Saturday, July 6, 2013

Atlas Shrugged

"You have reached the blind alley of the treason you committed when you agreed that you had no right to exist. Once, you believed it was "only a compromise": you conceded it was evil to live for yourself, but moral to live for the sake of your children. Then you conceded that it was selfish to live for your children, but moral to live for your community. Then you conceded that it was selfish to live for your community, but moral to live for your country. Now, you are letting this greatest of countries be devoured by any scum from any corner of the earth, while you concede that it is selfish to live for your country and that your moral duty is to live for the globe. A man who has no right to life, has no right to values and will not keep them." -John Galt

Having spent 6 months reading this monster of a book, I find it only fitting to convey a few takeaways. If you have not read it, it is incredibly difficult to sum up an 1,100 page book. To try would be foolish. Take the below comments as thoughts and ideas as you read.

The plight of the industrialist has not changed. 
Modern society leans too often toward marginalizing the affects of the real game changers.  The men who built this country, the men who truly innovated, names like Rockefeller and Westinghouse, John Pierce and Barney Oliver... we pretend to think that we now deserve inherently the fruits of their invention as if we could have thought of it ourselves, or worse, that their innovations are now meaningless because they have been copied so often or enhanced through iterative improvement.

We must restore a sense of value in ones work. When an individual provides value to millions, or provides a lot of value to a few, they should reap the rewards of that value.  It is only fair for a successful person to be successful financially.  Too many people live under the false notion that their need dictates what they should be paid, either by an employer or by welfare. For a company or community or nation to be successful, people must add more value than they take.  For ever person who fails to do so, another must add that person's value without taking it.  Would that we would return to that ideology.

Our morality of selflessness
"I swear-by my life and my love of it-that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

Ms. Rand is unapologetic in her lack of appreciation for selflessness. It is not an altogether undesirable position.  Is not the cry against the "greedy corporations" or "evil wall street" that they are living for their own sakes at the expense of other men? Can you simply add the second clause, nor ask another man to live for mine,  and make selfish ambition work?  Alternatively, is the total and utter pursuit of selflessness found in many religious circles really godliness?

One need only look to the critics of John Piper's Christian hedonism to find a visceral reaction against the idea that allowing yourself to be self-serving is evil. However, his position is not without support from some of the greats. CS Lewis writes: If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. 

I believe that in either case the root evil is found in the idea of allowing or expecting another person to live for your benefit. To combat this evil, Ayn Rand proposes a society where you live fully and only for your own benefit and so long as you expect everyone else to be doing the same it will all work out.  I would propose that a less radical solution is possible, and far more realistic.  If every man would take the position that while still refusing to ask another man to live for their sake, they pursue adding more value than they need and consuming less than they make so that if they should succeed they are in a position materially and mentally to assist others and if they should fail, that another might show the same charity they were willing to give.

This moral code is consistent both with the selflessness required to avoid hedonism and fulfill our communal obligations to those less fortunate while acknowledging that the pursuit of our own good is right and honorable.

It would be easy to normalize this book into the political landscape of today, but doing so would not do the work justice. The complexity of Ayn Rand's pure capitalism approach is unrealistic, and while I would love to think that it could work, it won't. The libertarian in me would love to have the freedom to do whatever I wanted. However, its obvious that people are going to take advantage of others both by accepting what is unearned, or earning more than they should via others.  Short of a catastrophic meltdown akin to the book's version of events, human greed and lust for power will be an ever present force by which we need to have some measure of control and regulation. The only way to change that is through a return to love and respect for other individuals.  The best way I know to do that is a return to true godliness (not what we see in most of the Christian community today). No political ideology will change the root problem of man's evil.

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