I've recently been reading about Objectivism, seeing as it's the philosophy that appears to be doing the most to shape 21st century government. The following are a couple of points that jumped out at me while researching it. It's not a definitive list, and they are all very much open to contradiction. They also deal exclusively with the work of Ayn Rand, and not anyone who may have built on her theories.
- Capital is an end in itself
This is always the biggest problem with ideals like Objectivism. It always reminds me of that scene in Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life, where the Protestant explains that his religion is superior, as the Catholics are forced to have children every time they have sex, whereas he can wear a condom. The fact that he's only ever had sex twice and has two children is incidental, the point is the option is there if he were to choose.
Objectivism greatly concerns the nature of freedom, but seems only capable of defining that freedom in terms of economic productivity.1 Art, learning and human interaction don't seem to be part of the Objectivist agenda, the only function is to create.
But it ignores a simple fact that the output of capitalism is a means, not an end. Bread isn't inherently beneficial to anyone. Eating it is. Building a house makes nobody any happier, but living in one does. All human achievement is about the bettering of human life. This is fine in Utilitarianism, but seeing as the whole point of Objectivism is self-interest, you kind of find yourself wondering, "why bother? Why not just give in, kick back, and enjoy?" There seems to be no answer, except that producing creates opportunities to produce more.2
The "good" of any material possession is the pleasure it brings its owner. Not so in the Objectivist universe. Here the motto seems to be "You can't eat your cake and have it too." It ignores the fact that capital is a tool, a facilitator of the daily functioning of the real business of our own lives. When viewed as that, it is a good and benevolent thing. But when seen as an end in itself, we become its slaves and it our master
The market value of an item is equivalent to its innate value
One of the logical consequences of a truly laissez-faire capitalism is that the value of everything is what people are willing to pay for it. In some cases this holds true, and often provides the consumer with a guarantee of quality. In others we get the footballer-nurses dichotomy, where footballers (whose work is inconsequential) get paid thousands of times more then nurses (who save lives). This is simply because nobody would pay £60 every Saturday to see David Beckham give a pensioner a bed bath.
Another example is the arts. This is probably one of the few pure examples of Objectivism's laissez-faire capitalist markets - mainstream arts like music and cinema receive few Government subsidies and suffer few Government restrictions on content. Which by Objectivist principles, means that what's good sells, and what's bad flops.3 So, N'Sync are better than The Stooges, Titanic is better than The Seventh Seal, and, ironically enough, Ayn Rand's philosophy is vastly inferior to, say, Chicken Soup For The Soul. Or Calvin & Hobbes. Or The Bible.
Then there are other institutions and human endeavours which involve no money changing hands at all. Trade Unionism, for example, consumes many man-hours, all donated voluntarily, and benefits many people who receive its help for free. And the family, which is the original blueprint for socialism, where people sacrifice whole years and all of their salaries for little or no reward, just to help their children through to adulthood.
All of these things, all of them, are done by people seeking rewards other than money, or any other tangible, physical, objective reward. Any nurse could quit tomorrow and take another job where they would receive more money for less work. But they don't. Perhaps they're freaks who love cleaning up blood, or perhaps - heaven forbid - they're driven by something else. Maybe even it's Objectivism's much hated altruism.4
Physical force is the only kind of force
One of Rand's great rallying cries was that capitalism was the only political system fundamentally opposed to war.5 As it encouraged fair trade between all parties, and policed against the use of violence, it would move away from all conflict and encourage peace.
This may have been an enticing argument when Europe was still smouldering from WWII, but it has lost some of its shine now. One of the main reasons is that we are increasingly seeing that capital gives organisations a kind of muscle that was previously only possible with an army. Economic force has risen to become a far, far stronger weapon than physical force (consider how often sanctions have been substituted for invasions). Slavery has again raised its ugly head in the third world, except this time it's a voluntary slavery imposed by corporations who offer a simple choice: work for a pittance, or starve. People everywhere leave in dread of the rise and ebb of the tide of economic good fortune. Everywhere, from government decisions being influenced by corporate lobbies, to corporations simply buying their way around the law with elite lawyers and accountants, it seems that democracy has been replaced by a new feudalism, with the kings replaced by CEOs, barons by marketing men, and serfs by the workers who live their lives in terror of downsizing. Every vote cast now these days is cast in the hope that it will create more jobs and encourages stability. Every question of the 21st century can be answered by Bill Clinton's aphorism; "it's the economy, stupid."
But this great weapon is not bound by normal rule of law. Those who hold it are not democratically elected, have no accountability to anyone other than their shareholders and have no overriding morality except the capitalist agenda that put them there in the first place. This creates a paradox in Objectivism - the principle role of government is to protect the individual from the use of force, yet any intervention in trade is inherently immoral. So the question - do we add checks and balances to how companies make their money, or do we stand back and let them do whatever they want? - remains unanswered
All deals between men are fair
Objectivism, along with capitalism in general, has a really hard time with the concept of fairness. It does insist on the necessity of the absolute rule of law, and especially that any contract that is entered into be honoured fully. In fact, it states that the only function of government is to enforce such contracts. The concept of Fairness though, where both parties in a contract receive adequate reward for their labours, is largely overlooked.
