Ayn Rand: Only Consistent Selfishness Is Rational


Normally when I address the thought of a philosopher (or sometimes even a poet), I try to dig down to the first principles held by the philosopher, and then work forward from there. With Rand, it’s a little muddled, for I have the abiding suspicion that her first principle is that Capitalism is good, and that she has worked backwards from there to come up with the ethical system which best justifies the Capitalist way of life. Not that such a maneuver is unusual. I feel that most of us do precisely this same thing… we start with the opinion we already wish to hold, and then come up with reasons to justify it.

By the mid-twentieth century, Capitalism had been in gradual retreat for decades. The Soviet Union was still very much alive and seemed to offer an viable, alternative way of life under a State-run Communism. Furthermore, even in the United States– that bastion of Capitalism– the State had been encroaching upon the powers of Big Capital steadily for decades: busting trusts, protecting unions, regulating the workday, monitoring food and product safety, eliminating child-labor in factories… all of these tax-payer-funded activities being anathema to a good Randian.

Seeing Capitalism in retreat and the “Statists” (a term she employs often) in ascension, Rand felt that Capitalism needed a champion, and that the champion it needed was her. Explaining what she and her followers were attempting, she writes… “We are fighting for that philosophical base which Capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish.”

And when Rand uses the phrase “fighting for,” she means it in the way a field general does. Reading the works of Rand and her followers, one cannot help but feel the pervading sense of being UNDER SIEGE.  Randians obviously feel that they are small, superior band which is under attack, and they often write bombastic, meant-to-shock prose verging on the hysterical. All this together gives Randians a very cult-like vibe that I think is off-putting merely in TONE for many people.

Regardless, once Rand decided to champion Capitalism, she had to determine in what way she would champion it. She decided, quite rightly I think, that the standard way of defending Capitalism was inadequate and that Big Capital was losing the argument.

In Conservatism: An Obituary, Rand bemoans the fact that the (supposed) defenders of Capitalism could come up with no better way to combat Communist propaganda than to declare that humans aren’t good enough for Socialism.   Says Rand, “thus, they concede that Socialism is the ideal, but human nature is unworthy of it.” In other words, Capitalism ain’t perfect, but its the best we unworthy morons can do.  Obviously, before Rand, most of Capitalism’s supporters approached the arena already cringing and ready to cede ground.

Rand also noted that when people attempted to defend the system which was making them rich by claiming that Capitalism was better for everyone— well, they just came off sound disingenuous, guilty, and hypocritical.   Rand writes in Cashing-In: The Student Rebellion that in any philosophical argument, and in the absence of sound intellectual push-back, any absurdities promulgated by one’s opponents will “gradually come to be absorbed into the culture” and be “accepted by degrees, by precedent, by implication, by erosion, by default, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other.”

So Rand tosses out any strategies which call for defending Capitalism on grounds of the greater good.  Instead, she tries something novel– something completely novel really, something which makes Ayn Rand one of the greatest American philosophers of all…. She chooses to defend Capitalism for precisely what it is… the absolute best way for smart, powerful people to acquire the most wealth and property possible. The “good of the country” is not the goal. If other people are made better off by the activities of the Capitalist, that is merely side-effect. The true mission of a Capitalist culture is to facilitate “a man’s right to pursue his own good.” … The Founding Fathers did not, she says, speak of the right to happiness… but they did speak of the right to the PURSUIT of happiness.  This is what Capitalism facilitates.

For Rand’s Capitalist apologia, there would be no subterfuge, no trickery, no misdirection. No squirming and trying to pretend that Capitalism should be supported because it provides best for the common good. No, no. She lays it bare… Capitalism is the ultimate system for establishing, maintaining, and rewarding Selfishness– an all-pervading selfishness stretching –neighborhood to neighborhood, schoolyard to schoolyard– all across the country, and even better– all across the planet.

