Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Ayn Rand, capitalism, and altruism

Professor Amartya Sen says that it is good to have debates and discussions and it is good to argue with others on topics of importance. I didn’t have exactly this in mind when I forwarded an article, “Why Ayn Rand Is Still Relevant”, to one of my Singaporean colleagues (I have given his name here as K). He has been recently reading books by Ayn Rand and I thought he might be interested in it. I had read one or two books by her when I was in college and by now I did not exactly remember what she preached in those books which were very popular among the English-speaking students (what I remembered was that she preached capitalism even though it meant the rule of the robber barons). K got back with some feedback on that article and I reverted with my own comments and this way we had a good exchange. Here is the transcript of that exchange.

After this exchange, which ended in an honorable disagreement, I watched some interviews of Ayn Rand and got to know her philosophy better. You can find many videos on her on YouTube. I don’t think major economists or philosophers have taken her philosophy that seriously. And I am sure there are many, like this scholar, who have challenged her views. I have my own philosophy which, in Rand’s epistemology, can be called rational-mythological. Share with us what you think of Ayn Rand and how is her philosophy relevant today?

Her theory or philosophy, to me, comes across as anti-egalitarianism and anti-welfarism (the greater common good is not important for her) and she says many things that Milton Friedman also has said later on.

Me: "From the time we’re young we are taught that the essence of morality is to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of others, and that to focus on one’s own interests is immoral and destructive...."

I ask, if this is the essence of capitalism (according to Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism), how can it be reconciled with Biblical teachings? I think both extremes (extreme capitalism on one hand, extreme socialism or collectivism on the other hand) are bad. There has to be a balance. Middle path, preached by prophets like Buddha and Mohammad, are more reasonable. Enterprise with humanity is more reasonable than enterprise supported by rapacious laws (think of debt prisons or seizure of properties).

From K:

The intriguing perspective I feel I'm taking in regards to Ayn Rand's views and how it would connect to the Biblical perspective is that at the end of the day, sacrifice is not the best ends to make things work out in our relationships to people and ourselves. Perhaps sacrifice is required in many scenarios, but just because 2 - 1 = 1 on the other side of the equation doesn't mean it's the best methodology to help others. Her view that in being 'selfish' to our own goals, we invariably create conditions that would help others as a by result. It's a pictorial of the golden goose - a goose lay eggs not because of sacrifice but self-interest and preservation, yet but lying the eggs, others benefit from her production and output. To sacrifice her for a meal would surely be beneficial for a moment to others, but the cost is great. I recall Jesus saying that when he was hindered by the religious community in healing a man on the Sabbath, he asked,'Is the Sabbath for man, or man for the Sabbath?' The crowd wanted to sacrifice the sick man's welfare in order to preserve their 'religious laws' but Jesus' response was that they got the idea all wrong.

I think beneath the common call for sacrifice, one might sometimes do better by taking a rational view of how other methods might be more effective and proper towards the end result. The Bible mentions that 'as a man thinks, so he is' - that isn't all that different from what Ayn Rand's John Galt is preaching. I think I'm attracted to her views because it's extreme... somehow, I think that might actually be a good medicine for society, which tends to self-destruct and most of the time while it's doing so, lukewarm theories hardly have a chance in altering their march to death.

Just my views though :)

Me: Interesting views and this is exactly how the world is working, and this is where we are headed. Capitalism marches on. But in my view, it is not an absolute view or solution.

Here is my understanding of things:

It is not just sacrifice or just profit. The two don't necessarily have to clash. That's my point. When Jesus says Sabbath for man or man for Sabbath, he is perhaps talking about making a choice. So you have to make a choice--a rational choice depending on the circumstances. But if it is just the profit motive, is infinite profit the good thing? That's my question.

If you are smart/powerful and you amass all the goodies and all your neighbours are hungry, what will you do? You will share your things with your hungry neighbours or you just won't do anything?

The capitalist will open a bank and the socialist will open a cooperative. But you need a government in both the cases to ensure that there is no injustice/rapaciousness in the system. How little or how big the govt will be, let the people decide. The extreme capitalist (free market advocate) will say--very little govt so that it can exploit everybody--make you work as a cheap worker, with minimal rights. It will break the families, make everyone a worker and create a consumerist society and culture (free to pursue what makes you happy). And when people begin to fail to pay the bank debts because they lose jobs (because of its in-built cyclical booms and downturns), they will be put in debt prisons. Then they will use the "little govt." to catch the small guy and put him in jail or seize his property.

I am not saying you sacrifice everything (You can have both--profit with underpinnings of morality). But you MUST have a check on the capitalist. Don't let the market run amok. That's my point. No matter what Ayn Rand and her acolytes say, that is what the current downturn has proved.

