Objectivism vs. Sustainability

Rand & Objectivism, a Shortcut to Extinction

(Note: I wrote this in 2009 in response to some rants after the financial collapse. It seems timeless given the propensity of many to rewrite history.)

First, I have to say that, in my lifetime, I never met or talked with Ayn Rand. I have read her works a bit. Truth to tell, her prose bogged me down, and I never enjoy slogging through dialectics, especially those that tend to ignore reality when attempting to make a point. That’s one reason why I find it interesting that her works and philosophy are experiencing a renewal in interest. Today, the Rand philosophy of Objectivism has become an excuse to continue the pursuit of a particularly ravenous form of capitalism and to castigate the new administration and their effort to restore the economy to some sort of balance.

I also find it interesting that some people are again trying to justify greed. “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Meanwhile, one could argue that it was the greed of a few that once again brought financial calamity to us all – spurring the “socialistic” actions taken by Washington.

At the core of Rand Objectivism is the belief that a person can and should pursue his own “rational self-interest” supported by a laissez faire form of capitalism and a social structure where individual rights reign supreme. The concept of altruism is anathema. Sharing is bad. Taking for oneself is good. At least, this is the theme offered by self-proclaimed new Objectivists and the burgeoning Rand Fan Club.

So let’s look at this Objectivism from the standpoint of Sustainable Development, because both share some underlying terms, though the definition of those terms may be very different. Sustainable Development means thriving today while ensuring that future generations may thrive. It insists on altruism and sharing as essential for survival on “Spaceship Earth.” As such, it seems diametrically opposed to Objectivism and redefines “self-interest.”

Rational Self-Interest?

Is it rational or in one’s best self-interest to put individual rights above community well-being? People claiming that personal rights should come first often use “takings” or eminent domain actions as examples of the rights of the community run amok. When community rights come first, the individual can lose his rights to acquire, keep and profit from private property.

In looking at these examples of questionable takings, I often see two extremes. The first seems to be an example of individual rights in the guise of community rights. A developer makes claims that his project will bring great good to the community and convinces leaders to take the property of others to help create the development. In reality, this type of taking is motivated by avaricious self-interest on the part of the developer and ignorant self-interest on the part of community leaders. In examples like these, the true needs of the community are most often ignored.

On the opposite side of the takings spectrum sits those instances motivated by the long-term interests of the community and the natural environment. A developer is prohibited from building in a wetlands area, for instance. We have seen countless times where allowing such development ends up costing the community far more than they gain from the development. These eminent domain restrictions on individual rights are essential to protecting the individual rights of others and those of the community from the greed of a few.

This brings up an interesting paradox in the concept of putting the rights of the individual first. Where do one person’s individual rights surpass another’s? We are all constitutionally guaranteed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So, does a businessman’s right to pump water from an aquifer and sell it for profit (making shareholders happy) trump the community’s right to have secure access to the water necessary for life? According to the new Objectivist or unbridled “capitalist,” it does. The right to life must not interfere with the right to profit. In a sustainable world, the right to profit is essentially insignificant unless it supports the right to sustaining and adding value to life.

Laissez Faire Capitalism & Theft

In a finite world, is it in the rational self-interest to put individual rights over community well-being and environmental preservation? Sustainable Development says, “No.” Community well-being and environmental preservation are essential for our survival as a species. It would therefore be irrational to make individual rights dominant because the community which could be destroyed is made up of a collection of individuals. Those individuals also depend on the health of the natural environment to sustain themselves. These needs trump the exploitative pursuit of individual wealth promoted by Objectivists.

If you define self-interest in a very limited and exclusive way, one can see how dominant individual rights could seem reasonable in the short term. It could be what motivates bright, talented people to take huge bonuses at a time when their companies are failing.

A sensible, long-term thinker would see that keeping the troubled company afloat would be rationally within his or her self-interest. For most people, it is just common sense to skip the bonus and keep a good job for a long time. For a new Objectivist, it makes sense to take the bonus and allow thousands to lose their jobs as the company goes under. And it makes great sense to take the bonus knowing it is being paid primarily by the U.S. taxpayer.

Here, in my mind, is where the tenets of Objectivism and larceny overlap. If I can get rich at expense of others, then that is good, and society should allow me to pursue that form of happiness. How is that different from a thief breaking into your home and taking your possessions because he wants them for his own self-interest? If he is very careful not to get caught, is that not a good thing, too? Whether one steals goods or money directly out of someone’s pocket or indirectly through the Objectivist form of capitalism, by manipulating the price of stocks or pocketing tax-funded bailout money, it is still theft.

This argument takes us to the heart of the Sustainable Development versus Objectivism debate. Sustainable Development and its altruistic underpinnings are modeled after the natural systems that created and sustain life on Earth. Science has shown that natural systems are collections of interconnected networks, each supporting the others in a continuous, virtuous cycle of life.

The unfettered pursuit of individual rights, as proposed by Objectivists, is the primary reason why those natural systems are collapsing and our very existence as humans is threatened.

As Ayn Rand once said, “Man has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.” Pursuing the Rand philosophy that puts the wants of the individual over the needs of the community and the natural environment has been and will be the shortcut to our own destruction.