And more than this… if one is to hold up the greatest system of Selfishness ever devised as the ideal organizational principle of humankind, then one must hold up the greatest practitioners of this selfishness as Heroes. For Rand, the ruthless Capitalist fatcat is not a necessary evil which society must put up with– he is the Ideal Man. He is the thing we should all strive to be– all of us that is, with the capacity of being superior human beings– which a reader soon realizes Rand believes to be a select few.

The Randian audacity is breath-taking and awe-inspiring. Ayn Rand is the Napoleon of economic thought. One must remember how isolated and vilified her promulgations of Selfishness-as-the-greatest-virtue would have left Rand during the very height of America’s post-War conforming era (we are still largely a nation of conformers, but the 1950s was arguably the height of this sometimes ugly American predisposition).

But something Rand had to face head-on if she was going to make the Capitalist the Ideal Man is the utter self-centeredness of his motivations. Rand defends Selfishness from two different angles: 1) she justifies Selfishness in terms of Freedom (basically claiming that it ain’t Freedom if you’re expected to do things for others), and 2) she attacks the opposite of Selfishness, Altruism. Of the two defenses, she obviously most relishes the latter. The woman despised do-gooders.

Rand derives the Right of Man to live only for his own sake from the her assertion that every individual possesses the Right To Life.

Now, with every philosophy, there are some first principles that we just have to take as given. For example, for Descartes the taken-as-given thing was “I think” (actually there are at least three things taken-as-given here– 1) that there’s an “I”, 2) that this I “thinks,” and 3) that this I can recognize itself thinking). Rand does not dally trying to prove that every person deserves to live. And she doesn’t get lured into arguments of “personhood” (does a fetus qualify? does a dog?) or into the morality of the death penalty (at least in this book). When the curtain rises on her virtuoso performance, she has already accepted that every “person” (whoever that is) possesses the Right To Life.

From the Right To Life Rand derives (without technically deriving) the Right To Keep The Things You Produce. I’ve seen people approach the proof of this “right” from the idea that the Right To Life implies a Right To Livelihood, which seems reasonable enough in the sense that the Right To Life would not be of much practical value if one had no means of maintaining one’s life. But Rand cannot come from this angle since it leads perilously close to the ideals held by Rand’s opponents… the Welfare Statists, those who might argue that the State should guarantee a person a job. Oh no Hell no.  Rand endorses the savagery of the wolf, not the welfare of the hive.

For Rand, the reason that you get to keep what you make, is precisely because you made it. For her, the act of making something automatically proves the maker worthy of keeping it. I fault this reasoning a little since a really wolfy wolf would prove that he deserved to keep something by successfully defending it against all who would take it from him.  But be that as it may…

For Rand, once you have made something, it is yours to do with what you will. For her, this also includes “making” money, in the sense of earning it.  Nowhere in the book does she offer a formal proof that the Right To Life leads to the Right To Keep, but for our purposes, we can just assume this Right as a second “given”: a person is entitled to keep what they make or acquire.

Now all sorts of dilemmas immediately crop up here. For starters… where are we expected to get the material that we make stuff from? Do we SEIZE it from others? No, we mustn’t do that, for as I will get into in another post, Rand does not approve of the use of physical force. Do we INHERIT the material? If so, in what way have we earned it? So, ho hum… I suppose we must prop up Rand’s argument with a third assumption… that the materials utilized for our making or earning were acquired “legitimately” (take that as meaning whatever definition is most conducive to our sympathetic approach).

But there are additional problems with this idea (that we have the Right to do with our stuff whatever we want). For instance, if we make a bunch of tires, do we have the right to burn them? That sort of thing… (No need to go into a bunch of examples).

So, before Rand even really gets started, she has assumed or asserted, directly or indirectly… 1) that each person possesses the Right To Life, 2) that there are ways in which a person may legitimately lay exclusive claim to input-materials, 3) that a person may use these inputs however they wish, and 4) that a person is entitled to keep, use, or dispose of whatever they make or earn from these inputs.

So Rand –to her own satisfaction if not to ours– has proven all these “Rights.” But the question now is… even if we possess such Rights, should we exercise them? In other words, although we have the Right to be selfish, should we act selfishly?

