Most people who read Ayn Rand intuitively feel that her philosophy of Objectivism is wrong. However, I have not seen a good rational argument against it yet. I’m sure they exist, and here’s mine. Objectivism, on a superficial examination, appears to present an impenetrably rational case. But, if Objectivism is so rational, then why have we not evolved to already implement it? That is our first clue.
What is Objectivism?
Let’s lay out what Objectivism is, for the sake of clarity. From aynrand.org:
My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:
- Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
- Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
- The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Examining Objectivism’s Assertions
Reality exists as Objective Absolute
Assuming objective reality exists is a good rule of thumb, and works for classical systems, i.e. systems that do not exhibit quantum mechanical behaviour. In QM-ical systems, the Kochen-Specker theorem creates problems. It says some properties of say a particle do not have a defined value until measured. Hence, they are undefined and and do not exist in the traditional definition of exist. However, this is a fair statement for our everyday world.
Reason is the Ultimate
False. Experiment is the ultimate. The only way to test if something is true is not through logic and reason, but through experiment. Even setting that aside, emotion and intuition are extremely useful in making everyday decisions. Anyone who reasoned through why they run from an attack by a sabertooth tiger would undoubtedly be killed before they decided to run away.
However, to be fair, Ayn Rand is being pithy here, and I’m sure she would agree with the use of emotion and intuition. However, calling reason an absolute is not scientific. The scientific method holds that the experiment is absolute.
Man is an end in himself
This is where things get complicated. Superficially, this appears reasonable. After all, evolution says that we are evolved to propagate our genes. But what exactly does it mean for man to be selfish? Isn’t it curious that we evolved altruism and self-sacrifice? If selfishness is best, then how did altruistic people survive? Some argue that altruism is a relic of our hunter gatherer past where altruism enabled survival. And that altruism is not suited to our present. This is not true.
To see why, you need to watch Objectivism in practice. Every system sounds perfect in its idealization. What is it in practice? In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand gives us this example and I quote,
He got up, went to the telephone and dialed a number. “Hello, Midas? . . . Yes. . . . He did? Yes, she’s all right. . . . Will you rent me your car for the day? . . . Thanks. At the usual rate—
twenty-five cents, . . . . Can you send it over? . . . Do you happen to have some sort of cane? She’ll need it. . . . Tonight? Yes, I think so.
We will. Thanks.”
He hung up. She was staring at him incredulously.
“Did I understand you to say that Mr. Mulligan—who’s worth about two hundred million dollars, I believe—is going to charge you twenty-five cents for the use of his car?”
“Good heavens, couldn’t he give it to you as a courtesy?”
He sat looking at her for a moment, studying her face, as if deliberately letting her see the amusement in his. “Miss Taggart,” he said, “we have no laws in this valley, no rules, no formal organization of any kind. We come here because we want to rest. But we have certain customs, which we all observe, because they pertain to the things we need to rest from. So I’ll warn you now that there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word ‘give,’ “
John Galt, the protagonist, rents Midas Mulligan’s car for the princely sum of 25 cents a day. That seems fair if we consider ourselves to be selfish beings only trying to pass our genes down. And that means charging a friend for using your car? No, it does not. The process that Ayn Rand just described is incredibly inefficient and fails to understand the value of emotion and tacit human agreements in navigating the world. It also betrays a fundamental misreading of basic human nature.
How do you normally borrow a friend’s car? Exactly how Dagny described it! As a courtesy. Your friend gives it to you and you give it back. It’s a simple, smooth transaction requiring absolutely no effort on your or your friend’s part. Now, look at the idealistic Objectivist version. Midas charges John 25 cents for the car. John uses the car, pays Midas 25 cents and gives it back. Everyone’s happy? No, this situation doesn’t even exist. What would happen is John would use all the gas in the car or scratch the car. Then he would return it. Midas sees the gas is gone and the car is scratched. He demands recompensation. But! As the quote goes there are “no laws”, and “no rules”. John refuses, saying he owes Midas nothing more than what was agreed. You see, John is being a true Objectivist; he is being selfish. He cares not for Midas. Now, here, we have two scenarios. One, Midas refuses to lend John or anyone else the car again, and everyone is the poorer. Two, Midas insists on a legal, enforceable agreement before John can take the car. This requires lawyers, courts and time and trouble to set up and enforce, and is incredibly costly, inefficient and a major pain. Everyone hates it. Yes, you see, Objectivist economics completely misses the value of human relationships and emotions in simplifying transactions.
Human emotions and relationships are based on trust. Trust ensures that you will return your friend’s car with the tank full, and without any scratches. Because you like your friend, and trust is established. This is the most efficient economic arrangement in existence. The inefficiency of the Objectivist approach makes me shudder. Trust is primary and nothing can supersede the value of trust in transactions. For more see my essay here.
Scale up our bare example to an economy with millions of transactions occurring every day, and you can see the problems inherent in monetary transactions backed by law. Transactions that eschew trust. Their inefficiencies are the inefficiencies of legal minutiae, of courts and law, of legal agreements and of systems of enforcement, the police and the judiciary. Not to mention the massive expense of hiring lawyers.
What Objectivists do not realize is that in our traditional human friendship we are following the ideals of rational self-interest and a pursuit of happiness. Ayn Rand’s real-world implementation is dead wrong.
I have argued against LFC in essays #3 & #4 under ‘Society’, but I will summarize the arguments here. LFC is an idealization plain and simple. Buyers and sellers are thought of as rational agents with the perfect knowledge required to make their decisions. That is ridiculous. Take a simple everyday decision – buying bread. Say I’m the idealistic rational buyer. I’m reading the label on the loaf so I can make the best possible decision. Now my loaf of bread has, among others, “mononitrate”, as an ingredient. Unless you have a PhD. in food nutrition, can you look me in the eye and tell me why exactly “mononitrate” is good or bad for me? You can’t. Thus, we cannot be a rational consumers acting in our best interests simply because we lack the expertise! Then, if neither of us has any way of deciding this, who does? Well, we outsource this to the government. The government pays experts to examine complex issues on your behalf using your taxes. Sure, governments tend to be inefficient and wasteful but we haven’t figured out a better way yet.
Social Good versus Individual Good
The word ‘social’ connotes, for me, the understanding that favoring the social good over individual good actually brings greater individual good in the long run. For example, the state of California has spent billions of dollars on the University of California (UC) system. The LFC view is that state taxes subsidize education. The broader socialist view is that the massive human capital developed by the UC system propelled California to become the economic powerhouse it now is. Because Californians paid taxes that let people, who otherwise could not afford school, to go to school, then the skilled labour of these educated people produced a benefit that is greater than the taxes paid by Californians to educate them. This is an example of socialism bringing greater benefits than LFC. Not to say that this is always the case. The devil is in the details.
Ayn Rand’s premises are correct (#1 & #2) but her practical conclusions are overly simplistic and wrong (#3 & #4). Objectivism breaks down in real life, like any other idealistic political philosophy. It fails to understand why human emotion exists, and why human relationships evolved to be so. It also does not acknowledge that some decisions must be made by a centralized organization, even if this organization is inefficient. Objectivism is valuable in that it makes you question your beliefs and values, and pushes you to place them on a firmer footing. But it is a step on the path to a true understanding of society and not an endpoint. Ayn Rand will always be a far greater narrator than philosopher.