Growing up: Leaving behind naive glibertarianism

Ayn Rand is fun to read at 16 but embarrassing in its effects
Opinion • Views: 33,625

When I was sixteen, I read the works of Ayn Rand. Specifically, I read the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which I reread several times, and some selected edited portions of her ‘philosophical works’.

The books made a large impression on me. I was a highly intelligent young man frustrated in the educational system, where I felt like I was being robbed of an education by being forced to be in class with a bunch of people who were, intelligence aside, completely unmotivated to learn.

I was annoyed by my classmates who were given cars, nice clothing, etc. by their parents when I had to work, and work hard, for a modest amount of spending money. I didn’t mind that hard work, either— I liked it, and I despised my classmates who I felt lacked work ethics.

My relationship with my parents was rocky, mainly due to my dad’s uncontrolled rage issues and I often felt that I’d be better off without them.

“I felt that I deserved to be rewarded for my intelligence”So the writings of Ayn Rand really resonated with me; the idea of breaking the world into two groups, the ones who are actually contributing, and those who are parasites and leeches. I felt that I deserved to be rewarded for my intelligence, that I deserved to be free from the petty restrictions of my parents, and, most of all, that my classmates didn’t deserve the stuff that they were provided for by their parents.

I had a history teacher that year who was also a fan of Ayn Rand, and I got along famously with him. I read a lot of the more respectable glibertarian thinkers during that time, and became very competent with the standard arguments that you’ve probably seen repeated over and over in threads on LGF and elsewhere.

I was convinced that rational self-interest should be the guiding light of civilization, government, and society, and that pure capitalism was the best mechanism to make sure this happened.

To the many obvious cases where rational self-interest had not been followed— to the Exxon Valdez spill, fraud and embezzlement, etc, I handwaved those aside with the idea that it was because the system wasn’t pure enough, that if we just got rid of government involvement and depended on the self-regulation of the market, people would rely on themselves, educate themselves, and avoid purchasing from companies that, say, polluted, or didn’t hire black workers, or refused to serve gay people.

Then I went to college, and met a wide variety of people from a diverse set of backgrounds. I was exposed to some of the great thinkers being analyzed closely in my classes. The combination of these two things— actually meeting and understanding people of a different background, and learning the tools of critical analysis of texts— led to me quite quickly dropping, ashamed, my previous glibertarian Randian stance.

By talking with those who had grown up without a father around, I realized that as much as my dad’s anger issues sucked, I never had to doubt he cared about me, I never had to doubt his constant presence, and so I didn’t have to deal with the doubt and pain that the absence of a father causes a child.

By talking to those whose parents were uneducated, I realized how amazingly advantaged I was coming from a family where my parents both held PhDs, where their circle of friends included experts and world-class scholars, and where books filled our house.

By talking to those who had come from a poor, working-class, or untravelled middle-class background— or even a privileged, wealthy background— I realized how important and valuable it was that I’d met and socialized with people from all walks of life. From my devoutly working-class machinist grandfather, to the Fromm, Gund, and Renoir families, my contacts spanned the social atmosphere. I was at home in any social situation, able— if I took the effort— to get along with nearly anyone and find common ground and a way to put them at ease.

By rereading Atlas Shrugged with the critical skills that I’d learned in classes, I quickly was able to see the gaps, the assumptions, the unproved axioms, the contradictions, the failures of logic. Mostly, her bare assumption that competence and ethical virtue are twinned was completely without merit, and the rest of her argument, once that support had been removed, fell apart. A man could easily be a brilliant inventor, a capable businessman, and ruthlessly exploitative of his workers. Walt Disney certainly was. And such a man would, in a world without perfect information, outcompete a competitor who was ‘only’ brilliant and capable.

I quickly saw that in capitalism, whoever had the edge of exploitation, whoever found an advantage that was based not in something difficult— like actually making a superb product— but in something easy and repeatable— like advertising, or making a product with a ton of pollutants as by-products, or paying your workers as little as possible and forcing them to spend money in the town that you control— would win the capitalist game, and not just win it, but ruin it.

“Capitalism, in its pure form, rewards parasitism just as the natural world does”Capitalism, in its pure form, rewards parasitism just as the natural world does. Evolution does not judge its creations on how much worth they put into the world; capitalism is a similar system. A parasitic worm that feasts on its host is an excellent organism from an evolutionary standpoint, and thrives and propogates. A cigarette manufacturer, likewise, from a capitalist standpoint, is a great thing, with a product that’s always in demand. So they thrive.

I began to notice many companies are profitable because of parasitism, even if they provide a valuable product. Coal and energy companies, though they produce something real, do not pay for the effects of their use; they don’t pay for the pollution they create. Instead, we do, in asthma, cancer, and now, global warming, which threatens to end our current phase of civilization.

I saw how in a company I worked for, how a bad manager’s decisions had little negative effect on the company’s profitability but a huge negative effect on the workers; workers sacrificed their health, their personal lives, and their own chances at career advancement in order to keep their jobs; a net loss of efficiency to the system, and yet in the short-term the profitability of the unit went up, and so he was rewarded. By the time the department fell to pieces, that manager was gone— up to the Vice Presidential level, where he was able to continue making the same bad decisions.

In the end, I came to the obvious conclusion: pure capitalism could only possibly work if everyone acting within it had access to perfect information — if you could look up in half a second every relevant fact about a company, how it treated its workers, how it polluted, how it did quality control, etc. etc. — and if everyone in the world had the knowledge and master of all subjects necessary to make judgements based on that information. However, given the value of that information, in capitalism information itself becomes a commodity, and companies do their best to hide all relevant facts about themselves other than the ones they represent for PR purposes.

And in the end, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could separate my natural talents (and why should I feel I deserved anything from my natural talents, anyway) from what I had gained through my upbringing. There was no way for me to judge the success or failure of others from afar, or to conclude that someone did not deserve my help.

“We humans are the only thing that can break away from the Darwinian cruelty of the world”In the end, I realized that we humans are the only thing that can break away from the Darwinian cruelty of the world; we can help each other, we can support each other, and we can all benefit from that. From either a selfish perspective, one of rational-self interest, or a human, empathetic, and sympathetic stance, it makes sense to provide for the destitute, to educate the ignorant, to help the sick, and to otherwise do what we can to catch those who fall through the cracks.

In the end I realized it is the best thing, too, from any perspective, to make sure that the known dangers of capitalism are safeguarded against, that we identify the practices that are exploitative, that are parasitic, that produce profit without producing wealth, and we regulate and manage companies in order to increase its efficiency by disallowing those exploits.

In the end, I realized that the power of corporations was one of the largest exploits in capitalism, that a corporation, as a legal entity, represented a power entirely different from an individual. A corporation does not fear imprisonment, shame, nor even death. A corporation does not need to live in a neighborhood, to socialize with others. Corporations have no natural checks on their behavior, and the short-term profits which the market demands of them result in not only parasitic, exploitative behavior but the legal and political machinations to defend those practices.

In the end, I realized that the only hope for humanity really was rational self-interest, but it lay not in using the crude selfishness of Randism as the barometer of that self-interest, but the true extended phenotype of sympathy; we’re all in this together, and what helps others helps me.

If you bothered to read this whole thing, thank you for your time and attention.

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 Frank says:

Sometimes you got to get sick before you can feel better.