Someone could easily assert all these “Rights,” and then go on to prove why we should NOT normally exercise them. But Rand’s whole intention in developing these Rights is to demonstrate how their exercise through Capitalism is the most moral way the Ideal Man can live.

The only rationale Rand really offers for living according to the Selfishness Principle is that it is the most CONSISTENT way to live.  No one could live very long or well if all they did was consistently do for others… Sooner or later they would need to look to their own nutrition, hygiene, and safety… not to mention their own quality of life… such as seizing education or entertainment opportunities.  Therefore, the unselfish life cannot possibly be consistent... whereas, the Selfish life CAN be lived with consistency. For one can make the argument that, with a Selfish mindset, even those things you do which benefit others are done to ultimately benefit yourself.

So her thinking here is that one should live with Consistency, and that the only way one can live with Consistency is to be Selfish, and that the best system for living Selfishly is Capitalism.

Of course, the question remains… Why is living Consistently better than living Inconsistently? Rand has a few answers to this. One is simply that she considers Man to be above all else a Rational creature, and that to be his best, greatest, truest self– to become the Ideal Man– he must live as Rationally as possible. The more Rational we live, the more Human we are. To apply one’s principles Inconsistently is not Rational. Therefore, to be our best and truest self, we must live Consistently.

But other questions intrude themselves:  Why should we strive to become the human Ideal? And why of all human traits should Rationality be considered the most central part of our essence? Rand does not answer either of these questions in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Nathaniel Branden, probably the most important Randian after the master herself, tended to argue the Randian cause from a more psychological than economic viewpoint. Actually, Rand herself doesn’t make very many economic arguments. Her defense of Capitalism is philosophical, specifically, she attempts the philosophical determination of the best life to live and of the social system most conducive to allowing Man to live that way… which of course, turns out to be Capitalism.  She saves the technical economic arguments for the (then-)young Alan Greenspan. But back to Branden…

Branden asserted that a man who holds contradictory values will suffer mental anguish… When an altruistic man acts selfishly, he will feel bad for helping himself at the expense of others… Likewise, when an Selfish man acts altruistically, he will feel bad since he is has either given up a pleasure he wants or absorbed a pain he does not.

“This results in a splintered sense of self,” writes Branden, “a self broken into unintegratable fragments.” He contends that a person will avoid the displeasure that accompanies the simultaneous holding of two conflicting opinions through repression or rationalization. As likely as not, he will probably face the dilemma by not facing it all… by trying not think about. Adds Branden beautifully, “thus, to escape a problem created by a failure of thought, he suspends thinking.”

Rand herself writes that “if an individual holds mixed premises, his vices undercut, hamper, defeat, and ultimately destroy his virtues.” Therefore, Man must be clear in thought and know himself. He must clearly define his ideals, and he must act at all times in ways consistent with these clear ideals. In Conservativism: An Obituary she writes that “no man, and no movement, can succeed without moral certainty– without a full, rational conviction of the moral rightness of one’s cause.”

Rand, as consistently rational a person as has probably ever walked the planet, loathed inconsistency, considering it a abject moral failure. Inconsistency, she insisted, led to weak and diluted ideas, which in turn led the mind into “a foggy labyrinth of the non-objective” where a man “will welcome any quasi-persuasive, semi-plausible argument” just to alleviate his paralyzing confusion.

A collection of such weak confused people results in an inconsistent mob easily influenced by demagogues and marketeers, and manipulated by “little lawyers and public relations men” like puppets controlled by strings.

On the other hand, Rand writes in The Pull Peddlers“a man of clear-cut convictions is impervious to anyone’s influence.”

Rand states in Cashing-In: The Student Rebellion that compromise between TWO minds of different viewpoints is no better than one mind attempting to navigate between two conflicting opinions.  She believes it is a debilitating delusion to believe that compromise can result in something good for either party.  In reality, she asserts, compromise inevitably “dissatisfies everybody.”