Situations can arise where one party is forced by circumstances to agree to an unfair deal. One current, very pressing example of this is the provision of AIDS drugs to Africa. As trades go, this is not the typical capitalist example of a basket-weaver trading with an arrow-head maker and both men profiting. People with AIDS need the drugs; without them they will die. They cannot walk away from the deal if they think it's unfair. This immediately puts them at a huge disadvantage, and allows the companies to charge whatever they please. Even the limit of what the patients can afford to pay is not a factor when setting the uppermost price, as the price can be set above that and the customers will still try to pay.
The problem here with objectivism is that not that it condones high pricing
, but that it simply ignores this possibility. No moral framework
is provided in which deals might take place. No onus is placed on the seller to set a reasonable price. No strategy is provided for the buyer to ensure that he receives what he eneds within his budget. Indeed, in all Objectivist writings, there seems to be an underlying assumption that when government coercion is removed and people trade with each other, it will always be on a level playing-field.
In the real-life example of AIDS, drugs companies make some half-hearted efforts to provide aid where's needed, and vary pricing regionally (albeit in bizarre and obstructive ways). The reason for this though is not the triumph of the Free Market, but sheer terror of a Nestle-esque boycott in it's lucerative Western markets. The concept of the boycott would have no weight in an objectivist economy, as it is an obvious example of mob rule.
Inflation is not a factor.
Rand believes that inflation is caused by government mismanagement.6 Which is not true. Inflation is enshrined in the most basic principle of economics; the law of supply and demand. A thing is worth what people will pay for it. And what people will pay = (how much they want it) X (how much they can afford).
So accordingly, as wealth increases, what people can afford increases. Accordingly, prices increase. To use a simple example close to my own heart, a pint in Dublin in 1997 cost about £2.50 (about E3.10), depending upon where you drank. These days you can pay up to E6.00 (about £4.50). This is almost an increase of 100% in 5 years. Why is this? Is it because beer has become better? Trust me, it's not. Is it because of increased taxes? Again no, it's cheaper elsewhere in the country. Is it because beer consumption is falling? Nope, this is Ireland. The reason is simple - the economy has grown a phenomenal amount in five years. The city is full of people with money. Young people with money. Young people like to drink. So the prices have been racked up to just below the point where they say "I'm staying at home and watching TV, I can't afford the pub." Or to put it another way, prices have increased to match the available capital.
This, for Objectivism, creates maybe its biggest problem. Wealth is not infinite, as free-market advocates will have us believe. It's entirely finite. A pound or a dollar or a yen has a value only relative to how many pounds or dollars or yen everyone else is spending. The logical consequence of this is that wealth can only exist in relation to other wealth, meaning that to have rich people, we will always have to have poor people.
Given that Objectivism enshrines the rights of the individual, every individual, it poses a problem that we have an economic system, which can only succeed when a portion of its participants is failing.
In the pyramid of ability, the value of labour decreases further down the pyramid
This is not always true. Nor does the skill pyramid automatically represent the wage pyramid. It goes back to the earlier point of nurses and footballers, where the labour is not rewarded according to the degree of mental and physical effort it involved, but the market demand for that labour. Rand's own example of this is a factory, going from the scientist who invents the product, to the factory owner who risks his capital to build it, to the engineer who constructs the machines, to the worker who operates them.7
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that capitalism doesn't guarantee this noble structure. The modern corporation would reward its directors first. Marketing, Legal and HR would all take huge cuts. The scientist responsible would have been working in an R&D team and would have no rights to any profit from his work. And the workers get paid the same minimum wage, regardless of how well or badly the company does.
Also, Rand's pyramid implies that the role of the worker is less important than that of anyone else in the structure. Not so. In fact, capitalism pretty much guarantees that if anyone's role were superfluous, they would be eliminated. What she means is that the worker is replaceable; that a new scientist may take years to train, but a new machine operator could be working by tomorrow afternoon. This is true, of course. But it still leaves an ethical question, which is that if a person has filled an essential role in the production of a commodity, how much of its profits is he entitled to?
- "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man... with productive achievement as his noblest activity" Appendix, Atlas Shrugged
- "Productive work is the process by which man's mind sustains his life" The Objectivist Ethics
- "When men are free to trade, with reason and reality as their only arbiter, it is the best product and the best judgement that win in ever field of human endeavour" For The New Intellectual
- "Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal." Man's Rights
- "Laissez-faire capitalism is the only social system based on the recognition of individual right and, therefore, the only system that bans force from social relationships... it is the only system fundamentally opposed to war" The Roots Of War
- "The 'wage-price spiral', which is merely a consequence of inflation, is being blamed as its cause, thus deflecting the blame from the real culprit :the government" The Moratorium on Brains
- "The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden" Atlas Shrugged