Just when you thought it was safe to wade back into the fiscal waters of a civilized country, Ayn Rand and her school of extremist acolytes is back to take a big bite out of our economic well-being, led by the ideologically entrenched Republican contender for Vice President. We may as well be walking around saying "Who is Paul Ryan?"
But all this is just election year noise. Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged has always been lurking in the shadows of our capitalist society and is almost a canon of conservatism, but its real relevance stems not from the objectivist philosophy it expounds but from the undue credit that we give to Rand herself for believing what she did. What some people refuse to recognize is that Ayn Rand, while being a brilliant writer, was not some exceptional visionary but a deeply insecure person who latched onto a form of financial fanaticism in order to define an identity for herself.
The trouble with Rand's central thesis is that the "virtue of selfishness", other than being pretty shallow from a human perspective, is also mainly an effort to betray the code of civilized society without suffering the consequences. By maintaining that the sole purpose of a person's life is to satisfy their own needs, Rand was trying to justify her own narcissistic nature, hunger for fame, coldness of temperament, and greedy mentality.
Her definition of morality, which she stated clearly in a seminal interview with Mike Wallace in 1959, is simply to do whatever it takes to achieve your own personal happiness, regardless of the consequences of your actions upon your family, friends, colleagues, nation or the world. By this skewed logic, even Bernie Madoff is a moral man since robbing people blind to build his own fortune made him happy (as long as it lasted), not to mention almost every narcissistic and exploitative figure in history from Henry VIII to Adolf Hitler. On the issue of charity, Rand maintained that it only made sense if it made you happy. In other words, in her bleak world, even charity is nothing more than a way to make yourself feel good, much like eating a good meal or going shopping.
But all this, disturbing in itself, is just the tip of the iceberg, for in writing her novels, what Rand was really trying to accomplish was to recast her ruthless selfishness as a noble philosophy, so that her own belief in exploitation of every kind - economic, social, or personal - could be justified. It was not an accident. Her attitude towards the people in her life, by all accounts, was one of cold calculation and emotional manipulation, but at the same time she could not bear to be accused of those very things. This led her to the act of codifying her beliefs on a grand scale so that her own behavior would come to be "accepted" and even revered, rather than being rightfully criticized.
Unfortunately, we see this same pattern of thought everywhere today, from diehard capitalists who believe in the right of corporations to exploit workers and game the system and politicians who consider the poor to be parasites, to the so-called "spiritualists" who extol self-interest as the ultimate goal of human existence, thereby abdicating the need to be responsible towards anyone or anything; and the trend is undeniably destructive.
It is also important to recognize that it is precisely Rand's philosophy of personal profit at any cost that led to the subprime mortgage catastrophe and the deep recession that followed, that led to the exorbitant payouts of executives at Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and AIG even while these institutions were shredding the integrity of our financial system prior to 2008, that enables the CEO of JPMorgan Chase to criticize Wall Street reform even after the bank's excessive risk-taking and gross negligence towards its shareholders, and that makes it possible for Mitt Romney to have the temerity to suggest an inhuman economic system like Darwinian capitalism as the right one for America.
There is nothing virtuous about selfishness and there is nothing objective about Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy, which is little more than a sly attempt to whitewash her own flaws. She claimed that it was the business elite who sustain our existence but in reality it is the world that holds up people like Rand and enables them to pursue their selfish aims despite the harm it may do to everyone else; if anything, it is Rand who should have been more grateful. At the very least, we should ignore her glorious ramblings and finally relegate her ideas to the realm of fiction, which is where they belong.
And as for who John Galt or Paul Ryan are? Really, who the hell cares?
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of two novels, including "Merger" which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit www.sanghoee.com for details.