Op-ed: Ayn Rand and the Fallacy of Self-centered Ideology

(Note: This essay originally ran in AltDaily)

I want to explore one of the great myths being perpetuated in America today - particularly by folks who describe themselves as Libertarians. It’s the idea that any of us achieves success in life by ourselves.

I like small government. It’s just easier to manage. But where so-called Libertarians and I differ is in our identification of the problem. They say eliminate government, whereas I say eliminate the need for it by taking on more personal responsibility.

So you want to eliminate the EPA? Fine. All you have to do is get everyone so hell bound and determined to ignore the ramifications of polluting our air and water to increase profit (No - you may NOT have permission to poison my children so you can make more money) to behave responsibly.

I believe Ayn Rand espoused some of the most evil ideas of the 20th century, and the effluent of it is rampant today. Rand believed that there’s a natural ruling class (in fact, intimating a natural ruling race) and that everyone not deemed a member should supplicate themselves to their “betters.” She said that the poor were parasites and implied that they should just die off. She believed that charity was a fool’s endeavor. She believed people who had any religious beliefs were idiots.

Her concept and promotion of “motivated self-interest,” now the mantra of so many on the right, is perhaps the single most destructive and divisive force in America today. To what degree are her acolytes willing to tear us all apart as a country in the blind pursuit of this self-centered ideology?

There is no such thing in America as a self-made person. We are not just a land mass full of individuals. We are a nation, and our greatest achievements has always been accomplished collectively - through shared triumph and tragedy as a band of brothers and sisters - never through looking out just for ourselves as sole interests.

As an example, many have used Steve Jobs to represent their ideal of a self-made man. That’s nonsense. Jobs was a brilliant visionary, and he somewhat deservedly earned a fortune as a result. But it took tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people to make Apple a success. In spite of his legendary huge ego, Jobs would be the first to point out that he achieved absolutely nothing by himself.

But at least he was behind the creation of something. Too many people, particularly in the financial services industry, make millions while creating nothing. They just suck money out of the economy for themselves - often through high-stakes gambling - usually with someone else's assets - then complain about the 15% capital gains tax rate (which they want to eliminate) they're supposed to pay (which they rarely do) instead of having to contribute the 28% I pay on my wages for actual work. When did gambling become a more noble way to make money than labor?

Derivatives trades, which are essentially side wagers on the state of the financial sector, alone accounted for over $60 trillion (yes, with a “t”) between 2001 when they were deregulated and 2008 when the economy collapsed. That’s ten times more than the entire national debt at the time that, for all intents and purposes, was diverted from contributing to the economy and deposited into a private pool for financial gamblers. A report on 60 Minutes referred to derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s also important to point out that the two most significant changes in the law which brought about the financial collapse of 2008 were enacted during, and with the collusion of a Democratic administration - the Graham-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, thus allowing for the merger of commercial and investment banks, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated the trading of derivatives.

Both of these laws, which were eliminated at the behest of the financial services industry, with the repeals being championed by Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geitner, were originally enacted to prevent the very behaviors which led to the 2008 recession - just as they had in 1929 and 1898 respectively.

The point of this is that it isn’t really a partisan issue. The Obama administration has done nothing to reign in Wall Street. They’re just not advocating making it worse.

It’s the establishment versus everyone else.

You want to cite the old axiom “Let the market decide?” Give me a break. There is absolutely nothing in the world easier to manipulate than the so-called “free market.” It’s done every micro-second through computerized high-speed automated trading. The methodology has been extensively documented. Plus, every time some corporation ups the ante on executive compensation, while simultaneously slashing workforce and product quality (I hope Maurice Jones reads this), they’ve not only manipulated the market, but also increased the income gap.

In terms of wages, why does someone deserve to make seven or eight figures in executive compensation for basically sitting on his ass all day, when another guy who went to college for 12 years and saves dozens of lives every year makes low to mid six figures? Or how about the person who works on an assembly line making my consumer goodies for $50K? Or the one who teaches your children for $40K or who collects and disposes of my nasty garbage for 30K? Or the one who takes care of our ill-mannered little kids every day for 20K?

And as the cherry on top, so-called conservatives are now telling us that, even though the gap between rich and poor is now the greatest it’s been since prior to the crash of 1929, the so-called “job creators” still aren’t wealthy enough and that they won’t start creating jobs until they get more of everyone else’s share. I believe that’s the very definition of extortion.

Without question, the people who perform some of the most mundane and grueling work every day are more important to me than any investment banker could ever hope to be. Ironically, many of them struggle every day to feed, house and clothe their own children. In contemporary America, this grotesque and perverse imbalance is an utter disgrace.

You want to accuse me of class warfare? Fine. But if that’s the case, the 1% declared it, and have been waging that war against the working class for decades now. I just want us to stand up and fight back instead of so meekly giving up more and more of our share.

I don’t care how rich someone is. I care how poor so many Americans are as a result. I want every hard-working individual to get a big enough share of the pie to live in some modest degree of comfort and dignity. Once that condition exists, all the materialistic predators out there can fight it out for the rest (I will not be joining you in that pursuit).

So why don’t the 1% seem to have any sense of appreciation for how fortunate they are? Are they truly so utterly oblivious to the fact that millions of Americans - many who make so little that their children go hungry every day - invaluably contributed to the circumstances that have made them so wealthy? Are they really so swathed in layers of delusion that they can’t summon enough humanity to care?

Let’s examine the typical billionaire. Did he forge the nails or mill the lumber to build his house? Did he make the brie, grow the truffles, or harvest the caviar on his dinner table? Did he mine the metal or refine the fuel that makes his yacht and private jet a reality? Did he build the road or the bus which brings his minimum-wage housemaid and gardener (probably illegals) to do the dirty work at his mansion?

How about the rest of us? Look around right now. How much of the stuff in your home, office or car could you create, build, cultivate, maintain or improve yourself? Just how "independent" do you really think you are? What would your life be like if there weren’t others contributing their labor and skills to provide you with all the things you count on every day?

Conversely, whatever you do professionally likely contributes to my having a better life and thus I’m grateful that you’re part of our community. If you weren’t, then whatever it is you do for a living is something I’d have to do for myself. Your success is important to me because as a part of our community, it benefits us all. 

A very simple example: Suppose each of us had to either hunt or grow enough food to put three meals on the table every single day for ourselves and our family? How would any advancement in civilization ever take place? Who would have, or have ever had the time to explore or discover or invent?

I love thinking of myself as part of a community - a village, if you will. I’m determined to contribute to it and in return ask for no more than a fair share of whatever I need to lead a respectful and dignified life. Is that really so much to ask - particularly in America?

United we stand - divided we fall. Or have we forgotten?