My husband grew up under communism and he has no sentimental memories of the time. Every morning he and his father would take it in turns to stand in 2 hour long queues at 4 am to collect his family’s daily ration of milk and monthly ration of frozen meat. His family’s land had been seized years before he was born and stories of the torture and “disappearance” of relatives were part of ordinary conversation. He lived in a cramped flat and his parents who were teachers were forced to teach false history that would make their dear leader look good and his enemies in the west look bad. As they did they were always aware that their students were watching them for slip ups or a less than patriotic performance of the national anthem and they, as many of their colleagues before them, might be imprisoned for years for such offenses.
These experiences taught my husband that any ideology, even those that seem inherently moralistic can be distorted when taken to extreme because whenever a fixed idea becomes more important than a human being it becomes a shackle and a noose.
From this perspective I have been intrigued by Rand’s philosophy ever since first hearing about it during the 1998 election of President Bush jr. (Rand is the philosopher of the Libertarian and the conservative far right.) Rand was also brought up in communism and her early experiences of its restrictions and hypocrisy were never forgotten. For her, American capitalism and free trade were a breath of fresh air. They were the building blocks of a society built on the premise of freedom for the individual.
Her philosophy is fascinating mainly because it promotes universal ideals such as freedom yet it also contradicts many of our modern intuitions about life. Rand values rational over feeling and believes we should only love those virtuous enough to deserve it, ( she states herself that she believes most are not worthy enough.)
As a Christian and a moderate Socialist these ideas challenge me to question my own position. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Indeed, I think one of the most important things we can do in the current climate of extremism and political division is to actively engage with and try to understand a wide range of ideas and perspectives.
The main ideas or pillars in Objectivism are:
Follow reason, not whims or faith.
Work hard to achieve a life of purpose and productiveness.
Earn genuine self-esteem.
Pursue your own happiness as your highest moral aim.
Prosper by treating others as individuals, trading value for value.
Rand believes that we must never coerce help from others or be coerced into offering help to others. She believes in liberty above all else. Certainly, in an ideal world I agree with her first point and even in a flawed world can’t disagree with the second. But as Objectivism demands that reality be valued above idealism, how does it stand up to being scrutinized by it’s own standards? Using this principle as a measuring stick, ho how does the problem of coercion work in practice rather than theory?
In an ideal world we would hope that the rich and powerful would help fund social programs in poorer areas and do this of their own free will. Often the underlying assumption is that highly successful people are somehow less flawed, bestowed with super human attributes, perhaps even better genetics than most, but if we look back at a time in the not so distant past we see that social programs and funding for public services don’t exactly spring up like oil wells in a billionaire’s backyard. The extreme social inequality of 19th century England is a case in point.
During the 19th century, England was in the midst of the Industrial revolution. There was great wealth inequality and many vulnerable people including children were forced to risk their lives working in factories or down mines. There were no regulatory bodies, no health and safety departments and no welfare net. There was however the workhouse where those utterly destitute and desperate enough could go to be given the very basic in food and shelter in return for doing back breaking, monotonous work such as splitting tarred ropes and breaking rocks for 12 hours a day. Husbands and wives were kept apart and children were separated from their parents often never to be reunited. Without government provisions the poor, destitute, old and disabled were left to their own suffering. There was no coercion or incentive for the well off to help and they overwhelmingly chose not to.
What about Freedom? Rand values freedom above all else. I can’t disagree with this but I wonder if in practice her philosophy leads to the rich and powerful acquiring more freedom while the poor and powerless attain less. Courtroom decisions attest to the fact that white collar crime is often either ignored or unpunished while the poor, especially poor minority groups are five to ten times (depending on state) more likely to be jailed.
In economic terms this means that government regulations that protect the environment from damage are bad because they restrict the freedom of corporations to make money. Freedom is weighted in favour of the more powerful when unregulated trade allows them to grow at the expense of their workers and the environment. What about the liberty of the fish or the indigenous communities, or even the local people whose drinking water gets polluted?
At what point should the government draw a line to restrict the freedom of one side to the benefit of the other? Or should it always be left to the individual conscience of the stronger (richer) of the two?
The disparity in freedom of opportunity, resource and skills between the world’s rich and poor will always be a natural consequence of such a system. Due to their circumstances, poor people have less opportunity afforded them ( medical help, extra-curricular activities, guidance, mentoring and cultural capital, which according to studies can even limit their IQ and problem solving skills.) Over time this restricts social mobility and creates a class system which is ghettoized and divided both culturally and economically.
Social Psychologist Abram Maslow argued that in order for a person to be able to contemplate and integrate higher moral ideals and values, they first had to be provided the foundation of basic provisions such as water, food, shelter and medical care. If these needs weren’t met they couldn’t progress educationally or psychologically.
So should we completely level the playing field and allow no one to progress above anyone else? I think that has proven itself to be an unworkable and unethical model. I agree with many conservatives that a minimum wage sets off many economic problems such as lowering demand for work, increasing prices, and preventing small businesses from competing but if the vast majority of people have no purchasing power then the economy will stall and prices will have to be lowered ( and thus wages.) Or we will end up in a state divided into two classes (producers and consumers) where poor workers (producers) will work 12 hour days to to feed the appetites of wealthier consumers. We can already see how this is playing out between China and the West. It is a situation which undermines the economic freedoms of both parties. It is also environmentally unsustainable. In order to work out such broad economic and environmental problems we surely have to begin to collectivize and work together for the common good because ultimately that will guarantee the freedom of the individual.
Some countries are considering rolling out a citizen’s income whereby all people are given a basic amount to live on to meet their basic needs.
Oddly, this doesn’t really contradict Rand’s philosophy of self interest because when the standards are raised for the most vulnerable in society we raise the standards of living for all. There is less crime, less strain on the healthcare system and ultimately less spending on community services as people become more affluent and self-sufficient as they progress upward through their hierarchy or needs.
Without having legislative support for the most vulnerable in society built into the value system of our collective culture we cannot hope to come close to making freedom the moral imperative of the many rather than the privilege of the few.