Any objectivists out there? I’ve ingested Ayn Rand in quantities far beyond the Recommended Lifetime Allowance for a human adult, in my indecisive and politically experimental past (as if I were now informed and confident in my political opinions), and I still see her ideas referenced quite often in political discourse – and not always with disparagement and contempt.
One of the main features of her schtick is the idea of selfishness, as a much maligned and underrated quality which is in fact the key to humanity’s salvation. Acting in personal, individual self-interest is about the highest good to which you can aspire, in her writings.
This is obviously counter-intuitive, in a way, but there’s a more sophisticated support for it than you might think. There are (at least) two distinct things that might be meant by proclaiming the moral superiority of acting with self-interest.
She might be saying that we should all simply be looking out for ourselves; that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and there’s no room for compassion for anyone else; that everything you can ever expect to achieve for yourself, you’re going to have to claim at somebody else’s expense; that life is zero-sum.
Or, perhaps she was fine with a spirit of community and partnership and shared humanity and cooperation and pulling together and solidarity… but also believed, as a matter of fact, that the most efficient way to run an economy is for everyone to act selfishly; for nobody to try to decide what’s best for everyone else, and force people to act accordingly; for people to look out solely for their own affairs, and let the ensuing market forces arrange things optimally.
It seems clear from her writing that this second interpretation is what Rand intended. It’s strongly asserted in her novels that people acting in their own self-interest make the situation better for everyone than it would be if people acted differently, particularly if they were to put deliberate effort into making things “fair”.
Here’s the thing. Assuming that modern objectivists don’t make the rather tedious claim that selfishness is an intrinsic good – something self-evidently moral and virtuous, and to hell with all notions that community and interaction are an important part of our humanity – there’s now an implicit empirical question, of whether these claims about the efficacy of self-interested behaviour are actually true.
This “doing whatever suits you under the justification that it’ll all work out best for everyone that way” scheme. Philosophy aside, does it work?
It’s something that rarely seems to get discussed by objectivists and Rand fans. Or maybe I’m just not paying attention. But it’s a claim I’m doubtful of, and the potential pot-holes in which don’t seem to get a lot of play among the people who cling to the basic idea, but often forget that the end which justifies it all is meant to be compassion for other people.
Does it really all hang together? Are people rational enough that they’re not going to be significantly duped as to what their own best interests are? Will there not be any problems when hiding law-breaking activity is cheaper (and thus a more self-interestedly beneficial option) than simply obeying the law? Or when lobbying for a change in the law is more cost-effective than having the pesky laws there to obey in the first place? Are there times when leaving people free to act in their own interest wouldn’t simply encourage a flourishing and democratic exchange between everyone but, heaven forfend, might give a select and fortunate few the chance to fuck the rest of us over?
There’s an important question for objectivism in this. I’m not going to answer it now. I’m only here because I didn’t want to waste even more time on Kongregate today before my lunch is ready. But it’s worth asking.