Death by Objectivism

Is Objectivism dead? Objectivism, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a philosophy created and articulated by the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, who died in New York City in 1982 at the age of 77. I became acquainted with the philosophy in my early adult years when I read her novel, The Fountainhead. It told the story of a brilliant but eccentric architect named Howard Roark. Much like Number 6 in The Prisoner, Roark lived life on his own terms. He would not compromise with this encroaching thing called the real world. I have to admit that for a while I liked the novel and the character, although Roark was so preachy he would put most ministers to shame.

I purchased but never finished Rand’s most seminal work: Atlas Shrugged. Not that I did not try. I plodded through it for several hundred pages then gave up. To call it a novel was charitable. Instead, it was a philosophical screed, which detailed Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. If Howard Roark was excessively preachy, John Galt was an Objectivist supernova. I suspect most readers were like me and simply could not find the patience to endure its 1368 pages. However, a few key intellectuals of the 20th century did make it through the novel and absorbed it whole cloth. Sadly for America, two of them turned out to be prominent economists. One was Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics. The other and far more important one was Alan Greenspan, who until a few years ago was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and very possibly the most influential monetary guru on the planet. Markets trembled with every nuanced word that came out of Greenspan’s mouth.

I can see the appeal of Ayn Rand and Objectivism with certain economists. Economists by nature are enamored by numbers are less enamored with squishy artifacts like religion. Rand, an atheist, gave voice to the secular capitalists of the world. They latched onto her key idea, immortalized in the words of the fictional Gordon Gekko and spoken by the actor Michael Douglas in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, “Greed is good”. The “greed is good” mantra, formally sanctioned by President Reagan in the 1980s has been the philosophical cornerstone of the last few decades. Its unchecked version called Objectivism has now been proven bankrupt, much like many of us Americans.

In short, Objectivism became something of a sanction to charge forward with the reckless accumulation of wealth by all means, fair and foul. It is a “Me First” philosophy that really could care less about anyone other than “Me”. According to Wikipedia:

Objectivism holds: that reality exists independent of consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation; that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform man’s widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond.

As a practical matter then, Objectivism is individuality gone amok, i.e. without boundaries. It does not care about the consequences of extreme selfishness. Embracing pure capitalism is more important than minor things like whether as a consequence we also wreck the planet, or impoverish whole other classes of people.

As we watch our economic house of cards dissolve I am also seeing, in part, the pure philosophy of Objectivism, articulated in policies by its rabid followers, proven utterly and catastrophically incorrect. This is to the detriment of nearly everyone, including Objectivists. For at its core Objectivism is in denial about the way things actually are ordered. It is in denial that we really are all connected to each other, and that what affects you in fact really does affect me, everyone else, the planet and even the universe. In fact, consciousness does change reality and when it does, it affects everyone else who lives because we too are inextricably tied to reality. Consciousness and reality are not wholly separate domains, as Rand postulates, but intimately connected. If you mess too much with reality by trying to change the way nature ordered it, the consequences can be dramatic and not very pretty. See it in global warming. See it today, for example, in Las Vegas neighborhoods where you can drive through neighborhoods where most of the houses on the street are in foreclosure.

Wall Street barons, worshipping the almighty dollar, emboldened by extreme forms of laissez-faire capitalism promoted relentlessly through the monetary policies of Alan Greenspan and by the Bush Administration, promoted policies that took our money and effectively threw it down rat holes. With a pure (or close to it) laissez-faire capitalism, where new financial instruments could be created without government intervention, all the predictable things happened. We were caught in our own greed and were purposely mindless of the cost our unchecked greed and unregulated financial instruments would have on the economy. In particular, extreme capitalists like Alan Greenspan, through policies like making money artificially cheap to borrow, created a financial chasm. We were encouraged to overextend our financial lives, living in the moment and remain largely heedless to the long-term consequences of our actions.

Fortunately for me, it did not take me more than a few years of pondering before I realized that Objectivism was unworkable. Little did I know though that this philosophy would gain critical traction among an elite number of economists who could actually put it into practice on a large scale. It turns out that when this is implemented the philosophy, rather than enabling self-actualization, has the effect of moving much of our national wealth to better-run countries overseas. Before Ronald Reagan was elected, the United States was the largest creditor nation. Now, we are by far the world’s largest debtor nation.

Our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was recently in China. She deliberately downplayed our concerns about their miserable human rights record, but did speak up about the need for China to keep buying our U.S. Treasury bills. They have cash that we need to execute our economic recovery plan.

