those thinkers who influenced their outlook in the way that objectivists do. In much the same way that evangelicals are encouraged to read and develop intelligent opinions on the Bible through independent study, objectivists, too, have a deep connection to the texts at the base of their system. Objectivists, like evangelical Christians, are likely to see a large if not conspiratorial “other” in the world at large whenever their beliefs are derided or attacked (which in fairness, is often) much in the same way as many evangelicals see the world as an “us vs. them” narrative between the faithful and the secular. Like evangelical Christians, objectivists are taught to be doggedly and openly defiant of the social and economic mores that they despise – and that any move to soften or compromise their own integrity represents hypocrisy and a moral failing. Finally, both objectivists and evangelical Christians are treated as everything from an anthropological curiosity to an evil cabal by liberal Americans, but very seldom are either afforded any respect as a movement.
Obviously, the sociological similarities don’t extend to their actual beliefs – beginning most obviously with the fact that objectivism preaches an outlook which necessarily leads to atheism. It’s the nature of the belief that makes them so easily the source of our derision. Objectivism gives its followers a holistic way of viewing the world and, as such, gives those who disagree with it a completely-conceived waypoint from which to stand apart. Even if I don’t have everything figured out, I know I don’t believe in that.
However, I admire the objectivist outlook for, if nothing else, presenting a logically consistent way to view the world. No individual need be legally compelled to provide for his or her neighbor in objectivism and, furthermore, no individual should have the right to force any outlook or use any form of coercion on anyone else, period. When we don’t like a given reason for the coercion, liberals are apt to make that same argument, i.e. with regard to the Iraq War. But at other points, liberals are comfortable calling for legal coercion to fund entitlement programs or for military interventions for humanitarian reasons, as many called for in Darfur.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that logical cohesion need be the ultimate determinant for how convincing a system of moral beliefs is. In fact, the number one problem I have with objectivism is that it’s a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t have any malleability to suit differing circumstances. I’m merely saying from an Occam’s Razor/simplicity standpoint, it does have some merit and is more useful, from a day-to-day standpoint, than many other philosophers, who are not treated with nearly the same degree of scorn (I’m looking at you, Descartes).
I intend to explore the idea of individualism in later essays but I want to say this: I believe cooperation, not rationality, is the greatest enterprise for mankind and the reason we have achieved ecological dominance over the world. I also believe that any system which renders altruism moot or doesn’t sufficiently explain why the world is far more humane and moral than it has any right to be based on random chance is inherently flawed and, thus, has a limited usefulness. However, I credit objectivists for creating a system so intertwined with man’s selfishness, because what trait is more widely proliferated? To stop there, though, and further to declare selfishness a moral end unto itself…I can’t get behind that and I don’t think I’m out on too much of limb saying most compassionate people are uncomfortable with the idea.
I believe there’s a lie to individualism, but it’s a lie that makes a lot intuitive sense, so I don’t immediately begrudge those who hold it.
Matthew Record is a public policy and Constitutional law student at Stony Brook University. He’s the drummer and driving force behind the indie pop sextet Fortune & Spirits. He is an editor for musicemissions.com and a staff writer for RazzberrySync, Inc. He’s also the sole contributor to his own blog.
Matthew is from Long Island, NY and hates when people from the Island root for the Rangers. We have one team and it’s the Islanders. Support them.