Friday, 14 September 2012

Did Ayn Rand hold wealth as the measure of a person's moral worth?

The Objectivist ethics uphold virtues such as rationality and integrity as signs of moral worth, not how much wealth one happens to possess. Ayn Rand did not believe that economic status was proof of virtue one way or another.

The myth that Ayn Rand believed wealth was an intrinsic indication of superiority, that those who weren't very wealthy had nothing to gain from her ideas and that society should be run by some kind of aristocracy of the rich, is both one of the most pervasive and most disingenuous. Clarifying against this possible misinterpretation was not something she was exactly subtle about, so it shows perhaps more than any other myth how blatantly misrepresented her views tend to be.

One hit piece writes that she "starkly divided the world into a contest between 'moochers' and 'producers,' with the small group making up the latter generally composed of the spectacularly wealthy, the successful, and the titans of industry." Another, from The Huffington Post, writes that her "nonsense" served to "pump up the already over-inflated self-regard of the financial and political elites, assuring them that they were the salt of the earth and deserved all of their wealth and power." The New Republic writes that her philosophy holds that "The rich are being exploited by the poor" and that the hero of Atlas Shrugged is the leads an "upper-class strike."

Ayn Rand personally came to the United States with almost nothing and remained relatively poor until her mid-to-late 30s, and never became spectacularly wealthy. And like her personal story, her written work plainly contradicts the myth. The hero of the novel The Fountainhead, architect Howard Roark, spends much of the novel turning down opportunities to gain wealth by designing buildings in popular styles he considers inferior, and is never rich. The chief contrast to Roark in the novel becomes wealthier faster by taking a very different approach to his career, and another major character becomes spectacularly wealthy by means indicated by Rand to be immoral. Among the novel's more minor protagonists are a working class electrician and a sculptor who, when first introduced, is described as living in "revolting poverty."

While many of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are very wealthy, several are not, and several more came from modest backgrounds. The primary hero is not rich at any point in the novel, and neither are several other sympathetic characters. Among the novel's antagonists are those who acquire their wealth via family connections without appreciating or living up to them, and various wealthy industrialists that acquire their wealth via collusion with the government. So a basic survey of her fiction characters alone indicates that she did not believe wealth was an automatic, or even strong, sign of moral superiority.

In one line in Atlas Shrugged, a protagonist defends the worthiness of physical labor by stating "There's no such thing as a lousy job - only lousy men who don't care to do it." In another scene, the leader of a labor union explains to the industrialist he works for that he'd been told their interests conflicted, but that really their interests are aligned, and each of their interests conflict with those who refuse to be productive, who use Washington to exploit them.

Ayn Rand's non-fiction was similarly explicit in making this kind of point. She had this to say about the American middle class.
A nation’s productive—and moral, and intellectual—top is the middle class. It is a broad reservoir of energy, it is a country’s motor and lifeblood, which feeds the rest. The common denominator of its members, on their various levels of ability, is: independence. The upper classes are merely a nation’s past; the middle class is its future. 
The middle class is the heart, the lifeblood, the energy source of a free, industrial economy, i.e., of capitalism; it did not and cannot exist under any other system; it is the product of upward mobility, incompatible with frozen social castes. Do not ask, therefore, for whom the bell of inflation is tolling; it tolls for you. It is not at the destruction of a handful of the rich that inflation is aimed (the rich are mostly in the vanguard of the destroyers), but at the middle class.
So where does this myth come from? One reason may be that Ayn Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism, but she didn't believe laissez-faire benefited the wealthy exclusively. She had this to say about the idea that it did.
Never mind the low wages and the harsh living conditions of the early years of capitalism. They were all that the national economies of the time could afford. Capitalism did not create poverty—it inherited it. Compared to the centuries of precapitalist starvation, the living conditions of the poor in the early years of capitalism were the first chance the poor had ever had to survive. As proof—the enormous growth of the European population during the nineteenth century, a growth of over 300 per cent, as compared to the previous growth of something like 3 per cent per century. 
Capitalism has been called a system of greed—yet it is the system that raised the standard of living of its poorest citizens to heights no collectivist system has ever begun to equal, and no tribal gang can conceive of. 
When men are free to trade, with reason and reality as their only arbiter, when no man may use physical force to extort the consent of another, it is the best product and the best judgment that win in every field of human endeavor, and raise the standard of living—and of thought—ever higher for all those who take part in mankind’s productive activity.
Atlas Shrugged has several rich protagonists, and when the aforementioned writer states that Ayn Rand sees the rich as "exploited," he probably has in mind those Atlas Shrugged characterized as under-appreciated. But this was not the rich per se, but what Ayn Rand called "the men of the mind." The non-rich were among the protagonists and the rich among the antagonists. The primary means of exploitation was the government, and her writing makes clear that the rich were as likely to utilize it as anyone.

So, again, does her non-fiction. She wrote that "It was business, not labor, that initiated the policy of government intervention in the economy" and that "Socialism is not a movement of the people. It is a movement of the intellectuals, originated, led and controlled by the intellectuals, carried by them out of their stuffy ivory towers into those bloody fields of practice where they unite with their allies and executors: the thugs." This contrasts quite sharply with the premise she was a defender of the "financial and political elites."

Another factor may be that Ayn Rand held "productivity" as one of Objectivism's virtues. But this is not its only virtue, and it excludes those who become wealthy by non-productive means. The "virtue of productivity" as Ayn Rand described it did not entail some kind of any-means-necessary race to acquire as much wealth as possible. Yet again, her non-fiction made this very explicit.
[A] man of limited ability who rises by his own purposeful effort from unskilled laborer to shop-foreman, is a career-man in the proper, ethical meaning of the word—while an intelligent man who stagnates in the role of a company president, using one-tenth of his potential ability, is a mere job-holder. And so is a parasite posturing in a job too big for his ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability that is ethically relevant in this issue, but the full, purposeful use of his ability.
What those who misrepresent Ayn Rand's ideas on this appear to be doing is taking one isolated aspect of her ideas and contextualizing it with a bunch of other ideas that she rejected. They take the terms and categories today's cultural philosophy has taught them to think in - rich v. poor, powerful v. non-powerful - and assume Ayn Rand must be using the same ones. But she often didn't. She, for instance, held the means by which one had become rich or powerful as absolutely essential. She rejected outright the Marxist premise that one's interests are aligned by economic class. And because they tend to reject it as well, she had primarily positive things to say about the American people.
There have never been any “masses” in America: the poorest American is an individual and, subconsciously, an individualist. Marxism, which has conquered our universities, is a dismal failure as far as the people are concerned: Americans cannot be sold on any sort of class war; American workers do not see themselves as a “proletariat,” but are among the proudest of property owners. It is professors and businessmen who advocate cooperation with Soviet Russia—American labor unions do not. 
America is the land of the uncommon man. It is the land where man is free to develop his genius—and to get its just rewards. It is the land where each man tries to develop whatever quality he may possess and to rise to whatever degree he can, great or modest. It is not the land where one glories or is taught to glory in one’s mediocrity. No self-respecting man in America is or thinks of himself as “little,” no matter how poor he may be. That, precisely, is the difference between an American working man and a European serf.
What should be abundantly clear now is that Ayn Rand did not see the world as a contest between the very wealthy and everyone else. And what I hope is also clear is that Ayn Rand's ideas are part of a nuanced philosophy that needs to be studied, and certainly can't be understood via what her critics have projected onto her particular views by taking them out of context.