Saturday, August 11, 2012
© Charles D. Hayes
Confusion is rampant these days over the subject of self-interest versus public interest. It’s increasingly fashionable to disdain everything public and revere everything private. The hate your government virus has become the bubonic plague of American politics. Thanks largely to Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's chosen running mate, the ghost of Ayn Rand is spooking the electorate.
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy—that selfishness should be the sole driving force of economics—has been thoroughly rebuked by research in psychology and neuroscience as being universally incongruent with human behavior. It's as absurd to claim that selfishness is the only virtue as it would be to say that selflessness is. So I find it hard to fathom why Ryan, who is now the presumptive Republican candidate for vice president, would ever have described himself as an unapologetic devotee of Rand's ideology.
Applied whole cloth, Rand's economic prescription represents at best the glorification of narcissism; at worst, the ideology of cancer cells. Simply put, if we relied solely on Objectivism economically, America would wind up as a nation of losers among the other developed countries of the world.
Elsewhere I have written that when a rush of adolescent hormones encounters an ideology that makes biologically self-centered and narcissistic inclinations seem glorious, critical thinking stops and notions of superiority blossom. What’s especially disturbing about Rand followers is that once they buy in, most stop thinking for themselves. In effect, they surrender their judgment to Objectivism, and when confronted with a contradictory argument, they look for a Rand quote as a defense. Objectivists become impervious to all contrary evidence and adopt the stance that those who criticize Rand just don't understand her. In fact, many of us understand her very well, and that's the hitch.
John Galt, the fictional character in Atlas Shrugged, represented Rand's concept of the ideal man. He was infallible in principle, and his business savvy was impeccable. But individuals with John Galt's psychological profile and penchant for ideological perfection do not exist in the real world, and neither does a healthy society based solely on Rand's ideas. John Galt wannabes, however, abound—they talk the talk, but don't walk it. They gave us a financial meltdown in 2008. Rand didn't walk her talk, either. She declared the function of government is only to protect citizens from criminals and foreign invasion, but it didn't stop her from signing up for Medicare and Social Security.
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson argues that "[S]elfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals." He suggests that if either case were taken to extremes, the result would be the destruction of society as we know it.
Imagine that you’re charged with assembling a football team from a poor community and your future rests on winning games. You discover that your linemen and your running backs are malnourished. What do you do? By hook or crook, you find them nourishing food. Without it, your team is easily defeated. Now apply this analogy to America. We have millions of children who, through no fault of their own, are malnourished. They are likely to grow up without the cognitive and physical ability to make the team—the team of American citizens. Many of them will wind up in prison, costing taxpayers $50,000 plus per year.
Paul Ryan and his supporters seem to think that more political currency is to be gained in finding ways to punish these children's parents than in solving the problem. Certainly, dealing with freeloaders is a dilemma, and people who expect something for nothing should incur a penalty, if one is due because of their negligence. But providing adequate nutrition must be part of the solution, or the team suffers and America's foundation crumbles.
It's as easy to rig a system for equity as it is to create the current winner-take-all reality of the one percent versus the 99 percent. There are scores of ways in which we turn a blind eye toward the kind of investments that support our team as Americans.
Every developed nation on the planet that offers its citizens a high quality of life is able to do so only by making a substantial investment in the kinds of infrastructure and services that support their public interest. A thriving economy with a strong middle class and based exclusively on a virtue of selfishness has never existed on this planet, but this fact doesn't matter to narrow-minded ideologues. The majority of Americans don't want a handout; they want a fair shot at a decent quality of life and a system that represents and supports our true nature, not one rigged by narcissistic ideologues.
Ryan's recent budget proposal is a one-percent solution. Now, all of a sudden, he is now disavowing Rand's Objectivism as an atheist philosophy that reduces human relations to mere contracts. His budget recommendations have resulted in an ongoing protest by Catholic nuns who argue that his proposed cuts to the poor are immoral.
But here is the scary part. Mitt Romney is our first candidate for president who is on record in print and in video footage with multiple contradictory positions on every issue of importance in the upcoming election. If Paul Ryan thinks he or Mitt Romney is John Galt personified, he has his utopian fantasies mixed up, and this means he is too intellectually immature to be president himself.
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