If Ayn Rand’s philosophy of rational self-interest is irrelevant today, then so is the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration gave sanction to selfishness: to the moral right to live your own life, to exercise your liberty, to pursue your happiness. No more taking orders from king or society. Each was free to live for himself.
In works such as The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand provided a philosophic foundation for the Declaration’s radical ideas. She originated a moral code that broke with tradition. She believed morality’s purpose isn’t to command you to sacrifice your interests for the sake of others but rather to teach you the rational values and virtues happiness in fact requires.
The deepest cause of today’s financial crisis is our distance from this ideal. Although almost everyone blames the free market, financial markets are riddled with government interventions. Participants are not free to pursue their self-interest. Instead, the government overrides this pursuit to achieve the “public interest.” So it creates the Fed, charged with the task of somehow manipulating money and interest rates to create full employment and price stability for all. It sponsors entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which somehow will bring homeownership into everyone’s reach. It promises to bail out financial institutions that supposedly carry “systemic risk” for everyone.
When this semi-collectivistic, uneconomic system blows up, should blame be placed on those issuing the orders or those forced to obey? To place primary blame on Wall Street is like blaming Russians for Communism’s failure. The fault lies not in the people but in the immoral system in which they had to act.
To restore U.S. prosperity, Rand’s philosophy has vital things to teach: what genuine self-interest and happiness consist of, why their pursuit is moral, and what political condition they demand—the full freedom of the Declaration. What is more relevant than that?
You’d think it was a joke, when the global economy was collapsing because of greed, that anyone might turn seriously to the purple prose of crypto-fascist Ayn Rand and think it was the answer to anything. How could her so-called philosophy of “rational self-interest”—in other words, a crude kind of dog-eat-dog laissez-faire capitalism—seem like the route out of this obstacle-strewn labyrinth into which we’re all now locked?
But human beings are simple creatures. Hit us and we’ll run screaming to our mummies and daddies, or the mummies and daddies we’d like to have, who will kiss our bruises and give us sweeties and tell us that we need never, ever give any of our sweeties away.
I guess a rise in “rational self-interest” at least sounds rational. Which is more than can be said for the decision to parcel up pockets of air or sunbeams or “securitized bundles” of toxic debt—or whatever else the little testosterone-fuelled idiots dreamed up after one too many mochaccinos—that got us in this mess that turned the world mad.
We don’t know what will get us out of it. We do know it’s going to have to be on an eye-popping, wallet-pinching, tax-increasing global scale. That’s where greed got us. Greed is not going to get us out of it. Nor is solipsism. Nor is Ayn Rand. Repeat after me: Unfettered, unregulated, personal-bonus-seeking capitalism is the problem, not the answer.
It’s time, boys and girls, to grow up. Just thank your lucky stars that the new guy in the White House has a big brain and a cool head. And he writes a hell of a lot better than Ayn Rand.
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