Let the Captains Row their Own Boats
by Paul Olson
NFP President Emeritus
Understanding Washington would appear to require only understanding how money, bribery, political elites and pure meanness work. But understanding Washington, in these mean days, also requires understanding where people live and what they live for intellectually.
We have a little talk about religion and ideology in Washington—market economics, Keynesianism, the evangelical right, ‘Socialists,’ fundamentalists and on and on. But little about Randism.
To understand present-day Washington, one needs to understand Ayn Rand. Ronald Reagan admired Ms. Rand and the New York Times called her the Reagan Administration’s “novelist laureate.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife are Randists. Alan Greenspan, head of the Federal Reserve for an eternity, was labeled “my disciple” by Rand (there is very good evidence that, in most respects, he followed a Randist policy while driving the economy into the ditch by removing regulations).
Rand’s philosophy is not just a legacy. It is a force in present government. She is commonly featured on signs at Tea Party demonstrations. Ron Paul, a quite successful candidate for president to this point, is a Randist. The only budget for next year that has been passed is that constructed in the House Budget Committee chaired by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI)—the budget that cut the heart out of the safety net for the poor and middle classes, relieved the rich of nearly all responsibility for our country, and left the military budget untouched. Mr. Ryan recently spoke at an event in Rand’s honor and said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” Ryan requires that all of his staff read Rand’s works. Rand’s principles created Ryan’s budget.
Though the Grand Old Party is big on Christianity and attacks Obama for being a Muslim, a Marxist and everything in between, they are more Randists than apostles. The principles of Ms. Rand hardly sound like the “Sermon on the Mount” (in fact, Ms. Rand was a militant atheist which is no great concern, save that it is the militant Christian right that espouses her). She teaches that:
1. Selfishness is a virtue; to live only to and for ourselves is our only responsibility.
2. Capitalism is the only moral social system. It allows for complete selfishness and absolute individualism—a system absent compulsion, coercion or physical force. It “holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure” and eschews compassion. “When government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth.”
3. The purpose of government is to protect the free exercise of selfishness from coercion and constraint by others.
4. Society is divided into producers and looters—the supermen who really make things and the rest of us who try to get protection from government for our businesses, live off welfare, and mooch our way through life.
Randism is a celebration of the ballooning ego, the religion of those with the maturity of a three-year-old and the same relish of untrammeled capacity to act. Rand says that the ‘robber barons’ were visionaries that created untold good for humankind in the 1880-1900 period. Taxes on the other hand are evil. In “Government Financing in a Free Society,” Rand writes:
In a fully free society, taxation—or, to be exact, payment for governmental services—would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government—the police, the armed forces, the law courts—are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.”
In Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, the hero, Roark, is a modern architect fighting against ‘Philistinism’ who rapes the heroine of the book (Rand described it as “rape by invitation”), a man who follows his own vision of what his buildings should be like to the point of dynamiting one of them when his plans are modified. This final speech of Roark includes the sentiment that:
No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men. His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man’s spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness. To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego. The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.
Such is the adolescent bull (rather than the constitutional “promotion of the general welfare”) that now determines the fate of the nation. The bull is, first of all, false. I have spent my life studying the history of literature and creation from the Romans to the present. The great ones do not act alone and they do not claim to act for their own ‘aloneness.’ They act—even such giants as Picasso or Bach or Dante or Tolstoy—forwarding some sort of social vision for the common profit of humanity and they say so in so many words. The secret of their power is that they have a vision that goes beyond the self.
As a group, the contemporary Randists are a simple-minded and mean-spirited lot. But on one major point (where, ironically enough, we might make common cause), they part company with their mentor. Ayn Rand had no use for coercion, no use for ‘statism’ (which she thought bred war) and little use for military build-ups. The Randists in powerful positions, on the other hand, are mostly militarists. Paul Ryan’s budget cut everything but the military. Reagan multiplied the military budget to starve social programs. Ron Paul is unique is calling for huge cuts in the military. With the congressional supercommittee’s failure to reach an agreement on cutting the deficit, count on these same Republican Randists (Paul excepted) to now try to break the ‘sequestration’ agreement mandating $500 billion in automatic cuts to the military.
They’re cherry-picking what to practice from the prophet’s gospel. But in their refusal to raise taxes on billionaires, in their willingness to let the 20 percent who live in poverty continue to languish, you can see the hand of Ayn Rand.
Well, it’s time for those who think that they can be master builders by themselves to be taught that they can’t build alone—that the workers who put the brick and mortar in place can lay down their trowels. If we can fill Wall Street and the Mall with uncooperative people, we can also fill every corridor of power in America and bring the ship of state to a screeching halt. We can test how much the captains of industry are able to do when, left to their grandiose notions of the supreme ‘self,’ they have to row their boats by themselves.