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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

3 Fatal Flaws in Ayn Rand's Perverse 'Moral Philosophy' (the Voice of the GOP)


3 Fatal Flaws in Ayn Rand's Perverse 'Moral Philosophy'

Ayn Rand lived in a world of fiction, and it shows in her social analysis.

It is astonishing that a 54-year-old book, based upon three patently false premises, has suddenly been resurrected. The Chair of the House Budget Committee requires his staff to read Atlas Shrugged. On April 19, 2011 it ranked 17th on Amazon’s list of best sellers. It is said to be a favorite among Tea Party activists. It’s even been made into an independent movie, albeit omitting some of the steamier sex – one woman and three men?

The first error is the assertion that we humans, at least the best of us, are autonomous individuals who have no need for other human beings other than as useful tools. The second error is to perpetuate the libertarian idea that no social goal justifies “forcing” an individual to be a resource for others. In other words, taxation is theft from “producers” to benefit “parasites.” The third error is that markets are “free” in the sense of operating best without any rules or regulation.

Humans Are Social Creatures

It is easy to counter the argument that humans are autonomous, isolated entities with no need for relationships with other humans. To the contrary, we are, and always have been, social creatures, reliant on others for our lives, our development and our survival. When our species started to evolve in Africa, about 300,000 years ago, the world was filled with predators that had sharper teeth, stronger claws, could run faster and overall physically outmatch our tiny, hairy ancestors. The question is, how did our predecessors survive and procreate allowing me to write this essay and you to read it?

If we observe herds of, say, antelope today, we observe that predators go after the slowest and weakest member of the herd, who quickly becomes a meal. Antelopes survive because they procreate rapidly, and the loss of a single animal does not threaten the herd.

Humans, however, take considerably longer to bear a child, and that child requires considerable care over several years in order to survive. It is obvious that a pregnant female would, in the later stages of gestation, be the slowest member of the herd. Later her infant or toddler would also be slow and neither mother nor child would long survive without the support of a family or clan. Thus humans would not have survived as a species had they not been able to cooperate with each other and to form and maintain social groups. Humans had to evolve as social animals.

As social animals we needed (and still need) a way that allows us to function as productive members of a social group. Without such a method, the species will fail. This is true of all social species. For example, the social insects have specific complex chemicals that allow individual insects to function as productive members of a very coherent social group (beehive or ant colony). These chemicals are their operating methodology.

To function as a productive member of a human social group, we rely on six core values that bind human beings one to another. Based on our evolutionary development, all people, societies and organizations actually share the same set of core values. You can argue if these are the “real” core values, but these six appear to encompass what is necessary for the continuing existence of human social groups. Each of these can be thought of as being on a scale from positive to negative. Behavior at the positive end of the scale strengthens the social group; behavior at the negative end weakens, and eventually will destroy it.

Most of a member’s behavior must be at the positive end of the scale in order for him or her to be accepted and relied upon by others. Without such positive reliable behavior social groups must fail. The following table shows the core values on which all societies are based according to research conducted with Ian Macdonald and Karl Stewart in the U.S., England, Australia, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Denmark.

Table 1 Universal Core Values

The basic propositions are:

  1. If a group of people are to maintain a productive relationship that lasts, then the members of that group must demonstrate behavior that exemplifies the positive end of the scales of the core values.

  1. If a member of that group demonstrates behavior that is judged by the other group members to be at the negative end of the scales of core values, the person will eventually be excluded (although attempts to change the behavior may be made prior to exclusion).

  1. If several people exhibit behaviors that are similar but judged by the rest of the group to be at the negative end of the scales of core values, then the group will break into factions or separate groups.

Values, per se, cannot be observed and therefore cannot be determined directly. We can and do observe what people say and how they behave. All of us interpret behavior and draw conclusions about the values that an individual's behavior demonstrates. Often we have to wait for confirmation that our conclusions are correct, and sometimes we may be left in doubt. In some cases we may disagree with others as to how particular behavior should be interpreted. In general, however, within a coherent social group, agreement is gained in time, often very quickly.

