It is rare that I get to watch a truly good TV program. John Stossel’s show on Atlas Shrugged last night was a welcome exception. It was civil, informative, and forthright. Good on you, John.
I find that few people are neutral about Ayn Rand. It seems that she evokes strong reactions in both followers and detractors. I was dubious that any show could cover this topic satisfactorily because of that. Detractors are often rabid with contempt for her philosophy and more than a few supporters are little better than ill-mannered parrots. Stossel’s guests, including those opposed to Rand, were articulate and polite.
What does Rand stand for and why does it matter? As one of the guests put it, she stands primarily for reason. In her philosophy, called Objectivism, she advocates reason as the proper guide for human action. Mysticism is scorned along with other claims to knowledge through non-rational means. People who fail to use reason as the foundation of their lives are not living a life proper to human beings.
Rand also claims that the attribute of rationality is foundational to human survival and prosperity. When the human mind is chained by a tyrannical government or thugs, man’s only means of bettering his life is taken away. It follows from this premise that individuals should be free to act as they see fit, short of initiating violence against others. Individuals are not obligated to provide for others, though they may rationally choose to do so voluntarily.
It is this part of Rand’s philosophy that creates angst among both liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to believe that government adds to the common good not only by preventing the initiation of violence (through its police force and court system) and providing national security (through the military), but also through social engineering. In this view, government should ensure certain social and economic outcomes for its citizens. The coercive redistribution of wealth is justified thus.
Conservatives often claim to oppose big government, but they rarely do so in practice. The same companies that contribute to their campaigns are the ones that get subsidies and preferential regulatory treatment. They are not opposed to intrusive government as long as it intrudes in the right way–to their benefit. Welfare for citizens is abhorrent, but welfare for their favorite companies is OK.
These are not just academic questions. Should government be involved in such matters? My answer is an emphatic “no.” The first and foremost reason is that individual economic liberty is an inextricable part of what it means to be human. Imagine a person whose every material need is met but who is not free to choose his/her day-to-day activities. Would that person be “human?” I think not. Freedom is not just an instrumental value–one we hold dear because it brings us other values. It is what Milton Rokeach would call a “terminal” value. We seeks it because it has value in itself.
Happily, by honoring individual liberty, we also promote the well-being of others. Individuals can barely survive, much less prosper, unless they cooperate with others. When they are allowed to enhance each others’ lives through voluntary trade, they will tend to act in ways that promote mutual benefit. Those that lie and cheat will soon find themselves without trading partners. The gigantic frauds that have come to dominate business news would be nearly impossible to pull off under true capitalism. It is the collusion between government and business that creates the dark corners in which cockroaches hide.
All this matters because of something one of Stossel’s guests said last night. We are on the road to becoming a third world nation. At a time when we should be embracing the values embodied in Atlas Shrugged, we are doing precisely the opposite. Government is taking over more and more of the economy, lording more and more over our daily decisions, and spending more and more money by the hour. Look at the numbers sometime–it cannot last. One day, perhaps sooner than we think, all the supposed good we did by controlling others will come back to haunt us. When all the creators of value refuse to work under those terms, when the Barney Franks and the Nancy Pelosis of this world no longer have a cookie jar in which to grub for goodies, we will have reached the final chapter.
Sound scary? You bet it is. There is a solution. If you value liberty and you want your children to live at least as well as you have, start learning more about limited government philosophy. Start with The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Even if you do not agree in whole, at least seek to understand why Rand’s predictions were so eerily accurate. Then, if the light comes on for you, join me in arguing for a radical change in our country’s direction. Welcome aboard.