FROM AYN RAND TO PAUL RYAN:
CAPITALISM AS MORALITY
By Stefan Wallaschek
[This article published in Blaetter 10/2012 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, www.linksnet.de.]
According to a 1991 survey, Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” reached second place after the Bible among the most influential books in the US. In an anecdote told of Paul Ryan, he recommended all his collaborators read this novel… This is not a surprise. Ayn Rand’s core message is so radical that it upends some republicans.
Society does not play any role in Ayn Rand’s perspective. Social groups: superfluous. Voluntary engagement: also superfluous. Everyone is only responsible for him- or herself. However, on the other hand, the basic principle of a capitalist protection method – the protection of personal property – must be defended against all influences and may not be infringed. The state as the holder of the monopoly of force should assume this merely defensive function – maintaining security for the citizens. However, Rand regards all other state-economic regulatory- or distribution measures as unnecessary or even absolutely negative. Her ideas about human self-realization that is only guaranteed by a completely free capitalism are contradictory. For Rand, only the capitalist self-dynamic, its constant renewal and revolution, builds the freedom of people and the people themselves.
The Reason of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s radical pathos for freedom is only understandable through her own history.
Rand was born in Russia in 1905. Her father, a pharmacist of Jewish descent was expropriated after the October Revolution which massively threatened the social security of the family. Nevertheless, Rand could study philosophy and history in her city of birth St. Petersburg and ultimately left Russia in 1926 for the US.
These blows of fate in her young years contributed to Rand’s strict anti-communism. In her novels and essays, she rejected all forms of society and social theory. In her main work “Atlas Shrugged” (“Atlas shakes off the world” was the German translation), she promoted a radical egoism founded only on objectivity, rationality and reason.
According to Rand, reality is based on rational and experienced facts and observations. So the world can be grasped objectively (Rand seems antiquated in post-modern times where everything seems relative.). From Rand’s perspective, our values determining our daily conduct are only reason-based. In her reflections on egoism, the personal striving for the “higher” is an intrinsic human morality. In a quasi-naturalist understanding, she takes an Aristotelian position and assumes humans know what is good. Every person strives for his or her personal fulfillment. Every person doing this voluntarily makes this rational. Conversely, every person who does not try to make the best of life acts irrationally.
In Rand’s mind, only realization in the economic sphere is “the best and highest.” Rand reduces persons to the bourgeois who only thinks in economic categories and only needs to respect himself and no one else – unlike the citizen engaged in society and actively championing a democratic process of enlightenment. The atomized society and the free play of forces in the market are the desired utopia in Rand’s philosophy.
Rand’s program would be completely realized in a pure laissez-faire capitalism as an economic basis and a minimal state as its superstructure. As Fred Miller writes, Rand defends “the minimal state against the totalitarian and welfare state ideologies prevailing in her time” (Fred D. Miller Jr., A Philosopher for the New Millennium? 1998, www.reasonpapers.com). He also refers to the time of the Keynesian New Deal under Roosevelt in the US of the 19303 and does not only focus on Rand’s communist youth.
Economy without the State: Moral Capitalism
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with their neoliberal state downsizing and the destruction of society showed Rand’s reflections can be very tempting. “There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and families.” The motto of the Iron Lady seemed entirely in the spirit of Ayn Rand.
Two very different phenomena suggest Rand’s philosophy is influential today… Firstly, Rand’s maxim – realize yourself and have no regard for the supposedly stronger gender – has opened women’s eyes [Mimi Gladstein. Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance, 1978].
The second phenomenon is the former head of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan who was Rand’s close friend up to her death in 1982. Before he came to know Rand, he was “a free entrepreneur in the sense of Adam Smith, impressed by the theoretical structure and efficiency of markets.” To Rand, he owed the discovery that capitalism is moral and not only efficient and expedient (Allan Mayer, Jane Whitmore and Pamela Lynn Abraham, Greenspan – Atlas Jogs, in “Newsweek,” 2/24/1975).
This moral charge of capitalism is emphasized today in US society and above all in the Republican Party. The Ayn Rand Institute, a think tank founded in 1985, is engaged in a nearly missionary way for a radically free capitalism entirely in Ayn Rand’s sense – and against Barack Obama’s health reform or higher environmental standards for the economy.
Religion as a Bone of Contention
Ayn Rand and the theme religion are problematic for Republicans and particularly for their strong Christian fundamentalist fraction. Rand was a confessed atheist which was only consistent according to her philosophy. From Rand’s philosophic al foundations, religious ideas could only hinder the rational egoism of persons. Moreover, a Christian social teaching of inclusive charity does not fit the program of radical laissez-faire capitalism.
The social situation in the US is different. Here religion plays a very important and increasingly central role in the last years.
The formerly tolerant civil religion in the US was essentially a private affair. The main point is that people believed in something. This has changed into its opposite. On one side, faith is indispensable today. On the other side, the substance of faith is much contested. The Mormon Romney is an example. The faith community of Mormons only amounts to two percent of voters in the US and was viewed with great skepticism by the Tea Party movement from the beginning. As an irony of history, the Ayn Rand Institute criticizes Ryan… “Ryan wants to end social security, not preserve it” (Don Watkins, Why Paul Ryan is no Ayn Rand on Social Security, www.csmonitor.com, 8/21/2012)
Does the US Face a Change of Course?
Whoever only sees the republicans as politically torn and predicts an easy victory for Obama makes a dangerous mistake. The moral ambivalence and theoretical weakness of republicans in no way face the strength of democrats. A president who appeared with the promise of change and now asks for more time received a Nobel Prize for Peace but still wages an intensive drone war in Afghanistan. Such a president cannot assume reelection is assured.
In the last years, the Democratic Party culpably the nascent protest movement and the “rebirth of the American left” – even though most of the protestors were Obama’s supporters and voters. Paul Ryan’s nomination offers a chance for the democrats. Many of the alarmed voters could be regained with severe criticism of the inhumanity and crisis-causing republic economic policies in Ayn Rand’s spirit. One thing is certain. With a conversion of the ideas of Paul Ryan or literally Ayn Rand, the US of the future could be vastly different than the US of the present.