K: Indeed, there're multiple views to the idea. But I think it can be easy to dismiss Ayn Rand's views simply due to the unfavourable 'words' she has used to establish and evangelise her cause. Her view of capitalism is not about just inifinite profit, but 'earned' profits - money that one exchanges on a fair weighting based on the simple laws of economics - supply/demand/scarcity/abundance. If a capitalist would exploit people, then it's simply a 'looter' in her terms - the exchange is not fair, but forced. Look to the man of Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged - he is a capitalist in every sense, yet nowhere do we see exploitation. It's easy to be biased and think that when one man is made rich, the rest will surely suffer. That is what perhaps she is trying to fight - that the idea of true capitalism is not a dirty word, and any other variant (corrupted) of capitalism that does not base its exchange fairly is not true capitalism at all.

Should the people decide? I've heard from my parents each time the election is near to cast the vote for the opposition, from countless taxi drivers that we should have more say. Ayn Rand's argument is that the voice of the crowds doesn't necessarily count as just, and I agree with it. If Lee Kuan Yew gave in to every whim of the people, where would we be? Can democracy really be the answer? I remember reading somewhere in a crowd psychology book that says the level of the crowd is as high as its weakest link. I read about the witch hunting that led to the massacre of innocent people. I read about how women are abused and oppressed in Tehran for ages because of such a voice.

Are what we view easily as 'oppression' today really that? When a man fails and gets into debts, what proportion of that disaster is his responsibility? None? No, if he is true he understands the risks of his undertakings, both good and bad. So many have preached that the world is to be a fair place, but is it? How do we view justice? Ideal or practical reality? The fact that in Atlas Shrugged all the true capitalists pulled out and went into hiding was because of the misguided voice of the crowd. Is the market amok today because of 'capitalism', or is it really just an easy scapegoat so the masses can point a finger at when things go wrong? Did the average retailer make accusations when times were good? Did the average person refrain from excess when he had bonuses and payouts? The masses' failure to embark on Joseph's lesson from the Bible of using the '7 years of good to prepare for the 7 years of lack' is what caused them their misery today, not capitalism.

If capitalism is truly evil, then the children of Africa should have been spared. The children of China should not be progressing onwards to this evil since Mao. They should be blessed in their previous run, why rush towards capitalism like lemmings to their fall? The current downturn is not to me a byproduct of capitalism, but of foolish indulgence. It's like the kid who screwed his life up with drugs and stuff and points at his own family and calls them dysfunctional and responsible for his downfall. It's the evading of responsibility that has cost us, not the desire for self-interest. If a country suffers, the people cannot evade responsibility. Whether they are ruled by a dictator or not, the truth remains - Hitler is an easy scapegoat, the true culprits are the masses who appointed him their puppet for the promise of a chicken in their pot.

To think otherwise, is to insult the martyrs and revoluntionaries who paid for the truth and their responsibility in blood.
P.S. Seriously though, by not allowing banks and crap companies to fall, isn't it beginning to look like Atlas Shrugged deja vu?

Me: Good debate.

I can see where you are coming from. But you are confusing a lot of issues--I can see that too. The systems (mark that word systems pls) in US, Singapore and Iran are very different. I will not go into details.

I don't know what exactly Ayn Rand preached (but can take her as a preacher of free markets), but perhaps I have some understanding of capitalism (and free markets). Capitalism is just not about money or banks--it is the whole ecosystem that you see in a society. The American kid that grew up there, learnt to have drugs and learnt to run his life on credit--did all that within that system. Who taught him that? Why did he behave in that way? Why did others in other countries not behave that way? Ask yourself that question.

So, you can see where I am coming from.

By blaming the masses for their choices (are there real choices? Even that is debatable) you are delinking democracy from capitalism. That is again a big subject. And let us not go into China or totalitarianism (Hitler, etc).

So, basically, answer these two questions:

1. You believe in capitalism without democracy? If there is no democracy, what will be the form of govt.?
2. If a poor guy, because of his stupidity or for some systemic reason (say downturns or layoffs), falls on bad times, will you let him suffer and die or will you extend a helping hand to him?

With answers to these two questions, we can conclude this discussion.

K: Ok,

1. I believe in capitalism, and the freedom to every man for himself. Let each man govern and be fully responsible for their own actions. Perhaps that may lead us down the trail towards the survival of the fittest, but nature hasn't complain for a while, maybe it's not too bad.

2. I refer to the proverb - 'Give a man a fish, you feed him a day. Give the man a rod, you feed him for life.' I believe in extending a helping hand if he can embrace change and help himself, or else better die a victim, then live a persistent fool.

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