Atlas Shrugged should go on the shelf with the other lunatic books like Das Kapital and Mein Kampf that have proven unworkable and destructive to humanity and the world. Communism does not work. Fascism by Aryans does not work. The extreme capitalism articulated in Atlas Shrugged does not work either. Objectivists should never again be allowed to control the levers of our financial system.

Ayn Rand died surrounded by admirers with a big dollar sign above her bed. I kid you not. This devotion to unbridled selfishness even on her deathbed helped inspire men like Alan Greenspan. Instead, her life ultimately proves how meaningless the obsessive pursuit of self-interest actually is. It destroys rather than helps us see the connections between each other. It is the vitality of these connections between us that builds the kind of wealth that matters: peace, tolerance, mutual understanding, healthy relationships, harmony and love. These are the true measures of a healthy world and a healthy person, not the number of dollars in your bank account.

4 responses to “Death by Objectivism”

  1. Thank you for your personel insight on; ATLAS SHRUGGED.
    For years i felt i had missed something by not finishing that miserable book, i often thought some life changing moment would enable the completion of it, little did i know my sanity was in fact in place.


  2. I love your genius logic…

    We all live on the same planet.
    Therefore, I should get your money!


  3. I believe you are really off base with your criticism of the objective life style..Ayn Rand aside… her philosophy is sound, even though she was not! and we could sure use a Milton freedman right about blame the mess we are in on capitalism run amok. when the real blame should be on the socialist politicians who gave our countries wealth to those who have not and care not to earn for themselves, i have read your profile and believe you really have no concept of individualism.other then reading could you understand what it means when you are a government employee who is entitled to his job & benefits.Paid for out of the public till..Ayn was a brilliant woman,though she did have problems…most geniuses do! every thing can and will be bad if you take it to the extreme….i have lived an objective lifestyle, self employed for 30 plus years, they have been the best years of my life,and nowhere in the world could it have happend then here in the good old USA!
    Who encouraged you and others to live beyond your means? Alan Greenspan ? or was it yourself? have you ever read Ayn’s writing on racism? pure unadulterated genius..i am sure socialism will suit you fine for me ..i would prefer we back up a bit and relish the days when Reagan was in office–it was a great time for this country..i feel sorry for the future because of folks like you –you will never have or understand what it is to be to decide for your self–you seem comfortable with some mommy daddy state making the decisions for you -i am old and not well… but i will remain a free man..and i will shed a tear for the lack of individual freedoms that are being lost.. as a young man i conquered many a mountain and had more then my share of love and lust and the thrill of working for myself and building and doing what i wanted–I may be a foolish old guy but i lived a life most folks would never dream of-i could not even dream that a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks in brooklynn new york could have lived the life i have –i lived the objective lifestyle and never Knew it as such..but if that was what it was ,,it sure was fun! and i never had to steal, lie or take advantage of some poor soul to do so–i hope you can say the same- i was a free trader who traded fair and square with my clients-and i never would beleive that this country would be put assunder, but when i read such dribble as yours i do understand …may you find peace in your new and socialist society! i hope i pass before it arrives!


  4. patrick garrett Avatar
    patrick garrett

    There is just so much to sort out here I hardly know where to begin. If you think that the current economic disaster is the result of Capitalism, you are wrong. If you think that Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan are Objectivists, or were the agents of implementing an Objectivist agenda, you are wrong again. This crisis is the result of what Ayn Rand warned about over sixty years ago, the real fault in this crisis is that government policies and agencies persued a “middle ground” between freedom and controls in the economy. America has had a mix of socialism and capitalism for generations now. You are observing the result of a compromise between good and evil. Or to put it even more simply: a compromise between food and poison. Unfortunately the snake oil being peddled as a “cure” is nothing more than a massive infusion of the poison that has made this economy weak for most of our lives. Ayn Rand wrote that in compromising between good and evil, good always looses and evil always wins. The housing bubble was fed by Alan Greenspan, a curious figure, who once was an acolyte of Ayn Rand’s but for reasons only Mr. Greenspan knows, who decided, while chairman of the Federal Reserve, to turn his back on free market principles, and chose to continue feeding the poison that America had a free market. It had no such thing.
    Perhaps it is time to put away the straw men used to misrepresent Ayn Rand and her philosophy, and begin to get an understanding of what Ayn Rand stood for, and debate her ideas openly, and fairly.
    What you all are witnessing, in reality, is an age of moral crisis, and your job is not to go back to the way things have always been done, but to discover how things should have been done. America stands for free minds AND free markets, I would submit this to you–America has never really had a free market, ever. If America decided to free its most productive minds from regulation and control, you would see a renaissance bigger, better, and more breathtaking than the first one.


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