In essence, values are the ground against which we assess our own worth and the worth of others. We argue that because humans evolved as social animals, all humans use these values as the basis for judging the worth of others as they observe and interpret their behavior.

Consider a situation that might happen in any group. Imagine a group of people of which you are a member and that you believe one of the other members has behaved in at least one of the following ways: told lies, stolen something, made fun of a less attractive member, has been indifferent to another’s serious misfortune, regularly failed to keep promises, demanded more than his or her share, or consistently avoided difficult situations. Is it possible for this person to maintain membership of the group if he or she fails to change their behavior?

We cannot maintain a productive relationship with someone we cannot trust, or someone who is dishonest, cowardly, disrespectful, indifferent to our feelings or unfair. It is likely that we and other members of the group will seek to point out the negative behavior, but if it persists, the person will be actively excluded from the group. This reflects the basic need of any group or society.

This basic requirement for a social group to continue is that members must demonstrate their ability to understand “the other.” That is, to be able to see the world from another’s point of view. This differentiates the adult world from the egocentric world of infancy and early childhood where the other’s needs are not seriously considered except to satisfy the self. It is also a classic condition of psychopathy where others are manipulated for personal gain. It is the antithesis of productive co-existence.

Rand states that the superior individual can live and work only for him or herself. Although on casual reading her characters are initially attractive, they actually are sociopaths who do not recognize their use of others to achieve their power and riches. They are indifferent to their impact upon others as they pursue their own selfish interests. Rand glorifies selfishness and sociopaths, yet her heroes and heroine succeed as much because of the work of others as of themselves. They had schooling, and even if it was private, the teachers had to be schooled, probably in a school provided by society. They rely on an educated workforce, on pilots, nurses, mechanics, plumbers, doctors, most of whom learned their skills in a public school.


From prehistoric times until the present, human beings have had to find ways to cooperate and work together in order to survive. Today, much of this cooperative behavior is supported by public services. Consider our need for education from kindergarten through universities, a stable monetary system, laws that protect property, courts to adjudicate disputes, rules to provide an even playing field in markets, hospitals, roads, airports, bridges, defense from predators whether criminal or military, development costs for technological innovations such as the Internet and modern medicines, libraries, parks and clean beaches.

None of the goods provided through government come free. They must be paid for, and the fairest way we have found to pay these costs is to tax everyone at a “reasonable” rate. I realize there are great differences regarding what is “reasonable,”and that our existing tax system has many injustices, but that does not mean we can simply say no more taxes, or suggest as Rand does that taxation is theft. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

Rand puts forward the libertarian principle that no social purpose justifies forcing an individual to be a resource for another. In other words, taxation for the public good is wrong. There is no recognition that her heroes in Atlas Shrugged are rich and powerful and thus are able to dictate the terms on which others work for them; in other words they can “force” their workers to become a resource for them. Thus libertarianism has, at its core, a fundamental contradiction. Coercion by government is bad; but coercion by the rich and powerful “producers” is good.

The rich and powerful also rely on society for many of the goods of civilization, which are created through the cooperative efforts of all. Despite the arguments of Rand and the libertarians none of us can opt out of our need for society and its governing institutions.

Although most people agree that certain items such as airports, roads, bridges, armies, a legal system, must be socialized because no individual could buy these items due to cost and the requirement that their uses be shared, there is often disagreement as to what goods should be paid for by the public at large, socialized if you will, and what goods should be purchased by individuals in the market, e.g. privatized. Clearly many things are best handled in a market where individual buyers and sellers agree on goods and prices, for example, groceries, iPads, an automobile, the latest in fashion shoes or suits.

There is also a middle ground where sometimes we provide a good privately and sometimes publicly depending upon the area served, for example electric power. It is provided by shareholder owned, though heavily regulated utilities, as well as municipal utilities which, interestingly, are far less regulated.

