Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ayn Rand's Objectivism and Libertarianism

I've had several close encounters with libertarians recently and I have to be honest with you, many of them piss me off as much as, if not more, than religious fundamentalists. There is a fairly popular libertarian niche today that is quite outspoken and very ideologically driven, and it seems to have a lot of young people in their ranks. There are also quite a few atheists who are libertarians and I've been noticing them as I go out into my local atheist/philosophical meetups.

Although I am sympathetic to some of the libertarian social views like marijuana and prostitution legalization, when it comes to economics and government I have some sharp disagreements with them. Many libertarians that I've spoken to either want no government at all, or government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub, to paraphrase Grover Norquist. But mostly, they want a total "free market" economy where government regulation is non-existent, and some even want the total privatization of education, law, police, and the military.

Not all libertarians hold to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, but many do. She's the ideological darling of many on the Right. Her fan boys include Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who said that her books are "required reading" for his interns. The interesting thing is that Ayn Rand was an outspoken atheist, and it's odd how so many on the Right identify with her, given the Right's close associations with religion. As far as her atheism is concerned, we're on the same page. We both see religion as something irrational and not justified by any good evidence. But Rand's philosophy emphasizes a kind of ethical egoism, whereby she thought that we should never sacrifice anything important to us for the benefit of someone else who was not important to us, like a stranger who was suffering. She thought taxation was theft, but still believed in government doing the three basics: police, law, and military. (This would be financed by voluntary donations according to her.) All the money you make would be yours to keep and there's no concern for any kind of "greater good." Rand's philosophy is a fervent objection to utilitarianism. If fact, recently when I mentioned my concern for the "greater good" when I was debating economics with a libertarian, he literally walked out on me.

I personally think libertarianism, particularly the extreme no government kind, is implausible and even down right dangerous. It will lead to a society where the all the money and wealth are concentrated at the top, and where private corporations become the defacto government. It will lead to a kind of plutocratic feudalism, because unfettered capitalism naturally and logically leads to power and wealth being concentrated among a select few. With no labor laws or regulations, the "free market" will always put pressure on keeping wages low and workers expendable. Still however, this "dorm-room libertarianism" sounds enticing to many twenty-something year-olds who see it as a sexy revolution against the State.

I've got a lot to learn about Rand's Objectivism. I can get on board with the view of an objective reality that exists independent of consciousness that we can access via our sense perception, and the primacy of using reason and rationality, but the view that life's main goal is self-interest with little to no regarding for others, is not something I can jibe with. Rand's Objectivism tries to give the intellectual justification for the selfishness inherent in libertarian economic views. It allows the libertarian to think their views have a sound argued basis. I've recently came across what is called "middle-out economics." One of its most loudest proponents is venture capitalist Nick Hanauer. He understands the way economics really works. His banned TED talk from a few years ago nicely explains why the rich are not job creators but rather middle class consumers are. It's shocking as he says, how so many millions are fooled by this false meme of trickle down economics.

One mistake that I've made when talking about economics with libertarians is that I've assumed that they care about having a robust middle class as I do. Many of them simply don't. They care about the principle of free markets first and foremost regardless of what the real life consequences might be. They might actually acknowledge that their economic views will destroy the middle class and not even care. Here is what a libertarian told me via email who I was debating with:

Why should I care about a middle class? Why does society need a middle class? There will always be a middle class because there will always be people who's income lies in the middle. Why should you or any central committee determine the size?

So now, before I engage in a discussion about economics with a libertarian, I ask them what their values and priorities are. What you value usually determines what your politics are. There are times though where a libertarian will claim to be for a strong robust middle class, but still be for trickle down economics because they think it will lead to such an outcome. Those are the libertarians most persuadable - perhaps. I say that because so many libertarians are so strongly ideologically driven that facts often cannot penetrate their bubble. The ones who don't value what I value may be a more difficult nut to crack. In order for me to challenge them, I have to persuade them to change their values - much easier said than done. Or, at least in the process of trying to do so, I have to convince others of the problems with not caring about the middle class and the danger it poses. In some ways I'd actually prefer a scientifically inclined liberal Christian whose politics and economics matched mine, over an atheist libertarian whose politics and economics contradicted mine.

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