The real-world test of Ayn Rand's theories

Here's that moment when we realize--thirty years on--that an ideological icon was actually a sellout. 

When I was in college Ayn Rand was huge. Everyone was obsessed with her work and her insistence that people should never ask for or accept help from society. She equated even the most conservative "social programs," such as Social Security and Medicare for retirees, with "slow rot" and stepping stones on the road to Soviet-style communism.

Her theory was that if your disability or illness is so great that you can't be completely independent, you simply "lack value." And implicitly you should allow yourself to die without complaint.

Creative Commons image by  Elvert Barnes

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Yet unknown to us at that time, Rand had already accepted social help to cover medical expenses. Her poisonous theory is still spread as gospel and she never publicized the fact that she realized she was wrong in the end.

A social worker revealed in an interview that Ayn Rand was brought to financial hardship toward the end of her life due to huge health care costs for lung cancer--almost certainly linked to her life-long addiction to cigarettes.

Though the social worker said Rand resisted the decision for some time, she eventually gave in and accepted Social Security and Medicare as a means to keep her household afloat. She never publicly admitted this or recanted her public shaming of those who made similar decisions. She also never rescinded her vehement denial that cigarettes cause cancer. 

If you delve deeply into Rand's theory you find that her main objection to Social Security and Medicare as well as other social programs is the fact that they are considered a right. She repeatedly labeled all those who accept any sort of mandated social assistance as "parasites." While she agreed that charity is possible and not evil in and of itself, she insisted that anyone in need must simply wait for random charity and no one should ever be given sustenance simply because they are a human being.

Your ability to "produce" was to Rand the entirety of your "value."

In some ways, Rand may have been naive. While she experienced some hardship early in life, the period of misfortune was brief and not marked by illness or disability in her family. In fact, she rarely addressed the issues of illness or disability in her writing. On one rare occasion she wrote only, "The small minority of adults who are unable rather than unwilling to work, have to rely on voluntary charity;"

One reason Rand's theories are still so popular today is that they have a cohesive internal logic. If you accept the tenets of her theory--that only humans have any value as living beings and that all people of value can produce enough to satisfy their own needs despite any difficult circumstances or discrimination against them--then the theory is well-laid out and seems to lead to inevitable conclusions.

Creative Commons image by  DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

One thing Rand never seemed to understand, but perhaps finally did grasp as she lay receiving tax-payer funded cancer treatment is that there is no great difference between government road construction and Medicare. Sure, the Medicare beneficiary is an individual receiving something, while a road seems to be something everyone benefits from all at once.

But when you get right down to it, the individual driver driving down that road is only different from the Medicare recipient in that a car can drive over anyone who stands in the way--for instance, the men, women and children who stood on the roads in Honduras asking for tips from drivers for having filled in gaping potholes after Rand's theories were explicitly adopted in that country and no "social program" was around to fix the roads.. 

Had Rand simply written some books and been quoted by some intellectuals this might all have been something to laugh about, but her influence has been far reaching. Companies--such as Sears--have adopted her philosophy as a management blueprint and been devastated within a few years. Whole countries, including Honduras, have been brought to poverty and devastation by her theories.

I cannot count the times  I have seen Rand's theories used to shame or dismiss people facing disability or illness, environmental concerns or racial prejudice. Over the past twenty years, since my college days, Rand's theories have migrated from upper-middle-class intellectual circles to the halls of power., especially in the United States. 

Representatives Steve King (R-IA), Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Allen West (R-FL) became her devotees. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promoted her book on the Senate floor. Alan Greenspan slipped her theories into economic policy. The list of senators and representatives--mostly Republican--who give Rand credit for inspiring their careers is long and she has in no small part inspired the current right-wing take-over of that party..

The most dire problems of the United States--from climate change to authoritarianism and vast economic inequity--stem directly from the lifestyles and corporate policies of the wealthiest ten percent (or even one percent) of the nation. For many years, this group considered Rand's philosophy to be a kind of secret pleasure--a way to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness and yet something that probably shouldn't be widely circulated to avoid embarrassment.

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Rand tantalizes young adults with the dream that satisfying momentary whims and ignoring burdensome ethics can be considered heroic. She still gifts college students in expensive liberal arts schools with an imagined identity as guardians of virtue and justifies a moralistic way to look down on people who take a long-term or interconnected view. 

Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The continuing influence of Rand's work and her lack of openness about her own use of social programs takes her beyond hypocrisy into another realm entirely.  She took the benefits and allowed people with disabilities and illnesses to be ridiculed and humiliated in her name for decades (and likely generations) to come. Today it is difficult to say how much suffering has been caused by policies she inspired. 

That said, there are days when I wish the wealthiest one percent who largely control corporate policies in the United States would take a closer look at her theories. If we are to take Rand literally, she would have us believe that her theory is not wrong but her actions were a mistake. She should have saved more of her wealth earlier in life in order to be able to cover her medical expenses or she should have invested in better private insurance. Her concept is that selfishness coupled with forethought and intelligence will always lead to the best results.

So, each person should save (i.e. conserve) according to their possible future needs. It should follow that a person should conserve other things besides money. If trapped on a desert island, Rand would surely advise conserving one's resources of food and fresh water. 

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

However, today corporate leaders continue in a spending spree--throwing money, fuel and non-renewable resources into the system as fast as they can in order to generate momentary wealth without regard to the disasters of debt, resource depletion and  climate change they are creating for themselves. 

Rand made it known in no uncertain terms, that she didn't believe in anything like "the common good." She stated several times that she didn't believe environmental concerns were very serious. Once she wrote, "Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death."

At the time when she wrote this, the wealthy could easily pay more to live far from environmental pollution and Rand would no doubt have considered that to be the ethical response. But just as lung cancer caught up with her, climate change is now catching up to the wealthiest in our world. The internal documents of large oil and coal companies, when leaked, have shown that those who set corporate policy know the truth, even while they fund denialist campaigns to spread disinformation to the public. 

It is eerily similar to how tobacco companies hid scientific proof that cigarettes contribute significantly to the risk of lung cancer but denied such knowledge to the public in Rand's day. Rand was fond of saying that knowledge is key to exercising good self interest and many tobacco leaders at the time realized smoking wasn't in their best interest, while Rand herself believed their propaganda. Knowledge was in that case a viable defense. 

But today even the wealthiest have little hope of escaping the effects of climate change, which are unlikely to be as simple as a gradual trend of warming in which buying real estate further north might be considered a solution. It is in things like this that Rand's theory begins to unravel.

The one percent know of--or at least their hired scientists have documented--the threats to their own security posed by climate change, and yet their self-interest does not goad them in the right direction. Similarly no purveyor of Rand's theories--not even Rand herself--is willing to die of preventable causes rather than accept Medicare to pay the  bills.

When these tenets of the theory fall, the internal logic disintegrates and each part of it falls in a line of dominoes. Self-interest does not lead to the good of the individual, and the good of the individual is inextricably interconnected with others. 

Randism has been proved to be a false and hollow economic theory as surely as Marxism. And if Karl Marx can be blamed for a host of horrors brought about by those who used and abused his theories, then by the same token Ayn Rand leaves a similar legacy. to that which she most despised