Rand believes that “if a group of men pursues mixed goals, its bad principles drive out the good.” To understand this, one must know that Rand considers creation “good,” and destruction “evil.” Now, here occurs some of Rand’s most nebulous thinking.  Consider, for example, the building of a power dam on a river.  This could be viewed as…  1) the creation of a something good (a power source for thousands of families), or 2) the creation of something evil (a man-made monstrosity causing pollution and disrupting nature’s precious equilibrium, or 3) the destruction of something good (a lovely river and fish habitat), or 4) the destruction of something evil (a wild river which periodically floods the nearby neighborhoods).

But let us grant for the sake of the argument that there is some objective method for distinguishing between “good creation” and “bad destruction.” Then, what Rand wishes us to believe is that “bad destruction” is something easy to accomplish, whereas “good creation” requires all Man’s concentration and energy, necessitating that he think and perform with what Rand calls a “ruthless consistency” requiring “unremitting thought” and “enormous knowledge.” This is why she believes that in a collaboration between groups, the weaker group will actually be the stronger, for their methods require less strength and intelligence and energy to prevail. Rand therefore advises that “good” men should not collaborate with “evil” men– the good men will only come out the losers.  As she writes in The Anatomy Of Compromise“in any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.”

The only chance good men have is to behave with such “ruthless consistency” that they overwhelm the forces of evil. The Good must also attempt to combat the enemy in only OPEN combat, where the rationality of their viewpoint can hold sway; otherwise, coming to grips in the shadows will work to the benefit of the Evil Ones, since there they can hide the vacuity and irrationality of their conflicting principles. “When opposite and basic principles are clearly and openly defined,” says Rand, “it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden are evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.”

Ultimately, Rand feels that compromise only results in making “the world safe for mediocrity.” She blames “ethical subjectivism” for the current mediocre path of a world intellectually dominated by a bunch of “anxiety-ridden neurotics” who are “seeking escape from the absolutism of reality with which they feel themselves impotent to deal.” After all, if everything is relative and every value system equally righteous, then we need not feel so bad if we don’t know what to do!

So, according to Rand, the first reason one should live Selfishly is that one can live very CONSISTENTLY by approaching the world in a constantly selfish manner.

The second reason Rand is in favor of living Selfishly is that she believes that to live in the opposite fashion, to live Altruistically, is bad.  For Rand, proving that Activity B (which she asserts to be the opposite of the Activity A) is bad, is as good as proving that Activity A is good.  But then there’s that pesky problem that not everything in the world possesses an easily determinable exact opposite. For instance, what is the opposite of kissing a girl on the right cheek?… Kissing her on the left? Not kissing her at all? Being kissed by the girl instead? Maybe kissing a boy instead of a girl?

Rand appears to hold that Man has a Right To Be Free, and that this implies the Right To Be Selfish.  Again, lots of problems explode forth from this assertion, not the least of which is how to deal with the problem of conflicting Freedoms between different Free persons.

Additionally, I don’t think Rand really succeeds in proving that Man has a Right To Be Free. I was left with the impression that she believes this Right To Be Free flows naturally from his Right To Life. I’m guessing the logic goes something like this (and I want to emphasize that this is just a guess): 1) we have the Right To Life, and 2) the Right To Life implies the right to the moments of that Life, and 3) the right to these Life-moments implies the right to choose how to spend these moments. Although, of course, there are problems here as well, such as the fact that we obviously do NOT possess the right to spend every moment as we wish… such as the right to spend each moment not sleeping or not breathing.

Perhaps combining the Right To Life with the Right To Freedom (again, I’m guessing), Rand comes up with this notion that a person has the Right To Exist For His Own Sake. I call this the Selfishness Principle. The “proof” offered here really only does about half the job… Rand believes she proves the Selfishness Principle because she states that to exist for someone else’s sake, would be slavery, and a slave is not Free, and Man has the Right To Be Free. However, disproving the contrary is not a full proof, for both notions could be wrong.  To disprove the proposition that “the sky is green” does not prove that “the sky is blue”– for it could be night-time.  But Life is grayer and blurrier than dreamt of in Rand’s philosophy, and it doesn’t always give us exact opposites to choose from.



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