We are still debating the best way to handle health care. We don’t even agree if everyone should have access to adequate health care. Most of our health care is provided through a market-like system that is largely controlled by insurance companies. If you are rich or well-insured, you get access to the best care the world can offer. If you lack money or insurance, you may get government supported Medicaid or emergency services at a public hospital. You are also more likely to die from a treatable illness.

In addition to the private system, we already provide two types of “socialized” medicine. There is single-payer health care with private hospitals and doctors through Medicare similar to the Canadian system where the term Medicare was coined. It provides care to the disabled and elderly who were refused coverage by the insurance industry – too costly, not profitable. There is also government-run health care as in Britain (for which the dreaded term “socialized medicine” was created) through our military and veterans facilities.

The services that can only be provided by society as a whole, must be paid for. These payments are called taxes. They are not “theft” -- they are essential for our long-term survival.


Rand and other libertarians argue that markets are, and must be, “free.” Yet no market has ever existed without rules and referees, any more than you can have a football game without rules and referees. In the earliest markets in small, lightly populated villages, the rules were usually set by social custom. Someone who cheated would be ostracized, even exiled, if they did not pay back the person they had cheated and promise not to do it again.

As markets became larger and more regional, for example in the Middle Ages in Europe, guilds of tradesmen were organized to set rules regarding quality and prices. As the modern industrialized world emerged, a variety of abuses threatened its development. The muckrakers of the early 20th century exposed dreadful practices in food, meat-packing and patent medicines. Monopolies in railroads threatened the livelihoods of farmers and small towns. Other monopolies threatened competition and the market itself. Financial panics and depressions demonstrated the need to regulate banks and the stock market. Thus regulations at the state and federal level were instituted, not to destroy the markets but to make them viable and acceptable.

Granted, some of the rules were badly drawn; some gave special advantages to powerful interests; there was conflict among competing regulations and some of them were plain silly. None of this, however, negates the need for “rules of the road,” though ongoing reform is essential. Technical innovations, new knowledge, better ways of organizing production may require adjustments, but without regulation the thieves and thugs take over – witness the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Even what appears to be the most unregulated market today –street corner sales of heroin – has its own rules and regulations. These are largely informal, but the rules are strictly enforced, largely with guns. Violators face severe punishment, often death.

What This Means

Rand and her acolytes seem not to have looked at the human condition. Every business is a social system, and the values that bind humans together are necessary if the business is to thrive and prosper. Every community is a social system that requires humans to work together and cooperate.

Some would argue that, contrary to what I have proposed, it is clear among different social groups that we have quite different values. This confuses, for example, the underlying value of fairness, with the behaviors we perceive as fair. Different social groups will see the same behavior as either fair or unfair depending upon the stories (mythologies) embedded in that group. Mythologies are stories that may or may not be factually true, but they demonstrate a fundamental truth about human behavior – what is courageous and what is cowardly, what shows respect and what shows lack of respect, what is fair and what is unfair. People who share common mythologies are said to have a common culture.

In some groups telling lies to outsiders is not dishonest; it simply reflects the group’s lack of concern for others. Telling lies within the group is, however, punished. There are other groups where telling a lie indicates dishonesty, no matter to whom one lies. Thus both groups accept the core value of honesty, but the behavior that demonstrates honesty is different.

When it comes to taxes, some groups believe a progressive system where everyone pays the same up to a certain amount, then more for earnings above the base, and so on until the rate on earnings, say over a million dollars, is taxed at the highest rate. Others believe everyone should pay the same percentage of their income in taxes.

However we demonstrate the core values, human beings are not, and cannot be isolated and survive. We are moral beings with a strong sense of what is fair, honest, trustworthy, courageous, loving and respectful of human dignity. Our survival and continuation as a species depends upon others. As David Brooks has written, cooperation is built into our DNA. Rand is wrong, and those who follow her have created policies that have been destructive of our economy and our nation.

Catharine Burke is an associate professor at USC's School of Public Policy and Planning.

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