Sunday, 15 March 2009

"Ayn Rant."

The American upper classes are taking on the Ayn Rand inspired idea of ‘Going Galt’ - the super-rich deliberately not earning as much money to avoid falling into a higher tax bracket. In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged the hyper-productive members of society led by activist John Galt gradually disappear leaving the world to flounder in the wake of their departure. The principle invoked by America’s upper echelons is essentially the same: they deliberately stop working and stop earning so that they can avoid President Obama’s taxation borne of his economic stimulus plan. The idea is that when these hyper-productive members of American society disappear, the lower classes and the political lefties will realise how wrong they were and come begging for forgiveness. That anyone could think of this as other than intrinsically selfish actually repulses me.

Fox News refers to Obama’s increased taxation of the rich as a “war on success”. American pundits and commentators universally hold that the rich have earned their money and thus there is no reason for them to give it to the poor. The implicit premise here is left unsaid: that the poor do not work as hard as the super-rich. Is this true or is it incredibly naive? Doesn’t this completely overlook the fact that much of the lower classes in America are people who work more than one job (“uniquely American” as Bush would have put it)? Do the rich really think that the poor don’t work as hard as they do?

There is an incredibly naive view at the heart of this argument: a view which, I am ashamed to say, I once held. It is the view that all people have an equal chance in life. Should this be the case? Absolutely. Is it? No. The fact is that some people are born with different talents, with innate skills, and with genetic proclivities that go on to determine the course of their lives. If a person is born as a man, they will have more opportunities for success. If a woman happens to be conventionally attractive, chances are she will do better than a less attractive woman. If a person is born with a body for sports, he/she will do better than someone without that native talent. If a person is born intelligent, that person will probably end up earning more money: the Lockean idea of the mind as a tabula rasa is a myth. What determines these products of birth is luck. Luck puts a person in the right position to climb the ladder of success whereas the unlucky cannot even get on the first rung. It is simply not the case that everyone starts at the same place and that the lazy suffer while those who work succeed. It should be that way but it’s not.

And so laissez-faire capitalists and libertarians rely on the free market and say that anyone who fails in society has no-one to blame but themselves. That is not true. Most of the people who do not succeed, who stay poor, never had a chance because they were simply not lucky enough to be born with talents or privilege or the chance at a solid education. Maybe they were born without talents or without the resources to develop their talents; maybe they were born in a class where they had no chance at social mobility. The only fair way of determining a society is to put oneself in John Rawls’ Original Position and see the world without the determining factors of genetics and environment.

There is a central problem with Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged: what kind of people would step forward as ‘creative geniuses’? Who would hail themselves as a ‘foundation of society’ or a “superior mind”? What kind of person would think of themselves as the Greek titan Atlas? Any human being with an ounce of humility would not. The kind of people who would volunteer themselves as the glue of society are smug, arrogant people with a sense of righteous entitlement who, for some narcissistic reason, think that the world would stop turning without them. Anyone who decides to ‘Go Galt’ betrays their hyper-inflated and egoistic view of themselves.

This post may not be clear-headed and reasonable. It may employ rhetoric and offer a straw-man of the opposition. It may sound dogmatic and it may generalise. This is because the idea of ‘Going Galt’ makes me so angry. Suddenly the American upper-classes and the bankers and the stock-market traders are acting like they’re the victims, like they are burdened with helping the poor, when clearly they are the people who got us all into this mess in the first place. It makes me so angry to see these financial experts balking at the idea of helping people less fortunate and clinging desperately to their own stacks of money when it was their reckless spending and stupid baroque financial systems that brought about the misfortune of the poor people in the first place. To think that they could justify what is essentially selfishness by narcissistically claiming that they work harder than everyone else is a repugnant notion. It irritates me no end that the American right are advocating unfettered capitalism and relying on the free market to be our economic saviour.

There’s nothing more to say. The super-rich of America and other capitalist nations are selfish narcissists who refuse to see the suffering of people right in front of them and refuse to acknowledge that their monetary successes come from luck, be it luck of birth or luck of circumstance.

There is a reason Ayn Rand is not taken seriously in any politics or philosophy department.


theMuddledMarketPlace said...

eh up, that was one long rant!
as it happens i agree with you, nicely put

Anonymous said...

I couldn't read the book, I don't like romance novels. Does Rand get it right, and have Atlas holding up the firmament (except when Herakles spelled him for a bit), or is she following the mediocretin-loved sculpture and have him holding up the Earth?