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This is interesting. A quote from Atlas Shrugged shows how objectivists – or one objectivist, at least – kinda sorta get it, before completely failing to get it.

When you live in a rational society, where men are free [to think and] to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.

When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing.

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for [a thinker]? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from [those who choose not to sweat, but to think].

So, there’s a valid observation in there. People’s marginal productivity can, indeed, be greatly influenced by other people. How much I can get done in an hour, and what that output is worth to anyone, is hugely boosted by the inventions, creations, ideas, and hard work of my colleagues, other workers, managers, and numerous people who’ve been dead for centuries.

A labourer can produce much greater output when assisted by the ideas and creativity of a “thinker”. This seems trivially true. But what exactly would be the productive output of a thinker if there weren’t any labourers to do the actual, y’know, labour?

Innovation’s great and all, but without thousands of pairs of nimble Chinese hands working round the clock for years actually making things, Steve Jobs is just a nerd in a garage.

So why does Ayn Rand stop at lauding the miraculous contributions of her thinkers, without recognising any comparable virtue in back-breaking labour? I mean, she’s half there. People can do much more in collaboration than working on their own. We are more than the sum of our parts. So why doesn’t she get that it’s a two-way street? Is it just a contempt for anything so vulgar as doing work, which leads someone to hold those who manage to avoid it in such high esteem?

I mean, all that the millions of people in the working class do is toil really hard getting stuff done for forty hours a week or more. The CEOs and entrepreneurs and “thinkers”, though – they had a neat idea one time. (And then got the government to force everyone else not to use their idea without giving them money.)

Who are the real heroes we can’t do without?

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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.

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Ooh, PZ’s found a right one here. The Atlasphere is a site for dating and networking, aimed at fans of Ayn Rand.

If you’re chuckling or cringing right now, either is probably an appropriate response.

I’m not sure I’ve discussed my own feelings on Ayn Rand on this blog before, so this seems as good a time as any. I read The Fountainhead in my late teens or early twenties, and was sufficiently engaged by the story-telling and intrigued by the philosophy at the time that I read Atlas Shrugged not long after. This experience is one I recall describing as like “having my brains repeatedly smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large objectivist brick”.

Her philosophy isn’t so utterly braindead and without merit that it’s not often interesting to discuss, and I certainly don’t immediately back away from anyone claiming to have enjoyed Rand’s work in general. But there’s a cadre of particularly devoted followers who very noticeably take it too far.

You should contact me if you are a skinny woman. If your words are a meaningful progression of concepts rather than a series of vocalizations induced by your spinal cord for the purpose of complementing my tone of voice. If you’ve seen the meatbot, the walking automaton, the pod-people, the dense, glazy-eyed substrate through which living organisms such as myself must escape to reach air and sunlight.

That’s the kind of thing I mean, taken from this article about the dating service from a few years ago. Even if I was convinced objectivism really stood up, I wouldn’t want anything to do with this crowd. I’ll take human empathy over grammatical competence any day.

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